A couple of our more attentive readers may have noticed that Heat forward LeBron James had an excellent game on Monday. Specifically, he went for 61, 7, and 5 against one of the NBA’s best defenses. He reminded everyone in the league that there are some players who can’t be stopped, and that LeBron is a level higher than those players. That got me wondering about contention, and what it really requires.
In basketball, more than in any other sport, we talk about players winning championships. That’s because there’s an assumption that the team with the best player in a playoff series tends to win, and that a player’s value is totally inseparable from his team’s value. Although I typically feel that this type of thinking is a flaw in our understanding of the game, there’s more to it than I want to admit. The last several title teams:
- Miami (LeBron)
- Miami (LeBron)
- Dallas (Dirk)
- LA (Kobe)
- LA (Kobe)
- Boston (KG)
- San Antonio (Duncan)
I’d go on, but it’s just a lot of Shaq and Duncan.The only real exception recently (or kind of ever) is the 2004 Pistons, who featured the best defender in the league in Ben Wallace. It seems like a paradox–on the face of it, it sounds like a dumb argument. Teams made of Pippens are great, but playoff basketball requires that they lose? Playoff basketball is just basketball, isn’t it? Aren’t we just irrationally romanticizing superstars? But it really seems like balance can’t win you a championship. This is to the point where it seems like magic–last year’s Spurs might have qualified, but the Basketball Gods took it from them with an otherwise impossible sequence of events.
The reason I bring this up is that the Trail Blazers don’t have one of those players. Aldridge and Lillard, when on, are both unstoppable scorers, but I doubt anyone would put LMA on Dirk’s level or Lillard on Kobe’s level. So is this an issue? Should we be worried about the Blazers’ chances at a title because they don’t have a super-duperstar?
Before I start, let me say this: I don’t really subscribe to the “flags fly forever” school of thought (that’s a baseball term that I’m using here because “banners hang forever” sounds dumb). I don’t think a title is the be-all end-all of a basketball season. That seems like a crummy way to watch basketball. But let’s assume that every team should be planning for a title run and nothing else.
If we assume that Portland should be title-chasing, and that NBA teams capital-N Need a top-something (5, maybe?) player, then we have to conclude that the Blazers’ front office is doing it all wrong. Drafting Lillard ahead of what looked like a higher-ceiling guy in Andre Drummond was the move of a team that wanted to fight for home-court advantage in the playoffs, rather than fight for championships. So was keeping Aldridge instead of blowing everything up before last season.
This is where we run into the practical issues with our theoretical monday morning quarterbacking the front office. Neil Olshey (and every other GM that doesn’t go for broke) had a fanbase to win over and keep on his side. He also had Paul Allen to contend with and a long history of scratchings-out on the brass nameplate that reads “_____ ________, Trail Blazers General Manager” on his desk.
Back to the issue at hand: the Trail Blazers might think that they can win a title with a balanced, superstarless roster. I’m not even opposed to the idea. But this requirement isn’t something fans made up–Daryl Morey is on record saying you need one of those players. Odds are, Olshey isn’t trying to revolutionize winning in the NBA. This is the guy who brought Chris Paul to LAC, after all. So maybe he’s hoping to get one of those players, or that Lillard turns into one.
If I had the answer, I’d be GMing this team instead of writing articles about it. So I’m mostly excited to see what Olshey will do next. There aren’t many top-ten players in the league–there are ten, for the curious–and none of them live in Portland. Will he try to swing a move for one of those players? Is there any chance that this is true? These are exciting times.
I’m also really curious to hear what people think about this; I think the go-for-broke mentality is one that gets picked up and dropped based on the a fanbase’s current level of satisfaction with the product on the floor. A couple years ago, the “blow it up” camp might have made up a majority of vocal (read: lame enough to comment on blogs) Blazers fans. Now I doubt that’s the case.