Patience is a virtue. It just also happens to be exceedingly rare. And as it turns out, the Portland Trail Blazers defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in last year’s playoffs may have been less of a blessing than it was a curse.
In many ways, the Blazers of last year are quite reminiscent of the Houston Rockets this year. Last season, fresh off of losing LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers were widely expected to be a lottery team. Like the Rockets, though, they overachieved so much that Terry Stotts was only narrowly beaten by Steve Kerr for the Coach of the Year Award. Kerr, mind you, only happened to lead his team on a record-breaking journey.
Out of nowhere, suddenly, everyone was all-in on the Blazers. Everyone, apparently, including general manager Neil Olshey, as this past summer, he responded by pushing all of his chips in the middle of the table.
If the early returns are any indication, it may have been a mistake.
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Rockets attain sudden flight. Airplanes steadily ascend. What the 2004 Detroit Pistons and 2011 Dallas Mavericks had in common was their heartache. Year after year, poor Joe Dumars would get his team incrementally closer to the promise land, only to be upended. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban never met a trade they didn’t like when it came to attempting to surround Dirk Nowitzki with a combination of players that could sufficiently cover for his deficiencies and help him deliver on his immense promise.
One could even say the same with regard to Paul Pierce’s 2008 Celtics and Kobe Bryant’s title teams, as well. The contender is built slowly, brick-by-brick. Along the way, the astute mason will realize that a cornerstone may not fit and, out of necessity, jettison it for a better piece.
In all likelihood, years from now, when youngsters are being taught the history of the NBA and being read a roster of past champions, it really needs to be explained to them that LeBron James and his defection to Miami truly shifted the paradigm by which “success” is defined.
Back in 2010, the HEAT renounced Bird rights to a large percentage of its core to clear the way to sign James and Chris Bosh. It was an unprecedented move that Pat Riley was so desperate to make that he traded the 18th pick in the 2010 draft and Daequan Cook to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 32nd overall pick. Second-round picks have minuscule cap holds, and Riley needed every available dollar in order to squeeze the most money he possibly could for his new big three.
In a strange coincidence, in the ensuing Finals, the HEAT fell to the Mavericks—a team that had been built by more traditional means. Still, the get-rich-quick scheme obviously worked. Overnight, the HEAT became a championship contender primarily through free agency, and this isn’t something the league had seen before.
Since then, everyone—fans, front offices, media and casual onlookers—expect to see returns as quickly. The New Orleans Pelicans get fortunate and make the playoffs in 2015, so naturally, the expectation is that they would win 50 games the following season and begin to rise up as a contender. This season, the Minnesota Timberwolves add Tom Thibodeau to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and the idea that the T-Wolves would make the playoffs immediately became real. Derrick Rose takes his talents to New York City, and, for many fans of the Big Apple, merely making the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed wouldn’t be acceptable.
As a whole, the NBA stopped believing that individual bricks, razing, and trial and error are all a part of the process of building a contender. Everyone wants to win and everyone wants to win now.
So when Olshey saw his Blazers score a first-round upset—when the franchise actually got a taste of the success they longed for—they responded by making it rain. In some ways, it’s easy to rationalize why, but the truth is the Blazers fully committed themselves to a roster of young and unproven pieces. And they did so with a dearth of evidence that the team was truly on the cusp of contention.
Is it fair to blame the franchise? Probably not. But at the very least, what it has done is provide a cautionary tale for the future.
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To the tune of nine years and $24 billion, the NBA announced its new television deal. Overnight, everything changed. The economic landscape under which the league had operated shifted monumentally. We are now in an era where players who have never made an All-Star team are paid maximum contracts.
Of course, the term “maximum” is relative to the league’s collective bargaining agreement. It’s an artificial designation that both limits the earning power of the league’s stars and appoints false value to mediocre players. But still, what seems to have been lost over the past two years is the simple concept of return on investment. Yes, there is more money available and, by virtue of the CBA, each team is required to spend at least 90 percent of the amount of the salary cap. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wise to spend all your money in one place, though, and that’s exactly what the Blazers did last summer.
Evan Turner received a four-year contract worth $70 million on the same day that Festus Ezeli received a one-year deal for a partially guaranteed $15 million. Meyers Leonard closed out what was a busy day for the franchise on a four-year deal worth $41 million. After spending their dollars in free agency, the Blazers then took care of their own free agents, matching a four-year, $75 million offer to Allen Crabbe and committing four years and $42 million to Moe Harkless. Last and certainly not least was a $106 million extension (over four years) to C.J. McCollum.
In a world where NBA teams are routinely down with O.P.P.—other people’s players—it was somewhat refreshing to see the Blazers spend heavily to retain their core. The end result, though, was a shotgun wedding that saw the Blazers marry a core whose greatest accomplishment had been defeating a handicapped Clippers team. While there certainly is an argument to be made for not allowing young, talented players to leave without compensation, even those would have to acknowledge that the lack of flexibility that league-high payrolls yield is disadvantageous.
This season, with about $112 million in salary commitments, the Blazers have the second-highest payroll in the league, trailing only the Cleveland Cavaliers ($120 million).
Even worse? Over the next four seasons, in terms committed payroll, the Blazers rank first, second, first and first, respectively, in terms of future salary.
Said differently, as is stands, no team in the league—not the Warriors, Thunder, Cavs, Knicks, Clippers, Spurs or Rockets—have committed as heavily in their current cores. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will all hit free agency and impact this calculus, but it’s a sobering thought that goes to show the commitment that the Blazers have made. Having compiled a won-loss record of less than .500 after 30 games, the early returns haven’t been good—21 years and $350 million in contracts should have yielded a better return.
Time will eventually reveal whether those decisions were wise or not, but only a firm belief in one’s core would result in such monumental spending. One couldn’t help but wonder whether the Blazers would have pushed all those chips into the middle of the table had they fallen to the Clippers in the first round.
Chalk it up to being another one of the NBA’s great “what if” questions.
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Indeed, patience is a virtue, even at the poker table. Just as going all-in is likely to result in doubling one’s purse, it is as likely to result in the bettor walking away with empty pockets.
With the first 30 games of the season having come and gone, it’s a sobering reality to acknowledge that the Blazers took some uneducated risks this past summer, but it’s the truth.
With the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Jazz and Thunder all looking down at them in the standings, for Olshey’s sake, hopefully, last season’s success wasn’t an aberration. Because with the price tag attached to the current core—one that couldn’t even win half of its first 30 games together—walking away from the table empty-handed would be a darn shame.
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