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You can't help but notice the recent upswing in trade talk in the last few weeks.  It was rampant most of the season, frenzied (like every second comment and diary post) as the trading deadline approached, but we got a blessed respite from it after mid-February...until now.  As the open-season off-season approaches, everybody's keen minds are starting to get into high gear.

And why not?  If rumors are to be believed we may have some decent trading pieces in play.  It starts with Zach, of course, but our first round pick and Jarrett Jack have also gained momentum as possibilities.  Travis Outlaw could be in there.  (With what he's shown it's unlikely we'll let him walk away for nothing.  But we could match another team's offer--which almost has to be reasonable because of his combined talent and experience--and then look to deal him.)  Martell Webster could be in there.  Darius Miles could be...wait.  That's going too far.  For those of you who are hoping that Miles can be shipped, you can forget it.  Even packaging him with other talented players is like walking up to someone in a bar and saying, "Hey!  Wanna get lucky?  Oh and by the way I'll be giving you a pretty nasty STD along with the good stuff.  It's not fatal or anything, but you're going to spend the next three years treating it."  Uh huh.  You can sweet-talk all you want...it ain't gonna happen, Sparky.

Nevertheless, all the talk has got me considering seriously what, if anything, I'd want in return for some of these guys.  I haven't gotten down to specifics but I at least have a personal philosophy/strategy.

My assumption is that between the development of our youngsters--particularly Aldridge and Roy--and the caliber of player we should probably get from either the draft or trading the pick as part of a package, it's going to be relatively easy to get into position to contend for a lower playoff spot within the next couple years.  I'm not making light of that accomplishment or belittling it!  You need look no farther than Golden State to see what a challenge it can be.  But if we're talking a legit 20-point scorer for some combination of Zach/Jack/youngsters and the pick or a more modest return on players plus a nice piece through the draft if we keep the pick, I don't think saying playoff contention is a stretch with a couple years' seasoning.

However--and I have always thought this was the point we were missing in the midst of the current drought--just getting back to the playoffs is not a suitable goal, nor one to base a major, franchise-changing move on (which is what we're talking about with some of these assets).  The truth is--and hear me now and believe me later on this--at the end of the second year after you've made the show again just getting there will not be good enough.  After your second first-round playoff loss you will start asking, "What do we have to do to get past the first round?"  And if that doesn't happen you will start to say, "This stinks!  At least [Team X below us in the standings] gets a chance at [Insert college superstar here].  What do we get?"  Most people have the idea that playoff success is a progression because that makes logical sense.  You go from lottery team to first round playoff team to deeper playoff team to champion as if you were working your way up and paying your dues.  It doesn't usually work like that.  Look at Detroit...out of the playoffs entirely in '00-'01, conference semis the next year, conference finals after that, NBA champs after that.  Look at San Antonio...in the last nine years they've lost in the first round only once.   Now look at Minnesota...seven straight first round losses followed by one glorious spurt into the conference finals then total oblivion.

What's the point?  Even if we get a splashy name I'm not going to be satisfied with a trade that just gets us back into the playoffs.  More than talent has to match here.  The timing has to be right, the money has to be right, the skill set has to be right.  If it's a choice between:

A.  A flashy, 20-ppg scorer who has already peaked and is certainly going to get us into the playoffs but will be too far gone to be useful when we really need to make a run and...

B. Simply maneuvering for enough cap space to make a real move when we need to (even if that means missing the playoffs in the short term)...

I'll choose the cap space every time.

With the pieces we're talking about moving we simply cannot shoot for the first round here.  The really good teams announce their playoff presence by getting to the semis at least...yes, even in their first year, certainly by their second or third at the outside.  That means we need to be making moves right now planning for the conference finals and beyond.

As far as I can tell this means a couple of things:

  1.  The player we receive in return is going to have to be multi-faceted.  We already have too many guys who just hit one note and have to be compensated for elsewhere.  We already have too many guys who are potentially strong bench players but marginal starters.  We need somebody who's going to be able to bring it night in, night out in every situation against most any kind of matchup.
  2.  If we get a perimeter player shooting would be nice, some size and athleticism would be nice, but above all the guy must be able and willing to defend.  Despite some development this year this is still a huge weakness for us.
  3.  If we get a big guy they'll need some kind of bona fide offensive game--post, face-up, whatever, just something to rely on so we're not playing 4-on-5 out there.  This becomes more important if we're moving Zach in the process.  But they will also have to have competent defense and above all be able to grab defensive rebounds.
  4.  Age will be critical.  Obviously if you're trading (as opposed to drafting) you want someone older than our current guys.  It'll be OK if they're right at their peak or just slightly over in two years but still able to contribute some after that.  I don't think you can get someone who's sliding over their peak right now and starting on the downhill no matter how much they score or how big their name is.
  5.  If you can't get these things--or at least most of them--and especially if age is a factor then contract status becomes very, very important.  You cannot hamstring yourself during your prime target years with dead weight on the cap.  We're already paying Darius $9 million a year for the next three years.  That's not exactly a hand tied behind the back but what would that $9 million be able to do on the free agent market if freed up?  And I know that Brandon's and Lamarcus' run will extend far beyond three years but they will very quickly become very expensive to keep.  There's a window in there when they are still young and relatively cheap and our other contracts are expiring where we might be able to make a Chicago-like move for a key, star-level veteran.  You plop a $16 million contract in there for a guy whose name looks good on the marquee but who by that point is either too old or too one-dimensional to help us over the top and that all goes bye-bye.
I think this summer could be exciting.  Maybe Kevin Pritchard will be able to "shock the world" (though I'd rather see him do it first and then announce it than announce it first and then try to live up to it).  But if I'm going to be shocked, I want to be shocked, as in "Oh my God we just got the potential to be really, really, REALLY good!  Hold on, Portland!!!"  If that really, really good is two years down the line, fine.  I much prefer that to being pacified for the sake of the here and now.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)