The Blazer's Edge Mailbag tackles all your Portland Trail Blazers questions fit to print, and a few that aren't. If you'd like us to consider a question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today's query has to do with playoffs versus lottery, process versus. results.
Anybody want to argue anymore that the Blazers should have tanked for a draft pick?
THIS is why the Blazers needed to be in the playoffs. Because injuries happen. Because the improbable happens. Because ear-shattering "Beat L-A" chants give you chills. Because the Blazers are legitimately talking about having a chance at making the WCF. Would you really rather be the Utah Jazz right now?
The idea of in-season tanking--coaches and players conspiring to lose games in order to improve a team's draft lottery odds--is, and always was, ridiculous. There are a thousand reasons why, the greatest of which is that neither coaches nor players belong to a franchise permanently. They're independent contractors, plying their trade to find success and earn reward for it. Why in the world would they subvert those aims so a team that's hired them for a finite duration can bring in another independent contractor to supplant them? What do they care if a prize lottery pick succeeds three years from now? They might not even be with the team, then especially if they're generating losses in the meantime.
So yeah, the whole idea of the "tank" is a non-starter. No matter who said what in speculative comments, it wasn't going to happen. Enough about tanking. (We'll leave the issue of aiming for the lottery through roster construction for another day. It's not germane to this discussion.)
All of that said. the question oversimplifies the situation, setting up a false dichotomy of "playoff experience versus earning a draft pick". That's the position the Blazers find themselves in this year, but that's neither ideal nor a place from which to make firm judgments about the relative value of each.
Portland's Peculiar Situation
Teams don't normally have to choose between playoff experience and a draft pick. To the extent they do choose, it's between making the playoffs and earning the 17th position in the draft or not making the playoffs and earning the 14th position plus an incredibly small chance of moving up to the top three. In that situation you take the playoffs every time. It's not just to gain nebulous "experience" either. You want your players and franchise to fight for every win possible in all circumstances. Subverting a winning culture for a 4-slot improvement in the middle of the draft and a 0.2% chance at the lottery jackpot would not only be counterproductive, it's an admission that you're grasping at straws. The team might as well go for the snowball's chance at winning the title.
Because of what turned out to be an abysmal trade for Arron Afflalo, the landscape is different for Portland this year. The Blazers were forced into a wholly artificial (but theoretically interesting) "choice" between playoff experience and a draft pick, period (as opposed to just a slightly better draft pick). Throughout I have maintained that the standard goes unchanged. You still fight for every win possible. The cost of doing so is higher, but so be it.
At the same time we have to admit that the draft pick the franchise just lost has a better chance of being valuable long-term than a single-season playoff run. The ghost of this year's playoffs will have minimal effect 3 years from now. It's likely that most of the roster will be overhauled by then anyway. But that draft pick will still be playing on a rookie contract, contributing to his team or available as a trade asset. That's why we can't argue cleanly that Portland's playoff run is objectively "better". It's certainly superior right now. In 2020 the story may be different.
Perspective on Playoff Experience
With Portland's post-season fortunes rising, it feels like the value of "playoff experience" is getting overstated. Assuming their run stops short of the NBA Finals, the Blazers' playoff experience will matter to the exact extent it allows Neil Olshey to convince free agents that his team is on the rise and therefore is a desirable destination. Apart from that, the effect is negligible. The Blazers advanced to the second round by beating Houston in dramatic fashion in 2014. How much did it help them the next year versus Memphis? Alternately, look at the two-decade Blazers run in the post-season. Arguably they had more playoff experience between 1977 and 2000 than anybody. It did not, in itself, bring commensurate success.
If playoff success were an entree, talent would be the meat. Health would determine how fresh the protein was; injuries render even the biggest, nicest steak inedible. Playoff experience (as opposed to overall experience, which factors into talent) is the seasoning. You need some, but you can't replace a lack of meat by simply piling on more seasoning. It helps the dish come together, but its utility is limited.
Do Results Justify Process?
Returning to the original question, there's an implication there that Portland's success in the playoffs will determine the validity of the approach. In other words, it feels like you're saying, "Because the Blazers succeeded, they shouldn't have tanked." I'd argue that they shouldn't, and didn't tank under any circumstances and that's why they succeeded.
The fact that the Blazers could hit the playoff jackpot this year, potentially advancing to the conference finals due to opponent injuries in both first and second rounds, doesn't justify leaning one way or the other. It's already assumed that an ultra-rare event could occur in the playoffs or the lottery. If Portland advancing justifies making the playoffs we'd also have to consider the impact of the ultra-rare event in the draft lottery. Even if the Blazers do get to the conference finals, you could argue that securing the first overall pick would still have a bigger long-term impact...especially since the perfect storm of injuries that predicates Portland's forward motion is not likely to repeat. A title would be worth sacrificing that first overall pick for, but the chances of that happening are so infinitesimal as to not bear consideration. Winning the lottery from the 14th slot is far more likely than winning rings would be.
Either way, you can't base your philosophy on events out of your control, hoping for random injuries or incredibly unlikely ping-pong ball bounces to redeem your less-than-optimal approach. You have to control what you can control in each situation--which usually means winning all the game possible--and let the rest sort itself out around you.
What's the Right Answer?
It'd be silly to argue the Blazers should intentionally give up the playoffs. It'd be equally silly to argue that the loss of the draft pick entirely doesn't hurt. In this situation we can avoid all the silliness by affirming that neither outcome was going to be perfect. The Blazers started from a flawed position, the Afflalo trade forcing a choice that doesn't normally exist. You can't come up with a perfect answer from an imperfect position. The only winning move in this argument is not to play. When forced into an imperfect situation, you make the best of it whichever way it goes. In this case that means enjoying the great things about the post-season--things described well in the question above--and scrambling to make up the lack of a draft pick in June with good signings in July.
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