Trade Deadline: Portland is Tank City

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The Portland Trail Blazers were finally the ones to do it. In a series of moves, the GM-less Blazers embraced a philosophy that has been espoused by NBA pundits, writers and bloggers for a while now: they have broken up a middling fringe playoff team that was never going to contend for a championship as it was currently constructed, content to bottom out for the rest of this season and build from scratch through the draft and free agency. And they fired the coach of the sinking ship for good measure.

When the Blazers traded multiple first round picks for Gerald Wallace last season, it was with the intention of adding him to a blossoming core that included a budding star in LaMarcus Aldridge, a once-and-possibly-future star in Brandon Roy, rising youngsters like Nic Batum and Wesley Mathews and the possibly returning defensive stalwart center Greg Oden (at the time). When they then moved Andre Miller for Raymond Felton on draft day in 2011, it seemed they had completed the nucleus of what should have been a Western Conference contender for the next half-decade.

Despite Roy’s retirement and Oden’s umpteenth knee injury, the Blazers started off the season on fire. Nate McMillan’s normally slow and deliberate bunch was running up and down the floor with abandon, Felton and Aldridge had developed instant chemistry in the pick-and-roll, Mathews and Batum were filling the wings capably, Jamal Crawford was providing scoring off the bench and at 7-2 after the first couple weeks of the season, this group looked like legitimate contenders. Even as their record slid back toward .500 as the season moved along, their point differential suggested that they were much better than that record might indicate.

But somewhere along the way, it appears that McMillan lost the team and they began to implode. It’s gotten really ugly. The Blazers have gone 5-11 since February 11th, losing 7 games by double digits. This last week, in what seemed to be the final straw, they got blown out in 4 of their 5 roadies, beating only the Wizards. The Timberwolves, Celtics, Pacers and Knicks beat them by a combined 89 points (a 42-point loss to the Knicks yesterday helped things).

So whoever is really running the Blazers, whether it’s owner Paul Allen or interim General Manager Chad Buchanon, woke up today and decided that this group wasn’t working to work out and the only solution was to burn it all down. And burn it down they did. Gerald Wallace was sent to the New Jersey Nets for Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and the Nets’ top-3 protected 2012 first round pick. Marcus Camby was shipped to Houston for Hasheem Thabeet, Johnny Flynn and a future second round pick. Nate McMillan was sent packing. The Blazers, undoubtedly, are worse today than they were yesterday.

Wallace was their second best player after LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the most consistent forwards in the league. He’s a very capable defender on both the wing and the block, can play the 3 or the 4 and is a terrific rebounder and terror in the open court. Camby, despite his offensive limitations, is still an extremely sound defensive center. Without them, Portland’s slightly above averaged 13th ranked defense will get worse, as will their slightly below average 17th ranked rebounding rate. McMillan had been the coach of the team since 2005. His 34-year old assistant Kaleb Canales will take the reins. The Blazers currently sit in 11th place in the Western Conference, and without Wallace and Camby, they should drop even further in the standings.

The players they acquired won’t be very useful this season, and what remains of the team that imploded shouldn’t get much better. They’re bottoming out, plain and simple. For the rest of the year, they’ll embrace the suck. And it’s the right move, because things will get better, sooner.

Tanking the season isn’t the most admirable strategy, but it’s not against the rules. Embracing the letter of the law, if not exactly the spirit, will help the Blazers more than it will hurt them. The team likely won’t be very fun to watch for the rest of this season, but at least management recognized a situation that wasn’t working, formulated a plan and set it in motion. The Blazers will be brutal for a while, but they’ll be better off down the road.

Portland still has Aldridge under contract through the 2014-15 season, and they now have three years in which to assemble a team that will make him want to stick around even longer than that. They’ll likely have two lottery picks in what is one of the deepest drafts in years – their own and New Jersey’s as long as it doesn’t land in the top 3 – and have just $26 million in committed salary for next season without options. Batum will be a restricted free agent, and now that Wallace is gone it’s hard to see the Blazers not matching whatever he gets offered on the open market. And even though Dwight Howard will not hit free agency this summer, there will still be a robust group of players available that can help Portland build toward a brighter future.

Jared Dubin

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He is the co-editor in chief of Hardwood Paroxysm and the HPBasketball Network.