The Perennial Middle: Lillard, Beal, and the NBA’s Evolving Team-Building Strategies

Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal are two of the NBA’s premier offensive weapons. Yet, neither Lillard’s Trail Blazers nor Beal’s Wizards have won a Conference Finals game since they were drafted in 2012. When each team missed the playoffs last season, students of basketball history and team-building encouraged the classic path for a middling small market franchise: tank and rebuild. Neither team chose that course, opting instead to give substantial extensions to their star guards. The front offices in Portland and Washington thus chose to reaffirm the status quo as a quasi-contender in the league’s middle led by one elite player. 

A decade ago, the Portland Trail Blazers selected a shifty point guard from a small college in Utah named Damian Lillard. Lillard rapidly ascended to one of the game’s elite shooters amid the heart of the sport’s three-point revolution. He developed an extensive offensive repertoire that led the Blazers to eight consecutive playoff appearances.

However, the Blazers have not equipped their star with a roster that can truly contend with the league’s best. The Blazers have drafted proficient talents in CJ McCollum and Anfernee Simons yet have never attracted a free agent talented enough to be Lillard’s legitimate co-star. They have failed to build a sound defense and consistently rank towards the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency. Modest roster adjustments were made in 2022 but the team remains a critical tier below the best of the Western Conference. 

Beal and the Wizards represent the more prosaic twin of Lillard and the Blazers. The Washington Wizards drafted Bradley Beal third overall in 2012, just three picks above Lillard. Beal has never boasted Lillard’s three-point ammunition but he consistently performs as one of the Eastern Confrence’s best offensive players, scoring more than thirty points per game and leading the Eastern Conference in scoring in both 2019-20 and 2020-21. 

The Wizards have won just one playoff series since Beal’s draft. They’ve had many ill-fated draft picks and have not attracted a veritable star via free agency. The Russell Westbrook experience in 2020-21 was a truly raucous season that just inflicted further frustration. The past decade of Wizards basketball beyond Beal has been remarkably undistinguished. The consolation is that they began this season in the same spot as the Blazers – an inconsistent team behind a perennial star that hasn’t truly competed for a title in decades. Both teams had strong starts to the season but have fallen in the standings as 2023 approaches. The Wizards, at this moment, have lost ten straight games.

Why did Portland and Washington double down on a formula that has led to a decade of failure?

The middle of the pack is a grave limbo. Average to good NBA rosters simply cannot win the championship. In Major League Baseball a middling group like this year’s Philadelphia Phillies can abruptly transmute into an excellent contender in October and play for the World Series. That doesn’t happen in the NBA. To win the NBA Finals you must possess one of the most offensively talented rosters, be stellar defensively, and, most importantly, have a star – one of the best couple of basketball players in the world. The 2004 Detroit Pistons are the only Finals winner this century without one of the NBA’s official top seventy-five players. No team lower than the third seed has won the Finals since the 1995 Houston Rockets. The Blazers and Wizards cannot complete a Cinderella story against the league’s juggernauts. 

Portland and Washington would require a second star equivalent to or above the standard of Lillard or Beal to win a title. Unfortunately, the Blazers and Wizards play in cities and receive draft picks that can’t yield that second star. 

Teams that play in glamorous cities with big basketball markets can pull top-tier talent in spite of their roster’s mediocrity. The 2018-19 Los Angeles Clippers were a first round playoff exit but acquired Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George in the summer. The Brooklyn Nets met the same fate that year yet signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at the end of the season. The Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs in 2017-18 but still procured LeBron James in the offseason and won a championship two seasons later. Free agent stars, especially those from the United States, prefer going to America’s biggest cities to play for the league’s most valuable organisations. Portland and Washington are strong basketball markets but they have never attracted a star free agent in their prime. This is a reality that disadvantages most teams outside of California or New York. 

Stars don’t come to small market teams. They will, however, remain with the team that drafted them for their entire career. This is especially true of international talents like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dirk Nowitzki, and (likely) Giannis Antetokounmpo, each of whom have won a championship with the team that drafted them. This makes drafting, developing, and holding onto a star the best path for teams like the Blazers and Wizards to construct a championship roster.

Most of basketball’s league-ready elite talent is found in the top five or six picks in the draft, where Lillard and Beal were selected. The draft order is decided with a lottery that gives the top picks to the teams with the worst records and the middle picks to teams with records in the league’s centre. Washington’s average first pick since Beal’s class is sixteenth and Portland’s average first pick is seventeenth in the same span (excluding 2014 and 2016, when Portland held zero total picks). Immediately productive and star-level talent like Luka Doncic typically won’t fall to that point of the draft, granted there have been exceptions. The mediocre to above-average records the Blazers and Wizards earned just yielded ineffectual draft picks that could not materialise into any stars. 

The middle of the pack is a grave limbo. Average to good NBA rosters simply cannot win the championship. 

The Blazers and the Wizards were at a critical impasse this summer. Neither their city nor their draft trajectory can yield them another star in the near future. The ceiling for 2022-23 is a Conference Finals appearance, but they are not among the worst teams vying for the top couple picks. These teams seemed trapped in the perennial middle that they occupied for years. Yet, each chose to reaffirm the status quo by extending their stars’ contracts.

The Blazers inked Damian Lillard to a two-year extension this summer that keeps him on the team until the summer of 2027. Lillard will make $63 million dollars in 2026-27 in his fourteenth NBA season at age 36. This is a risky gamble on Lillard’s continued value well after his prime. Bradley Beal’s new deal will pay approximately $251 million over five years. Beal is also the only player in professional basketball with a no-trade clause, meaning that he can personally veto any trade the Wizards might make to get out of his contract. Beal and Lillard are the fifth and sixth highest paid players in the league, respectively, and will remain atop this bracket for the foreseeable future. The Blazers and Wizards are committed to retaining their franchise players who have never brought them to the Finals and will soon be past their prime. 

The game’s other small market teams are constructing a different path to success via purposeful losing. The Utah Jazz this summer were stuck in the same spot as the Blazers and Wizards. They had two elite players in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert who together saw consistent regular season success. Yet, the duo faltered each playoff run and never once reached the Western Conference Finals.

The Jazz knew that they couldn’t win a championship with Mitchell and Gobert. They knew that their regular season wins would bring them largely futile draft picks and that they had slim hope of bringing another star to Salt Lake City. So, they sent Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for a war chest of draft capital. The Jazz projected to be one of the worst teams in basketball to begin the season, granted they have performed a bit higher than these expectations. Losing is exactly what their front office wants. They hope to lose enough games by the end of the year to get the first overall pick. This year, that honour will be bestowed upon the 7’3 Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, the best prospect since LeBron James.

The Jazz are actively trading away their current assets and trying to lose in hopes of drafting the game’s next star. As of today, the one and two seeds in the Western Conference – the Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans, respectively  – built their teams through this strategy.  

Tanking is a proven path to success that the stagnant Blazers and Wizards seemed primed to follow. If Portland traded Lillard they would receive an extensive, perhaps unprecedented, cornucopia of draft picks and young talent. The return for a scorer like Beal would also be substantial. More importantly, Washington and Portland would fall to the very bottom of the standings, meaning atop the draft board. They would have a chance at Victor Wembanyama, or whichever teenager will be the next Ja Morant or Zion Williamson. 

So, why did Portland and Washington double down on a formula that has led to a decade of failure? Did they fail to realise their roster, city, and draft picks can never realistically garner them a title? 

Perhaps you can’t tear down a status quo that is as attractive as this. Damian Lillard is an outstanding point guard and a legendary figure. He hit the most iconic three-point buzzer-beater in the history of the game while wearing Trail Blazers red. Fans adore him and pay to watch him bomb threes from the stratosphere. Lillard has displayed an unremitting loyalty to Portland. Beal doesn’t have the notoriety of Lillard but he is the reason to buy a Wizards jersey for Christmas or drive to the arena. Each player makes their team competitive enough where they’ll have a few games televised nationally and likely make a brief appearance in the playoffs. 

You can’t demolish a status quo that’s achieved some degree of success, along with sustained personal bonds. There’d be civil tumult in the wider Pacific Northwest if Lillard was ever traded to Los Angeles. It’s true that if Portland and Washington began to tank this summer they might have a shot at the championship in five years. But they would be irrelevant, boring, and losing teams this season.

A team’s goal is a championship. Even if that means sacrificing current success for glory years later, the target is the title, by any means necessary. But what if it’s not? The Blazers and Wizards’ front office certainly understand that their past rosters centred around Lillard and Beal have never really challenged the league’s best teams, and that the next few years will likely be the same. Perhaps their goal is not to hold the trophy. Perhaps they wish to maintain an exciting and bankable team behind brilliant and loyal stars – a worthy status quo. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *