What is Portland’s backup plan if the Trail Blazers regress?


While I could not be more excited about the upcoming season and could not be more confident about the Trail Blazers’ chances to get back to the playoffs, a sliver of doubt has crept into my mind.

I can’t help but think, “What if this season goes terribly wrong? What do the Trail Blazers do then?”

I’m not even necessarily thinking about injuries, either. Injuries, of course, would completely derail the Trail Blazers season. I’m thinking about the chance of a regression season.

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Portland has yet to push all the chips to the middle of the table, and take a chance going over the salary cap and dipping into the luxury tax to obtain as much talent as possible. Instead, they signed two low-risk free agents, Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, and will give it one last go with the majority of the team that was so successful last season.

Looking just into the future, Portland has three huge decisions to make at the end of next season. LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, and Wesley Matthews have contracts that will expire at the end of the season. Portland has to decide whether to make those signings, or move on with a different set of players. If they let any of those three walk, Portland would have a ridiculous amount of cap space to try to chase down a couple major free agents of their own.

Damian Lillard will be getting a max extension in the near future and Nicolas Batum already makes $12 million per season. While the Trail Blazers could have a good amount of cap space moving forward, Aldridge, Matthews, and Lopez would likely take up almost all of it, leaving little wiggle room.

My concern is for what will happen if this season does not go as planned. What if Portland loses that offensive punch that gave teams so many teams problems in the first half of last season? What if they play more like they did the second half of last season and finish the season as a .500 team?

General Manager Neil Olshey has said the Trail Blazers are in “win now” mode, but what happens if the team doesn’t win now? Will Aldridge still want to re-sign with the Blazers then? What about Lopez and Matthews?

As a fan, it kills me to have to imagine the worst-case scenario, but as someone who follows and writes about basketball, there is always a part of me that expects the worst. Although some Trail Blazers’ fans will deny it most fiercely, there is a chance Portland will regress next season. If that happens, what do the Blazers do in the future?

Solution 1: Start over and build around Lillard

Apr 30, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in game five of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

Rebuilding around Lillard as the team’s focal point would likely mean cutting ties with at least two of Portland’s major UFAs (Aldridge, Matthews, Lopez) after the season. I don’t see this as a feasible option, but if Aldridge doesn’t want to come back after a (hypothetical) bad season, what other options do the Trail Blazers have? Other than Marc Gasol and Rajon Rondo, free agency doesn’t have the star appeal it had this offseason. Plus, how many of the big free agents would even want to sign in Portland? Letting some free agents walk could be the only option, depending on how bad the season would go.

Another possibility with Aldridge, Matthews, and Lopez could be a sign-and-trade. The market for good veterans is always in demand for contending teams. If the Blazers could steal a first-round draft pick or two and some young assets, sign-and-trades could be the way to go.

Solution 2: Make a mid-season trade

May 30, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) reacts from the bench during the second half in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

When it’s going good and the team is winning, it seems easy. If the Trail Blazers start losing and struggling a little bit, things could start to go south in the locker room and start showing up in their play. Portland, then, might need to make a trade to fix those problems, or to improve an area of weakness.

The Trail Blazers’ chemistry, in my opinion, was one of the main reasons they played so well at the beginning of last season. There was just something magical about the team, and they played very unselfish basketball throughout the entire year. Plus, I think they genuinely liked each other.

Backup guard Mo Williams was a big part of that chemistry. It is possible that the Trail Blazers could lose some of that edge and veteran leadership in the locker room that brought everyone so close together. Blake and Kaman might be able to do more than Williams was able to do, but they aren’t guys that teams rally around, like Williams was at times.

The Trail Blazers obviously need rim protection. Lopez was good last season, but he’s not Joakim Noah or M. Gasol when it comes to protecting the basket. Maybe, the Blazers would go after another big man like Roy Hibbert, or even Omer Asik if Lopez were unable to replicate last season’s success.

Another possibility would be finding a third star to go alongside Lillard and Aldridge. Batum, Matthews, Lopez, and most of the younger Trail Blazers would be fantastic trade bait. I have seen speculation about a possible trade for Rondo, but a player like Goran Dragic, Klay Thompson, or DeMar DeRozan would be more likely, given the Trail Blazers’ roster makeup.

Remember we’re talking about the worst case scenario here.

Solution 3: Re-sign Aldridge, Matthews, and Lopez and get into the luxury tax

Dec 6, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews (2) celebrates with Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) and center Robin Lopez (42) during the first quarter of the game against the Utah Jazz at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

To prove last season’s success wasn’t just a flash in the pan, the Trail Blazers have to make a good run at the playoffs this season. No doubt they have the talent to compete this season, but NBA history is riddled with good teams who had marginal success and then folded the next season.

The most recent example is the New York Knicks. In Carmelo Anthony’s first full length season with the team, the Knicks finished with the second seed in the East and lost in the conference semis against the Pacers. The Knicks were terrible in the next season, missing the playoffs entirely. The Knicks decided to blow that situation up and start over.

The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, could give it one last try with this current team before trying to make some trades, if it didn’t work. Teams have bad years, but good teams typically bounce back the next season.

Aldridge has already “agreed” to sign a max contract as a free agent after the season. If he sticks with that plan, the Trail Blazers have limited options, unless they plan to get into the luxury tax with some creative cap work. If the Trail Blazers slough off several of the smaller contracts and retain Matthews/Lopez at a decent price, they may still have enough room to go after some bigger free agents. Re-signing Matthews, Aldridge, and Lopez and then hunting down another big free agent is likely what will happen if this season doesn’t go as planned.

Olshey and Head Coach Terry Stotts are far too invested in this team the way its currently constructed. Taking a major step back would likely result in ramifications for Olshey and make the Trail Blazers uneasy with the multi-year extension the gave to Stotts.

But, that’s where the Trail Blazers enter 2014-15. Are they good team that had a good year? Or, are they a mediocre team that had a good year? These are the things fans of good teams should be asking themselves. What happens if this doesn’t go as we want it to? We’ll find out within the next few months.

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