The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets 122-120 in an overtime thriller last night while riding a monster performance from their three time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland’s sensational power forward scored a franchise playoff record 46 points and pulled down a career post-season best 18 boards, numbers that no NBA player had achieved in a road playoff win since hall-of-famer Elgin Baylor did so way back in the 1962 NBA finals. However, the Trail Blazers would not be reaping the benefits from such a stellar performance had they not made a 2006 draft day trade with the Chicago Bulls eight years ago.
Following the 2005-06 NBA season the Trail Blazers were not only the worst team in basketball, but quite possibly the most poorly operated franchise in the NBA. Their players fought with each other out on the court, publicly criticized team officials, and were involved in legal incidents away from the game. Nate McMillan, who had been hired as the new head coach, quickly learned that his hands were tied as he had inherited a team whose athletes had been given full control to do as they please. Team management was in disarray as several executives were either fired or had resigned from their positions, and the relationship between the team and the management of The Rose Garden–the Trail Blazers home arena–had become strained due to what was labelled as a “broken economic model.” The sale of the franchise had even been discussed until owner Paul Allen eventually decided that he would not sell the team but instead do whatever was necessary to turn things around.
Meanwhile the Chicago Bulls had developed a scrappy young roster that had returned to the playoffs for the first time since the Michael Jordan era. General manager, at the time, John Paxson had been making moves and acquiring draft picks through trades to help build the Bulls back to championship prominence. They had been tabbed the “baby bulls” as the young prospects gelled together, and though they could not break through the first round of the playoffs in back to back seasons, a winning foundation had been brought back to the Windy City.
Then came the 2006 NBA draft in which Chicago held the second overall pick from a previous trade with the New York Knicks. Initially it was Chicago that had selected LaMarcus Aldridge at number two, but he was then immediately shipped to Portland in exchange for athletic forward Tyrus Thomas, whom the Blazers had picked at number four and power forward Viktor Khryapa. That draft day swap sent both franchises in very different philosophical directions.
The Blazers, who were in utter disarray, shed the roster of all troubled players and decided to build around a new generation of potential stars. Accompanying Aldridge in Portland was fellow 2006 NBA draftee, and the eventual 2007 rookie of the year, guard Brandon Roy. Portland finished the season with the seventh worst record, yet won the draft lottery with only a 5.3 percent chance to win, and then selected center Greg Oden with the first overall pick. Oden, a very promising prospect out of Ohio State, was supposed to create a devastating pair of forwards much in the same vein as hall-of-famer David Robinson and Tim Duncan did for the San Antonio Spurs in the late 1990s, only Oden’s career never really took off due to a series of serious injuries. Instead, it was the duo of Aldridge and Roy that eventually took flight, and had the Trail Blazers reaping the benefits from their 2006 draft day trades as their two young stars brought them back to the post-season.
However, after several years of being bounced out in the first round of the playoffs, coach Nate McMillan being fired, and three time all-star Brandon Roy being forced into early retirement due to injury, the Blazers found themselves out of the post-season and back to square one. The only difference this time was that they had a very steady franchise player to lean on in LaMarcus Aldridge. And in the 2012 NBA draft, they found a new partner to team with Aldridge when they selected guard Damian Lillard with the sixth overall pick. The Blazers would miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season, but Aldridge would go on to make his second consecutive all-star appearance, and Lillard went on to win rookie of the year honors, renewing faith among the Blazers faithful. This season, led by their new dynamic duo, Portland would improve their record by 21 games, securing the fifth seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, and becoming the fourth highest scoring team in the NBA.
The Chicago Bulls on the other hand found nothing but fool’s gold in Tyrus Thomas. An ultra athletic shot blocker and shut down defender in college who appeared to have all the potential in the world never could quite convert it into production on the hardwood. He was nothing but a headache for a number of coaches and eventually he was shipped away to Charlotte in exchange for a conditional future first round draft pick. Thomas is no longer playing in the NBA and to add further insult, Viktor Khryapa, the other player acquired from Portland in the 2006 draft day trade never panned out as an NBA player either.
The Bulls did strike gold in the next two drafts with all-star center Joakim Noah in 2007, and hometown hero and eventual NBA MVP Derrick Rose in 2008. With those two players cemented as main stays in Chicago the Bulls became top contenders in the Eastern Conference for several seasons. But since injuries have put Rose’s career in limbo for the better part of the past two years, and even though the Bulls consistently make the playoffs, they find themselves playing the role of pretenders, so to speak.
Even with Rose in the lineup there has always been the idea that Chicago is offensively limited and relies heavily on its suffocating defense, without their MVP point guard there is no other player on the roster that can create offense off the dribble and threaten the upper echelon defenses of the NBA. This is a big reason why the Bulls dropped the first game of their current playoff series against the Washington Wizards. The adage that defense wins championships is correct, but if you have problems scoring the basketball, it will be difficult to win.
Coach Tom Thibodeau uses a lot of substitution throughout key parts of the game to put the best players in the best situations for the Bulls to succeed, especially at the power forward position. Former all-star Carlos Boozer is an accomplished scorer, and though he may have lost a step in recent years, he has a natural feel in the offensive zone, while improving veteran Taj Gibson provides much more value at the defensive end with his strong defensive play and shot blocking ability. Both players can contribute at times on both ends of the floor, but neither is consistent enough on both sides of the ball to be a true two way player, and so their weaknesses must be off set. However, had the Bulls elected to keep Aldridge back when they had the chance they would not have to worry about such frequent substitution.
While it is imaginative speculation at best, one can’t help but wonder how different the Bulls would be with a player like Aldridge in the line up. He would not only be a second star and provide that true post threat that the Bulls have lacked for quite some time, but more importantly he would have taken pressure off of Derrick Rose, possibly even lessened the wear and tear on Rose’s body. Again, it is only speculation, but with a second star on the team that can create his own offense it might have afforded Rose the opportunity to avoid some of the collisions he sent his body hurling toward for the sake of his team.
Then again, one can hypothesize what the Trail Blazers would have looked like had they wound up with Tyrus Thomas, and, well, surely that would not have been a pretty sight in Portland. If anything it would have given them the exact type of player they wanted to rid themselves of during the dark times of the mid-2000s.
So while Portland enjoys their game one victory over Houston, and the Bulls lament their game one loss to Washington, basketball fans can reflect on the many ways each and every decision impacts a franchise. And while injuries are something that nobody can predict, and the future success of any team is nothing short of complete mystery, hindsight is 20/20 and you can always pinpoint specific moments that helped propel a team to new heights, or helped sink them to a new low. After the first weekend of NBA playoff action, for Portland and Chicago one of those moments is the 2006 draft. And right now, its the Trail Blazers who are reaping the benefits from the 2006 draft day trade.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky