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How Can the Blazers Avoid Repeating History?

The Blazers are at a crossroads. Should they continue fighting for the last playoff spot in the West, or do we start bringing up the dreaded “T” word?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers feature the fourth-youngest roster in the league with an average player age of 25.1 years old; only the young cores of the Sixers, Timberwolves, and the retooled Thunder feature less experienced rosters. They’re only a year removed from a total rebuild following the departure of four tenured starters, yet expectations for the team were elevated following a deep playoff run last year and an appealing brand of basketball.

The Blazers now finds themselves in a rather precarious situation, deciding whether or not to double-down on their efforts this season and continue pushing for the last playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference or focusing on the development of a few younger players and playing the lottery game.

After last season’s closing run, many were trumpeting the successes of the Blazers, their collection of young assets, and the emergence of one of the best young backcourts in the NBA. Fast forward no more than eight months, and essentially that same roster is now being viewed through a rather different lens. Subpar play, regular blowout losses, and a team that hasn’t managed to find its stride more than halfway through the season have a lot of fans and pundits wondering if Portland is the latest team to fall into the “Phoenix Suns Trap.”

Consider this from Yaron Weitzman of a little more than a year ago:

It seems like just yesterday that the Suns, with their daring two-point guard attack, were the darlings of the league. They had talented players at several positions, tons of draft picks and a seemingly intelligent and innovative young head coach. They had everything an up-and-comer could want, and it manifested in a magical 48-win season when they were supposed to be one of the worst teams in the league.

Replace “Suns” with “Blazers” and “48-win season” with “44-win season” and you would think this was written about Portland. Weitzman goes on, breaking down where the Suns went wrong and the parallels are getting down right creepy:

The Suns seemed poised to capitalize on their momentum in the summer of 2014. Not only did they own three first-round picks, but they also had enough cap space to pursue the marquee free agents who were available: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony. In hindsight, the belief that any of these stars would actually move to Phoenix seems silly, but at the time, the Suns believed they had a legitimate shot at netting a franchise-changing player.

Now Portland ended up losing its first-round pick by virtue of making the playoffs so the assets weren’t the same on that end, but how about having enough cap space to pursue a top tier free agent and missing out? Ringing any bells yet? This last paragraph further illustrates what has got to be one of the most eerie of recurrences in NBA history:

Phoenix missed out on those big fish, though, and instead curiously signed another point guard in Isaiah Thomas. The deal (four years, $27 million) was certainly team-friendly, but Phoenix forgot to consider what bringing in yet another ball-handler would do to the team's chemistry. The Suns also lost Frye to the Magic and failed to flip their three first-round picks for a better asset. Phoenix instead drafted T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis (another point guard!) and Bogdan Bogdanović. Only Warren is a member of their rotation today.

So we’ve got a team that failed to capitalize on early momentum in free agency, then filled in areas of need that weren’t the first, second, or maybe even third-highest areas of concerns, creating an unbalanced roster and lineup issues from day one heading into the next season.

We’re a year removed from this article and Phoenix is still scrambling. Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker have shown that they’re a deadly backcourt in the making and the Suns appear to have made headway there. But they also committed what could be described as a reach—at the least—and a panic signing at the most, bringing in and overpaying for Tyson Chandler.

Reach? Overpay? Sheesh. Okay, okay, I get it, what happened to Phoenix seems to be repeating itself here in Portland.

While the circumstances aren’t the same, thankfully—Portland hasn’t been hit with injuries up and down the board, nor have they missed with repeated draft picks—they have fallen prey to their own success. Last week I asked the question, “who on this team is outperforming expectations, or exceeding their current contractual value?” That carries over into this week as it may be the key to how the Blazers can get out of this cycle faster than the Suns did.

Right now, Portland is in the thick of the hunt for nothing more than the last remaining seed in the playoffs—which is a lot like sitting through one of those eight-hour-long timeshare sales pitches where you get a free trip to Alpena, Michigan. Sure, you get to take a free trip but was it REALLY worth it? If this was a team that had next-to-no playoff experience, like for instance the Denver Nuggets? Sure. That makes plenty of sense because for the most part, those guys haven’t been there and you have to start somewhere.

For the Blazers, they’ve been to the playoffs. Most of their current key contributors have made extended runs into the playoffs and know firsthand what it’s like gearing up for the second season. Outside of the players and organizational pride, plus a few bucks for two postseason home games, what do the Blazers really accomplish by falling into that eighth seed?

This of course brings us to the four-letter word that can really get folks fired up: tank. Now, this team is too talented as currently constructed to fully embrace a Philadelphia 76ers level of tanking. That roster was literally built to accrue as many losses in as short as span of time as humanly possible. That can’t and won’t fly in Portland. What the Blazers can do is continue tinkering with their current lineup. Of the players currently on the Blazer’s roster, who is still up in the air on potential and role?

I’d say Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard.

In Vonleh, the Blazers have a very young player with a body type that looks like it was created in an NBA 2K laboratory. He’s got the size, length, athleticism, and skill set to be a contributing rotation player at the least and an above-average starter at best. Portland gave the young man an opportunity last season and he managed to only show flashes of breaking through. However, he did help Portland’s “stealth-tank” early in the season before it became apparent that the Blazers would be fighting for a top-five seed.

While that may not be a ringing endorsement, you can certainly say that Vonleh has shown growth in quite a few areas and perhaps Portland would be better served giving him extended run before determining his future with the franchise.

The same situation for Vonleh also holds true for Meyers Leonard. A lot of discussion has centered around the polarizing young big man, but one constant continues to hold true: when given extended time and confidence, Leonard is capable of some truly incredible performances. The problem? Those moments are fleeting, scattered around the NBA schedule like a scavenger hunt at bachelorette party.

However, with the season in doubt and the Blazers scrambling for answers, why not give both Leonard and Vonleh the opportunity? From the outside the benefits are clear: The Blazers front office and coaches get to see what, if anything, they have in Leonard and Vonleh, and extended run could help progress what has been a slow growth curve. It also means the Blazers will probably forgo the chance to chase that final playoff spot and find themselves deeper in the 2017 NBA Draft lottery, where they can use their pick to replenish the cupboard a bit.

From 30,000 feet, it’s easy to ask, “What do they have to lose by playing them?” Convincing the team’s leaders, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, to sink another year heading into their prime is no small ask. Having a President of Basketball Operations in Neil Olshey flip the script after committing so much salary in the offseason might mean the end of his tenure in Portland; at bare minimum that seat starts to look a bit like the Iron Throne with those on the outside looking in, eyeing a chance to take hold of the franchise reins.

This layer-cake of despair is self created, but it can also be self managed. The Blazers can go numerous ways here and find a course correction before it’s too late. They could make multiple moves at the deadline, freeing up cap space by bringing in younger, less expensive players. This would mean forfeiting their current plan and trying to bring in another difference maker—preferably one that covers up for and complements Lillard and McCollum, while drafting smartly and developing those players and any other younger pieces they bring in.

They could also double-down on this roster a bit by moving one of the surplus wings and/or bigs and bringing in a player who suits the current timeline and structure. Of course they could just stand pat, feeling like this season just never got rolling and only minor tweaks are necessary to get things back on track. Really, there are a lot of ways Olshey and the franchise could go, none of which guarantee success.

However, if the current NBA landscape shows anything, tanking can definitely be worth it in the end, but only the bold will truly be rewarded. Right now a bold move needs to be made, but will it be made in time?

Blazer’s Edge Kids Night 2017

Help us send 2,000+ underprivileged Portland-area kids to a Trail Blazers game this spring! Read about Blazer’s Edge Kids Night 2017 for information on how to get involved, and help spread the word!