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Asset Collection vs. Roster Construction?

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Should the Trail Blazers be looking at players who fit their system best, or pursue the most talented players regardless of position?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers

There’s a pseudo life cycle for every NBA team. A roster starts out in the dumps and uses it’s lottery picks to draft the most talented players. Pundits often talk about selecting the “Best Player Available” regardless of position. If a team makes free agent moves or trades, they are usually minor and aimed at getting more young players with potential. Most broadly, this is called asset collection.

Once a team has the necessary cadre of elite talent, then the questions and perspectives shift. Front offices focus on how the individual pieces fit together and what style of play the team wants to have. Any additional moves aren’t thought of as assets but rather finishing touches or pieces that have to complete a specific puzzle. Executives will often spend future assets in order to get over the hump. Let’s call this phase roster construction.

These distinctions are certainly blurry but important. If a team jumps to roster construction too quickly, they can mortgage their future before understanding what they have and how best to use it (see New Orleans Pelicans from 2012 until maybe twelve hours ago). If they keep collecting assets too long, they can frustrate players that don’t fit next to one another (see Point Guard Hydra Experiment in Phoenix).

The Blazers started along this trajectory after LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure with a widely praised summer of 2015. That led into a surprisingly successful campaign where a combination of injuries, contracts, and playoff success forced their hand and pushed them into the roster construction phase. The team was built around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They emphasized length and versatility at the other positions and committed to playing small ball over the summer. This kind of “fit” thinking drove the front office to target a playmaking wing and a rim protector.

Whether Portland’s front office misjudged how good they were in the first place or simply picked the wrong players to complete the puzzle is up for debate. Either way, it doesn’t change where they are now. On one hand, they’re in a roster construction phase. They’re committed to Terry Stott’s style of play and their stars are in their mid to late twenties. That doesn’t leave a lot of room to think long term.

On the other hand, they’re 23-33. Most of the players are young, but not that young. It would be unreasonable to expect internal growth to lift this team much higher. In fact, it seems like they suffer from a general lack of talent. That suggests an asset collection mindset.

The Jusuf Nurkic trade did little to settle this debate since it could be justified from either perspective. I’ve heard both the following analyses over the past week:

“For all his talents, Mason Plumlee just wasn’t the right fit for this team. A team built around Lillard and McCollum needs a bruiser inside that can protect the rim and anchor a defense. While Nurkic is unproven, he’s a better compliment to rest of the roster.”

“The team wasn’t going to resign Plumlee so they had to get something for him. The first round pick is fair value. In fact, it might be more than fair given the other trades we’ve seen recently. Getting Nurkic as well is just a cherry on top.”

A deal that works from both perspectives is rare and laudable. It’s perhaps the main reason the trade was such a no-brainer. However, straddling that line and striving to stay in no-man’s land is dangerous. That “gotta have it both ways” attitude can be limiting and plans that try to force certain timelines rarely end well. As deflating as it may be, a lack of talent is fundamental and has to be addressed before other concerns come to the fore.

The season has been a disaster and Portland should return to an asset collection mindset.

This has several implications. First, if the Blazers have the opportunity to acquire a better asset, even if it doesn’t fit the rest of the team, they should do it. Most notably, this would apply to defensive liabilities and talented guards. From a roster construction perspective, these acquisitions would make no sense. From an asset collecting mindset, these moves could open up future opportunities.

Second, Portland should be open to trading anyone. It’s incredibly difficult to get equal value for stars (*cough* Kings *cough*) so it’s doubtful Olshey could find a net-positive deal for Lillard or McCollum. That makes it extremely unlikely either is moved. I wouldn’t even go around shopping them given the frequency of leaks, but if other teams make offers, Olshey would be making a mistake not to listen.

The only limit to this asset collection approach is the Phoenix Suns’ fiasco. As much as we talk about these players as “assets,” they’re real people. That annoyingly obvious platitude is relevant because transactions affect the way player’s perform. The Phoenix Suns made a phenomenal asset play when they signed Isaiah Thomas. He was undervalued and they acquired a guy who drastically outperformed his contract. Unfortunately, it disrupted their team to such an extent that players demanded trades publicly. Even though everyone knew their guards were talented, Phoenix couldn’t get fair value for them. A move that initially looked like a brilliant asset play wound up undermining the value of half the roster.

As we approach the deadline with a number of draft picks, it’s tempting to hope the Blazers swap them for another defensive-minded big man. That might balance the roster in the short run but we should all be thinking longer term. This team is more than one or two moves away and, until that changes, needs to focus on value over fit.