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What Do the Trail Blazers Need to Win an NBA Title?

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Could this incarnation of the Blazers become champions? If so, what might it look like?

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers experienced significant success in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Golden State Warriors. Judging by submissions to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, winning has whetted the appetite of several Blazers fans. The question below, about taking the final steps to the NBA Finals and a World Championship, has been echoed multiple times. Portland supporters seem to want it badly. Does the team? And what will they do to get there?

Dave,

How close are the Blazers to being able to think about being champs? I don’t mean dreaming, I mean being able to say with confidence that we’re ready. What do we need to do to really really get there? If it’s like you said in your mailbag this week and the distance is big, how do we get across it? I’m inspired and scared by this playoffs like you seem to be.

Oliver

A Trade

The easiest way would be to make a trade like we suggested last week. If the Blazers can leverage expiring contracts into an overpaid third star-level player, they’ve made an exponential jump at no talent cost. This is harder than it seems. They not only have to find the right player and a willing team, they’d need to commit to a four-year lease in luxury tax hell.

The main target I suggested in last week’s post was Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons. Do you know how crazy I’d actually get with this, if pressed? Griffin and Andre Drummond will make a combined $166.2 million over the next three seasons. If the Pistons were willing to move them before the season starts the Blazers could swing a trade for both with the salaries of Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, Skal Labissiere, and one player signed for the taxpayer mid-level exception. After the season started, they’d have to sub in Zach Collins for Labissiere to take back a couple of minimum contracts to make the roster slots match up. Or they could do it for a reasonably re-signed Al-Farouq Aminu.

Either way, if Detroit would do it for a salary-reset package and draft picks, yes...I’d straight up consider that.

Jake Layman would be Portland’s only small forward. They’d be running with a rotation of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Griffin, Drummond, Collins, Layman, year’s rookies, their 2019 draft pick, and minimum contract players. If they ran back that lineup, let Layman go, and signed nobody but minimum contract players to fill out the roster, their total salary and tax penalty burden in 2020-21 would approach a staggering $206 million. That’s incomprehensible, but if they’re going to try, they might as well go ridiculously big.

Or Get Shooters

Failing that, the Blazers need to populate their entire roster with three-point shooters. This is nearly as hard as the Big Trade, as shooters are a prized commodity.

Each of the past four years, Portland has been eliminated in the playoffs by opponents who ignored frontcourt players to guard Lillard and McCollum. If they can’t import talent, the next best solution is presenting shooting threats at every position in every big-minute combination.

There’s no guarantee that this would work. Their overall talent level wouldn’t increase; their defense would get worse. (We can say, “Get 3 and D players!” all day long, but the league isn’t giving them up and the Blazers don’t have money to sign them in free agency.) A crop of shooters would give Portland they same puncher’s chance they already had, maybe with more wiggle room.

Is a Title the Goal?

Whatever they do—even if they keep the roster exactly the same—the Blazers also need to tune their attitude towards championship contention, which means not settling for anything else.

As our colleagues at sister site BrewHoop chronicled, the Milwaukee Bucks gave the usual platter of platitudes in their exit interviews after being ousted from the Eastern Conference Finals by the Toronto Raptors. Amid the standard talking points, NBA MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo provided these quotes:

Given the opportunity (and a small nudge) the Trail Blazers players would say the same things. Still, it’s not hard to contrast the approaches of the franchises.

After having been dumped out of the Conference Finals, the Bucks were low-key upset, vowing that this wouldn’t happen again next year. After also being dumped out of the Conference Finals, the Blazers were fairly happy, preaching vindication, and hoping it’d all happen again next year.

Great franchises talk about changing the future; the Blazers spend a whole lot of time justifying their past. Unfortunately, the 2015-2018 Championships are already taken. They only get to win one in 2020 or beyond. That means changing things ahead, not trying to prove how right they were all along (but somehow not right enough to win it all).

Before we make some claim that the Blazers have to talk this way because so many people have dumped on the “no-account, Pacific Northwest team”, keep in mind that the Bucks finished the season 60-22, literally the best record in the NBA. National pundits kept ignoring and doubting them all season long. Milwaukee didn’t get preemptive credit. Outside of Antetokounmpo dunks, they weren’t the sexy lead on SportCenter either. The Celtics and Sixers got far more publicity. Somehow winning is still the thing they strive for, losing the thing they hate.

That’s closer to a championship attitude than the Blazers normally display. If they really want to be contenders, Portland’s goals and culture matter too...not just a consistently friendly culture, but a championship-winning culture. Titles are elusive. If you’re not willing to make that your singular goal, you usually don’t get one.

Thanks for the question, Oliver! You all can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com or DM @DaveDeckard and we’ll try to answer!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com