The Trail Blazers' matchup tonight, against the host New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center, is one I've been eyeing curiously on the schedule for the last couple of weeks. It's a pairing of teams that intrigues me, and I'll tell you why - there's a wonderful contrast there between two competing ideologies, team-building concepts and long-term narratives. In a lot of ways, the two franchises are yin and yang.
A few months ago, if you'd looked ahead to a March matchup between New Orleans and Portland, you probably wouldn't have thought much of it. You'd have expected it to be a game without much at stake - while one team is young and exciting and in the midst of a breakout season, the other is in flux and doesn't have much to play for here and now.
As it turns out, that supposition would have been correct, but for the wrong reasons. The two teams' roles have reversed since the start of the season - the Pelicans, who won 45 games and the No. 8 seed last year and were expected to reach the next level, have instead flopped, and the Blazers, who lost four starters over the summer and were billed as a deep lottery team, have flipped the script and made a strong push for a playoff spot in 2016. If I told you back in October that between the Blazers and Pelicans, one team would be ranked sixth in the Western Conference and the other No. 12, that probably wouldn't have surprised you - until you discovered which was which.
The Blazers have surprised a lot of people this year. Damian Lillard has taken his play to new heights, CJ McCollum has blossomed into a more than capable secondary star, and the role players around the two-guard nucleus have fit extraordinarily well. Meanwhile in New Orleans, Anthony Davis remains a superstar, but the infrastructure around him has had countless problems including health, fit, coaching and, quite frankly, whether the other guys were ever that good to begin with.
What makes the Blazers' and Pelicans' stories even more interesting is that they both stem from the same origin point. That would be June 28, 2012, the night that Neil Olshey and Dell Demps worked their magic in their respective teams' war rooms at the Prudential Center in Newark and each selected a budding franchise player in the NBA Draft. Both were wildly successful that night, with the Pelicans getting Davis with the top overall pick and the Blazers nabbing Lillard sixth. In the nearly four years since that night, however, the two teams have taken wildly different paths toward becoming competitive.
Conventional wisdom says that the hardest part of building a successful NBA team is finding a superstar player to build around; for the Pelicans, the opposite has been true. Getting Davis, who fell into their laps when they won the draft lottery in the spring of 2012, was the easy part. Putting the right supporting players around their emerging star has been painfully difficult.
"Impatient" would be the best way to describe Demps' approach to building the Pelicans over the last four years. We all know that no one ever wins championships in the NBA before their best player is even old enough to drink; even the all-time greats have to pay their dues before becoming all-time greats. (The best counterexample would be Magic Johnson, who won a Finals MVP in 1980 as a 20-year-old rookie, but he had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and two other Hall of Famers helping him out.) Nevertheless, Demps was dead set on building a dominant team from the moment Davis arrived, and he made a series of short-sighted moves in an effort to do so.
The most egregious mistake came in the summer of 2013, when Demps traded both his '13 first-round pick (Nerlens Noel) and his '14 first-rounder (which would later become Elfrid Payton) to the 76ers for Jrue Holiday. The move didn't seem like much at the time, but it ended up dramatically changing the histories of two franchises - for Philly, it was the beginning of a long-term project to unload winning players and rebuild around draft assets, and for New Orleans, it was a commitment. They were going all in to win immediately.
The Holiday deal pushed them down a slippery slope that only got more and more perilous. The Pelicans also made a bold move for Tyreke Evans that summer. Not only did they deal Robin Lopez to Portland and Greivis Vasquez to Sacramento in the three-team trade, which is already questionable enough, but they also quickly inked Evans to a new contract for four years and $44 million, a questionable deal for a ball-dominant wing who had always spent more time padding his stats than playing winning basketball. A year later, they surrendered another first-round pick for Omer Asik (a pick that would become Sam Dekker in 2015); then in the summer of '15, they re-signed Asik for four years and $60 million.
Look at just one of these deals in a vacuum, and you might not find it so appalling; a bit eyebrow-raising, sure, but perhaps explainable. Taken all together, though, it's pretty alarming. Demps and the Pelicans have spent three first-round draft picks, a small handful of talent and over $100 million in questionable contracts all to put together a team that's competitive at times, but also fatally flawed. The pieces haven't fit well in New Orleans; Davis has shined but Asik next to him has been a mess, able to protect the rim decently but do little else. Holiday and Evans have missed significant time with injuries the last two years, and the former has been mostly relegated to bench work even when healthy. And, glaringly, the Pelicans haven't had the depth needed to survive injuries as they've come. If only they had three picks and $100 million lying around somewhere.
The Pelicans took a gamble on trying to win right away with a transcendent player; it hasn't worked out. They're now lottery-bound and unlikely to improve anytime soon. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson will be free agents this summer and have little reason to stay. Evans and Holiday are signed for one more year, but how much does either of them move the needle anyway? The Pelicans still might have a bright future someday (even now, Davis is still only 23), but this current incarnation hasn't worked. The roster is too flimsy and was put together too hastily. In recent NBA history, there might be no better cautionary tale.
If Demps is the most impatient general manager in the NBA, then Neil Olshey may well be the closest thing the league has to his complete opposite. Olshey is one of the best there is when it comes to scouting and evaluating talent, but that doesn't mean he had the hubris last summer to believe he could build an immediate title contender after the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge et al. Instead, he willingly entered a slow, deliberate rebuild despite the presence of a transcendent talent of his own on his roster.
With Lillard turning 25 last summer, it would have been understandable if Olshey felt an urge to build a winner quickly. After all, you don't want to waste the prime years of your star's career. Instead, Olshey pulled an anti-Demps - while the Pelicans had endured back-to-back seasons under 30 wins and were desperate to turn it around, the Blazers went from winning 54 and 51 games the last two years to deliberately building a younger team that was far less likely to produce immediate results.
Olshey didn't have to do it this way. For starters, he could have kept Nicolas Batum rather than trade him to Charlotte in a rebuild-y move that downgraded to Gerald Henderson but netted a future asset in Noah Vonleh. Olshey has repeatedly said on the record that he made that move independent of Aldridge's decision in free agency, which came a week later. He did it to build a younger roster that would develop along the same timetable as Lillard's individual growth. He also could have chased mediocre veterans in free agency and overpaid them in the interest of building a competitor right away. There were plenty such guys available last summer - Amare Stoudemire, Josh Smith, Andrea Bargnani, Luis Scola, Tyler Hansbrough, Wilson Chandler. Instead, Olshey was patient - and perhaps more importantly, he overpaid nobody. He gave Al-Farouq Aminu $7.5 million a year front-loaded, meaning he'll have more cap space in future years. He gave Ed Davis three years and $20 million, also declining each year. The other key pieces of the team's current rebuild - Maurice Harkless, Mason Plumlee, Vonleh - are all still on rookie deals and making pocket change.
Whether those players are as good as Holiday, Evans and Asik right now (and you could argue that they are) is beside the point. The point is that with their current roster, the Blazers have flexibility and upside. Their open salary cap space is a luxury that helped them nab a draft pick for nothing this year when they acquired and stretched Anderson Varejao; in future years, that space may help them recruit another star. The youth of the players Olshey has added is another major plus. Vonleh, for all his flaws, is still only 20 and still could become a real player. Harkless is 22. The biggest difference between the Blazers' outlook right now and the Pelicans' is there's no urgency. If someone has a down year or misses time with an injury, it's a bummer, but it's not catastrophic. The Blazers have the depth to replace anyone and the patience to sit tight and wait for next year.
It's a minor miracle that the Blazers this season are nine games ahead of the Pelicans, riding high at 35-34 while the Pels are 25-42. No one saw that coming; New Orleans was supposed to have a major breakout in Davis' fourth season, while the Blazers were expected to be terrible. Instead the Blazers are laughing all the way to (very likely) the playoffs. But again - not the point. What's even more important than this season is the long-term outlook and the sense of optimism that Olshey's work has instilled. The best for this roster may still be yet to come.
It's interesting to look back on that 2012 draft now, in 2016, and assess how various teams altered their long-term trajectories that night. The Hornets added a foundational piece in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the No. 2 selection in that draft; the Wizards likewise added a key guy with the No. 3 pick, Bradley Beal. The Cavaliers kinda sorta whiffed with the No. 4 pick in Dion Waiters, but it only took two years before the homecoming of LeBron James rescued them from their struggles. The Pistons got an All-Star big man waiting to happen in No. 9 pick Andre Drummond. Perhaps the best night of all was had by the Warriors, who used picks 7, 30 and 35 to get Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green, three players who would eventually help elevate them to championship level.
In all of the above cases (well, except Cleveland), the draft was a key part of the path to success, but it was far from the whole thing. The Hornets, Wizards and Pistons all became playoff contenders, but they're all still a piece away from real greatness. The Warriors already have one ring and appear headed for more, but obviously they'd be nowhere without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Likewise, with New Orleans and Portland, even getting arguably the two best players in the whole class wasn't enough to turn them into instant world-beaters.
We're sometimes guilty of oversimplifying the process of NBA team-building. It's all about getting lucky, we say - as long as you win the draft lottery when there's a Davis or a LeBron or a Tim Duncan at the head of the class, the rest is just details. The recent actions of Neil Olshey and Dell Demps, however, are proof that the details matter a lot. You have to get lucky to draft elite players, but you also need intelligence and foresight to build a solid infrastructure around them. One fortunate ping-pong ball is not a guarantee of anything.
When these two teams take the floor tonight, enjoy the superstar matchup of Lillard versus Davis - you'd be crazy not to. But also take the time to appreciate the supporting pieces around Lillard and everything they represent. This Blazers team is promising because it's built well, from one to 12, and that's a testament to the franchise's leadership and vision. Be thankful your team has that. Not everyone is so lucky.