So the Blazers aren't contenders right now. Or are they? How do they get there from here? Do they need a big move or just an adjustment. How close are they and how soon can we expect to get there?
Hmmmm...consulting GPS. Destination: Contending. Hold on a second...it's coming up.
"Make legal U-turn now."
The Blazers have at least a couple options in front of them. Neither is completely palatable. Which one is more "right" depends on your point of view.
If you believe this roster is close to contending then you need to take your shot right now. The West is open enough that you might be able to sneak through in a year of turmoil. You have to address this roster's weaknesses through trades. You need big men. You need another proven scorer. You need an upgrade in the backcourt. So you start talking to Golden State about Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins for Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton. You call up New Orleans and try to pry away Emeka Okafor for Marcus Camby and a pick. You sacrifice your flexibility and a bunch of dollars in the next couple years to make sure your team is viable and has at least a couple shots to come out of the West.
I don't think the Blazers take this option. It's too expensive, everybody they could get coming in has their own weaknesses, and I don't think their analysis of their chances will be optimistic enough to justify this kind of move.
Another option is a rebuild. The Blazers let their expiring contracts expire at the end of the season. They keep their flexibility and embark on another youth movement with their core players: Aldridge, Matthews, probably Batum. Depending on how deep you want to go in retooling, even those players might be available through trade, probably save LaMarcus. This option makes more financial sense and probably has a greater shot of long-term success than reaching for anybody they could get via trade or the free agency market in the immediate future. Keep in mind that the cost of not rebuilding will be re-signing some of those expiring contract guys, which is going to eat up your cap flexibility without bringing you any farther than you are right now. But even if you don't mind waiting for success, this isn't a slam dunk solution for one reason: Aldridge. He's 26 right now. Even if you have the Blazers contending in the relatively optimistic time frame of four years, that puts him at 30. You've now wasted his first nine years in the league and much of his prime. You've been paying him between $12-16 million per year to win 20-30 games per year. If he's even willing to stick around Portland for his next contract instead of jumping to a real contender it's going to cost you more, and for less production. All of that is a complete waste. The only logical extension would be to trade away Aldridge as part of the rebuild. I don't believe management is ready to go there yet either.
Therefore you're probably going to see a hybrid approach, keeping select members of the current squad, trying to add a free agent or two with the contracts of those they let go, and hoping to strike gold with a lower draft pick. Either that or you'll see an expiring contract traded before the March deadline. Either way the moves will be incremental, not radical. Trying not to lose the ground you've already gained makes sense and is the safest route. The problem comes when the ground isn't enough no matter which way you measure it. I fear that's where the Blazers may be.
None of these options lead clearly to our GPS, contending destination. We can see it on the map. I'm just not sure we can get there from here.
But maybe it's time to step back and look at the whole map here, including the road we've traveled. Big picture: the Blazers, for all intents and purposes, blew the #1 overall pick in the draft in a year when that was a franchise-changing decision. (I know the intent was right and the pick was right. That doesn't change the result. We're talking about results here.) The Blazers just lost their All-NBA shooting guard--not All-Star, but All-League--to health problems with no compensation. The Blazers have spent 7 first round draft picks in the last 8 years on point guards plus bringing in at least three free agents to start at that position during that time frame and still have no viable player to speak of at that position. Franchises do not recover from things like this...sometimes even singly, let alone in combination. It's probably a major miracle that we're talking about Portland's playoff chances at all. It's a testament to the moves that the front office has been able to make around these disasters. But when you start thinking about contending for a title, that may be a bit much to ask. Looking at the grander scope, the chances of those things happening and the Blazers still rising as if nothing had occurred are infinitesimal.
How long until the Blazers really contend? Realistically it's probably a whole new generation of players away, the result of new opportunities we can't forecast, let alone put a timetable on.