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Which Is More Valuable to the Trail Blazers, Playoffs Experience or Lottery Pick?

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The Blazers could make the playoffs or they could draft in the first round this summer. They can't do both. Which is the better option?

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A thorny question dominates this edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag. If you have a question about the Portland Trail Blazers, e-mail it to blazersub@gmail.com and we'll try to answer it.

G'day Dave,

The way the Blazers are going we are probably going to win enough games to stay in the playoff hunt. Currently i don't think the blazers are able to move into the higher seeds to get a more favourable matchup against the clippers or grizzlies maybe. Is it about time that the over-achieving Blazers pack it up and do what we did in 2012-13 and have a mammoth losing streak (we ended up getting McCollum that draft). Getting the 7th-8th seed and getting swept by the warriors/Spurs seems counter-productive when we also lose our draft pick, a draft pick as a young team we need to keep. I know a late lottery pick probably isn't going to be a game changer but surely it changes the game more then getting swept in the first round?

Regards,

Luke

There's zero doubt that a pick in the 2016 NBA Draft would be better for the Blazers long-term than a first-round playoff loss. Consider:

1. The whole, "They're in the 6th seed! They're close to the 5th seed!" deal is so much lipstick on a pig...just a pretty way of saying they're a .500 team. That pig is nice. It's a fatter, better-producing pig than we feared at the beginning of the season when it looked like everybody might starve. But, "They're the 6th-9th seed," and, "They have a .500 record" mean the exact same thing. One sounds exciting and the other doesn't. Few people would say, "It's way better to be a .500 team than to get a mid-lottery pick!" but that's essentially what this debate means.

The distinction between the 6th and 8th seeds right now--between 6th and 9th even--are meaningless for determining actual franchise quality. The team in 6th will probably finish a game or two ahead of the team in 8th. Neither of them will be as good as the Spurs or even the Clippers. Neither of them will be as bad as the Kings or Lakers. Obviously the first-round matchup will be different, but the Blazers won't be inherently better if they finish 6th than if they finish 8th or 9th.

The bottom of the Western Conference bracket features 4-5 teams trying to climb a shifting gravel pile that they keep sliding back down. All but one of them will end up making the post-season. Don't confuse "not ending up at the bottom of that pile" with "not backing into the playoffs". If things continue as they are, all those teams are going to back in. The bragging rights will be nice, but it's hardly something to hang your future on.

2. The "Playoff Experience" argument is wobbly. Two kinds of playoff experience matter. The very first time a player makes the post-season he gets to experience the intensity of the environment and the opponent's drive. Usually that opponent is better. The losing team learns how great teams prepare and ratchet up their game. That's valuable. Experience as the winning team can also be valuable as players progress into further rounds and find what it takes to win.

The space between those two--losing in the first round repeatedly--isn't really playoff experience. That's just getting beat. A quick glance at Trail Blazers franchise history will tell you that losing in the first round three years in a row doesn't mean you're headed to the Conference Finals in the fourth.

Nobody expects the Blazers to advance in the playoffs this year, particularly if they draw the 7th or 8th seed. Gaining that kind of experience is pretty much out.

On the other end of the scale, here's the list of Blazers who have never been to the playoffs: Noah Vonleh, Maurice Harkless, Brian Roberts, and rookies Cliff Alexander, Luis Montero, and Pat Connaughton. 8 of Portland's top 10 rotation guys have already been to the post-season and experienced getting beat. A couple of them have even won a round. This team is young, but it's not stocked with neophytes.

Few Trail Blazers played big roles on their past playoff teams. Experience would help this team more than the average first-round losing squad. But it's still going to be first-round-losing experience and the value is marginal. Getting a real asset (or being able to trade the pick for one) would be of far greater tangible value than exposing Vonleh and Harkless to their first post-season and getting everybody else 5-6 more games of run.

3. Despite the immediate good feelings, three years down the road the residual effects from a first-round playoff loss (or even a first-round playoff win followed by a second-round loss) are basically zero. Once-in-a-lifetime miracle shots aside, nobody remembers past playoffs stories aside from, "They lost."

Everybody recalls and honors 2012-13 NBA Finalists Miami and San Antonio, in part because both have won World Titles. Their respective Conference Finals opponents Memphis and Indiana haven't fared as well. The Pacers stand slightly above .500 as we speak, the Grizzlies somewhat better at .600, but neither is considered a serious contender. Getting to the Conference Finals didn't give them enough "experience" to make a difference.

Meanwhile in the 2013 NBA Draft Memphis and Indiana's lower-lottery brethren took CJ McCollum, Michael Carter-Williams, Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk, and Shabazz Muhammad while the first non-lottery selection turned out to be Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those players aren't perfect, but they're something. Three years down the road a player in uniform will do far more for the franchise than the memory of a playoffs loss.

For all these reasons the pick would turn out more valuable than the playoffs long-term. I'm not sure that's even arguable.

That said, a third factor is more valuable than either one.

I'll have no complaints if the Blazers end up in the 9th slot and keep their pick. I might even heave a small sigh of relief (alongside my disappointment in not seeing them reach their goal). But that's assuming a natural progression to #9. Scuttling the season by resting players (common) or throwing games (which I don't believe would ever happen with this locker room) would damage the franchise far more than a lottery pick would help.

The Blazers are more than the sum of their parts because they dedicate themselves to winning, to the game, and to each other. The minute they break down into individual play, they lose. Making the agenda anything besides winning--even if that "anything" would have long-term benefits--would show a lack of confidence in the current players and would divert their focus beyond repairing. If the team said (or even implied), "We know you could win but we deem this other thing of more benefit," how could they protest when their players ended up saying the same back to them regarding salary, playing time, or any other personal agenda? Aiming to keep their pick intentionally, the Blazers would plant a seed which would flower exactly when things got toughest. When stress and circumstance cause players to question what they're doing here, you want them to say, "We're here to win, period." Saying, "We're here to win except when something else seems more desirable and convenient" means you're not here to win at all.

Even though a draft pick would be better for Portland than a first-round loss, their drive has to remain the same...independent of either outcome. They need to win every game possible, making it as high up that gravel mountain as they can. Otherwise their new draftee will enter a system that's broken and whatever difference he might make won't matter.

Don't forget to send your questions to blazersub@gmail.com!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge / You can read about my now-available first book here and order it HERE.