With last year’s starting lineup scattered to the four corners of the map (literally), it appears the 2015-16 Portland Trailblazers will almost certainly be a lottery team. Fans are starting to come to terms with the fact that 25 wins are a possibility, and may even be secretly (or not so secretly) hoping for something around that number (#sucklemons4bensimmons?). At the very least, there is a lot to look forward to for the true hoopshead in seeing how this new assemblage of young talent shakes out.
And that’s not to speak of the intrigue of what will be ever-present trade chatter with a bunch of shiny new chips in hand.
While General Manager Neil Olshey has been the focal point of a good deal of consternation of late, he has previously set a precedent for being able to being able to turn around a team in relatively short order. The Blazers needed only two years to return to the playoffs after bottoming out in 2011-2012. He also oversaw an impressive one-season turnaround in Los Angeles, as the Clippers went from a .390 winning percentage in 2011-2012 to a .606 clip the next year, buoyed largely by the acquisition of Chris Paul for a package of players.
The Blazers’ roster at present is in much better shape than the average rebuilding team, with SEVEN recent lottery picks who are still considered to have room to grow (Chris Kaman would be an eighth, if 2003 counts as recent for you, and if you look at the way he can grow as mentor). Throw in Allen Crabbe, Mason Plumlee, Tim Frazier and Pat Connaughton, and you have a whole heap of potential to work with.
Not to get ahead of ourselves—there should be a fun season ahead of us—but everyone has to be wondering at least a little bit about how long it will it take for the Blazers to get back to playoff relevance. Given the merits of their current roster, is it possible that they are back in the playoffs in 2016-17? Let’s take a look at a few of the bigger one-year turnarounds in recent history, and how they were pulled off:
2001-02 New Jersey Nets
Win total increase from previous year: +26
Key Roster Move: Acquired Jason Kidd and Chris Dudley from Phoenix for Stephon Marbury, Johnny Newman, and Soumaila Samake.
The Nets had a young core with a number of guys just hitting their prime; Kidd turned out to be the missing ingredient, leading them all the way to the NBA Finals. Outside of Kidd, six of eight players who appeared in at least 60 games fell in the age range of 21-27: Richard Jefferson (21), Jason Collins (23), Kenyon Martin (24), Todd MacCollough (26), Keith Van Horn (26), and Kerry Kittles (27).
Of course, the East back then is no comparison to the West now, but you can still see how the Nets roster (lots of athletic guys and a couple of shooters) compares favorably with the current Blazers. After a year of internal development, could the addition of a single top-flight player be enough to push the Blazers back to contention?
2007-08 Boston Celtics
Win total increase from previous year: +42, the largest in NBA history
Key Roster Moves: Acquired Ray Allen and Glen Davis from Seattle for Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, and a 2008 2nd round pick (Trent Plaisted); Acquired Kevin Garnett for Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair, and two 2009 1st round picks (Wayne Ellington and Johnny Flynn).
Going from last in a weak division one year to an NBA championship the next was the direct result of two ambitious mega-trades of youth for future Hall-of-Famers. While not an overly deep team, the ‘Big Three’ of Garnett, Allen, and Paul Pierce had a supporting cast including young contributors Rajon Rondo (21), Tony Allen (26), Kendrick Perkins (23), Glen Davis (22), and Leon Powe (24). The biggest stumbling block to such game-changing trades for Portland is that their next non-lottery 1st round pick may go to Denver (from the Aaron Afflalo deal), and they may not have a 2nd round pick to offer until 2021.
2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder
Win total increase from previous year: +27
Key Roster Moves: Drafted James Harden (1st round, 3rd pick); acquired Thabo Sefolosha from Chicago for a 2009 first round pick (Taj Gibson); debuted Serge Ibaka (2008 draft pick).
Starting with a base of the nascent brilliance of generational talents Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, OKC had six rotation players 23 or younger, and a starting lineup all 26 years and younger. They got bounced in the first round by the eventual champions, The-Los-Angeles-Team-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. By the next year, they were in the Western Conference Finals. The year after: the Finals.
2012-2013 Golden State Warriors
Win total increase from previous year: +24 (the previous season was strike-shortened, but winning % jumped from .348 to .573)
Key Roster Moves: Return of Stephen Curry from injury; Traded Monta Ellis in a package for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson; Traded Stephen Jackson to San Antonio for Richard Jefferson and a 2012 1st round pick (Festus Ezeli); Traded Dorrell Wright in a three-team deal for Jarrett Jack; Drafted Harrison Barnes (1st round, 7th pick) and Draymond Green (2nd round, 35th pick overall).
The Warriors made a spirited postseason run thanks to a multi-pronged approach to roster overhaul. Although he was in and out of the lineup in the regular season due to injury, Bogut helped shore up the interior defense, especially in the playoffs. Meanwhile the stalwart great offense / no defense of David Lee and the development of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were supported by a mix of veteran role players like Jack, Jefferson, and Carl Landry (an August signing) as well as a youth movement of Barnes, Green, Ezeli, Andris Biedrins (26), Kent Bazemore (23), and Charles Jenkins (rookie).
Two short years later, the Bay Area was treated to a season for the ages.
Perhaps with continued internal development, non-star veteran additions, and shrewd drafting the Blazers could follow a similar path.
1988-89, 2004-05, and 2013-14 Phoenix Suns
Win total increase from previous year: +33, +27, and +23, respectively
Key Roster Moves: Signed Free Agent Tom Chambers and traded for Kevin Johnson (88-89). Signed Free Agent Steve Nash (04-05). Traded Luis Scola to Indiana for Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a 2014 1st round pick (Bogdan Bogdonovic); traded Jared Dudley and a 2nd round pick for Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler (later traded).
With all due respect to the 1989-90 and 1997-98 San Antonio Spurs (who correspondingly drafted David Robinson and Tim Duncan en route to the 2nd and 3rd biggest turnarounds ever), the Suns have been the kings of the quick turnaround. Twice the free agent market reaped huge benefits, while most recently the Suns took a surprising route to a winning season when they were expected to attempt building the latest and greatest tank.
Even trading Marcin Gortat on the eve of opening night 2013 for what amounted to not much (a broken Emeka Okafor and a 1st rounder that became Tyler Ennis) worked out well for this team; the move opened the floor for a fun-and-gun approach which leaned on seven players aged 19-25 for significant playing time. Of course, they reached back for another level of retooling recently when chemistry issues reared their ugly head. But things look bright for the Suns (ha) as they were able to make a serious run at LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, while boasting a roster loaded with past lottery picks where Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler are the only players with more than 4 years of NBA experience.
2014-15 Milwaukee Bucks
Win increase from previous year: +24
Key Roster Moves: Drafted Jabari Parker (1st round, 2nd pick); signed free agent Jerryd Bayless; acquired Jared Dudley and a 2017 1st round pick from the Clippers for Carlos Delfino, Miroslav Raduljica and a future 2nd round pick.
Picking second in the draft certainly didn’t hurt, and neither did jettisoning Larry Sanders—once a hot commodity who could have fetched a good deal on the trade market before his self-immolation. But the carousel of young pieces continue in motion presently, as the team had to trade arguably their best player in Brandon Knight because they didn’t believe they could resign him. They did, of course, pick up Greg Monroe in free agency, who the Blazers seemed to covet, which nonetheless offers more evidence that small market may not mean what it used to in the NBA.
Given next year’s free agent class is extremely unlikely to land the Blazers a franchise-cornerstone talent, the Blazers’ biggest hopes to secure such a player by the 2016-17 season would be in the draft or via trade—which is how the biggest one-year turnarounds in the history of the league have traditionally been sparked. If that doesn’t materialize, there would be more options in the 2017 free agent class, including some viable max-level talents who will be UFAs.
With Olshey’s recent history with quick retooling, we have reason to hope that Portland shouldn’t be doomed to several seasons of "rebuilding purgatory" like Philadelphia before a glimpse of a competitive squad can be had. So how long do you think it will be before Portland is back in the "second season"?