The Portland Trail Blazers carry a huge disadvantage when building a contender: players just don’t want to come to their market. For years this has been the chant of Portland fans, and sometimes even Blazers executives, following disappointing NBA free agency signing periods. True or not, striking out while courting big-name players has become part of Portland’s reputation and mystique.
This leads to an interesting question. Let’s assume the assessment is accurate and there’s nothing the Blazers can do about it. Is it possible to build a contender without free-agent signings or big trades? Is there a chance that a fairly normal, middle-of-the-pack team like the Blazers could contend using only its own draft picks, no once-in-a-lifetime players like LeBron James involved?
As a thought experiment in this vein, we’re going to re-draft the Blazers roster from 2010 to today. The 2010 NBA Draft seems like a logical starting point, not only because it will provide enough players for a full roster, but because the Summer of ‘10 was a natural breaking point for the team. Greg Oden played in his final game for the Trail Blazers in December of ‘09-’10, fracturing his patella. Brandon Roy led the team in scoring at 21.5 per game and Nate McMillan was still the coach, but neither would remain long. General Manager Kevin Pritchard preceded them, fired approximately an hour before the 2010 NBA Draft (but still exercising Portland’s picks in it). The end of an era was approaching; a new start was needed.
This will be an imperfect exercise. We will assume a blank slate roster, starting in 2010. We will only use the picks the Blazers actually had access to in the ensuing years. Obviously their performance during those intervening seasons would have changed their draft order, but if we assume a complete rebuild, they likely would have drafted higher than they actually ended up, so this will be a conservative rebuild.
Note that Portland did not have any picks in 2014 or 2016, as they had traded those picks before the draft each year.
In 2010 Pritchard traded Martell Webster to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the draft rights to the 16th pick, Luke Babbitt. The best player in the range from 16-22 (the Blazers’ second pick) was Avery Bradley, picked by Boston at 19.
With the 22nd pick, the Blazers took Elliot Williams, whose career was cut short due to injuries, but who showed explosive athleticism in his small sample size. Hassan Whiteside out of Marshall, was drafted 33rd by Sacramento. A late bloomer, Whiteside has turned into one of the better rim protectors in the league with the Miami Heat.
With Pick 34, the Blazers took Armon Johnson, a point guard from Nevada. The second round that year turned out to be pretty weak. While Lance Stephenson went 40th overall to Indiana and was the best player available, given his extensive character issues, the Blazers would be better off leaving this spot blank.
Actual 2010: Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams, Armon Johnson
Redrafting 2010: Avery Bradley, Hassan Whiteside
This is where things get interesting. With the 21st pick, the Blazers took Nolan Smith out of Duke. Not only were Kenneth Faried, Nikola Mirotic, and Reggie Jackson the next three players drafted, but the Chicago Bulls took Jimmy Butler with the 30th pick. This would be a no-brainer for Portland in hindsight.
2011 was the draft of the underdog. While Portland took guard Jon Diebler out of Ohio State at 51, Sacramento selected future All-Star Isaiah Thomas with the final pick in the draft.
Actual 2011: Nolan Smith, Jon Diebler
Redrafting 2011: Jimmy Butler, Isaiah Thomas
This is the draft where Portland snagged Damian Lillard with the 6th pick. Kudos to the Blazers on getting this one right, even in hindsight. The only other possibility would be Andre Drummond, who went 9th. With Whiteside already on board as an elite rebounder/rim protector, I’d still go with Lillard in this scenario.
With the 11th pick, Portland took Meyers Leonard, who has been spotty at the NBA level. Draymond Green was selected by Golden State at 35, and is by far the best player in the 11-35 range.
The Blazers took Will Barton at 40, then selected Tyshawn Taylor from Kansas with Pick 41, trading him to Brooklyn. Kent Bazemore went undrafted in 2012, and has had a better career than anybody taken with pick 40 or beyond. Kyle O’Quinn would be a strong candidate at 41, going 49th overall to Orlando. Jonathon Simmons went undrafted that year, and is also in consideration. However, Portland wouldn’t really need all those players. They’d be fine with Bazemore.
Actual 2012: Damian Lillard, Meyers Leonard, Will Barton
Redrafting 2012: Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore,
Portland selected CJ McCollum with the 10th overall pick in 2013. This was a fine pick, but with all due respect, Giannis Antetokounmpo has become one of the most versatile players the league has ever seen. He was selected 15th by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Portland acquired the 39th and 45th picks in this draft in a three-team trade involving Courtney Lee, selecting Jeff Withey from Kansas and Marko Todorovic out of Spain in another weak second round. The Blazers took Grant Jerrett out of Arizona with their own pick at 40, then immediately traded him to Oklahoma City.
Once again Portland wouldn’t need the extra picks in an ideal world. Dewayne Dedmon, who went undrafted out of USC, is likely better than any player taken in the 39-60 range. Mike Muscala, and Joffrey Lauvergne provide other possibilities.
Actual 2013: CJ McCollum, Jeff Withey, Marko Todorovic
Redrafting 2013: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dewayne Dedmon
Portland Drafted Rondae Hollis-Jefferson with the 23rd pick in 2015, but traded his draft rights, along with Steve Blake to Brooklyn in exchange for Mason Plumlee and the rights to the 41st pick, Pat Connaughton. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll have the Blazers keep their pick. In hindsight, the best player available is probably Josh Richardson, who went 40th to Miami out of Tennessee.
Actual 2015: Pat Connaughton
Redrafting 2015: Josh Richardson
That brings us to this year. In real life Portland entered the 2017 NBA Draft with three picks. One of them was acquired from the Denver Nuggets in the same trade that brought Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Since Nurkic was traded for Mason Plumlee, who was not on the team in this scenario, we’ll keep the Blazers to the 15th and 26th picks in the draft.
Considering the talent already in place at small forward, I like OG Anunoby here, who went 23rd to Toronto. Though Anunoby is coming off major surgery, the Blazers could afford to take this gamble. At 26, the Blazers drafted Caleb Swanigan. Given his impressive summer league performance, let’s keep him there.
Actual 2017: Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan
Redrafting 2017: OG Anunoby, Caleb Swanigan
The Rebuilt Blazers
Portland’s newly reconstructed roster:
Center: Hassan Whiteside, Dewayne Dedmon
Power Forward: Draymond Green, Caleb Swanigan
Small Forward: Giannis Antetokounpo, Jimmy Butler, OG Anunoby
Shooting Guard: Avery Bradley, Kent Bazemore, Josh Richardson
Point Guard: Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas
This roster isn’t perfect, but it’s interesting. Do you think this group could contend? Do you think they’d be in better shape than the current Blazers are?
You’re allowed to re-draft in a different way using the same picks, fill in the above roster (very) modestly with a free agent, or make an equitable trade with any of the players above. Can you build a legitimate contender without any big free agent signings?
Have at it in the comments.