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When Will The Window Open For The Portland Trail Blazers To Contend?

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Watching the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals is a treat - but when will the Portland Trail Blazers get their turn?

The Blazers are still chasing Golden State and OKC.
The Blazers are still chasing Golden State and OKC.
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Conference finals that began this week, pitting the Golden State Warriors against the Oklahoma City Thunder, is the series that America has been waiting all year to watch.

Well, no, that's Warriors-Spurs. But this matchup is still pretty excellent.

It's the defending champions against a perennial contender that's come close before but never won. It's the best player in the NBA today, Stephen Curry, against quite possibly the most entertaining, Russell Westbrook. It's the 55-win David against the winningest-regular-season-team-in-league-history Goliath. It's a former MVP, Kevin Durant, competing in quite possibly his final games with the Thunder before he potentially leaves in free agency, facing the team that may very well snatch him away. This series has everything. It might not be the Spurs series that many of us expected to be watching in late May, but it's just as good. Possibly better. This is just about the pinnacle of pro basketball.

Now, while this series is a gift to the basketball world, it's also bittersweet for many here in Portland. It's difficult to watch these two teams, one of whom just eliminated the Trail Blazers a week ago, do battle without getting a little antsy. You watch, you enjoy, you appreciate, but you also wonder - when will this be us?

It's a weird question, but then again it comes on the heels of a weird season. The results of the Blazers' 2015-16 campaign took everyone by surprise. A team that everyone expected to be a slow rebuilder instead turned out to be a No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, even advancing to the second round and stealing a game from Golden State on the big stage. Now, the natural inclination is to think about continued improvement. This year's Blazers team won 44 games and a round in the postseason - what will the 2016-17 squad do for an encore?

Or, to put the question more broadly - what is the Blazers' long-term arc building toward? What sort of window for contention are we looking at?

No one's got a crystal ball that can tell you the future infallibly. If anyone says they do, they're lying. But there are definitely a few different types of futures the Blazers could be approaching next year and moving forward - a few common arcs we've seen other teams take before. We can break them down pretty neatly into three categories - the worst case, the middle case and the best-case scenario. Here's how I see it:

THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO:

This year was a fluke, and the Blazers are headed back to mediocrity.

I'm not saying this is likely, mind you, but I'd definitely put it somewhere within the realm of possibility. Look - this season was an unqualified success for the Trail Blazers. They defied everyone's expectations and emerged as a playoff team. Vegas said they'd win 27.5 games; instead they won 44. The only problem is that 44 wins is only as impressive as the conference standings dictate.

This is an excellent point. The Blazers may have locked down the No. 5 seed in the West this season, but it took a lot of luck for them to land there. They needed the Grizzlies to get absolutely ravaged by injuries. They needed the Pelicans and Jazz, two teams that everyone expected would be on the rise this season, to flatline. They needed the Rockets - a team that many experts predicted last fall could go all the way to the Finals - to do whatever the hell the Rockets did. Only after all of the above breaks went the Blazers' way did they barely, just barely, manage to sneak into fifth place.

The Blazers were a No. 5 seed this spring, but it doesn't feel like a stable 5. This feels like a young team that should keep improving but isn't guaranteed to do so; there's always the chance that the young core doesn't hold together well and the team regresses. ESPN's Zach Lowe, when he wrote about this Blazers team back in March, noted that "rival executives are fretting they will turn into the next version of Phoenix - the would-be sad sack that exceeds expectations in Year 1 of a rebuild and burns its long-term plan in a fit of irrational win-now exuberance." He's referring to the 2013-14 Suns team that everyone expected would tank but instead won 48 games, and then when they began to chase contention too aggressively in the years after that, it all crumbled. He's right to cite this example, and it's not the only one, either - look at what happened out East this year with Milwaukee and Washington, two young teams that made the playoffs last year and everyone expected would keep improving in 2015-16. Instead they made a couple of questionable team-building decisions and ended up having lousy years. These things happened.

Lowe went on to say that the "worry is misplaced" about the Blazers becoming the next Phoenix, and he credited GM Neil Olshey's patience as the biggest reason Portland would be OK. This too is a good point. Still, though. It's not hard to picture how things could slowly unravel next season, and it wouldn't necessarily be through any fault of Olshey's. Picture this scenario: Al-Farouq Aminu's shooting starts to tail off next season. Defenses start to figure out CJ McCollum. The Blazers' big weaknesses - especially rim protection on the defensive end - only get bigger. The Noah Vonleh experiment continues to fail. Injury luck, which was largely on the Blazers' side this past season, turns against them.

All of these things can happen. It would be the perfect storm if they all did, but really, even one or two of them might be enough to knock the Blazers out of a No. 5 spot that's already a precarious one. This was a good year, but the worst-case scenario will loom over the start of next season, reminding the Blazers not to get too cocky.

THE MIDDLE-CASE SCENARIO:

The Blazers are now an established playoff team, but nothing more than that.

This, if true, would be both a blessing and a curse. Let's start with the good stuff, though - it's easy to see how this Blazers nucleus could be setting the team up for long-term success. This group is young, already really good and still improving. Damian Lillard and McCollum are 25 and 24 years old respectively. Of the supporting cast around them, Gerald Henderson is the oldest to play significant minutes at 28, and even he could be replaced this summer by a younger model in free agency. With a developing roster, a formidable coach/GM/owner brain trust and a solid culture in place, it's easy to see how the Blazers keep rolling.

It's also easy to see how they stagnate. The Blazers' two best players have fairly limited games - they're both fantastic scorers and playmakers offensively, but they bring little else. The other players around them - Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless - are all skilled but flawed. They all fill roles, but you could argue that none of them carry true star potential, and that makes it tough for the Blazers to keep getting better. Who beyond the two lead guys has any real upside?

Beyond that, how do you add to this roster in Portland, a city that has basically never been an attractive destination in free agency? I've been crowing for months about Al Horford (spoiler alert: this might be a column on a Friday in the near future), but knowing full well that's a pipe dream. The odds of actually convincing a Horford or a Hassan Whiteside or even an Ian Mahinmi to come to Portland aren't great. Realistically, the best way to build when you're a team like the Blazers is with draft picks, and, well, two things. First off, Olshey already traded this year's first rounder for Arron Afflalo, and second, even when you keep every pick, the process of building through the draft is slow. It's hard to be patient when you just won 44 games and want to win even more, but it's hard to be aggressive when you're Portland. Tough spot to be in.

The conventional wisdom about NBA team-building is you never want to get stuck in the middle. If you win 39 games every year, you get stuck in a vicious cycle, never threatening a deep playoff run but also never scoring the NBA Draft Lottery win you need to add top talent. This is certainly true, but it's worth nothing that the upper-middle class is also a scary place to be. If you win 44 games, or even 49, you can easily get stuck in a rut of "good but not great" seasons. Getting to that "great" stage is really tough, and a lot of teams never pull it off. Look at Atlanta; look at Memphis. Look at Toronto - they're in the East finals as we speak, but I suspect this is their absolute peak with their current group.

What do all of those teams have in common? Two big things, I'd say. One, they're in smallish markets (except Toronto, but few top FAs have opted to move to Canada voluntarily, so their market might as well be tiny), and two, their best players are good but not quite super-duper stars. Lillard and McCollum could well be the next Horford and Paul Millsap, or Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, or Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. There's nothing wrong with being at that level, per se; those are all good players. But their teams, you can't deny, tend to reach certain plateaus. Those are franchises with continuity, but not true greatness. Could the Blazers follow that same path?

THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO:

These Blazers are really, really something special.

There's an outside chance that 2015-16 was just the start of a long journey for the Trail Blazers, and that journey is eventually taking them to the promised land. Every dynasty has to start somewhere, right? This could be the next 2010 Thunder or 2013 Warriors - the young team that cracks the playoff picture and just keeps getting better from there, never looking back.

A lot would need to go right, though. First off, the Blazers would need a third star to group with Lillard and McCollum. Either they break the Portland mold and finally land the big fish in free agency, or they keep developing one of their young players into another Most Improved-caliber guy. If Meyers Leonard or Allen Crabbe is the next McCollum, that would obviously be huge. The other route is to make a modest free agent signing, outside of the Kevin Durant/Mike Conley/Horford/Whiteside stratosphere - say, a name like Harrison Barnes, Kent Bazemore or Donatas Motiejunas - and develop him into a bigger star. All of the above are long shots, though. Most likely, this Blazers roster is what it is. If this team is going to become the next OKC or Golden State, developing into a contender with a stable of homegrown talent, the onus is on the players themselves to develop, and to a lesser extent on Terry Stotts to help develop them.

There are definitely ways the Blazers can keep optimizing the talent they have. To rattle off a few ideas: Aminu has to sustain this season's hot shooting from long distance. Something has to materialize into a long-term solution at power forward - either a healthy Leonard, a much-improved Vonleh or a playing-bigger-than-his-size Harkless. Their rim protection and defensive rebounding have to keep getting better - much of that is on Plumlee and Davis. These are all internal tweaks the Blazers can make to improve the core group they have.

Above all, Portland just has to stay patient. And by "Portland," I mean everyone - players, coaches, ownership, fans, writer folk like me. All of us have to understand that even though this season's breakout arrived quickly, the process that lies ahead is still a long one. No truly great team was ever built overnight. Even the famous Heatles of earlier this decade took two seasons to win a ring. The present Warriors, whom many are fond of saying "came out of nowhere," didn't at all - Curry didn't win a ring until he was 27, the same age as LeBron James in 2012 and only a year younger than Michael Jordan in 1991. Curry endured three losing seasons before the Warriors even earned a playoff berth. Nothing worth having ever comes easy.

Winning 44 games and a playoff round was a big breakthrough for the Blazers this season. It's still far from the ultimate goal, though. It's possible that the next step will be even tougher - if the Blazers take it at all. A lot still hangs in the balance.