It’s too late for the Portland Trail Blazers to tank for a higher 2017 draft pick. Winning eight of 10 games recently torpedoed any chance of “catching” the five or six teams immediately behind them and gaining more ping-pong balls in the upcoming Draft Lottery.
Fellow Blazer’s Edge writer Peter Sampson explained on Monday why he’s happy about this development and is totally on board with the playoff push. Given the team’s current record, I’m rooting for a playoff push too.
But I can’t deny that I still wish they had pulled the plug about two or three weeks ago.
Ultimately, my thinking comes down to long-term vs. short-term rooting interests. The Blazers have been first-round fodder nearly continuously since 1978. In that time, they’ve been truly playoff relevant for only two short periods: 1990–1992 and 1999–2000.
Forty years is a LONG time to be an also-ran
I’m worn out on talking myself into believing that Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkić can compete with the Golden State Warriors. I’m sick and tired of concocting off-the-wall scenarios in which Isaiah Rider, Clifford Robinson, and Kenny Anderson find a way to upset the Shaquille O’Neal-era Lakers. I want to be able to cheer for something more than a first-round upset.
To be clear, that does not mean I’m going full-on “championship or bust.” Admittedly, the all-out-for-a-title mindset is something of a fool’s errand for fans of most NBA teams; only four-ish teams per year have any chance at a title, and there’s not much turnover in that group on a year-to-year basis. Most people would be setting themselves up for perpetual disappointment if winning a title is the only satisfying conclusion to a season.
But there’s a middle ground between first-round-fodder and could-legitimately-compete-with-Lebron. The pre-Wesley Matthews injury Blazers of 2015 are an example. After the Arron Afflalo trade they looked like a lock to win a first-round series and were 50/50 to make the Western Conference Finals, depending on the matchup.
With the 2015 team, Blazermaniacs were thinking, “Wow, if the matchups break right we have a shot at the Finals!”—a far cry from the current conversations of, “If Durant doesn’t recover, Curry sprains his ankle, Dame averages 40+, and Nurkić plays out of his mind we MIGHT have a shot against Golden State!”
In the long term, I would enjoy that 50/50 shot at the Western Conference Finals MUCH more than another gentleman’s sweep. That means I would also have been okay with the team shutting down its players and coasting to a high draft position this year, under the assumption that it will help the team in the long run. There’s no need to review the entire argument here, but suffice to say the Blazers need to find highly talented players on the cheapest contracts possible if they want to improve in the long term. The draft is a perfect place to find those types of players.
So What Can the Blazers Do?
The good news is that improvement in the NBA is not an exact science. The Blazers do have a shot at snagging the next Kawhi Leonard or Rudy Gobert with their three mid/late first round picks. I’m going to find solace with the knowledge that President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey is a great drafter, and there’s a non-zero chance the Blazers can push for the playoffs this year and still be relevant two years from now if the draft breaks right.
But the odds of finding that difference-maker are lower at No. 15 or 16 than at No. 7 or 8. With the long-term dream of playoff relevance still floating around in my head, it’s not worth it to sacrifice draft position for yet another first-round trouncing. To fuse together the mindsets of a sports fan and PowerBall player—at this point I get more joy out of imagining a 50/50 shot at a Conference Finals appearance than a nigh impossible first-round upset. Accordingly, my rooting interests will prioritize the former.
I also don’t buy the argument that making the playoffs will help attract free agents—the Blazers have no cap space anyway—or improve the team in the long run. This year’s team came in with playoff experience and has underperformed all season. They have been abysmally bad defensively, and that’s what’s supposed to improve the most with playoff experience! In my mind, the burden of proof is on those who argue that playoff experience will count for anything for the Blazers, rather than those still waiting to see that evidence come to light.
All that said, I’m still a Blazers fan at heart and am still rooting for this year’s team. Watching Nurkić has been a joy, and I’ll be right there with everyone else dreaming of ways to beat the Warriors (or Spurs) next month. But I can’t deny that the shine of the first-round upset fantasy has diminished significantly after forty years.
In my heart of hearts, I’m ready to move on to bigger dreams.