A semanticist would have a field day parsing the differences between two related, but very different buzzwords in NBA front offices: "rebuilding" versus "retooling." In general, the former means an extended fallow period of building assets to try to contend, while the latter means ramping up more quickly toward competitiveness.
Since trading away veterans Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace and firing Nate McMillan at the trade deadline, the Portland Trail Blazers have vacillated between the two terms. On Tuesday, newly hired general manager Neil Olshey declared his preference for "retool."
"I think rebuild is the wrong word," Olshey said during his introduction to the Portland media. "I think retool. I think the organization is in a great position. ... I think we can accelerate our curve back to where we want to go. We're not looking for quick fixes. We're not looking for aging veterans that can slide us into the eighth spot."
In something less than a coincidence, Blazers owner Paul Allen certainly seems to share Olshey's preference. If Portland operates on this middle path, competing for a playoff spot next season looks like a possibility depending on a few key factors.
The basic version of the ideal Blazers offseason would have the team draft a center and a guard with its pair of lottery selections, No. 6 and No. 11 overall. Portland will have to move rapidly in free agency because of restricted free agent Nicolas Batum. Having quietly stepped forward in a starting role last season, Batum is the Blazers' second most valuable player after All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Olshey reiterated Batum's importance to the team yesterday, an indication that Portland is likely to match anything short of a wild, max offer to him.
At the same time, part of Batum's value to the Blazers this offseason is his relatively small cap hold--$5.4 million, far less than he is likely to command in the first year of the new contract. That means Portland will have somewhere around $12 million in cap space, assuming Jamal Crawford does not exercise his player option for next season and the Blazers make qualifying offers to both Batum and J.J. Hickson. That's enough room for Portland to sign a starting-caliber player.
Looking at the Blazers' current players and the market, the best value appears to be at the point guard position, where Portland has been searching for a long-term answer since about the Damon Stoudamire era. Houston's Goran Dragic looks like the perfect fit for the Blazers. He's coming off a strong season where he effectively started for the Rockets in Kyle Lowry's absence, and is young enough at 26 to fit Portland's timetable. Dragic's up-and-down career is a bit of a concern, but aside from Deron Williams (out of the Blazers' price range and unlikely to entertain an offer from them anyway), he's the best point guard likely to change teams.
Portland has one additional move to make before re-signing or matching on Batum. 2006 first-round pick Joel Freeland has been developing in Spain and has emerged as a solid EuroLeague contributor. At 25, Freeland is surely ready for the NBA. His translated statistics peg him slightly below NBA average, with a skill set similar to Hickson's but more length (and, in all likelihood, better defensive instincts).
The Blazers can use their cap space to sign Freeland, who has to decide whether to exercise his NBA buyout (1 million Euros) by July 10. Two summers ago, San Antonio signed Tiago Splitter in a similar situation for three years and $11 million. Splitter, a former ACB MVP and All-EuroLeague First Team pick, was more valuable on the European market, so three years and $8-9 million seems reasonable for Freeland and would leave Portland enough money to make Dragic a competitive offer (perhaps three years and between $25 and $30 million) and re-sign Batum (likely to command a deal similar to the four-year, $42 million extension Danilo Gallinari signed in January) and Hickson.
Bring back free agent center Joel Przybilla and keep a player drafted in the second round (the Blazers pick 40th and 41st but could use one of the picks on an international prospect, or in trade) and that yields a 15-man roster for the 2012-13 season. Using SCHOENE's projected winning percentages for each player, my own guess at minutes and the typical value provided by No. 6 and No. 11 picks (based on a smoothed regression of historical WARP figures), here's my rough guess at the performance of this group:
Player MPG Min Win% WARP
Dragic 32 2400 .540 6.3
Matthews 32 2400 .488 3.7
Batum 34 2550 .564 7.9
Aldridge 36 2700 .546 7.4
Freeland 25 1875 .477 2.4
Draft G 15 1125 .457 1.0
E. Williams 15 1125 .475 1.4
Babbitt 12 900 .456 0.8
Hickson 20 1500 .447 1.0
Draft C 20 1500 .462 1.5
S. Williams 10 750 .419 0.1
Przybilla 5 375 .310 -0.8
Thomas 5 375 .305 -0.9
N. Smith 105 .341 -0.2
Total 19680 31.5
Given that replacement level is worth 10 wins, this projection puts Portland between 41 and 42 wins. There's reason to believe that estimate is a bit on the conservative side, however. SCHOENE has been unreasonably pessimistic about Aldridge the last two seasons. If he actually played at the same level as the last two seasons (.577 and .578 win percentages), that would translate to an extra 1.7 WARP.
Elliot Williams is another candidate to exceed his projection. In limited minutes last season, Williams was both efficient and prolific as a scorer. Alas, Williams injured his shoulder and had to undergo season-ending surgery (his third major surgery in two NBA years) just as he was about to enter the rotation at the deadline. Williams' projection is a complete guess, since he hasn't played enough minutes to qualify for SCHOENE yet.
From the opposite perspective, assuming the Blazers can sign Dragic is optimistic. If he heads back to Houston or signs elsewhere and Portland can't lure Steve Nash to star in the short term, there's a drop off among the available point guards. Signing someone like Ramon Sessions of the L.A. Lakers (.491 win percentage) to start at the point would cost the team somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 WARP for the purposes of this projection.
Left unanswered here is the question of whether the Blazers are better off trying to return to the postseason in 2012-13 or undertake a slower rebuild and accumulate more talent through the lottery. Neil Paine's terrific research on teams stuck in the middle is of little help here, because the common denominator Neil found was the importance star talent and Aldridge is a borderline candidate. He finished 13th in the league in PER last season, and few big men are Aldridge's equal in terms of both creating shots and contributing on defense. At the same time, Aldridge's presence wasn't enough to keep last year's veteran Portland squad from collapsing before the deadline.
By getting competitive again too soon, the Blazers will miss the opportunity to pair Aldridge with a star guard capable of creating shots late in games when defenses can deny him the basketball. As a result, the best outcome for Portland might be pairing the lottery picks to trade up in this year's draft and snag Florida's Bradley Beal, who could eventually develop into that kind of perimeter counterweight for Aldridge.
Still, Aldridge's age pushes me toward favoring the Blazers "retooling" rather than "rebuilding." Aldridge will turn 27 next month, and if Portland dallies too long adding assets to the roster, the centerpiece might end up on the decline by the time his younger teammates are ready to contend. Dragic and Matthews are about the same age; Batum and Freeland are slightly younger. This year's picks should be able to develop into contributors to support that group while it remains in its prime. If everything breaks right next season, the Blazers could build a playoff team with the ability to grow together.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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