"I Wish it was Christmas Today," as first performed on Saturday Night Live by Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz and later perfected by Julian Casablancas, is one of my favorite songs to listen to this time of year despite the fact that I disagree with the premise. The arrival of Christmas Day is usually disappointing in comparison to the excitement and anticipation of everything leading up to the holiday. This makes me think of the Portland Trail Blazers.
It was less than 20 months ago that we were quantifying whether the Blazers were the best young team of all time. Having secured home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs with a roster that averaged less than 25 years of age, Portland seemed poised to contend in if not dominate the Western Conference for years to come.
Almost overnight, the Blazers' future now appears murky at best because of two sets of troublesome knees. Portland could overcome the inability of Greg Oden to stay healthy, but Brandon Roy's knee injuries have been more devastating because they have robbed the Blazers of the focal point of not only their offense but the construction of their roster. When he has been able to play this season, Roy simply has not been the same player. In turn, a Portland offense that was one of the league's best in 2008-09 and solid a year ago has been no better than average this season.
I come not to bury the Blazers. The Roy story still has plenty of twists and turns ahead, and while he will have to deal with pain and swelling in his knees the remainder of his career because the meniscus in them has been removed, it is certainly possible that Roy will be able to adjust his game and become a contributor as part of a more balanced Portland offense. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge has shown signs of growth in his ability to carry an offensive attack during the last week and a half. Though the Blazers are heavily dependent on a pair of players in their mid-30s in Marcus Camby and Andre Miller, there is enough young talent and assets on hand to envision Portland finding a new formula.
The bigger takeaway is the uncanny ability of the future to turn out less rosy than we anticipate. One element of the data on successful young teams I did not explore two years ago was their tendency to underachieve expectations. The mid-2000s Chicago Bulls are an excellent example. With a young core of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, the Bulls were a trendy pick for a couple of years--especially among statistical analysts--before collapsing when Scott Skiles lost the team and the addition of Ben Wallace backfired.
The 2002-03 Los Angeles Clippers were also apparently on the verge of big things when they added Andre Miller to a core that had contended for a playoff spot the previous season. The large number of expiring contracts on the roster proved unstable, however, and the Clippers were broken up at year's end.
One of my favorite Baseball Prospectus columns of all time was Jonah Keri's debut for the site, in which he formalized the concept of the "success cycle." The success cycle argues that teams must make decisions based on an understanding of whether their goals are to compete or to add talent for a future run. It appeals to our sense of logic and order and is completely reasonable. It is also possibly bunk.
When BP's Derek Zumsteg looked for historical examples of the success cycle in baseball the following year, he found the results mixed at best. "As I look more closely for actual evidence of its existence in baseball," Zumsteg concluded, "I find only that if there is such a thing, it is lost in the much larger forces of organizational quality, team strength, and luck (uh, I mean, random variance)."
Looking through modern NBA history, it is equally difficult to find examples of the success cycle at play in terms of teams going completely through the rebuilding process and emerging as championship contenders. Instead, what we see is that the teams that make it do so haphazardly by adding a superstar through the draft, often with lottery luck.
The significance of the lottery is a unique feature of basketball because of the importance a single player can have. Having a great player is not in and of itself sufficient to win championships, and that is where organizational quality comes into play, but it is a necessary condition. That's why, of all the issues Portland has dealt with over the last season and a half on and off the court, only Roy's health (and, to a lesser extent, Oden's) has substantially changed the team's fortunes.
Beyond that, looking around the league, we see numerous examples of teams being in the right place at the right time. The Boston Celtics are the anti-success cycle poster boys, having gone from the lottery to the championship overnight by virtue of dealing for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers took the next step by putting themselves in position to deal for Pau Gasol. Both teams, and especially the Celtics, had to stockpile assets in order to make the trades, but if Minnesota and Memphis had been unwilling to deal, the course of history would look entirely different.
This is not to say that the success cycle is totally irrelevant. It remains true that general managers must have an objective understanding of their team's ability to compete in order to correctly balance short- and long-term goals. This year's best example of a team falling short of this ideal is the Milwaukee Bucks, who loaded up on veterans in the wake of last year's late-season run. As it turned out, the Bucks were not as good as they appeared during that stretch. Milwaukee may yet sneak into the Eastern Conference Playoffs, but for the time being the Bucks are a below-.500 team with an aging roster and limited salary-cap flexibility.
For those in charge of young teams with big dreams--like the Oklahoma City Thunder--it is more difficult to find a usable takeaway from recent history. One conclusion that could be drawn from the example of the Blazers is the value of striking quickly instead of being patient and waiting around for the talent on hand to develop. However, the wrong veteran addition can hurt a team both now and in the future, as in the example of Wallace in Chicago.
As the Thunder seeks to turn potential into reality, Sam Presti must tread carefully. Otherwise, Oklahoma City too will look back fondly on this period when the anticipation of great things ahead was sweeter than the ultimate outcome.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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