Close but no cigar, a commonly used phrase for coming up short accurately describes the outcome of the Portland Trail Blazers in the last 10 games. Over the course of those 10 games, the outcome has been decided by 6 points or less and the last 6 games have not gone in the Blazers favor. For Blazer fans this stretch of games has been unnerving and deflating. At the halfway point of the season, are the Blazers at a crossroads? If so, where do they go from here?
On a micro-level one might think a missed shot here, a made shot there and the Blazers are a few games over .500 and the playoff talk continues. Instead the Blazers are 1 game under .500 at 20-21. Playoff talk seems a bit like a dream.
Conversely, on a macro-level, the Blazers and their fans have to be realistic in their expectations for this year’s team. Even if they are to sneak into the playoffs, they don’t have a team that is constructed to make it past the first round. The question to answer is what is the big picture plan? Is it to have an average team that makes the playoffs most years but doesn’t advance past the first round? Or is to build a championship contending team?
One would like to think the answer to this question is the latter. If it is, then how do the Blazers get there? This is the part where hard decisions need to be made. Most would argue Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge are the core of the Blazers franchise. On the periphery of that core are Wesley Matthews and J.J. Hickson. For the Blazers to get where they want to be, NBA champs, two of those five players need to be moved.
J.J. Hickson plays with a lot of effort; he grabs rebounds like a squirrel going after nuts under an acorn tree in windstorm. He has a lot of value to this team. But he is also a free agent at the end of this season; he most likely won’t be back. The Blazers need to get value for him before he departs. It’s possible he could be swapped for a late first round pick.
That leads us to the hardest decision. The player with the most value on the trade market is most likely LaMarcus Aldridge. This might be difficult to grasp, but in reality the Blazers are building around Lillard and Batum. Aldridge, at age 27, has two years remaining on the 5-year contract extension he signed three years ago. Both Batum and Lillard are under contract for 4 years. Aldridge will see his contract expire at the same time the Blazers are in theory just getting up to speed, at which point he will become an unrestricted free agent. At a time in which a player’s loyalty to an organization is at an all-time low, it would be safe to assume Aldridge would depart for the last big contract he will see during his career.
However, most important is the compensation the Blazers could potentially receive for Aldridge is most likely at its peak. The Blazers should be able to get a first round pick and an ascending player at the very least for him. The point is the team needs to surround Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum with players that will all mature and peak together. Otherwise they face losing Aldridge just as they are on the rise and still have no championship banners to show for it.
These are hard decisions to make, especially when the team is dealing with the face of the franchise. But to get to the promise land you have to make bold moves. If there is a deal worth the taking, the Blazers need to roll the dice. Because close, but no cigar is not what Blazer fans want to hear in 4 years.
Patrick Hughes is on Twitter. Follow him at @phughespdx