HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — You could feel the vibe from 3,000 miles away.
That energy was real.
The Portland Trail Blazers were on the verge of something special with one of the league’s best young executives, Kevin Pritchard, best young coaches, Nate McMillan, two new young stars, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, already in the fold, and the new No. 1 pick, Greg Oden, smiling on the stage in front of a sea of thousands and the “Welcome To Rip City” banner hanging behind him.
Nearly five years later, Aldridge is the only one left amid the rubble that was the Trail Blazers’ championship blueprint. Pritchard was the first to go, fired on draft night two years ago. Injuries forced Roy into retirement in December, McMillan was fired Thursday and Oden’s injury-plagued career with the Trail Blazers (82 games is all they have to show for his actual game time in uniform) came to an end later that evening when he was waived.
This isn’t yet another savage poke at an already wounded rabid and wickedly loyal fan base in Portland. On the contrary, they have been the one constant and positive force surrounding this cautionary tale. Their plight is a reminder for any fan base, and the franchise they love, out there dreaming about what could be. The future is always now in the NBA, right now, in fact!
And if you operate with any other theories in mind, you do so at your own risk.
Even the very best of plans can be undone by a series of unforeseen events that can lead to the complete decimation of not only that rebuilding plan, but a franchise.
That’s why we cringe at the trade deadline every year when we hear people talking about “blowing things up” and “starting over” by acquiring future draft picks and the like. There isn’t a Oklahoma City for every Portland. There are three or four Portlands a cycle for one or two Oklahoma Citys every four or five years.
There are just too many variables involved for any franchise to assume they can outsmart the competition via the draft, stay on the right side of lady luck and attain any level of consistent success based on what they might do with a cache of assets in the future.
That’s why the historically elite franchise’s (Los Angeles, Boston, San Antonio, Chicago, Dallas and we’ll throw Miami in there as well) tend to be the most proactive teams during the three times each year an organization’s ownership and front office honchos earn their money. If you don’t come up with the right combinations on Draft night, at the trade deadline and in free agency every summer, you are simply gambling with the fate of your franchise.
That’s why we were somewhat relieved to hear what we heard from Nets general manager Billy King in the wake of the game-changing events in Orlando Thursday that saw Dwight Howard delay his potential free agency for another year, throwing the Nets’ future plans for a Howard and Deron Williams tag team in Brooklyn into disarray after a wild and crazy four months leading up to the deadline.
King is right, high draft picks don’t guarantee a thing. And that’s why we don’t see a problem with the Nets snagging a starting small forward (Gerald Wallace) for a draft pick that in most cases will not produce a player of comparable ability in time for the Nets to make a case for Williams to stick around for this rebuilding process.
“You never want to trade a pick, but you look at the pick and the potential of what you may get there,” King said in a radio interview with WFAN. “And meeting with our scouts, we felt that the player that we may draft beyond the protection would be somebody that would take a couple of years. At this point, we’re trying to speed the process up a little bit and start winning a little further, rather than doing a rebuild.”
“We met the last couple of days. A lot of the scouts we there and we talked about what could be there. Everybody’s talking it’s a deep draft, but a lot of times, it could take two or three years. We didn’t feel that there were guys further down that were franchise guys. So in trying to build, I don’t know if we had a chance to wait and just keep building with youth. And we still have the Houston pick in the draft so it’s not like we got completely out of the draft.”
King’s experiences with past drafts (everywhere he’s been) is his guide this time around. And he’s wise to choose a different path. Because not every situation is the same, not every draft produces the type of transcendent talent that can alone lift a franchise from the depths of the lottery.
Sometimes it’s okay to be a prisoner of the moment, to put the benefits of what a player like Wallace can give you right now ahead of the promise of what a lottery pick might give you down the road.
Because of the three aforementioned money-maker nights for owners and executives, Draft night is by far the riskiest of the bunch. You can fix a bad free-agent signing and find a way out of a trade that goes awry. But you don’t get a Mulligan when you botch the No. 2 pick in the draft (sorry Pistons fans, but we’re not letting the Darko Milicic pick fade into the ether).
Five years ago we all thought Oden and Kevin Durant would be rivals for the next decade or so, battling each other for supremacy and positions among the very best players of their era.
Little did we know …
All we know is this: future plans are just that, for the future.
And in a league where the future is always now, that means you sometimes have to trust what you already know as opposed to betting on what might be.