Thursday, June 01, 2006

Turning Points

It must be the week for good e-mail questions, because a reader named Dave (great name, by the way) writes:

>>In 5 decades of sucking air on this planet, I've noticed almost everything in life that has some history behind it has been marked by turning points. This includes basketball franchises. Certainly that game 7 loss to the Lakers was one. And as you've written earlier, the acquisition of Buck Williams was another. There is something special about Martell. Of all the current Blazers, he seems to be the most untouchable. Could his presence signal another change in course for this team? Was just wondering what your thoughts might be on turning points, and how they might apply to the Blazers? I realize most course corrections are only seen in hindsight, but what's your gut feeling for what's ahead?<<

When I was filling in for Eric Marentette over at the O-Live blog last year I posted about my top ten pivotal moments in Blazer history. I'll link that piece at the end of this post, since I don't think anything happened this season that would change that list. As far as possible future turning points, I think there are several coming up. Among them:

1. The Ownership Question

I haven't talked about this much because it's so far out of our control and so secretive that you never know if the information you're getting is good, but this still is the biggest single issue facing the franchise right now. Every possibility in the spectrum is still open, including Allen keeping the team, Allen moving the team, Oregon-based ownership taking over, or being bought by as-yet-unknown third parties. Whichever happens, this will be the story of 2006. There are a lot of things you'd want in an owner, but at this point I think we have to do triage and say it doesn't matter who it is as long as the team stays in Portland.

I am mildly excited about the news that Jeld-Wen is joining the Porter-led consortium because, being an Oregon company, they are more likely to keep the team in town. (This as opposed to a group like Magic/Barkley/Jordan who would do everything in their power to see the team in Vegas by 2010.) Most ownership-by-committee groups pare themselves down within a few years and I'd be surprised to see Terry himself still leading the team much longer than the turn of the decade, but for now I'll take it...or anything else that will keep the Blazers in town.

I think everybody needs to realize that getting local ownership would be a one-time-only "Get out of jail free" card. There's little financial incentive to own the Blazers right now. Basically we're tempting buyers with the enormous goodwill the 20th-century teams engendered. But all that (and more) will be exhausted in the current buyout. If the team continues to spiral downward, underachieving on the court and getting mired in controversy off it, nobody's going to remember the good times or heed them when the next purchaser comes to call. At that point the team will likely be bought only to move it. A lot rides on the next few months, and only history will tell whether it they will be the new beginning or the beginning of the end.

Fan support will be a key in all of this. I know a lot of folks are feeling burned, but if we do get new ownership and make a couple moves--in other words if we get a real fresh start--would it kill us to fill the place, at least on opening night, even if we're going to lose a few games?

2. Contract Resolutions

Committing to the three big contracts in the summer of 2004 was a gamble that the frontcourt combination of Miles, Randolph, and Ratliff would be nothing short of great. It's been well short of good. Given the size of the deals, you knew from the start we would have to trade at least two of them if things didn't work out. Those trades will need to happen in the next nine months. I say this not out of panic, nor an overwhelming emotional need to be rid of any of our players, but because I believe that fiscal and talent realities are going to catch up with us.

I do not foresee a great leap in production for any of the guys in question. Randolph would be the most likely candidate to have a rebound year, but the way the team is structured around him it's unlikely. I think this season was the best Miles will ever have as a Blazer. Ratliff will hopefully get healthier, but he'll never again be the young Theo. Questions still surround the younger two at this point though. How much slippage was due to injury? Would a change in scenery help? Don't they both have potential? Most teams won't go for that bait, but a few still will. (At least until Zeke loses his job in New York.) The longer they play, however, the more folks will see the reality that they're just very highly paid good (not great) players. If you're trying to sell a less-than-ideal used car, especially one that's shiny on the outside, the last thing you want is people test driving it. Darius is already the poster child for this phenomenon. In 2000 he was worth the 3rd pick in the draft. In 2002 he fetched Andre Miller, an all-star point guard. In 2004 he was worth Jeff McInnis and a throw in. Now he's worth three toothpicks and a wad of chewing gum. Time does not necessarily increase value.

What will increase, however is the salaries of the respective players. It's already hard to imagine trading Zach and Darius at $20 million combined. It'll be correspondingly harder at $22 million, $24 million, and so on, up until the last year of their contracts, which is a long way down the road. The exception to this is Theo, who will be in the final year of his contract in 2007-2008. Holding on to him for another season, or at least half of one, gives us a valuable bargaining chip.

If we can somehow get expiring contracts for Zach and Darius, the summer of 2007 will become an enormous turning point for us...bigger even than the summer of 2005 would have been had we not inked the contracts in the first place. If we didn't spend all our money in one place, 2008 could also be pivotal. In the absence of moves, though, this is probably the team we'll have for the next four years at least. So while this off-season won't change our immediate on-court performance much, it will determine what our future looks like.

3. Joel Przybilla

It's pretty simple: if Joel re-signs then we have a starting center for now and at minimum an excellent backup for the future. If he doesn't...yeesh. A hobbling Theo, a totally unready Ha, and a couple of power forwards ill-suited for the position are all we have at center. I guess we'd have to hope for a center in the draft then, because you don't get them on the free agent or trade markets, period. (At least not without paying a billion dollars for mediocrity, which would just put us right back where we are now.) Most of this is out of our control, though. If Chicago wants to offer him $10+ million a year we can't (and shouldn't) match it. I can see Joel's professed loyalty to us maybe compensating for a million a year, tops. We'll just have to see what happens.

4. Guard Development

The three high-profile guards will determine whether the current roster has any viability whatsoever or whether we're truly starting from zero. If anybody is going to survive the 20-win debacle (and most players from 20-win teams don't) it'll be them. The biggest question in my mind is whether Martell can learn to defend the 2-spot reasonably. That, as much as anything, will determine where we're going, as it will probably make the difference between him being an all-star we can build around or just a nice shooter we have to compensate for. If Jack can become the Terry Porter we all see in him, that will also be a nice bonus and we'd be set for a long while. I just don't know about Bassy, but if I had to guess, I'd say he'd be traded within the next couple years. Whichever way things go will make the difference between people calling the last two years a bonanza or a complete waste of time.

5. The Draft

In the next two calendar years we'll have 2-3 high draft picks around which to build our future. If there's going to be a future, we have to get those right. This is especially true since it's likely we'll be drafting big guys who are historically harder to come by. If our current guards don't pan out we may have to start over. If these next two draft picks don't pan out we may not be able to start over for years.

My take on the Top 10 Turning Points in Blazer History is here. Scroll down to Saturday, September 10th to see it.

Thanks for the question, Dave!

--Dave (


Anonymous Dave said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Dave. I guess I was hoping for a quicker cure but after chewing on your insights and my own tensions between my heart and my head, I realize its just gonna take some time. Kinda like steering a huge ocean tanker. Sounds like maybe two years - if everything goes well - before we could be seeing a "good" team again. And then, when chemistry and momentum begin to take hold....

Well, first things first. Let's get ownership and management settled and hope for a great draft.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I think a two year window before seeing improvement is accurate. There just isn't a quick fix out there that I can see. I mean, you can never say never as far as trades, but my gut feeling is that anybody good enough to make a significant difference immediately won't be obtainable with the talent/contracts we're offering. So the options are to go after mediocre guys with bad contracts like LaFrentz or Sczcerbiak in a desperate quest for 37 wins or just bite the bullet, let our young guys develop, and try like heck to make the right draft picks. I prefer the latter.

There's a lot that can go wrong between now and 2007-08, but I really think we have some chance of being better by then. At the very least if we make a move or two this offseason to clear future cap space we can say that we have a coherent plan...and maybe even that we're in the beginning of an upswing (finally!).


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