Today's Blazer's Edge Mailbag asks whether the Portland Trail Blazers can find a clear lane to contention from their starting point with their present velocity. It's an interesting question. If you have questions as well, send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll try to answer!
When you combine this disaster of a free agency period with the historic move by Durant, do you think the Blazers should be worried about their future? Yeah, it's probably a knee-jerk reaction, but this generation of stars is making it very clear that they will leave their team if it's not a clear favorite to win a ring. If Durant can leave OKC is any team really safe?
It seems that to take the step from "good" to "competitive in the playoffs" you have to win via free agency or the draft. Right now the Blazers chance of winning free agency is on par with my odds to win a date with Beyonce. And we've moved past the lottery phase that teams like OKC, Golden State, and Cleveland used to stockpile talent and assets. It's hard to picture Lillard and CJ allowing this team to lose 55 games next year.
So, if we strike out on free agents, and we're too good to win the draft, how do we position this team so we aren't wringing our hands in a few years when our stars are considering teaming up with Karl Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis?
I'm not sure characterizing July's free agency period as a "disaster" overall is fair. The first week--unfortunately the most critical--was a disaster. After they struck out on the prime free agents (and some less prime ones), the Blazers recuperated well enough by re-signing their own players and adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. At minimum they didn't hurt themselves on the court. They added depth and the upside prognostication has Ezeli helping to transform Portland's defense. The financial ramifications of this summer's moves were severe, but none of the moves themselves were. Even at the low end it was probably a "meh" summer, not a disaster.
The thrust of your point is that the Blazers needed more than "meh". This was their chance to take a step forward and they haven't necessarily done it...at least not beyond the shadow of several doubts. In that sense your concern for the future is merited. Worrying about it too much now would be premature, but it's understandable that the haunting cries of LaMarcus Aldridge ring in your ears like Marley's ghost.
Damian Lillard is the strongest ally the Blazers have right now. He's been given leadership over the franchise and he's deeply invested in it. Watching him walk away would be inconceivable. But Lillard will be 30 when his current contract expires; McCollum won't be far behind at 29. Most of their productive years will have already been given to this city. If they haven't been rewarded with deep playoff runs and title shots, well...the view from 30 looks far different than from the mid-20's. Pledges of undying loyalty ring truer when the world and all its possibilities lie open before you than they do when you're counting your remaining years as a starter on one hand.
The Blazers have 3-4 years to make good before they're faced with the same agonizing decision they confronted with Aldridge: trade your superstar or risk him entering free agency. They're five years away from that decision being taken out of their hands entirely, ceding control of the franchise to a pair of unrestricted starting guards. They need to see the Conference Finals, if not the NBA Finals, before then or the pressure to perform will reach inferno level.
You've also raised the key question: How do the Blazers scale the heights in the allotted time? Their upcoming draft picks will be modest, presumably. Even if their free agent track record were better, extending CJ McCollum's contract, retaining Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, and Moe Harkless, plus signing Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli is going to leave them over the luxury tax threshold in 2017-18 and beyond. Not only will they be unable to sign free agents outright, their exceptions and trade possibilities will be restricted.
Obviously the Blazers will rely on internal improvement. Last summer they invested heavily in undervalued players. Some panned out. (Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee come to mind). Others less so. (Hello, Noah Vonleh). A year on, the potential-vs-performance gap remains. We haven't seen the peak of Plumlee's career, nor new recruit Ezeli's. Balancing that, significant flaws have accompanied greater exposure. Aminu, Plumlee, and Ezeli all faltered in last year's playoffs, their deficits proving a boon to successful opponents. As they anticipate growth, the Blazers will also have to compensate for shortcomings unlikely to disappear...likely part of the reasoning behind the shotgun approach to signings this summer.
Less mentioned than individual progress, but just as critical, is communal growth. Considering they hadn't played a lick together before training camp, the Blazers functioned well last season. Advancing from good to great requires talent, but continuity is just as crucial. The more minutes these players can get under their belts together, the more they can cover for each other's weaknesses.
Though McCollum's contract extension all but ends thoughts of trading him in the near future, the Blazers could still swing a deal with some of their lesser-known players. Signing multiple players of comparable talent and experience can be equated to building trade chips in the event you need to push them onto the table. Neil Olshey's pile doesn't include many high-value checkers, but those $5's and $10's are stacked pretty tall right now. Portland will look to solidify a core this season, then ask who performed admirably but doesn't fit long-term. Those players will become next year's trade fodder, hopefully at greater worth than they currently possess.
That said, the question at hand isn't whether some combination of internal improvement and second-tier trade machinations can make the Blazers better than they are now. I'll be surprised if they don't improve at all over the next couple years. The better question is whether those avenues lead the Blazers past their Western Conference competition, both old (Warriors and Clippers) and new (Jazz and Timberwolves). Those teams either carry already-proven talent or just as much potential as the Blazers at a lesser cost. If everything goes right there's a chance the Blazers will emerge ahead, but from this vantage point it's hard to map a future in which they're clearly above the crowd. Too many question marks and too many needs require addressing in fact rather than theory. If the goal is fielding a reasonably good team, the Blazers have certainly done that. If the goal is championship contention over the next 4-5 years, well...that's still a big ask.
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