The Golden State Warriors enter the 2018-19 NBA Season as repeat World Champions and presumptive favorites to win a third straight. The Portland Trail Blazers...well...do not. How the heck did the gap get so big? Aren’t there similarities between the franchises, right down to their tech-billionaire owners? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Could you explain to us laymen how certain teams, eh-hem Golden State, can run out 5 all-stars and a starter quality bench, year after year? Do the Blazers not operate under the same rules of caps and taxes as the Warriors? With so much supposed parity, how can one team do it so well and every other team come up short on amassing talent? Are the Blazers just that bad at math? Is Portland really such anathema that talent won’t come here?
Stumped in Portland
Comparing any franchise to the generational dynasty of their day carries an element of unfairness. The Warriors are likely to become this decade’s 1960’s Boston Celtics or 1990’s Chicago Bulls. Plenty of teams competed against those teams too; nobody could do what they did.
Dissecting the differences between the champs and more garden-variety organizations does have some validity, though. It foreshadows a time when decisions will matter and titles will be up for grabs again, likely after the current Warriors age out or get bored. It also highlights the multi-pronged commitment necessary to rise above the mundane...a task the Warriors have accomplished in spades, but the Blazers haven’t proved equal to for quite some time.
Here are the places the two franchises split apart.
Golden State’s dynasty began as most do, with precocious drafting. Steph Curry started the ball rolling as the 7th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. Klay Thompson would arrive two years later, the 11th pick in 2011. Those two mid-lottery selection put the Warriors on the map. A huge difference-maker came the following year, when Golden State snagged Draymond Green with the 35th overall pick...a second-rounder. Those three selections primed the pump for everything that has come after. Eliminate them (perhaps any one of them) and the subsequent moves do not have the same effect.
The Warriors were far-sighted. They banked on three-point shooters and mobile defense at the cusp of an era that would favor same. In doing so, they defined a generation. The theory was out there, but the Warriors parlayed it into Finals appearances.
The Trail Blazers had similar mid-lottery success with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but they never found their late-round Draymond Green. They weren’t pioneering a new era, either. They’ve operated in the wake of the Warriors instead of at the front of their own parade. Despite certain similarities, the lack of a third star and unique definition have kept the two teams on different planets.
Two huge trades helped transform the Warriors from potentially good to undeniably great.
The first was a 2011 swap that brought them the second-round pick which became Draymond Green. They gave up Dan Gadzuric and Brandan Wright for that privilege, taking on Troy Murphy as well. With second-round picks being variable, the move is remarkable only in hindsight. Despite the eventual effect, it’s not the kind of deal where you go, “Why can’t our team do that?”
That distinction is reserved for the 2013 exchange in which the Warriors sent a pair of first-round picks, four second-rounders, Andris Biedrins (by then an expensive and unproductive paperweight), Richard Jefferson, and Brandon Rush to the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz for the privilege of welcoming Andre Iguodala. Iggy was 30 by that time, well past his high-scoring youth, but he became the all-around anchor that would typify Golden State’s supporting cast. Considering the value of first-rounders (and the cost should Iguodala’s game plummet with age), it was a bold stroke. He would earn the Most Valuable Player award in the 2015 NBA Finals and remains on the roster to this day.
Portland has engaged in value trading over the last few years but has never hit a master stroke equal to either of Golden State’s big moves. The closest they’ve come is the 2017 deal that netted them Jusuf Nurkic. The jury is still out on his efficacy, but he’s not had the effect that either of Golden State’s forwards have.
Willingness to Let Go
Moving first-rounders for Iguodala is one example of Golden State’s brave risk-taking. There are more. Few remember that at the beginning of Steph Curry’s tenure, the team was anchored by Monta Ellis and David Lee. At that time, both were significant.
The Warriors moved Ellis—their franchise star—to Milwaukee in 2012 for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. Both were quality players, but neither held the pizzazz of Monta.
Injuries and age had eaten away at Lee’s game before Golden State traded him in 2015 for an even less-functional Gerald Wallace and unknown Chris Babb.
These moves weren’t revolutionary. They had strategic value for roster and financial purposes. They demonstrate reasonable timing and a truism about front offices: successful executives aren’t just defined by who they keep, but who they let go of.
(P.S. How a player leaves matters too. One could argue the Blazers still haven’t gotten over the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge.)
All these moves defined Golden State as a title contender and championship winner. Managing cap space turned them into a dynasty.
The Warriors recognized the window in which their star salaries would remain reasonable, leaving them cap space to spare. They timed acquisitions and moderated contract renewals to preserve credible openings. When they had money, they used it effectively, culminating in the release of a half-dozen players they no longer cared about to sign Kevin Durant in free agency in 2016. Multiple factors went into that signing, but the core of it was this: they had the cap space to do it.
The Warriors did not go on a diet in order to achieve their master stroke. They won 73 games before they got Durant. They made key signings during that time, notably Shaun Livingston, David West, and JaVale McGee. But they didn’t invest big dollars in marginal players and they made sure those contracts didn’t outlive the value of the players who signed them.
The Blazers have not been so fortunate. They have been saddled with near-immovable contracts, eating up cap space over long stretches. Their cap window didn’t just close, the entire frame fell on them.
The Warriors are over the luxury tax line at $148.2 million this year. The Blazers are straddling it at $135.5 million. The question is, what are the teams paying for? The Warriors are looking at the middle years of a presumed dynasty that will be remembered for decades. Paying just $13 million less, the Blazers are measuring success by making the playoffs.
More than anything else, this is where the franchises diverged. The Warriors spent wisely and kept options open; the Blazers didn’t. As a result, not only have the Blazers not advanced, they’ve not been able to take advantage of free agent and trade markets that might have pushed them closer to the Warriors’ level.
Since 2016, Golden State’s glory has been associated with Durant...the Move of Moves that cemented their legacy. Had KD gone elsewhere, we might be having a different conversation right now.
Golden State had cap space in 2016, but Durant also had choices. What ultimately pulled him to the Bay Area? It wasn’t market size. San Francisco and Oakland are large but they’re hardly “big market”. It wasn’t prestige. The Warriors won a championship in the 1970’s and had a pretty good run with the Run TMC years in the 1990’s (parallel to another team we know) but they weren’t marquee names before their title run. Unlike Texas and Florida, California taxes its players, so maximum dollars weren’t the only determining factor either.
Durant chose the Warriors for simple reasons: they play well and they win big. Those attributes allowed an otherwise-nondescript team in an otherwise-unremarkable area to outbid the biggest franchises in the world.
(P.S. They got DeMarcus Cousins this summer on the cheap too. Winning breeds attraction.)
The Blazers haven’t put themselves in position to win. Their sales pitch to free agents doesn’t carry weight. Their public statements include lamenting the conference they play in and advancing modest accomplishments as revolutionary. If the wind blows against them—as it once did against Golden State—they don’t seem to fight it as much as hunker down. That’s an issue they can’t talk or spend themselves out of. Until it changes—until they’re able to justify why they matter compared to 29 other franchises with strong play and victories—expect their path and Golden State’s to diverge.
In the end, it’s not enough to be seventh or eighth or twentieth best in any era...in wins, cap management, drafting, scouting, or any aspect of the game. A franchise needs to be first or die trying. Otherwise they’ll wither on the vine while other teams pick the grapes. Step by step, that’s where the Blazers have gotten themselves since the early 2010’s. Despite drafting a couple of star players, developing occasional cap space, and fielding a near-perennial coach of the year candidate on the sidelines, they’re not much better than average.
No era lasts forever, though. Hopefully the Blazers will have learned something from this experience that they can take with them when the league opens up again. Professional sports always involves heartache and adversity, but there are always chances around the next corner too. Maybe someday a writer from Golden State of Mind will be answering this question for their readers while Blazer’s Edge fans are walking tall and proud, not even remembering a time before Gary Trent Jr. was a perpetual MVP.
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