Today we continue the virtual conversation that's been running all week, starting with an assessment of the Portland Trail Blazers as a franchise that is stalled and continuing with yesterday's list of things to still like. The next question comes via e-mail:
What is the best hope for this team "stuck in neutral" to improve, barring major trades or an instant return to health? Do the Blazers have any upward mobility if the roster stays the same next year?
Gone are the days of the wildcard players: Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Sergio Rodriguez, etc. Those guys looked fantastic when they were on. They could have been stars-in-waiting. They were never "on" frequently enough to make a sustained difference but when the roster ran 10 deep with guys like this it always seemed the Blazers were one good pop away from amazing. That perception isn't as strong now. Even as you lament that, keep in mind that the big pop never came. The guys 7-10 deep in the rotation have pretty much shown that they belong in the 7th-10th spots in the rotation, if that. The Blazers' vaunted potential turned out to be tantalizing but largely illusory.
Not having the excitement of a powder keg waiting for the right match doesn't indicate that potential is absent. No matter what Reality TV tells you, drama does not always equal prosperity. Sometimes the safer, surer road is better. The best way to describe Portland's current potential for growth in comparison to recent years is "incremental but also more achievable".
When you're looking at potential improvement you first have to consider the two long shots remaining on the team--the guys we've mentioned ad nauseam--Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. Any contribution by Oden is better than wearing a suit all season. Any contribution by Oden changes this team's depth and increases their ability to experiment with styles of play and better play the styles they ultimately choose. He's the single biggest potential difference-maker. While Brandon Roy doesn't transform the team in the same way a healthy Oden would, anything above a D+ level of play for him would give the Blazers a weapon they sorely need and would improve the team more dramatically than the growth of non-Oden alternatives would.
Even if you roll your eyes at the prospects of either man getting healthy, there's still hope for the team to better itself indigenously. Nicolas Batum's game continues to develop year by year. He could still blossom into a decisive player, particularly with his offensive impact. Wesley Matthews is going to improve as he gets more experience under his belt. At times this year it seemed his biggest obstacle was comfort level. He'd freeze up or disappear offensively. A few more tours around the league will get him over that hump. The difference between these two and their predecessors is that Batum and Matthews have enough defensive game to earn minutes as they learn. While neither one will win you games consistently yet neither will lose you games either. They're going to get more than a fair chance to grow. There's no downside to riding that curve along with them.
Portland's smaller guards are less sure than the bigger wings but you could still see Armon Johnson, Patty Mills, or Eliot Williams expand their games. We've seen enough of Mills to know what he brings and I'd consider him a long shot. We've seen next to nothing from Johnson or Williams. Both of them are great athletes, though, and we might see one emerge over the next two years. Neither will be depended upon in the meantime, however. Again there's little downside to the experiment.
Chris Johnson provides the counterpoint to Williams and Armon Johnson on the big man side. He's not going to be an impact player soon but even achieving late-rotation status would be an improvement for him and make that rotation more solid.
Another year to incorporate Gerald Wallace won't hurt. And don't forget that we haven't seen the theoretical ceiling of LaMarcus Aldridge's growth.
Even discounting the known quantities like Andre Miller and Marcus Camby and leaving out the guys who haven't appeared to get off the launching pad in Rudy Fernandez and Luke Babbitt, the Blazers have plenty to hope for. Four of the players mentioned as candidates for growth are already fine players, contributing regularly. Two are potentially amazing players hobbled by health. The rest are minimal-risk young guys. When Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster couldn't grow fast enough the team suffered. The team isn't going to suffer (more than it already is) because of any of these guys. The potential direction is all upwards here. Failure would mean remaining stagnant, not bottoming out. This may not be as exciting as years gone by but it's not as risky either.
All in all the Blazers aren't in that horrible of a place potential-wise. Absent Roy and Oden they're not going to explode for 60 wins and a conference crown--cresting the hill, so to speak--but no matter what happens the basketball is likely to get a little better...or at least not worse.