[QUIZ] How To Know If Your Team Is a Contender

A couple of weeks back, Dave answered a question, "how many players are the Blazers away from contending?" Dave’s answer was his typically even handed and objective examination of the current roster, it’s strengths and shortcomings.

I thought I’d take a different tack on this same question. Instead of starting with the Blazers roster and figuring out the missing pieces, I’m going to look at from the opposite angle .

What does a team really need to be a contender in the first place? What’s the criteria? After watching the NBA for 30+ years, I’ve developed a highly scientific, bulletproof assessment tool.

Answers these 10 questions on a scale of 1 to 5 to you know if your team is truly a contender:

  1. 1. Do you have the best player in the league?
    This is so obvious sometimes it’s overlooked. You can have all of the other elements in place, but without this, your team will struggle to be a true contender. How do you know you have the best player in the league?

    You know you have the best player in the league when everyone knows you have the best player in the league (Michael, Larry, Magic, Lebron, Shaq, Walton in ’77, Kareem, Kobe, Tim Duncan, KD, Giannis). If you had first pick in a draft today in which you could pick any NBA player, you’d pick one of them.

    The league builds their TV schedule around them. They are always in the top two or three for MVP, All NBA and All-Star voting. Except for guys like Steph Curry and Steve Nash, they are usually dominant on both sides of the ball. They are usually athletically dominant. They make mediocre players around them look like borderline all stars. They are usually the top 2-3 all star vote getters even if they play in a small markets (like KD in OKC, Lebron in Cleveland and Tim Duncan in San Antonio). When they are on their game, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them. They elevate their game and pick up their teammates when things are most desperate (i.e. Steph Curry in this year’s Final game 3, Jordan Flu game, Kobe after Shaq fouled out during their finals with the Pacers).

    How do the Blazers score? 4 out of 5
    There’s only one player even in the discussion on the Blazers, obviously. But Damian Lillard is consistently a tier below the top players. He has stretches where he may be in the top 3 (i.e. Bubble Dame). But even at his best, you’d still likely take Embiid, Giannis, KD, Steph or Lebron (though he’s starting to fade) if you had to start a contending team from scratch.

  2. 2. Do You have 2+ All-Stars?
    It’s not enough to have the best player in the league (with the exception of the 2007 Cavs). True contenders have a minimum of two and ideally three all stars. Bonus points if they are All Star team starters. The recent Bucks, Lakers, Suns, Warriors, Celtics and the classic Bulls, Celtics, Lakers, Pistons, Spurs all had multiple All Stars.

    How do the Blazers score? 2 out of 5
    Hey, we’ve got one, which is more than many teams have. But unless Ant explodes, nobody outside of Dame has a shot at the All Star team.

  3. 3. Do you have a legit DPOY candidate?
    One consistent trademark of contending teams is that they always have a legit defensive player of the year candidate. Someone who wins it or is All-Defensive team. Tim Duncan, Draymond Green, Giannis, Ben Wallace, Kawaii, Dennis Rodman, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin, Kevin Garnett, Dikembe Mutombo, Tyson Chandler all anchored the defense of their teams. Like having the best player in the league, having a DPOY or All-Defensive team member lifts the defensive performance of the other players around them, and makes up for any holes (i.e. Steph Curry, Dirk Nowitzki). Bonus points for multiple All-Defensive team members.

    How do the Blazers score? LOL. 1 out of 5.
    Pre leg-injury Nurk had potential. Maybe Gary Payton III will get enough run to make All Defensive team. But that’s a stretch. Portland hasn’t had an All-Defensive team player since Scottie Pippen.

  4. 4. Do you have a stone cold closer?
    Every legit contending team has a stone cold closer. That special player who you can give the ball to and they will get it done during clutch time, even when their opponents knows it’s coming. Jordan, Kobe, Larry Bird, Chauncy Billups, Dirk Nowtizki, Lebron (eventually),

    How do the Blazers score? 5 out of 5
    Dame Time is real. Dame has been one of the game’s biggest clutch performers from his very first season in the league.

  5. 5. Do you have a backcourt stopper?
    The back court stopper is a consistent element in contending teams. They are usually long and physical and of course love playing defense. Do you have someone who can make life harder for the other team’s top backcourt or wing scorer? Do you have a Jru Holliday, Klay Thompson (pre-injuries), Joe Dumars, Ron Harper, Jordan, Jason Kidd, Chauncy Billups, Kawaii Leonard, Bruce Bowen, Gary Payton, Dennis Johnson, Michael Cooper, Chris Paul? You’ll need one to contend, even if you have a front court All Defensive center like Rudy Gobert.

    How do the Blazers score? LOL 1 out of 5
    This is truly laughable. The only person on the team that might qualify is GPIII and he’s not our starter. Last player that was maybe in the conversation was pre-injury Wes Matthews.

  6. 6. Do you have a legit 6th man of the year candidate?
    This one isn’t as determinant, but it is a consistent thread. Do you have a player who can come off the bench and change the tide of the game in your favor? You know you have one of these if you look forward to seeing them come off the bench, knowing that your team is going to either make up a deficit or extend their lead. Classic 6th men like Manu, Kevin McHale, Tony Kukoc, Uncle Cliffy, Lou Williams, Vinnie Johnson, Corliss Williamson, Bill Walton for the Celtics in 1986. Igudola more recently for the Warriors, even though he didn’t win it.

    How do the Blazers score? 1 out of 5
    We’ve had a mishmash of bench players over the past decade, none of which have sniffed the 6th man of the year award. I always thought CJ McCollum and now Ant could have been amazing 6th men in the Vinnie Johnson microwave tradition. (Especially if we could start a defensive shooting guard next to dame).

  7. 7. Do you have an agitator?
    One consistent thread in every NBA champion is having an agitator. This is a player who gets under the skin of the opposing team. They always play physical and push the line between hard-nosed and flat out dirty. They excel at the mental game and are always looking to get in the heads of the opposing team, They relish the boos from the opposing crowds. Classic examples: Bill Lambeer, Rick Mahorn, um, well that whole Bad Boys Piston Team. Dennis Rodman on the Bulls, Kevin Garnett, Maurice Lucas, PJ Tucker, Rasheed Wallace, Draymond Green, Danny Ainge, Jon Stockton (stealth agitator), Gary Payton, Sheed, Meta World Peace.

    How do the Blazers score? 2 out of 5
    Not so much. Nurk, when healthy and in Bosnian Beast mode, is as close as we’ve got. And even then I don’t think he pushes the edge between hard-nosed and dirty. There was that one time Zach Collins got into the Warriors' heads. That was fun.

  8. 8. Does your team have another gear?
    The great contending teams just have another gear that separates them from being a great regular season team, and a legit contender. Remember the 2019 Western Conference finals with the Warriors? We’d be consistently up by double digits going into the 3rd quarter. Then the Warriors would just go into another gear and our 17 point lead would be gone in six minutes. The Spurs had that next gear, though it was more subtle. You be right with them and then they’d get a few stops and suddenly they are up by 10, then by 15, then by 20. The recent Utah Jazz never had that next gear.

    How do the Blazers score? 2 out of 5
    If Dame is hitting from 30 feet out and we’re playing some defense, we can appear to have that gear. In the regular season. But not so much in the playoffs.

  9. 9. Do you have the coach that the players buy into?
    Contending teams always seem to have the exact right coach that gets them to buy in, even if only for a season. And that means they’ve gotten their star player to buy in. Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr, Pop, Chuck Daly, Nick Nurse, Pat Riley, Larry Brown for those Iverson Sixers, Larry Bird, Pat Riley, Rudy Tomjonovich, Doc Rivers for those Pierce/Allen/Garnett Celtics teams. Of course, it doesn’t really matter who’s the coach unless you have the best player in the league.

  10. How do the Blazers score? 2 out of 5
  11. I score it this low because we just don't know yet with Chauncey as last season was a tank season. Have the players bought in? Can they actually execute what he's trying to do? Do we have players that can? We shall see.

  12. 10. Do veteran plays sign for the minimum in hopes of a ring?
    A sure sign that you are a contender is that viable veterans with something still left in the tank will take less money to chase a ring with you. Recent players like Jae Crowder, PJ Tucker, anybody who signs with the Lakers. Classic players like Gary Payton and Karl Malone with the Kobe/Shaq Lakers.

    How do the Blazers score? 1 out of 5
    Not so much. The Blazers have to overpay or take veterans who have almost nothing left in the tank.

So where do the Blazers score on being a legit contender? 21 out of 50.

So not so much. Even if you look at the 2007 Pistons and the 2011 Mavs as the outlier teams, both of those teams scored particularly higher in the defensive questions. But perhaps Chauncy will find a way to mold lift them up defensively and Joe Cronin will pull off some miracle move. But, hey, we score better than many of the teams in the league! Yay?