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Why the Suddenly-Successful Trail Blazers Need to Make Moves Now

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Can the Blazers afford to "let the cake bake"? We argue no.

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Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Blazer's Edge Mailbag! We love to hear your Portland Trail Blazers questions. You can send yours along to blazersub@gmail.com and we'll try to answer!

Dave,

Why is everybody talking about new players this summer? The trade deadline talk was ridiculous because this team is amazing! Let the cake bake! In a couple years it'll pay off way more with just age and experience than getting expensive free agents. Or worse making trades! Don't touch one of my favorite rosters in years.

Thad

Love the passion; can't agree.

Last time "let the cake bake" was used seriously--its inaugural incarnation--the Blazers fielded young versions of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden surrounded by players perceived to have serious ceiling like Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, and Sergio Rodriguez. Given the age and potential of that collection, invoking the mantra made sense.

This year's Blazers are young. They have star-level talent at a couple positions. But there's no way they're fielding a lineup with that much upward mobility. You can't just throw any mixture into the oven and expect it to come out bakery-perfect. The proportions have to be right. This year's Blazers aren't destined for the mixing bowl yet, let alone the display case.

As we've said a couple times, "amazing" is a relative term. On pace for 43 wins, Portland is far ahead of pre-season predictions. On pace for 43 wins, Portland ranks below a dozen other teams, immeasurably south of the league's elite. Borrowing from Louis C.K., what are we going to say if and when the Blazers actually contend for a title? We've already burned the word "amazing" on chicken strips. (Or the NBA equivalent, a .500 season.)

There's zero chance the Blazers are ready for the ultimate step now and there's less than zero chance that they'll get there fielding this exact lineup. If moves are necessary, sooner might be better than later for a couple reasons:

1. The current incarnation of the roster will never be cheaper than it is right now, meaning the Blazers will never have more available cap space than they do this summer. Several of Portland's young players are on the verge of getting paid. CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, and (if retained) Meyers Leonard are the obvious ones. "Letting the cake bake" assumes a high level of success, though. If that comes to fruition, Portland's supporting cast (Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu) will demand more money as their current contracts expire. Left to their own devices, the current players will eat away cap space until no room remains to improve. At that point it'll be too late to say, "We just need one more guy!" In hindsight, failure to sign or trade for that crucial player when the cap obligation was low will seem like a free opportunity missed.

2. Even with a young roster, the Blazers are on a clock. LaMarcus Aldridge should have taught Portland fans (and front office) this lesson for all time. No matter what anybody thinks, says, assumes, or wishes, nothing lasts forever. Players are mobile. They have power. Franchises are constantly auditioning for their own rosters. Every season provides testimony, indicating whether a player should invest or not. This is doubly-true of a non-marquee outfit like the Blazers. Their first, and in some ways most important, audience wears their uniforms. If they can't demonstrate a winning vision to those 12-15 guys, nobody else will believe.

Right now things seem rosy, but 3 years is an eternity in the NBA. If Portland's win total remains in the mid-40's over that span, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and company are going to start asking whether it'll ever get better. If they decide the answer is no--a perception bolstered by an inarguable track record of mediocrity--the Blazers will be powerless to keep them.

Successful front offices make decisions when they hold the high cards rather than leaving them to times and people that they don't control. With Portland's young players under long-term contract (and those who aren't assumed to carry some measure of goodwill towards this "amazing" and overachieving team), high-card time is now. Coaches and players can pat themselves on the back for a better-than-expected season. Front offices have to keep the high beams on, asking how to parlay today's joy into a better future. They can't afford to see laurels, but the gaping maw of another failed-dream rebuild chasing behind, threatening to swallow them up if they don't run fast enough.

By the time Lillard, McCollum, et al. get to their decision-making points, the Blazers should have already taken the choice out of their hands. It should be obvious that Portland is not only the best place for them to be, but the only place for them to be. That's going to require demonstrated success. Demonstrated success will require deals. If the front office waits to make moves until their stars are pondering their future, it'll likely be too late. (Last-minute Arron Afflalo deal = no draft pick, no LaMarcus Aldridge, no playoff series win, and no Arron Afflalo.)  You make the move today that'll secure you 3 years down the road so you don't get stuck in a desperation situation.

That doesn't mean the Blazers should make just any change. Incorrect moves aren't welcome ever. But talent and fit are only part of correctness. Progress has a "best by" date. Last year's good move may be a bad idea this season, costing more and yielding less.

The Blazers haven't made too many bad moves over the last decade. Plenty of those moves have been mistimed, tails wagging the franchise. As a result 54 wins and a single second-round playoff appearance have seemed like manna from heaven...clear high points in a slog through the mundane. The Blazers need to get ahead of the game, controlling their destiny instead of chasing and hoping. The combination of low cap space, young roster, and budding success make this the perfect time to get on top of things again.

Even if the Blazers continue their "hot streak" through April, nobody's going to remember 43 wins in the long run. They'll either remember what those 43 wins led to or regard them as meaningless. Whatever moves the Blazers make over the next couple seasons will determine which outcome lies ahead. The freedom and willingness to make well-timed, beneficial roster changes will prove as critical to the future of the franchise as anything accomplished on the court this season.

Thanks for the question, Thad! Everybody else, go ahead and send your own to blazersub@gmail.com!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge /

Read about my now-available first book here and order it HERE.

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