Potential is often utilized as an adjective: something that is ongoing but will eventually come to a head, either as the anticipated outcome or otherwise. Certain dictionary definitions of potential include "capable of being or becoming" and "possible, as opposed to actual." Essentially, something that contains potential -- whether it be nuclear energy, a student or a basketball player -- needs to simultaneously show the capability of turning into the expected or desired outcome, while still not having reached that level yet.
The word "potential" can also be used as a noun: some sort of thing that, while not necessarily tangible, is capable of being acquired, parceled or given away. In economics that could be "earning potential." In basketball, it is the different assets that raise (or lower) the ceiling and upside of your team.
The themes of potential and prospective thinking are ones that took over the league during and after the trade deadline period. Specifically, some teams swapped a lot of "potential" for proven talent, while other teams stuck to the approach that short-term success is unlikely, or unlikely enough that gaining future assets -- young players, draft picks, money, etc. -- outweighed any alternatives.
Regardless of how it's constructed, "potential" is one of the most coveted concepts in the NBA. Every team has a certain amount of long-term potential, which is often inversely proportional to current output. Knowing this, each front office develops an approach to the way that it deals with the potential contained on a roster. Sometimes that means trying to acquire as much long-term potential as it can, and sometimes exchanging it for more proven assets (remember, by definition, potential is not "actual").
It's nearly impossible to tell whether or not a team will be successful based solely on potential. Blazers fans know this to be true perhaps more than any fan base in the NBA. You can only make predictions on whether or not it will come true, usually by looking at whether teams are patient in their approach (not hitting the panic button as an indication that things are clearly not working to plan) and how everything is progressing thus far. Whether these criteria are met may be more clear in a post-trade deadline environment than earlier in the season.
With a hyped 2014 draft class and strong free agent class in the next few years, certain teams are fully invested in creating and acquiring as much potential as possible. Even during a quiet week of trades, this point was quite apparent over the course of the trade deadline. Last week, the Philadelphia 76ers -- a team already on a treacherous losing streak -- traded both Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen to Indiana for a second round pick and Danny Granger (who has since been bought out). In this case, Philadelphia acquired potential in the form of a draft pick and increased cap flexibility this summer for two more-known assets. That was only one of their pick-acquiring moves.
The Philadelphia example is so strong that, as Tom Ziller argues this week, Philadelphia may be TOO bad for its own good. In his piece he even brings up the idea of the NBA intervening in the franchise's poor roster composition (though nixes that point almost immediately), and also explains how that type of losing can be toxic in the long-term. So for Philly, even though they stuck to the plan, that doesn't mean a positive outcome is a foregone conclusion.
There are some teams, though, that stayed consistent with focusing on long-term assets that have a more promising future. The Phoenix Suns come to mind immediately. As with any young team it isn't a foregone conclusion that they will be successful, but so far the team has exceeded all expectations put on them at the beginning of the year. Not making a deadline deal that compromises their long-term approach could be a mistake (some rumors linked Pau Gasol to Phoenix), but it doesn't seem to be that thus far.
On the other side, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a team whose methodology trended in the opposite direction from Philadelphia and Phoenix. Up until this season, Cleveland wanted to develop its young talent. However, at the start of the year, the team's now-fired GM Chris Grant and owner Dan Gilbert declared this was the year the team was going to go for it. Some believe it was to lure LeBron James back to Cleveland, while others believe it was to get the team on a winning path to keep their young stars in a Cavs uniform. Regardless of intention, the team wanted to win, and wanted to win now.
Unfortunately, sticking to that approach hasn't worked out as planned. Instead of being a promising and playoff-competing team, the Cavs are one of the most disappointing of 2014. By sticking to their guns, they made moves to sacrifice potential to gain short-term production, including acquiring Andrew Bynum at the beginning of the year,Luol Deng a few weeks ago and Spencer Hawes at the deadline. It is still yet to be determined if Cleveland can ultimately be successful (and whether or not the Deng and Hawes acquisitions were "panic" moves), but being two-thirds of the way through the season and still outside the playoff picture, things aren't looking promising.
In Portland, the situation is obviously unique. The Trail Blazers have a mix of proven talent, some of it young, with potential sprinkled throughout the roster. Still one of the youngest teams in the NBA, there was a consistent discussion among fans and analysts about whether the team should give up some of that potential for some proven talent. Though there isn't any true indication as to whether the Blazers had an opportunity to make a move that would improve the team either now or in the future, there certainly is a growing sense that the team is erring on the side of development.
Zach Lowe expressed his interest in how fans would view and receive the team's decision to stand pat during the trade deadline in a recent Grantland article. However, as talked about in a Blazer's Edge Videocast, outside of Paul Allen, the front office and coaching staff haven't seen the entirety of the decade-long struggles of recent Trail Blazers teams. This affords them the opportunity to take more of a 10,000-foot view approach than those that have been following the team for much longer, ultimately giving them a chance to be more patient -- with the option of blowing it all up in 2015.
There's really no way to determine if there is a correct choice in deciding whether or not sticking to the plan of what to do with potential. Ziller argued for how detrimental it can be to a team that's becoming too bad for its own good, and sticking to the plan of making a playoff (and maybe LeBron) push in Cleveland hasn't panned out either. Yet in Phoenix, the Suns are still part of a deeply competitive Western Conference playoff race despite a recent skid. In the end, you really can't immediately know if you chose the correct route, especially when you inherently have to wait a few years to find out.
Even if fans were chomping at the bit to see the Blazers make a splash at the deadline and move into "win-now" mode (though presently there seems to be somewhat of a divide on this point), you have to admire the team for sticking to their approach. Here, that means focusing on retaining long-term potential: though it isn't guaranteed, the Blazers are a team that is starting to reach that anticipated outcome. The fact that it's happening a little earlier than anticipated bodes well for the belief that not wavering from the plan is the correct decision. For these reasons, at least in the short-term and based on the ideology set up by the team to begin with, it seems like the team made the correct choice.
Potential is a complicated phenomenon. It's something that is abstract in that you don't know what it will amount to, though it's concrete enough to acquire or move. At the trade deadline, it's never known whether you made the correct choice in giving too much or little up, or even if you made the right choice in not doing anything at all. What you can judge, though, is the periodic success that is quantitative (like win percentage versus expectations) and a qualitative analysis about whether a team isn't resorting to panic and chaos because the plan clearly isn't going to work. Based on those criteria, Portland seems to be on the right track. The question will soon be whether a currently unknown result will be positive or not.