It is not a secret that every single Portland Trail Blazers’ fan out there is watching someone else’s team in the playoffs, or perhaps not at all.
What is a secret, to the men and women over at One Center Court anyway, is how those teams have succeeded where Portland has failed for more than a decade.
Oklahoma City (formerly Seattle), and the San Antonio Spurs, have both demonstrated how to build a team organically – meaning through the draft. The core of OKC in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were all high first round draft picks, and they have leaned on each other to grow. A solid nucleus with plenty of supporting talent in Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins have left the Thunder with multitude of talent and little experience. Prior to last season, only Perkins had gone to the conference finals and beyond, while the rest of the team struggled with the concept of a winning record. Despite lacking a trip to the NBA Finals as of yet,, they are all now seasoned playoff veterans, clashing with the Spurs in their second straight trip to the Western Conference Finals after facing the Dallas Mavericks last season.
The Spurs began a similar plan over a decade ago, drafting current NBA superstar and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan with the first overall selection of the 1998 NBA Draft as an heir to center and perennial all-star David Robinson. The next year they would pick up Manu Ginobli, and just a few years later they drafted all-star point guard Tony Parker, who would be the catalyst of the offense for years to come. Three NBA championships later (and perhaps a fourth this year?), the plan has clearly worked. The so-called “Big Three” of Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker have thrived seemingly every year, and Duncan continues to defy logic as an aging big-man still with plenty left in the tank. Despite their last championship banner being raised to the rafters in 2007, this team still appears to have plenty to prove and will defy age and injury to do so.
Meanwhile, out east, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat both tried to build organically around stars Paul Pierce and Dwayne Wade, but the “slow” approach wasn’t working. So-so supporting casts and questionable moves by the teams were leaving home-town heroes coming up empty in the playoffs, if they could even get that far. Boston decided to discard the organic approach in the 2007 offseason, sending draft picks and players to Minnesota and Seattle in exchange for aging all-stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. A mostly unknown pair of supporting players in Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins filled out the starting roster, and the team used veterans well past their primes such as Sam Cassell or unknown young players such as Tony Allen, Eddie House, Leon Powe, and James Posey to fill out the supporting cast. The “buy a championship” scheme worked perfectly, as the team won 66 games and defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in six games to win their first NBA title since 1986. The Celtics returned to the NBA Finals in 2010, losing to the Lakers in seven games, and have not been back since.
The Celtics current playoff foe, the Heat, are looking for their second NBA title after winning it all in 2004. The Heat narrowly missed the opportunity last season, as they dropped the Finals to the Mavericks in six games. After rebuilding around Dwayne Wade following the departure of Shaq after the 2005 season, Miami struggled to find the right group to get the job done, and ultimately scrapped the plan to pursue marquee free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010. Despite many reports to the contrary, James and Bosh both agreed to “sign & trade” deals that would secure draft picks for their former teams so as to not alienate them completely. The Heat struggled at the start of the 2010-11 season under the weight of enormous and self-proclaimed expectations, yet found their footing and stormed through the playoffs, dispatching of the 76ers, Celtics, and Bulls, surrendering just one loss to each en route.
The Heat then misplaced their identity of dominance at both ends of the court, and spent six games trying to prove to the nation that they “are who we thought they were”. LeBron, as has been his stigma as of late, struggled in the waning moments of games, and the oft-injured Dwayne Wade valiantly attempted to fight through a sore knee. Chris Bosh, to the delight of the media and Heat-heaters nationwide, was unable to find his place in the fight, and despite posting decent numbers, never proved to the spectating public as to why he was such an important piece to the championship puzzle. The Heat, holding a 2-0 series lead, must beat their engineered counterparts in the Celtics to make it back to the NBA Finals, where one of the two remaining organic teams await them.
And there in lies the question as well as the problem. With both theories succeeding to the point that each will send a contender to the NBA Finals, the Blazers stand at a cross-roads, and must choose a path.
The Blazers tried to build organically beginning with their selections of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in the 2006 NBA Draft, followed by the drafting of Greg Oden in 2007. The young core of Roy, Aldridge, and Oden was sure to cause fits for the other 29 franchises around the league, and would of course end the championship drought that has been lingering since the team failed to defend their title in the 1978 playoffs. But it was not to be.
Roy and Oden are both currently out of basketball while dealing with severe knee injuries, and Aldridge is stuck on a roster full cast-offs and project players.
With two high first round picks in the June 28th draft, and as well as a sack of cash to the tune of potentially $19 million to draw the attention of free agents, the Blazers must decide: Do they overhaul with veterans or youth?
With the depressing departures of Roy and Oden still fresh in many fans’ minds, the idea of rebuilding may be tough to swallow. Some may prefer established talent who can compete instantly. While there is something to be said of a team built to win NOW, the issue is that you are often left short on resources to bring in fresh talent once your veterans are past their optimal playing age. The Celtics were extremely lucky that Rondo turned in to an elite player in just his third season, and may not yet have peaked. The Heat are unlikely to run in to anything similar, as their youngest starting player is Mario Chalmers, who would be a sixth man at-best on the majority of other rosters.
So with picks 6 and 11 on June 28th, the Blazers must decide, do they go for a three year window as the Celtics and Heat did, and shoot the moon so to speak? Or do they draft for the future as the Spurs did, and the Thunder are doing, and build a dynasty for the next decade or more?
This city, in all of its “keep Portland weird” ideals, should keep on keeping on. Keep Portland weird. Keep doing the right thing, even if it is the weird thing. While most teams would try to save face by building a super team while staring down the barrel of a gutted roster and a fan base who will simply not stomach another wasted high draft pick, this team should stand pat. Keep doing what’s working, even if it hasn’t been. The Blazers have been trying to build the perfect team since 1970.
Draft picks used on Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Brandon Roy, and Greg Oden all ended in heartbreak.
But let us not forget, Clyde Drexler came oh-so close to the title, as he put this team within four wins of the championship during trips to the NBA Finals in 1989 and 1992. The late 80’s-early 90’s Blazers were a team built inside of a dream, with each player symbolizing a piece to the championship puzzle.
Just because Boston did and perhaps Miami will succeed where Drexler’s Blazers failed, it is not time to give up hope.
It is time to pick up that old dream and dust it off. Get some young blood in here, give them a year, maybe even three, hell make it five to get to know each other on and off the court. Give this town the team it deserves, and do it for a long while, not just a little while.
Disagree? I get it. Feeling impatient? Understandable. Wanting to close your browser and say some choice words in my direction? Completely rational.
But you deserve better. Better than a team built on borrowed time.
This house was not built in a day, and it will not be rebuilt in a day. Quality takes time and patience.
You have to ask yourself, do you want this done right….or done right now?!