With the All-Star break (Feb. 15-17) and the trade deadline (Feb. 21) rapidly approaching, the Portland Trail Blazers are caught between a rebuilding era and becoming a team of surprising overachievers.
We asked our team at OregonSportsNews.com to field questions on where the team is headed this year, and put them in the unfortunate and thankless job of deciding the team's long term fate. It wasn't all the misery of pretending to be an NBA executive however, as we also asked our writers to weigh in on the renewed “I-5” rivalry, as the Sacramento Kings will relocate to Seattle pending league approval in April.
1. The Blazers have a razor thin hold on the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Buy or sell, are they a playoff team this season?
Casey Mabbott (CM): Sell. At least one team out of the Lakers, Mavericks, and Rockets will most likely bump Portland from the eight seed, and as much as I am sure fans do not want to hear that, a playoff berth this year would actually be a bad thing. A top 15 draft pick would suit the team more long term, as they still need more depth and a better than average player at shooting guard moving forward.
Kyle Boggs (KB): Sell. The lack of depth on this year’s Blazers team will keep them out of the playoffs. It’s too much to ask your starting five to play 35-plus minutes night-in and night-out. JJ Hickson is the only Blazer starter averaging fewer than 35 minutes a night; only two other teams – Philadelphia and Golden State – have three players averaging 35 or more minutes a night and Portland has four. Eventually that workload will take its toll on the Blazer starters and they will wear down.
Ryan A. Chase (RC): Buy. Barring any injuries, the Blazers are the eighth best team in the Western Conference. History has shown you only need two reliable scorers and some good role players to make the postseason. Aldridge and Lillard are those scorers, Batum, Matthews and Hickson are those role players. It may come down to the last few games of the season, but the Warriors likely will not stay as high as they are, the Rockets will start to decline as teams focus completely on James Harden, and the teams below Portland are mess right now.
Jason Hartzog (JH): The Blazers are simply too reliant on their starters. This is not sustainable for the whole season. They must get help on their bench. Until that happens this is not a playoff team. It will be tough to get help this season without trading one of their key pieces or jeopardizing their flexibility this off-season and future. They might sneak in for an 8th seed, or maybe even a 7th seed, but I am not willing to put my money on that happening. This team is rebuilding, this is not an easy, quick fix process. It takes time. Bear with this team, fans. I believe they can make some things happen with their flexibility this off-season.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge has expressed interest in playing alongside a star center. Which is more likely, Aldridge leaving or the Blazers bringing in a top-five center?
CM: Short of luring Dwight Howard to Portland, as unlikely as that is, I don't know of a lot of top tier centers that would want to play for the Blazers, who are in a clear cut rebuilding mode. It is more likely the team would trade LA, and that is the right move in the long term. Sending Aldridge for a package of players and/or picks would make more sense, as he is 27 years old and nearing the end of his prime years. $36.8 million over the next 2.5 years is a pretty heavy pay rate for any player, and the team and the fans need to ask themselves if steady averages of 8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 20 points per game are worth the cap hit.
KB: General manager Neil Olshey has positioned Portland well for free agency this offseason. Portland could potentially make a play for a guy like Andrew Bynum or Chris Kaman. The Blazers will remain committed to building around LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum. There is no way they let Aldridge leave. If he believes they need an upgrade over JJ Hickson, Olshey will do everything in his power to make that happen.
RC: Aldridge leaving, no question. A top flight center in the NBA is a rare and prized commodity in this new age of large forwards playing multiple roles (Nowitzki, Duncan, Bosh). Right now there are only seven top flight centers in the NBA: Brook Lopez who will be sought after by teams with much deeper pockets right now, Joakim Noah who is not leaving Chicago anytime soon, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol (who the Lakers may trade, but would be a terrible fit for Portland), Andrew Bynum (who is a huge injury risk in a city that does not need another one), and Tyson Chandler who the Knicks are planning on keeping for a while. The options just are not out there for the Blazers.
JH: Better chance that the Blazers bring in a top-five center. If you can remember right, they already tried this last off-season with Roy Hibbert. Three big name centers will be unrestricted free-agent this off-season. The Blazers will make some offers to try and get one of these three guys (or at least they should): Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, and Al Jefferson. I am sure that this team will do anything in their power to not let LaMarcus walk away.
3. You're Neil Olshey, and the trade deadline is approaching in a few weeks. Do the Blazers need to make a move? Who do you go after?
CM: If a team with a top-ten player under the age of 25 or a top-20 player under the age of 30 and draft picks is interested in making a deal for LaMarcus Aldridge, then yes, you owe it to your long term plan to make a deal. Dallas and Indiana would be the teams I would contact first, as Aldridge would fit their schemes well. Aldridge is playing in Terry Stotts' offense now, the same scheme he brought with him from Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki prefers the SF spot in the lineup, and would then vacate the PF spot to LA. Aldridge also happens to be a Texas native, and while he wouldn't be playing with a HOF center, Dirk and LA could likely help Mark Cuban lure a top ten center to Dallas (Dwight Howard?). Indiana on the other hand could offer Paul George and/or picks in exchange for Aldridge. David West's contract expires at the end of this season, leaving the PF spot on their roster vacant and for Aldridge to fill. Center Roy Hibbert may not be one of the all-time greats, but he has shown signs of greatness and would be the type of center that should help Aldridge by defending the bigger and taller players, a problem JJ Hickson has some trouble with.
KB: Stand pat. The Blazers have a fantastic core group, they just need to add a supporting cast. They don’t have tradeable assets on the bench and there is no reason to sacrifice draft picks in a trade for role players to come off the bench.
RC: It would not be wise to make a move right now if I am Olshey, but shoring up the bench is probably the first priority. J.J. Hickson has been talked about as a valuable trade commodity, so if the Blazers could send him off for a bench scorer, a low-end rental center, and an expiring contract, that would be the best play. A deal that actually financially and logically makes the most sense is sending Hickson, Luke Babbitt, and Eliot Williams to Dallas for Shawn Marion, Jared Cunningham, and Brendan Wright. Portland gets a great scoring veteran in Marion, brings Cunningham back to Oregon where he can contribute from three off the bench, and gets a good center to clear the paint for Aldridge. Dallas gets three expiring contracts to make a free agent run next summer, and a serviceable center in Hickson.
JH: I have been playing around with ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine lately. I have done two trades that include getting rid of J.J. Hickson. I love what J.J. Hickson has been able to do for the Blazers this season, but his play this season will come with a higher demand for dollars this offseason. He is good for what we pay him now. I see him as what the Nets’ Kris Humphries is to them now. The game stats for Humphries last season and Hickson this year are very similar. But are they a guy you would like as a starting center for 4-5 years? No. Hickson is too small to guard these bigger centers and isn’t much of a presence down low. Portland is last in points in the paint allowed – meaning that they have allowed the most points a game this season.
Trade 1 was Hickson and Matthews to the New York Knicks for Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith.
Trade 2 was a three-way trade with Cleveland and Sacramento. We would give up Hickson and Luke Babbitt in exchange for Demarcus Cousins and C.J. Miles. Kings would get Anderson Varejao and Babbitt and the Cavaliers would get Hickson and Francisco Garcia.
4. LaMarcus Aldridge was selected to his 2nd consecutive All-Star game. What does that do for the team? Should Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard feel snubbed for not being selected?
CM: If nothing else it should add to Aldridge's trade stock, and if the team keeps him, it should pull defenders away from Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard to try and slow his scoring efforts, which will make the team as a whole more difficult to defend. If the team seeks a deal for him, it should make his returns more profitable as he will then demand more in the trade market. Batum should feel snubbed, he is having a career year and is quite possibly the fourth best small forward in the league behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony. Lillard on the other hand is off to a phenomenal start in his rookie year, and will likely win rookie of the year, but until he proves he is better than the top three point guards in the West, behind Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Steve Nash, he should not feel snubbed, but both he and Batum can let it drive their already impressive seasons in to an even higher gear.
KB: The Blazers are a legit one-All-Star team. Batum and Lillard both deserve to be in the conversation for the All-Star game – Batum more so than Lillard – but neither should feel snubbed. The three point guards selected to the West All-Star team – Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker – are all better players and are all having better seasons than Lillard. Batum, on the other hand, has favorable all-around numbers than All-Stars Zach Randolph and David Lee (15.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks per game for Batum; 16.0, 11.0, 1.4, 0.9, 0.5 for Randolph; 19.5, 10.8, 3.6, 0.9, 0.2 for Lee) but those two are the lone representatives for their teams. Portland is not a good enough team to merit more than one All-Star.
RC: Aldridge certainly deserved to play in the All-Star game, though players more see it as a paycheck increase more than a real honor. I would bet Aldridge would trade that All-Star appearance for the playoff appearance. While Batum and Lillard have both played extremely well this season, neither one should of made the team. Lillard will be a 1st-team NBA Rookie and a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year, but his year has not been as good as Stephen Curry, who was massively snubbed. They are good players, but they did not put up All-Star numbers or a high enough amount of wins to justify them making the team.
JH: It does a lot for LaMarcus’ confidence going forward. Just having that all-star label again this season is good for him and well deserved. You know he is going to come out and do his thing each and every night, as he has thus far. However, it doesn’t really change much for the team. They will continue to play like they have. They play hard with what they have and try to win games. This is a hard working team and that is why they sit around a .500 record instead of sitting towards the bottom of the west. I don’t look at Batum or Lillard as being snubbed. The only player change I would make (not including starting line-ups) is having Stephen Curry in for either Tim Duncan or Zach Randolph. They have played well, but they need to be a little more consistent to be in all-star talks.
5. The "I-5" rivalry is back, what does that mean for the Blazers and their fans?
CM: We will see if the Kings make the rivalry as good as the SuperSonics did prior to moving to Oklahoma, but if nothing else it gives the team and the fans a local team to play, whereas right now their closest rivals are Golden State and Phoenix. The I-5 rivalry, at it's peak during the early to mid-1990's when Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter VS Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton provided games that fans in the Northwest simply did not miss, will take time to develop but I am extremely pleased to see Seattle finally get a team back. Would it have been beyond impressive to see Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard heavily involved in a heated rivalry with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on teams just three hours apart? Absolutely, but if the Kings can move up north and develop at least a pair of star players, this thing could get heated again and provide the team with a great rivalry and the fans with at least four games a year that are simply can't miss.
KB: It gives Portland a real rival again. Blazer fans are too wrapped up in believing the Lakers and Blazers are a rivalry. Los Angeles doesn’t care about Portland. The Lakers and Celtics is a rivalry; the Lakers and Blazers is nothing to them. It is impossible to have a one-sided rivalry. Returning the Sonics to Seattle gives Portland a natural geographic rivalry again.
RC: Well, not if Kevin Johnson has anything to say about it. Honestly, Portland fans should be upset with how the NBA handled this situation as well. While it was not the highway robbery that was the Sonics being stolen by Oklahoma City, the fans did everything they could to keep the Kings in Sacramento, and they are being punished for the incompetence and greed that has been the Maloof brothers reign as owners. While the fans love the Blazers, there is always the cloud over their heads that one day what happened in Seattle and Sacramento could happen here too.
JH: Until it is official, I am not going to read too much into that. For the sake of the question it should add to what have recently been some great match-ups between the two teams. They have split their 4-game series this season with both teams winning by double digits in their respective wins. They also split last season. And let’s not forget that fact that Sacramento passed on Damian Lillard with the 5th pick in last year’s NBA Draft to pick up power-forward Thomas Robinson out of the University of Kansas.