Thursday, February 23, 2017

Portland Needs a History Lesson

The most wonderful time of the year is upon us as the NBA trade deadline is only a mere few hours away as rumors run rampant and trades are a plenty. In honor of the NBA trade deadline, we can take some time to take a look at history that seems to repeating itself with a franchise making the mistake of not trading away one of their two very similar players that is holding them down from being what they should be. Question time! Can you name a team on the ride with a 6'3" ball dominant scoring guard that drafted another 6'3" ball dominant scoring guard to play along side of him in the past 10 years and the year associated with when they drafted that 2nd guard? If your response is the 2013 Portland Trail Blazers, you would be correct. BUT you would also be correct if you answered the 2009 Golden State Warriors.

Coming into the 2009 NBA draft, the Golden State Warriors had Monta Ellis as the face of their franchise. An exciting undersized scoring guard that was disguised as a point guard leading the team. Ellis was a very good player but he needed some help. With the 7th pick in the draft, the Warriors took arguably college basketball's best player, Stephen Curry, even though he was viewed as an undersized shooting guard that does not have the ball handling or decision making ability to be a starting point guard in the NBA. Instead of choosing a player who can help the team develop into a championship team, Golden State chose to go with the best player available, even though his skill set closely resembled that of their best player. From the time Curry was drafted, Monta Ellis questioned the move, and with very good reason. He was not sure if this meant he was being traded but he claimed that he knew this combination would not work in the long run. Two players who are projected to be undersized shooting guards forced into a point guard role, who lack strong enough defense to make up for their lack of height and who do not possess the decision making to be thought of as a pure point guard, would obviously have trouble playing starter minutes on the same team. Whether it be persistence or stubbornness, the Warriors tried to make this work. Multiple injuries to Stephen Curry also gave them an excuse to keep on trying until it was no longer only apparent to the rest of us, but to Golden State's upper management as well.

On March 13, 2012, Golden State finally decided to pull the trigger and traded Monta Ellis and two other players to the Milwaukee Bucks for oft-injured but All-Star caliber center, Andrew Bogut, and career role player, and ex-Warrior, Stephen Jackson. This trade began the transition that led to the successful drafting of Klay Thompson in 2011, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green in 2012 as well as the transactions involving Andre Iguodala being traded for in the 2013 off-season and the recent signing of Kevin Durant this past off-season. The trade of Monta Ellis began the string  of moves that led to the Golden State Warriors to become eventual NBA champions, the new NBA's best regular season record holder and one of the top teams in the NBA currently.

Now the beginning of the Warriors story may look familiar with the current Portland Trail Blazers team but unfortunately, the comparisons end pretty quickly because although a mere 3 years into the experiment Golden State had given up on their pipe dream, Portland is still chasing the idea that this can work in the midst of season number 4 with no end of it in sight. A year after Damian Lillard was drafted with the 6th overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Trail Blazers selected C.J. McCollum with the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft. Damian Lillard quickly took the Portland franchise by storm, overthrowing LaMarcus Aldridge as the face of the franchise rather quickly but also giving the team a nice duo to build the team around. Unlike the Warriors franchise of 2009, the Trail Blazers had an all-star forward in place to go along with Lillard and had a little more freedom with their 1st round  pick the next year. The selection of C.J. McCollum still caught most fans off guard due to the fact that they hit on a small college undersized guard who is known less as a point guard than a scoring guard and follow that up with another guard of similar attributes. Portland had looked to catch lightning in a bottle two years in a row and in similar fashion to the Golden State Warriors, it took McCollum a few seasons of injuries to finally show Portland the skill level that they had hoped for when they drafted him.

The biggest issue that plagues the Trail Blazers is the obvious one, they are too undersized at the guard position with very little defensive ability to make up for their lack of size. A team can hide one undersized guards lack of defensive skill by placing him on the lesser offensive skilled player on the other team but when both guards need to be hidden in that way, it becomes nearly impossible to make up for that in the long-term. If Portland wants to decide to turn things around, putting two of the stastically worst guard defenders in the league out on the court for a majority of the game will not be a recipe for success and they should decide to take advantage of the bargaining power that they have before they lose one of them to free agency as they did with LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs. Over time, both Lillard and McCollum are bound to become frustrated and maybe even a little disrespected that they won't change things up in order to better either one of their chances at winning a championship. Since the Trail Blazers cannot go back in time and ultimately decide on LaMarcus Aldridge over Damian Lillard by trading Lillard and giving Aldridge a max contract which would have teamed him with McCollum for the long-term along with whatever return they received for Damian Lillard, their options are limited.

Looking around the NBA, after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins (even though they received far less than fair value due to his unwillingness to sign an extension and his temper), there are star options out there that could be had for the right price, and trading a player with star qualities in return is a nice start for the Blazers. I would like to take a look at a few players that could be had through a trade that could help this team turn around, as the Warriors did years ago and are currently reaping the rewards from. Due to a contract extension signed by C.J. McCollum which gives him the designation as a "Poison Pill Player", it makes him virtually impossible to deal for equal value due to a team needing to be under the salary cap enough to take on C.J. McCollum's contract that is technically only about $3 million but will count for about $21 million to his new team because of this designation. So knowing that the Trail Blazers would need to trade Damian Lillard in order to set things right with their lineup, let's look at a few scenarios that could help the Trail Blazers now and for the future without taking a hit in the immediate future.

Blake Griffin
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Starting with the least likely player to be traded on this list, Blake Griffin, the idea is still interesting due to the Los Angeles Clippers apparent inability to get over the hump with the roster as it's currently constructed. The change should be greeted with open arms for the Clippers fans and the organization as a chance to turn the 27-year-old Blake Griffin into the 26-year-old Damian Lillard. Teaming Lillard with Chris Paul may look like the same issue on paper that Portland is dealing with currently, but Chris Paul is known to be a very good defender and DeAndre Jordan in the middle can make up for Lillard's deficiencies on the defensive end. In reality, the trade makes way more sense for Portland than it does for the Clippers, as teaming Blake Griffin with C.J. McCollum would give the Trail Blazers the injection in their arm that they are desperately seeking with two players that have history with not needing the spotlight shining on them as opposed to the recent struggle that seemed to go on between Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Paul Millsap
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The next least likely player to be moved due to the Atlanta Hawks refusal to even discuss him being traded recently would be Paul Millsap. The Hawks situation, although being normally fluid as they continue to be pulled between wanting to continue to compete and starting to rebuild, has not reached the point where they feel the need to have a fire sale and the one player that has seemed to buy-in the most in staying in Atlanta has been Millsap. His age would also be a little bit of deterrent for the Portland Trail Blazers due to the fact that he is currently 32 and would most likely be hitting his downslide well before C.J. McCollum would be declining. In saying that, Paul Millsap is a very underrated and very talented player that would fit nicely with the skill level of C.J. McCollum and could be just what the Trail Blazers need due to the fact that Paul Millsap knows what it is like to play for a smaller market team with his experience in Utah and Atlanta and would appreciate the opportunity to play with a budding star in McCollum.

Andre Drummond
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Possibly the most interesting player on this list would have to be the Detroit Pistons' Andre Drummond. Although he has been shown plenty of appreciation by the Pistons organization, Detroit does not seem to have an exact direction that they are moving toward. The shot blocking and rebounding ability of Andre Drummond would surely be welcomed by C.J. McCollum in an awesome 1-2 punch of star players that would give the Blazers a cornucopia of skills that would make them a force for most teams. The fact that Drummond is still only 23 years old makes him a super attractive option for the Trail Blazers to add with the 25 year old C.J. McCollum. The Blazers may need a little bit more in a deal for Lillard as he likely has more value attached to him than Drummond has with him but the focal point of the deal would be Lillard for Drummond which Portland would have to be more than happy to receive in a deal. Drummond can be a game changer, especially on a team that is poised to eventually move their way up from exciting to contender.

Jimmy Butler
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The most likely player to be traded eventually that would make sense for the Trail Blazers is Jimmy Butler. Finding himself in situations that left him feeling underappreciated by the Chicago Bulls, Butler would almost definitely welcome a change of scenery, even it meant moving to Portland. Jimmy Butler could find himself teaming up with another player coming into his prime as a borderline all-star in C.J. McCollum to attempt to build something special for now and in the future. He has experience playing with big names but those names were injury riddled (Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah) or past their prime (Pau Gasol and Dwyane Wade) so the opportunity to play with someone who is finally coming into their own has to be intriguing. His ability to play the shooting guard and small forward positions while also being known for his defense could make up for the size and defensive deficiencies of C.J. McCollum while also continuing to score at the level, if not better, than that of what Damian Lillard has been providing for them.

Paul George
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Arguably the best player of this bunch and the player that the Portland Trail Blazers should do everything in their power to acquire, would have to be Paul George. George would replace the star power of Lillard and would take the pressure off of C.J. McCollum so he won't be expected to be the man right away. Prior to Paul George's injury in a meaningless USA scrimmage, he was becoming the NBA's next big star and was being acknowledged as such by other players, coaches, general managers and fans. His popularity around the league was at it's peak and the injury, along with a year away from the game, caused his skyrocketing to superstardom to be at a standstill and a new team to lead could be the ingredient he may need to get back on track to where he once was. Prying Paul George away from the Indiana Pacers would not be easy but it would give Portland the freedom to do whatever they want to the team, as he is the most versatile player of the ones mentioned with his ability to play and guard 4 out of 5 positions, all besides center.

Obviously, any of these players would put the Trail Blazers on a different path, as Andrew Bogut once did for the Golden State Warriors. That different path could be a good or a bad one but the fact remains, when your two best players turn out to both be undersized scoring guards that lack defensive ability, it severely handicaps your chances of becoming a true championship contender without a tremendous amount of help around them. And unless that perfect combination of help is acquired prior to those players receiving contract extensions, it is nearly impossible to do so without dealing one of those guards in order to become a more balanced team that could hopefully lead to history repeating itself once again in a result of a championship.

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