If you're mostly a basketball-only sports fan who doesn't devote a lot of time or brain space to other sports beyond hoops, it's hard not to get a little bit stir-crazy this time of year. There's an interval of about 8-9 weeks or so - starting in late July, as the free agent signings start to wrap up and the real offseason begins, and ending in late September when training camp gets underway - where you just have nothing. It's pretty sad. Being one of these fans myself, I start to feel desperation setting in. Like, I'd kill for a random preseason game on Sept. 6, just to have basketball.
It's especially tough because I'm a basketball news junkie - every morning over breakfast and every afternoon over lunch, I fill as many browser tabs as possible with articles and devour as much content as I can. Then, during these summer dog days, the well dries up. There's no news, no rumors, no speculation. No basketball.
The bright side is this means there's plenty of time for offseason projects, listicles and the like - most notably, Sports Illustrated's annual ranking of the NBA's top 100 players that comes out every September. I eat that thing up. In a vast desert of basketballlessness, this type of content is my oasis. You get an in-depth analysis of every relevant NBA player, plus a quick rundown on where they're trending - where they ranked last year, where they sit now, why they've moved up or down.
As of this Tuesday, SI's team (featuring Blazer's Edge alum Ben Golliver) had released 70 of its 100 player rankings, meaning they'd rattled off every player from 100 to 31. For each guy, there was a ranking, an explanation and a note on their year-to-year trend. The list began with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was unranked last year and now sits at No. 100, and ended with Gordon Hayward, who has risen 26 spots from No. 57 last year to No. 31 now. In between were a whole bunch of notable NBA names - there was everyone from established NBA veterans like Pau Gasol (No. 40) and Paul Pierce (No. 71) to hot youngsters like Nerlens Noel (No. 97) and Rudy Gobert (No. 39). Quite a fun list.
Then again, if you're a Portlander and you happened to come across this feature on Tuesday, you may have noticed one wee little problem - there were zero Trail Blazers on the list.
That's not to say the Blazers have none of the game's top 100 players - just that they had no one between 31 and 100. The following day, SI released the list of players between 11 and 30, and that's when Damian Lillard heard his name called. Dame ended up slotting in at No. 24, right in between Serge Ibaka and Kyrie Irving - a very respectable placement.
There's little doubt in my mind that Lillard deserves that spot. Being among the NBA's top 30 means you're a franchise player, and Lillard is that. There's been a ton of talk this offseason about how the Blazers' young point guard is ready for the team's solo leadership role in his fourth season. To wit: Michael Pina at Sports on Earth speculated in late July that Lillard might not only lead the NBA in minutes next season, but also "take more shots than everybody else and boast a usage percentage that Russell Westbrook will envy." Rolling Stone's Steve McPherson floated the idea on a recent podcast that Lillard could win a scoring title in 2016. None of this stuff is off the table - Lillard is that good, and he's ready to prove it.
I think generally, we tend to underrate the value of having semi-stars - the guys in that 30-100 range who aren't headlining shoe commercials - on your basketball team. The thing about that type of player is often, he's not a leading scorer like a Kevin Durant, or a jack-of-all-trades type like a LeBron James who does everything. There are plenty of semi-star players who really only do one basketball "thing," and that's perfectly fine as long as they do that one thing exceptionally well. You can be one of the 100 best players in the game if you excel in a role. Perhaps you're a fantastic wing defender (Andre Iguodala, No. 44) or an exceptional rebounder (Tristan Thompson, No. 70). Maybe you're elite as a rim protector (Tyson Chandler, No. 39) or a passer (Ricky Rubio, No. 87).
The fact is that no one wins without those players. Iguodala's current reign as NBA Finals MVP is a testament to that. The Warriors are champions in part because they had a fantastic defensive stopper they could put on LeBron in the Finals. LeBron's Cavs, meanwhile, reached the Finals thanks largely to Thompson's efforts to absolutely destroy the offensive glass against Chicago and Atlanta. The franchise guys get a lot of credit for their teams' accomplishments, and rightfully so, but the semi-stars are almost equally vital.
So who's got them?
Judging by the bottom 70 on SI's top 100 list, here are all 30 teams in the NBA ranked by their number of semi-star players:
Looks like a pretty intuitive list. Most of the teams at the top are perennial playoff contenders. The Bulls, Hawks and Raptors were all top-four seeds in the East last season. The Suns haven't made the playoffs yet, but two of their four top-100 guys are recent additions in Chandler (signed in July) and Brandon Knight (traded in February). Give them time. A lot of the teams at the bottom are cellar-dwellers - Minnesota, Philly, Sacramento, the Knicks. Then at the end are just two zeroes - the Thunder, who we can excuse because they have three top-30 guys, and your Portland Trail Blazers.
This is an issue.
In Lillard, the Blazers have a legitimate cornerstone guy. They've got a leading man who can get them 25 or 30 points on any given night. But you don't find success in this league with just that one guy - where's the low-post monster who crashes the boards after each Lillard miss? Where's the wing defender who keeps the Steph Currys and Russell Westbrooks of the world from matching Dame basket for basket? In short, where is the help?
This is something we don't talk about much in today's NBA. When we discuss team-building, we talk a ton about how to get the franchise guy - the player between 1 and 30, among the NBA's best. That topic is beaten to death. We know well that it's difficult to get that guy, so you have to get creative and find a way. Either you go the Houston route and accumulate a stockpile of assets that can land you a star via trade (James Harden), you pull a New Orleans and make one generation-defining draft pick (Anthony Davis), or you're Cleveland and you're the luckiest franchise in the world, winning three draft lotteries and just happening to have the best basketball player alive call your state home (LeBron James, in case that one was unclear).
There's less discussion about how to get the guys outside of the top 30. Part of that is because they're less glamorous - obviously, Gordon Hayward isn't as sexy a name as LeBron James. We know that. But it's also a tougher, more nuanced conversation to have - how do you get the 45th or 65th best player in the NBA on your roster, anyway? There's no one set way. Smart teams discover players of this caliber in unusual ways - they find diamonds in the rough. They search in places no one else thought to look.
Paul Millsap (No. 32 on this year's SI list) was the No. 47 pick in the draft when he came out of college in 2006. Khris Middleton (No. 45) was a forgotten throw-in that the Pistons included in their Brandon Knight/Brandon Jennings point guard swap in the summer of 2013; look where he is now. Danny Green (No. 50) was waived by an awful post-LeBron Cleveland team in 2010; he was a random kid off the scrap heap when the Spurs originally took a flyer on him. He made $850,000 the entire 2011-12 season. All of these players are valued much more highly now, but their respective teams deserve an enormous amount of credit for how they developed them.
This brings us to the all-important question: Can the Blazers develop any top-100 guys within the next year or two? They've said that their plan for the time being is to build around Lillard using other young players who are on his same career arc - roughly, in the second, third and fourth years of their careers. Will any of those youngsters develop into, if not stars like Lillard, at least semi-stars in the near future?
Let's look at their prospects.
Where he's at now: Right now, Leonard is a dazzling shooter who's either a breakout star waiting to happen or a case of really elaborate "small sample size theater." Leonard shot 51 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3 and 93.8 percent from the line last season. He also played only 847 minutes the entire year, bringing him to just over 2,400 for his three-year career.
Where he's going: Leonard just needs to stay on the same path he's already on. If he sustains his current shooting numbers (plus continues to, very quietly and underratedly, protect the rim quite nicely), he'll be a legit player in the NBA.
Best-case scenario: There's definitely a place for a sweet-shooting big in today's NBA. A year from now, Leonard could emerge as the next Donatas Motiejunas (No. 98 player in the league) or Ryan Anderson (No. 72). Either way, a very nice player to build with.
Where he's at now: Toward the end of last season and in the playoffs versus Memphis, McCollum emerged as a go-to scorer off the bench for Portland. He wasn't the most efficient offensive weapon in the world, but he could attack in a variety of ways - spotting up, running pick-and-rolls and occasionally getting to the rim. A nice offensive weapon.
Where he's going: Last year, McCollum was a dangerous bench scorer - this season, could he develop into a legitimate star shooting guard? With modest improvements to his decision-making and overall efficiency, he could get there.
Best-case scenario: I'd liken him to Bradley Beal (No. 62). He's a capable scorer who can beat you in multiple ways, but he's also comfortable staying off the ball and coexisting with a point guard who dominates the spotlight (Lillard in McCollum's case, John Wall in Beal's).
Where he's at now: In Plumlee the Blazers have a skilled, but limited, young center. He's a good athlete who can run the floor well and create opportunities on the fast break, but in the halfcourt, he's really only useful around the basket. At least that's what he's shown so far, in two years in Brooklyn.
Where he's going: It remains to be seen how Plumlee evolves - does he develop more of an all-around game, scoring with a wider range offensively and doing more switching onto smaller players on the defensive end? Or does he simply hone his skills as the pure center he is now, playing his same game only better?
Best-case scenario: I think the most likely scenario is Plumlee looks to develop his game as a pure five. He might never be Dwight Howard, but if he can turn into a respectable paint scorer both in post-ups and as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, that's a success. Maybe he someday turns into Marcin Gortat (the league's No. 63 player) or the man he backed up in Brooklyn, Brook Lopez (No. 38).
Where he's at now: Aminu turns 25 later this month, and he's been in the NBA for five seasons. It's possible that by now, he is who he is. Meaning, he's an excellent athlete and a solid wing defender, but a 28.6 percent career shooter from 3. Take the bad with the good, I suppose.
Where he's going: The Blazers are hopeful that Aminu shines as a defender and rebounder while quietly improving his jump shot, but they're probably not holding their breath. More likely, Aminu spends the next four years in Portland simply accepting his limitations and getting better at the things he does well.
Best-case scenario: Even without a jumper, there's room in the top 100 NBA players for a stellar athlete who can defend wings and crash the boards. Look at Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (No. 85) for proof. The Blazers could do a lot worse than a $7.5 million-per-year MKG clone for the foreseeable future.
Where he's at now: A whole lot of potential, a whole lot of question marks. Vonleh is 20 and has played only 259 career minutes in the NBA to this point - the Hornets drafted him because he was perhaps the nation's most dominant power forward during one season at Indiana, but he's still got a way to go before he proves it at the NBA level.
Where he's going: The hope is that Vonleh develops into an all-world power forward with the versatility to score on you in a lot of different ways. Pick-and-rolls, post-ups, 18-foot jumpers, everything. He showed flashes of all those things as a Hoosier, but now it's time to see if he can do it in the pros.
Best-case scenario: If he reaches his full potential in the NBA, he's a legit big man. Think of him as a budding Al Jefferson (No. 47). He might not get there, but that's definitely the future he's aiming for.
PLAYER X, TO BE NAMED LATER
Obviously, it's hard to predict where semi-star players will emerge. They're not predictable like blue-chip guys - they can come from anywhere. The Blazers might get their next top-100 guy via the outside hire. There are tons of free agents coming in the class of 2016 beyond the superstars like Kevin Durant - maybe the Blazers go after someone like Hassan Whiteside (No. 69 player in the league today), DeMar DeRozan (No. 61) or even Rajon Rondo (a notable snub from this year's top 100, but we'll see again next September).
The Blazers are also likely to have a pick in next year's draft - they lottery-protected the 2016 selection they sent to Denver last year for Arron Afflalo, which means as long as they don't make the playoffs, they'll get one of the top 14 prospects in the incoming class.
Then, of course, there are the trade candidates. Neil Olshey has said publicly that his attack plan is to keep the nucleus he has now and keep developing talent, but if an established player becomes available in February, it wouldn't be shocking if he made a move. The possible targets could fill a whole article (and they may well do so, if I'm bored in late September and need an idea to write about - if that's something you'd want to read, leave a comment and say so). The beauty of the Blazers' current position is they have assets. Very few finished products, but lots of assets. Which means, in the years ahead, just about anything is possible.
Look back again at that chart showing the league's most semi-star-laden teams. You've got the Bulls, who are talented at every position with Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah surrounding Jimmy Butler. The Hawks are likewise balanced with their four All-Stars in Al Horford, Millsap, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague. With the exception of the former No. 1 pick Rose, very few of those acquisitions were blockbuster moves. All those teams did was quietly make a series of shrewd personnel moves, and eventually, those moves added up and contenders were formed.
If you ask me, that's the kind of team the Blazers want to be within a couple of years. Get a few reliable core players, build an infrastructure, develop some continuity, and suddenly you're in the playoffs every year. The Blazers had that the last two years, before the mass exodus of 2015, but rest assured - they can find it again. Have some faith, have some patience and maybe next year, the Blazers can have two or three of the top 100 guys in the game. Baby steps.