The Trail Blazers’ success this season was a surprise. Before the season, most people didn’t think Portland would make the playoffs, let alone win a series against a fringe-contender. It’s hard to feel bad with the way the season went. And yet, since the beat down that the San Antonio Spurs put on Portland, my focus has been on fixing the problems, like the weak bench, starters playing too many minutes, and trying to find players who can help the Blazers. Trust me, I’ve spent way too much time on ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine.
It was then, when I was struggling to find the perfect player to take the Trail Blazers into the contender conversation, that I realized most of my coverage of the Trail Blazers has been negative, in that aspect. Instead of focusing on what Portland does so well, I focused on what Portland could do to get better, which included some possible trade scenarios and breaking up the Trail Blazers’ “Core Five.” Mostly, these trades were more indicative of the giant cap problem that looms at the end of next season, with Wesley Matthews’ and Robin Lopez’s expiring contracts along with the likelihood of LaMarcus Aldridge declining an extension.
If there is anything I know about the NBA, it is that there are distinct windows to win a championship. All the chips have to fall right for a team to win a championship, but there is only a certain amount of time the team gets to play at the final table. Portland’s window just opened. How long is their window going to stay open?
That’s all part of the game.
As the Trail Blazers are in “win now” mode, it’s an absolute must for this lineup to stay together, especially in the Western Conference. There is no way Portland can take a step back at any position and hope to repeat the success of this season or expect to go further in the playoffs.
Could general manager Neil Olshey trade Aldridge and get good, young talent in return? Of course, but Aldridge is a unique player, and he can carry the team on his back in the playoffs and in crunch time. If you’re one of those who favors an Aldridge trade, go re-watch Games One and Two of the first round against Houston. There is a small handful of forwards in the league capable of a performance like Aldridge’s in Game One, and there are even fewer who can do it in back-to-back games like Aldridge did.
Plus, there are too many instances in league history in which teams made poor roster moves planning for the future. It happens nearly every season. The last major “break up” was Oklahoma City’s trading James Harden and keeping Serge Ibaka. But, it happens on even smaller levels than that. Think back to Chicago’s move to trade Luol Deng to Cleveland near the trade deadline. Chicago could have beaten Washington in the playoffs had Deng been on the court, in my opinion.
Another example of breaking up a team too early that is often overlooked is the Utah Jazz. The fans missed out on five years of Deron Williams, Paul Millsap, and Al Jefferson in their prime close to the same time. Maybe they would never have won a championship, but that could be a perennial conference semifinalist, if Utah was able to add some decent role players and keep Jerry Sloan as the head coach. That situation had a lot more to it than basketball, but it’s even more proof Portland should try to keep this group together, especially because they get along so well.
Here are the other main reasons why Portland needs the Starters to stay together:
Damian Lillard is only going to get better. Lillard is going to be great. There is no doubt in my mind. He, obviously, has a long way to go, but if his first two seasons are any indication, Lillard is going to be the guy in Portland for the next seven years at least. Plus, Lillard has the perfect forward combo with Nicolas Batum. Lillard likes to work off the ball, so he can get some space to shoot. Batum is a better facilitator than he is a pure scorer, and it’s easy for him embrace a “point-forward” role.
Chemistry. If you are familiar with Bill Simmons’ “secret of basketball,” you know good team chemistry is just as important as the talent on your team. If your teammates have your back, anything is possible. There is a reason why the Spurs didn’t do so well that year Tony Parker was “sexting” Brent Barry’s wife. Same goes for LeBron, his mom, and Delonte West. Plus, when you have good chemistry and are successful, veterans want to come play for your team. Veterans don’t want the drama of younger teams. They want to win, and usually they are cheap, which is a win-win. (Or is it a win-win-win? I don’t know…)
Teams don’t win their first time around. Every team goes through ups-and-downs and heart break in the playoffs. In ESPN’s 30 for 30: Bad Boys, Michael Jordan credits the Detroit Pistons for making him take his game to the next level, so he could eventually beat them. Portland has the opportunity, with some good accounting work, to keep a core group of players together for the next few seasons at least. Add in some bench players and role players who can chip in when needed, and there is a very strong possibility Portland could be playing in the Western Conference Finals in the near future.
The Western Conference can’t maintain this level of toughness. Right now, the West is a gauntlet. There are few weak teams. At some point, the power has to shift back to the Eastern Conference or just even out a little bit. Right now, the disparity is huge, but I imagine it will even out in the next few seasons. Also, as my fellow RCP writer, Julian Reed, pointed out a few days ago, the Spurs can’t sustain this level of play forever and it is very possible they won’t be this good next season– especially if Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan retire. This leaves basically Houston, Los Angeles (Clippers), and OKC as the main contenders in the West next season. Portland can beat those teams.
Part of me feels strongly about planning for the future and making sure the Trail Blazers are as good for as long as they can be, because it’s miserable when they’re not. My biggest fear is that Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts will press too hard, abandoning the long-term plan in search of immediate success based on last season. And, then the players, with higher expectations, will put too much pressure on themselves to get the job done, which then leads to locker room problems and total dysfunction.
But, at some point in time, Portland has to take a chance. They’ve got to push all the chips to the center of the table, be comfortable with their hand, and just hope it’s good enough. Hopefully, that’s what the Trail Blazers will do.