The league is changing, perhaps more rapidly and in more ways than ever. There's a stylistic revolution happening. Big behemoth big men are going the way of the dinosaur as motion filled, perimeter oriented players become en vogue. The financial landscape of the league is in a complete state of flux as everyone awaits the new TV deal. Foundational systems like the draft lottery are being questioned. And oh yeah, the rulebook governing the contracts between players and teams could be renegotiated. No biggie.
Given this uncertain climate, free agency this past June was particularly fascinating. Not only were players raking in more money than usual, they were also opting for shorter deals with lots of player options. In essence, players were taking greater control of their own careers and accepting the increased financial risk that goes along with it.
Much of this can be attributed to the short term changes the league is anticipating. Once the new TV money settles in, perhaps contracts will return to the way they were, simply with a much higher total value. Perhaps these trends toward short term contracts and greater player control are temporary. However, the recent CBA was built with an eye toward increased "player sharing" and the attitudes of players, particularly the elite, have been drifting this way for some time. These trends may have staying power making player movement the new normal.
Either way, these trends will make roster continuity much harder to achieve over the next few seasons. For a team like the Trail Blazers, who will be attempting a substantial rebuild over that time period, that's all that matters.
Roster continuity has been a hot topic within the basketball intelligentsia for some time. Obviously, continuity matters to some extent. Anyone who's played the game for two minutes knows it's easier when you understand the tendencies of the guys you're playing with. But talent has always trumped in this league and "continuity" has become a buzzword only in the last few years. Countless articles of all shapes and sizes investigated the phenomenon, trying to find some estimation of its importance. This valuation of stability is still very much up undefined but the Trail Blazers seems to have put their stake in the ground.
Last offseason (can I say that yet?), Portland was both an outlier and a poster boy for the emerging trends. In many ways, the new CBA screwed them out of their best chance at retaining LaMarcus Aldridge. The new rules prevented them from offering Aldridge a viable extension last year, after their remarkable victory over the Houston Rockets. This was by design and general manager Neil Olshey admitted the rule hurt them during a recent podcast with Zach Lowe. Losing Aldridge was a perfect example of the player sharing goals embedded in the new CBA.
While the Trail Blazers became exhibit A for the new NBA landscape , the way they reacted bucked the overall trend. Every guy the team signed committed to multiple years with no player options or came on a rookie contract that ends with restricted free agency. Damian Lillard - five years, no options. Al-farouq Aminu - four years, no options. Ed Davis - three years, no options. Mason Plumlee - rookie deal. Noah Vonleh - rookie deal. Maurice Harkless - rookie deal. The list goes on and the strategy was intentional. Olshey explained the rationale during that same podcast. They wanted control so that any player that blossomed would benefit the team rather than walk for nothing.
By doing so the Blazers displayed a commitment to continuity. Of course, as with any rebuild, they won't pass up an opportunity to acquire superior talent, but the key is that it will be their choice. Rather than letting players determine the fate of the franchise, the Trail Blazers have structured their contracts so that each guy will be in their system, developing under their coaches, and assimilating into their culture until the team decides otherwise.
This philosophy is in stark contrast with other many other rebuilding teams, most obviously the Philadelphia 76ers. Rather than stripping down to the studs and staying at that level for a number of years, Portland is investing in guys and betting on them long term. These players aren't some crazy long, young, D-League players working for minuscule salaries. They're legitimate NBA players, ready to contribute from day one, who happen to have significant upside. It's impossible to say who will still be on Portland's roster three years down the road but the chances of seeing familiar faces is a lot better than it is in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia has taken its approach because of an almost dogmatic focus on talent. For the past three years the only question they've asked themselves is how do we get our hands on the most elite players? The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, are valuing other things in addition to talent. They're hoping their players will grow together, trust one another, and become better than a collection of individuals. If they have the opportunity to make a blockbuster trade they'll take it but plan A appears to be building around Lillard with long tenured players that understand the system and complement his game.
Portland may have just experienced the most tumultuous summer in the franchise's history, but don't mistake that as a disregard for continuity. Every other decision points otherwise. Whether they are able to create such an environment in the new NBA, and how much it even matters, is yet to be determined, but I for one am excited to see them try.