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A Critical Juncture

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Just got done chatting with the MSP guys and the conversation crystallized for me something I've been thinking for a while but haven't yet been able to put to words.  The guys asked about Danny Ferry and we started discussing his acumen in making moves and the questionable nature of some of the players he brought in.  Dwight Jaynes made a comment about Ferry having a gun to his head in Cleveland.  I opined that the situation may not be that different in Portland.  I also allowed that Ferry was a good candidate, probably the best one available, but that I'd be very interested to see his early moves if he were brought in (ostensibly to get deals done) as the bar and the stakes would be high.  Antonio Harvey then said that first moves were important for every GM because if you made them wrong you didn't get a second chance.  This was actually the "Aha!" moment for me, as what Harvey said wasn't quite accurate.  You see coaches turned over in a year if they mess up early.  You see players turned over in a year if they don't fit.  You never see General Managers flipped that quickly.  That's a longer-term position.

It takes longer than a year to evaluate the fruits of a GM's labor.  That's a given.  But there's more to the extended tenures than that.  GM's are fired in one of two situations:  the bottom has fallen out of the franchise and they need to rebuild or the team has been stuck in neutral for years and looks to be trending downward.  In each of these situations the GM that replaces them has plenty of wiggle room early on.  By definition the assets you have aren't that great, or at least most of them aren't in the team's long-term future.  A new GM might have two entire generations of players to fool around with.  Step 1 is ridding the team of its old assets, understanding that incoming players might not fit perfectly but that they're transitional.  Step 2 is turning those transitional players into a cohesive unit, probably via the draft and then more trades bringing in the guys you ultimately need around those draftees.

That scenario just does not exist in Portland right now.  The last GM was fired after assembling a team that made significant leaps in wins, made the playoffs, and is theoretically on the cusp (health allowing) of doing more.  The team has plenty of young assets as well, with all of the benefits and drawbacks inherent to that situation.  Trade chips abound but the chemistry and confidence of the team is also untested and fragile.  One move could take the team to the promised land.  One move could also sink the ship.  That's a particularly grave threat when you consider, as in the post right below this one, that Nicolas Batum and/or Greg Oden might be names you need to float in completing any dramatic trade (assuming that's needed).  You only get the chance to trade those guys once.  The same is true of Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez really.  Once you've moved them your young, attractive assets are gone and you're left with only your core to deal, as the guys you brought in aren't as young, cheap, and tradeable if they don't work out here.  You'll still have assets but it'll hurt more to trade them and the potential upside to the team won't be as great.  

This is not the usual "most of this is junk, clean it up" roster an incoming GM can tinker with.  This is a "make the right move the first time with surgical precision or we might have a hard time getting this team back" roster.  The plane isn't at the terminal ramp, preparing to board.  It's at 30,000 feet, moving at 500 mph, experiencing some turbulence, trying to reach a destination before it runs out of fuel.  Move #1 isn't transitional, it's critical.  Portland's new General Manager will have plenty of toys to play with and opportunities not afforded most of his first-year colleagues.  That GM will also assume risk and responsibility not afforded others.  One hopes Danny Ferry or any GM who takes the helm realizes the distinction.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)