Why the Cleveland Cavaliers should follow the Oregon Trail


Dec 17, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) shoots over Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Tristan Thompson (13) in the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

 The Portland Trail Blazers could have traded LaMarcus Aldridge. Several times, in fact. Over the past few seasons, Aldridge’s name came up in trade rumors, all indicating that he wanted out of Portland. There was speculation that he was unhappy playing the prime of his career away tucked away on consistently bad teams in the Pacific Northwest, in Oregon’s hipster wonderland. Aldridge reportedly wanted to play for the team that originally drafted him and then traded him away to the Blazers, the Chicago Bulls. But the Blazers didn’t trade Aldridge, and he is now happy to play for the Blazers. Its not a fluke that keeping Aldridge slowly, but surely, paid off for Portland.

This year, with Aldridge in the midst of his prime and paired with budding star Damian Lillard, Rip City went from 33 wins last season to 54 wins this season. And in their first playoff birth since the 2010-2011 season, the Blazers just last night moved on to the conference semifinals by virtue of upsetting the Houston Rockets – a team that, on paper, is more talented than Portland and has bigger name players.

This isn’t to say that the roses are in full bloom for the Blazers. After its starting five, sixth man Mo Williams and perhaps Thomas Robinson, the Blazers are thin. There are some players on their roster (namely last year’s first round pick, C.J. McCollum) with the potential to be impact players as early as next season. Assuming Portland can find the right player(s) this summer in free agency or the draft, there’s no reason not to believe that the Blazers will be players in the Western Conference for the next several years.

In some ways, Portland is the ideal model for how to build a team. With a little tinkering this summer and perhaps the next, this team is right where it wants to be. It has two homegrown stars, role players that fit the skill sets of its stars, and some financial flexibility moving forward, although it is hard to see them making any sort of major moves at this point.

Unless a team can nab a star in the rare moment one becomes available at a fair price, or that team becomes the reincarnated spirit of the Memphis Grizzlies, the only way to build a team is by aggressively trying to find the right players, whether it’s through the draft or free agency. That’s exactly what the Blazers did. When they took Lillard, it was a bit of a risk considering his age and that he went to a small college. Key players like Nic Batum and Wes Matthews were originally brought in at a low price and low risk. But most importantly, the team kept Aldridge, resisting trading him for parts that likely would never equal the sum of Aldridge’s talent.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, and whoever becomes the first full-time GM, could learn a lot from the Blazers. For months now, rumor after rumor has popped up suggesting that Kyrie Irving wants out of Cleveland, that Kyrie Irving hates Dion Waiters, that Kyrie Irving is going to be a Los Angeles Lakers in the near future, etc. Basically, any rumor that involves Irving and him looking for a way out now has made the rounds in the Twittersphere and on the internet. As a result, there is a small, but loud, group of fans that have suggested it would be a smart move to deal Irving now for the best available price.

History isn’t exactly kind to teams that failed to build a legit contender around a superstar or a player just below that level. Just in the past 15 years alone we’ve seen the Minnesota Timberwolves trade away Kevin Garnett as he passed his peak, only to see him win a title with the Boston Celtics. We’ve seen the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets trade away Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, respectively, and receive less than 75 cents on the dollar in return. Looking ahead, the Timberwolves could again be in this same situation with Kevin Love, whether it’s next season or a few years down the road.

What makes this problem so maddening in and for Cleveland is that Cavs fans aren’t that far removed from seeing the league’s best player walk away for a warmer city. Even though LeBron James left in a sign and trade, the Cavaliers went from contender to bottom dweller like that, with only a few assorted draft picks and an angry letter in comic sans font to show for it. It was quick drop and, in the end, the Cavaliers’ mediocrity didn’t even net them the pick that became Irving. Looking back, I’d be willing to bet that a lot of Cavs fans would have traded LeBron if they knew he was going to leave.

I don’t know since I’ve never been to Portland for a game (although I am aware of Voodoo Donuts) or been able to consistently watch the Blazers, but I’d be willing to wager a dozen Bacon Maple bar donuts that there were Blazer fans who wanted to deal Aldridge the moment there was even the slightest indication that he wanted out. It took time for Portland to build a real contender. But they held to that one guy, doing everything they could to make him happy and build around him, not without him.

To do that, Portland was aggressive in trying to find the right players. The Blazers’ draft history isn’t spotless over the past few seasons, but they’ve gone after guys to fill the roles they need filled. Players like Robinson, Williams and Robin Lopez, all key parts of this team, were signed to fill roles. Robinson, a former lottery pick looking to stick with his third team, came in and became an energy big who runs the floor like svelte bull. Williams, for all his flaws, has been the stabilizing force on the Blazers’ bench and undoubtedly a good mentor for Lillard and McCollum. As for Lopez, he’s the perfect complement to Aldridge in the frontcourt; he does the dirty work down low on both ends and doesn’t require a high amount of touches to be effective.

The underlying success, however, is in Portland finding players a little bit off the radar that fit what they needed. Guys like Matthews and Batum weren’t lottery picks, but Portland still was able to turn them into key parts of the team. Part of that is that the skill sets of both men fit exactly what they needed outside of Aldridge and now Lillard. To help create space down low for a player as skilled as Aldridge, you need shooters. Lots of them, preferably with low usage rates and the corresponding ability to spot-up off the ball. With Matthew and Batum, the Blazers have two and also get shooting from Lillard and Williams. Throw in Lillard and Williams (and McCollum next year, plus a cheap veteran shooter or two) and you have Portland team built in a way that maximizes the skills of its best players.  Just take a look at the usage rates for main players in the Blazers rotation:


Usage Rate

Damien Lillard


LaMarcus Aldridge


Mo Williams


Wes Matthews


Nic Batum


Robin Lopez


Thomas Robinson


And now, comparatively, look at the Cavaliers’ roster in the same light.


Usage Rate

Kyrie Irving


Dion Waiters


Jarrett Jack


Tristan Thompson


Spencer Hawes


Matthew Dellavedova


Luol Deng


Anderson Varejao


Tyler Zeller


When you look at the two teams, there are some similarities. Both teams’ best two players are high usage players and both have at least one other player with a usage rate of 19. But here’s the difference: Portland’s two players with the highest usage rate (Aldridge and Lillard) operate in totally different worlds. And although the duo will start and finish games, Portland can stagger their minutes in order to always have a go-to scorer on the floor. As for Cleveland, Waiters and Irving both operate best with the ball in their hands. And while you can stagger their minutes to a degree, it doesn’t help that the third guard for Cleveland (Jarrett Jack) who always is at his best with the ball in his hands and was largely ineffective this past season playing a far different role than the one played for the Golden State Warriors last season in the single best season of his career. And Cleveland just has a lot of players available to use, but no idea how to use each player properly.

This past season, the Cavaliers’ most effective low post weapon was Anderson Varejao’s mid-range jumper. Spencer Hawes became a nice piece once he was brought over from the Philadelphia 76ers, but he was flat-out more effective playing the pick and pop game as opposed to the pick and roll or posting up on the block. While spacing improved, from Hawes, he didn’t give the Cavaliers any real offensive balance. It didn’t help that Luol Deng, with the third highest usage rate on the team, negatively impacted spacing and wasn’t a consistent go-to player on offense.

It’s also worth noting that Portland didn’t always get what it expected when building the team. Perhaps most famously, it drafted Greg Oden No. 1 overall in 2007 over Kevin Durant. This was a year after Blazers selected Aldridge and until Lopez was brought into the fold, the team didn’t have the right fit at center next to him, although there were multiple attempts to find that player. Throw in Brandon Roy’s promising career that was cut short by injuries and you get a sense of some of the setbacks Portland on its way to this season, the franchise’s most successful since the days of Clyde Drexler.

The Cavaliers, for comparison’s sake, have faced some similar roadblocks. The franchise star, Irving, has battled injuries and constant rumors that wants out of Cleveland. Last year’s top pick, Anthony Bennett, was at one point on pace for a historically bad rookie season and may have already had his career trajectory altered. The Cavaliers’ other picks add up to one player (Waiters) with the potential to a Jamal Crawford-like scorer and a bunch of others (Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, etc.) that have not yet met projections when the team needs to start deciding if they fit in the long term plan and for how much. And when Cleveland made deals for a veteran (signing Andrew Bynum, trading for Deng), those deals didn’t make the impact anyone hoped they would.

It hasn’t helped that the Cavaliers have dealt with injuries to key players for large part of the last two seasons. The shadow of James also looms large over Quicken Loans Arena, although there doesn’t seem to be a logical basketball reason for him to return to Cleveland at this point in his career.

The stark differences between these two teams, however, goes beyond just personnel and usage rates, but the differences are rooted there. Because of the distinctive differences, both teams theoretically should be playing a similar style of basketball. Both teams should be lots of shooting, ball movement and mobile big men who can run the floor in pursuit of easy garbage points. The Blazers have done this and its entire offense works like a subway train, always moving on to the next stop. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, ran a slow-paced, half-court offense that sputtered out every time the first play didn’t work.

It would be impractical to solely argue that the Cavaliers fan fix this overnight. In Portland, it took years of drafting and signing, with some risk attached, players that fit what they wanted to do. They may be a little thin on the bench, but that’s fixable this summer with a solid group of relatively cheap wings available in free agency and a large group available in the draft. Moving forward, they have the two scorers they need to carry a team that is supported by the right fit at every other position. This is a large part of what makes them one of the teams to watch over the next four years.

The Cavaliers could learn from this. Whether David Griffin is the next general manager or not doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t even really matter if Mike Brown is the head coach. This team would be best served to cut what doesn’t work at the first opportunity and look for that players that fit with Irving, fit with Waiters and can help cover some the well-chronicled deficiencies in other players. It needs to play Bennett and, ideally with a summer that gets him into playing condition well before the season ends, start to figure exactly who he is as an NBA player. And then answer every other question that needs to be answered before the Cavaliers move up another rung in the latter.

This is the case even if you have one of those franchise players every team wants and needs. It most certainly come overnight and it for every hit, there will be a miss. Just ask Portland.