A few times per season, a team willingly self-destructs. It’s all part of the cycle of life in the NBA– teams stuck in the high lottery sell off parts to contenders and become cannon fodder for those same teams. They’re rewarded with a high draft pick (hopefully) and young assets from the trades.
Blazers fans know this process well. Most recently, the 2012 team, a nightmarish jumble of old dudes, fat dudes, disappointing young dudes, and Nolan Smith, scattered its veterans to the winds at the deadline and tanked. Thanks to some clever maneuvering by Chad Buchanan and later Neil Olshey the speed-rebuild has gone phenomenally. We can quibble all we want, but the Blazers are only 20 months removed from the 2012 deadline, and poised for a playoff run. They’re a few lucky breaks and some not-unreasonable development away from being contenders.
However, we can probably agree that the process involved no small amount of luck. The crux of the rebuild–Damian Lillard–is only here because the Nets thought acquiring Gerald Wallace would help them resign Williams (seriously, what?). In more minor deals the Blazers have capitalized on the pre-Howard Rockets fire sale (Thomas Robinson) and the Tyreke Evans deal (Robin Lopez). Buchanan and Neil Olshey undoubtedly deserve credit for these moves, but the opportunities won’t always be there.
The Wizards, who sold off parts in 2010 and ended up winning the lottery, haven’t seen the results of their rebuild yet. John Wall has had trouble staying on the court/doing that thing where you throw the ball and it goes in the hoop. Even with a #1 pick and two #3 picks in Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, the team–three years after the implosion–is hanging around the playoff bubble.
Meanwhile the team that Washington keeps beating in the lottery, Charlotte, has been utterly abysmal for years, and have Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and a pessimistic fanbase to show for it. They’ve resorted to overpaying Al Jefferson just to regain some semblance of competitiveness.
And Rich Cho is smart. Their moves have been pretty solid. But some bad luck and the usual small-market problems in free agency have left the team in a rut. The one or two year turnaround is the exception, not the rule. For every team that pulls off a pit-stop rebuild, there are three that stumble.
I would submit that not only do the Blazers have the opportunity to succeed this year, they have to. When a team gets stuck (and I think if the Blazers are less than okay this year, we can call them “stuck”), we know what happens. Teams need a sense of acceleration. If they don’t have that, role players check out, stars ask for trades, fans stop coming, and the whole structure of the team collapses. You can’t afford stagnation when you’re rebuilding. Why did the Bobcats pay $41 million for a center who by consensus (and his own admission) can’t defend a tree? It’s because fans are impatient, and so are players, who have short careers in a league where greatness tends to be measured in titles.
As a result, I think any blowup this year would have to be nearly total. Dave Deckard at Blazer’s Edge said it well a while back: “Let the above (tanking) sentiment spread into the locker room and instantly everyone from Damian Lillard to the 15th man is going to start marking time and looking to bail on your sorry, mixed-up franchise in favor of people who actually know how to win.” This is twice as true for players who have seen it before. Anyone who was here in 2012 (there are only a few) wouldn’t be happy with a downward spiral.
Let’s go case-by-case:
LaMarcus Aldridge was drafted into a dysfunctional organization. He and Brandon Roy resussitated it. A few years later, that team that he’s helped create explodes. This time he’s told “this new setup is the real deal. You’re on a winner.” The first year–last year–goes pretty badly. If this year goes badly too, however diplomatic he might be about it, he will want a trade. In a blowup scenario, he’s gone, and we ain’t getting market value for him, either.
Nicolas Batum has wanted out before. While it’s never been totally clear who said what in that mess of a restricted free agency a year ago, it’s obvious that he’s not in love with being a Blazer. He could easily want out in the event of another bad season. And the Blazers would want him gone, too; we all know how Nic’s play is affected when he’s not content. Again: in a team blowup, keeping him would be a bad idea.
Wesley Matthews is universally praised for being a team player. But even he’d get exasperated on another losing team–Wes hates to lose. The competent 3-and-D guy is a valuable commodity for teams with plenty of shot creators. He might stay if the team decides to re-rebuild. He might not.
Damian Lillard–probably the face of the Blazers, though not by any means their best player–would stay. He wasn’t here for the last blowup. In fact, he’s only here because of it.
This is probably a lottery team now. It’s a downright awful lottery team with Aldridge and Batum traded for young assets/draft picks. Matthews is a good player when he has a solid structure around him, but he’s a less-athletic Danny Green. He can’t create. And the clock starts ticking on Lillard’s rookie deal as soon as the blowup happens.
I don’t have a radical conclusion here. The goal before was to win. The goal now is to win. There’s your stick, Blazers. There’s a carrot in front of you. A bad year at this point (I’m not sure where to draw the line. 10-seed or lower?) would be a disaster, and might necessitate a fire sale that would take years to recover from. The last time this franchise was stuck, really, was the JailBlazers era. It took a miracle to get out of that. That’s not the sort of luck you can count on. Neither is a Lillard dropping in your lap. If the contender you’re building isn’t this team, it could be a good long while before you have another shot. Do try and play well, won’t you?