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What if the Portland Trail Blazers “Let The Cake Bake”?

Let’s have a thought experiment: How good could the current Portland Trail Blazers become if they were simply kept together?

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers fans have lots of memories of the phrase "let the cake bake". Its origins date to the winter of 2008. As the seemingly-ascendant Blazers started their rise around Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge, General Manager Kevin Pritchard had an ace in the hole: The expiring contract of the injured Raef Lafrentz, mostly paid by an insurance policy, could be used to pry "the missing piece" from another team, such as the oft-rumored Devin Harris.

In the end, Lafrentz’ contract expired in red and black, and General Manager Kevin Pritchard famously said they planned to "let the cake bake", implying that the team was already good enough, and just needed time to grow before they became contenders. I’m not really sure what happened after that, I’m sure it worked out nicely for everyone.

Today, I’d like to revisit that concept with a little thought experiment. This year’s Trail Blazer team heavily overachieved from preseason expectations, winning 44 games and a first-round playoff series. However, it’s no secret that it happened under unique circumstances: The bottom half of the Western Conference playoff hunt unexpectedly collapsed, which led to two things:

  1. A small inflation of win total, as there were more "bad" teams than normal in the conference. In a "normal" year, it’s possible but not a guaranteed that the Blazers would have lost four more games and finished under .500, while still beating preseason expectations.
  2. An almost unprecedentedly-high fifth seed with just 44 wins. In the 2000’s, typically 44 wins either meant a boring trip to the draft lottery, or a blowout in the first round.

Understandably, the focus this summer is on upgrades, specifically whether the Blazers can find an elite center. However, a subtext of free agency will be Portland’s ability to retain their own free agents. Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless are all expected to get significant offers, and CJ McCollum’s inevitable raise may get negotiated. If Portland kept everyone, their cap space would likely vanish.

A popular question among fans is, "How much better would the Blazers be with an upgraded center?". However, it’s very hard to look forward and make predictions without reflecting on what you have first. Therefore, this is the question I pose:

If the Blazers "let the cake bake", and simply kept all the current players together for the foreseeable future, what would be a reasonable expectation for their peak?

Please note the concept of "reasonable expectation". That’s very different from "best possible outcome". If you assume every single player maxes out their potential, and other teams all have departures or injuries, you can always make a case that a team’s maximum potential is eventually an O’Brien Trophy and a bunch of champagne. One player reaching his max potential is huge, and two players reaching their max potential is team-changing; having 10 players reach their max potential is as unlikely as naming Darius Miles the new Blazers broadcast analyst.

For the sake of this discussion, we can make some base assumptions: Assume deep-bench players like Brian Roberts could be replaced a player who possesses similar skills. And Chris Kaman could retire and be replaced with another late-career center who would primarily play spot minutes and help in practice. No "needle-movers" can be acquired in this scenario. It would defeat the point of the discussion.

So, what are reasonable expectations? Is it reasonable to assume the West will bounce back? Some teams are almost destined to fall (Hello Memphis), but some may finally take their long-awaited next steps into the playoffs (Good morning, Utah and Minnesota). And of course there is a dominant team in Oakland, and a team in San Antonio with two players in their prime and some cap space to use. And don't forget Oklahoma City.

Here are some questions to ponder: If the Blazers "let the cake bake"...

  1. When would everyone’s prime come together, and the team would peak?
  2. What is a reasonable number of wins to expect at their peak?
  3. What is the likeliest playoff seed this team could reach in their prime?
  4. What is this team’s reasonable playoff ceiling?

Your turn! What do you think about this team as it’s currently constructed, and their likely potential together? Give your thoughts in the comments section below.