A great Mailbag question today...
Blazer fans are stuck in a raging argument. One camp wants to make trades to make the team better. The other camp says leave it alone and 80% win rate is good enough. Which camp do you fall closer to?
I lean more towards the "make a move" camp but not for the reasons you think.
The circle of life for NBA franchises cycles through four stages. No stage is entirely distinct. You always find bleed-over, oddball characteristics of one phase seeping into another, teams falling through the cracks, franchises that just don't make sense. Despite those imperfections, the norm runs like this:
This is the starting from scratch phase. You're hungry for talent, fishing for franchise players. You're not yet concerned about making pieces fit together. You don't have anything to fit together with...yet. You'll carry six power forwards if you have to. You'll draft three no-conscience shooters in the same draft if they're the best talent available. If any of them turn out to be future stars, it's worth it. You hope to develop the others and trade them later on.
High draft picks and talented players on rookie contracts are the most desirable assets in this stage. You don't want to be burdened by long-term deals or expensive veterans even if those players would improve the team. If the roster sheet were a bank account, you'd be trying to stuff it as full as possible while maintaining maximum liquidity to take advantage of any hot money-making opportunities coming your way.
Asset acquisition has netted you a couple cornerstone players and maybe another nice piece or two. You're not living year to year, draft to draft anymore. You can see the shape of your franchise 2-3 seasons down the road now. You still need to build but you're looking to augment your roster, not create it out of whole cloth.
This is where the liquidity maintained in the asset acquisition phase comes in handy. Whether it's utilizing cap space or trading young, but superfluous, talent, you're targeting players who will complement your stars and make up for their weaknesses.
Fit starts to matter here, as does long-term impact. You're not at a point where you can consider a final piece to the puzzle. You're not spending on just anything that comes by, lest you cap your growth before it really starts. But you're not afraid of spending reasonable money for good players either.
Draft position and cap flexibility are still important here, but they're no longer good for their own sake. You're looking to use them rather than preserve them. Continuing the bank account analogy, you'd sure take another million if it came your way but practically speaking your focus has shifted to making smart investments with your savings, putting those dollars to work.
The Apex Run
Once the foundation is set it's time to open the throttle and see what she's got. The apex run is the make it or break it phase. If you can't compete you have to skip to the final phase and then start over again. But if your team does taste success, you do anything possible to maximize it.
It's unlikely you're still carrying cap space or getting high draft picks at this point, but either way the goal is the same: win. Youth, dollars, draft...anything having to do with the future is secondary. If you have to exceed the cap, take on a longer-term contract, acquire a veteran with limited utility but exactly the skills you need to give you that precious handful of extra victories, you do it.
Back in asset acquisition mode there's no way you would have traded a future draft pick and a rookie-scale player for a 29-year-old 6th man with a $9 million contract no matter how good that guy was. Now that's exactly the move that could put you over the top. A deal that once was anathema has become the money play. At the same time the 20-year-old, high-risk, no-defense-playing scorer isn't as attractive unless that's the exact hole you're trying to fill.
This phase isn't just about lifting the ceiling like the first two were. Your players are already reaching upwards. You want to support them, minimize risk, turn variables into certainty so they have the best chance possible to hit that ceiling.
We're not talking bank accounts and abstract investment opportunities anymore. You've now started your own company and sunk your life savings into it. Your success lives and dies with this organization, day-to-day, right now. Any eggs in other baskets pale in comparison to making this thing work. What's good for this company is good, period.
Decline and Divestment
Whether you made a great go of it and are ready to retire or whether your experiment crashed and burned, eventually it's time to make a fresh start. At this point you have veteran players to offer and are starting to cycle into asset acquisition once again. You don't need other stars in return...can't get them, in fact. You're looking for future cap flexibility, draft picks, speculative players to jump-start the rebuilding process.
Now here's the million dollar question: Which stage are the Blazers in?
Over the summer we heard serious arguments for three different phases. Some claimed that Portland was in asset acquisition mode still, needing another star, needing to move up in the draft, acquire extra picks, or get positioned for the 2014 draft. Others saw the Blazers as foundation builders, looking to bolster the Aldridge-Lillard core, getting closer to taking off. Some argued that we were watching a disguised version of decline and divestment, the last gasp following the apex-ruining calamity of the Roy-Oden injuries. The only phase that didn't get serious play was the apex run, painting the Blazers as legitimate contenders right now.
But guess which phase the players are arguing for? 24-6 tells you all you need to know.
I certainly would not have predicted 2013-14 as apex time for this roster. But actions speak louder than words. If these players are showing they're talented and committed enough to make that run then you have to give credence to the message and start operating in apex run mode. Your wildest dreams might be coming true. Are you prepared to trust in that turn of events and do what it takes to see it through?
Most people's logic seems to run, "If you don't trust in this team's success then you'll want to make a trade but if you do trust in it you'll let the roster be." The opposite is true. If you don't trust that this run indicates a contending team you have to stay in foundation building mode. You'd want to preserve cap flexibility, bank on your young players developing someday, keep your future draft picks, all of which point to not making a deal. But if you do think the run is real and the time is now, you have to do everything possible to give this team the juice it needs to survive a grueling playoff seeding struggle...to win an even more grueling two-month-long, three-round conference playoff battle...to play in the NBA Finals against an ultra-elite (and likely better-rested) team and emerge victorious.
I'm still not convinced that this team is a true contender but the coaches and players are making one hell of a counter-argument. Practically speaking the more the Blazers believe that counter-argument the more likely they are to carry it through and to take the steps necessary to make sure it succeeds. At this point they should go for it. If not now, what are they waiting for? How much higher can the apex get?
Fortune favors the bold. Nobody suspected the Blazers would get up to the plate with this much on the line this season. As long as they're here they should take the hardest swing possible. You still don't make stupid moves. The apex run is not about get-rich-quick riskiness, it's about managing your company with laser focus on, and ultimate commitment to, the immediate task at hand. If you self-assess as ready and a trade puts you in position to move to the next level, there's no option. You do it.
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