The easiest mistake for General Manager Kevin Pritchard to make this offseason would be to talk himself into another year with Joel Przybilla as the Portland Trail Blazers’ starting Center. Given Przybilla’s dollar store salary, lunch pail dependability, solid character and the fact that he's coming off what team officials love to call a "career year," the temptation to stick with Przybilla is overwhelming. Indeed, last Friday afternoon Pritchard told the media he did not foresee "wholesale changes" to the roster and name-checked Przybilla specifically as a player who has taken on increased responsibility as a veteran on a young, developing team. The temptation to ride this "career year" 6 points and 9 rebounds per game center must be resisted at all costs if the Blazers are serious about taking their next step on the way to an NBA championship.
Deconstructing the Przybilla Myth
Przybilla’s defenders can often be heard repeating an outright lie: "Przybilla is the perfect center for this team." Their reasoning generally centers on three points ...
• 1. Brandon Roy's supposed preference for dominating the ball in the offensive sets
• 2. Przybilla’s rebounding rate
• 3. Przybilla’s ability to score in the low post
Let's address each point in turn.
1. It would be helpful to have a ball-handling center
As much fun as it is to watch Brandon Roy hit impossible 3 pointers with 4 hands in his face, B. Roy's life would be easier, his career would last longer and the offense would run more smoothly if he was paired with a center that could command defensive attention and get into the lane every once in awhile. I am not saying this to be snarky but because an honest evaluation is important: Przybilla struggles to take assistant coaches off the dribble (and in the post) during practice and warm-ups. The good news: Przybilla knows this and therefore doesn't risk needless forays into the key. The bad news: a center that rarely enters the paint is one of the least-valuable commodities in an evolving NBA that increasingly favors small, quick, aggressive centers that apply consistent pressure to a defense, particularly in the playoffs.
This past season, the Blazers adapted to Przybilla’s speed deficiency well, removing the ball from his hands in most of their half-court sets and relying on Brandon to orchestrate things and carry the team to the league's 2nd best offensive efficiency. It was a Dwyane Wade-esque approach, one that was spectacular in producing 54 wins and then immediately mediocre once the playoffs started and the bump foul calls dried up. If Wade, one of the top 3 players in the world, can't get out of the first round in the Eastern Conference against a team that hasn't won a playoff series in a decade, what makes Portland so confident that Brandon Roy (a top 10 player in the league, but no Dwyane Wade) should or could carry the Blazers to the second round in the Western Conference playoffs using a similar approach next year? Fool me once. Then get better personnel.
2. Don't believe the rebounding rate lie
This season, Przybilla’s rebounding rate stood at 22.8, which was the best in the league. Looks nice on the surface. However, we must keep in mind that it's difficult to not rebound when your starting power forward hangs out around the perimeter. Przybilla’s stats suffer from classic over-inflation. When praising Przybilla’s high rebounding rate, we must also acknowledge the deficiencies in Aldridge’s game that produce it: his inability to defend bigger players, his discomfort battling in the paint, his unwillingness to hang out in the key, his limited ability boxing out, his total incapacity for boxing out and his total fear of trying to outrebound Yao Ming or Shaq.
Additionally, Przybilla only put up 9 rebounds in nearly 24 minutes per game. Przybilla’s above average rebound rate is the result of his limited skill set: he can't drive and finish, lacks any post moves, and struggles defending perimeter players. So what's left? Stand in the key and rebound. Are we really that thrilled he managed to tally 9 of those boards a game?
3. Przybilla’s post moves do a disservice to the young bigs
269 possessions this season concluded with a Joel Przybilla shot attempt. He converted 168 of those for a sparkling 62.5%, the best field goal percentage of his career. None of those shots were quite memorable.
I would give back each and every one of those possessions (including any and all game winners and makes that led to simultaneous Mike and Mike orgasms, which never actually happened I just thought this sounds cool) without a second thought if it meant that Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge could split those 269 shot attempts.
Those guys are developing stars. Those guys are the future. More importantly, those guys will have the choice whether they want to stay here in Portland or if they want to go somewhere else where they will get more looks. While LaMarcus's beast-like performance after the all star break and in the playoffs showed that he can thrive in spite of Przybilla’s gunning, Oden remains the same clumsy, confused offensive player that he was in September.
Certainly, offseason work and conditioning are important for Oden. But while Greg has endured taunts this season and both Nate McMillan and Brandon Roy have caught some collateral criticism for Oden's slow offensive development, it's been a basketball truism at every level going back to the peach basket days: young bigs go as far as their veteran teammates take them. Oden cannot learn post moves on his own; he cannot develop go-to moves without consistent touches; he cannot subsist off of offensive rebounds alone. If next year's scheme again calls for Brandon Roy to initiate and Joel Przybilla to watch, it's reasonable to expect continued stunted development from Greg Oden.
Because, really, is Joel Przybilla the man who will shepherd Greg Oden into his dominating future? Robinson to Duncan? Is Joel Przybilla the man who will find easy hoops for LaMarcus Aldridge? Shaq to Amare? Is Joel Przybilla going to have the credibility to get in his teammates' faces late in playoff games, demanding smarter, harder play? Bill Russell to the Celtics?
I don't think we can honestly answer any those questions in the affirmative, except for maybe that last one.
And it's not entirely his fault. Przybilla spent a good amount of time this year looking over his shoulder with a young, eager center breathing down his neck. It's hard to help Brandon shoulder the load, it's hard to make calculated risks on offense, and it's hard to set aside extra time to develop a camaraderie with your young post players when you entered training camp primarily concerned with holding on to your job.
That's a problem.
And one that needs to be, and can be, fixed.
Appraising the Competition
Przybilla would probably dismiss all of this as nothing new, criticism that he has heard and overcome his entire life. Indeed, he did nothing in college, and left the team due to differences with his coach and is an NBA All-Star when it comes to being an enforcer. He deserves all the credit in the world for his thick skin and the chip-on-the-shoulder approach that has drawn repeated praise from his teammates and coaching staff.
To put it simply: we should prefer a center with a low post game to a center with a chip on his shoulder. Better still, we should prefer a center that can put up a meaningful fight on the defensive end. Despite Przybilla’s own denials, Yao Ming - 28 years old, standing 7 feet and 6 inches tall, and with a lot of previous playoff experience (but had never got past the 1st Round) -- dictated the terms of their matchup, exploding for 24 points (on 9 of 9 shooting) and 9 rebounds in only 24 minutes in the series-determining Game 1 and averaging 15.8 points and 10.7 rebounds to Przybilla’s 3.8 points and 7.3 rebounds. What's worse, Yao felt absolutely no defensive pressure from Przybilla, committing just 9 turnovers in 216 minutes in the series and finding his way to the basket at will.
Do you really believe Przybilla could lead a team past Yao, then the Lakers, then Nene and then the Eastern Conference champions?
I would hope not.
We should be able to agree that Przybilla is not an adequate starting center for a championship contender.
Fashioning a Post-Przybilla Reality
If Przybilla is not a championship quality starter, the next question becomes: should Przybilla stay as a backup?
The situation behind Przybilla this season has been a mess. It took nearly the entire season for Oden to become comfortable as an NBA Player. Not only that, but he suffered from constant abuse from NBA Referees. It was a gift if Oden could stay on the floor for more than 30 minutes.
And thank God for those games.
That leaves three possible scenarios:
• Bring in a new backup center, keep Przybilla and Oden
• Bring in a new center, trade Przybilla, and use Oden as the backup
• Bring in a new center, trade Oden, and use Przybilla as the backup
Holding on to Pryzbilla would hinder Oden's development by preventing nature from running its course. There's only so many times Oden can break off assistant coach Bill Bayno and explode in displays of aggression before you give in to the “once in a decade” center prospect unshackle his potential. Given his skill set – great rebounder already, aggressive defensive intensity, ability to finish at the rim, excellent physique – Oden should be able to succeed as a backup center next season.
Therefore, as founding president and sole remaining board member of Team Oden, my first instinct would be to repeat the long-standing mantra "Oden leaves over my dead body" and simply start soliciting offers for Przybilla + draft picks + Webster/Outlaw immediately. Make no mistake, Przybilla, despite his deficiencies, has value as a center on the open market.
But Oden has trade value too: he was labled as a “once in a decade” prospect coming out of Ohio State. And the need for a playoff-ready center is so dire that Oden must go on the trade table. If it takes sacrificing Oden and watching him blossom in a greener pasture to ensure that Brandon Roy isn't dragged down on a nightly basis by his frontcourt mate, that's a sacrifice we should be willing to make.
But putting Oden on the table for a center might not even be necessary given Pritchard's stack of chips. Backed by the richest owner in sports, KP has five draft picks this year, multiple cheap assets (Outlaw, Batum, Webster, Blake, Rodriguez, even Frye in a sign-and-trade), some salary cap flexibility, and - if he wants to go all in -- the best backup center in the league to throw at the other 29 teams during the worst economic crisis in recent memory. It is patently absurd to suggest in this climate and with those pieces that a serious upgrade at point is not available. They are out there. Teams are struggling to fill arenas, taking out loans from the league office to cover costs, contemplating relocation, the list goes on. This is a dream buyer's market.
Freeing Oden and keeping Przybilla as a backup would not be a horrible look. Keeping both players and burying Oden on the bench again would be an ideal situation (perhaps too ideal) for all parties, except Oden. Parting ways with Przybilla completely would be my personal preference but at this point it's less important which of those three paths Pritchard takes... as long as he acknowledges that the Przybilla-as-starter philosophy is fundamentally flawed.
In the end, dealing with a center problem will always be of lesser concern than dealing with a starting point guard problem.
The game plan should be:
1) target the starter
2) obtain the starter
4) worry about the backup situation
A Plea to KP: Do Not Leave it Short
As we come to the end of this diatribe and you prepare to vote "stay" or "go" for Joel Przybilla, we should think back to the single biggest moment of this year's playoff run, a sequence Blazer fans will not soon forget. Once the first round matchup between Houston and Portland was announced, Joel decided to go all macho and declare that he wanted to guard Yao 1-on-1.
“Actually, Przybilla has already put some thought into the matchup. In the last meeting, April 5 in Houston, the Blazers employed a new tactic in guarding Yao, which included having LaMarcus Aldridge front Yao."This time, I want him,'' Przybilla said. "I want to guard him straight up. I want that on my shoulders.'' (http://blog.oregonlive.com/behindblazersbeat/2009/04/behind_the_blazers_locker_room_14.html)
Przybilla’s defense came up short. Very short. Like Yao going 9/9 in that game and dominating from the opening tip short. Like Steve Blake airballing a key three pointer in Game 3 short.
He came up short. And, in turn, the Blazers came up short.
One must meditate upon that moment.
And Kevin Pritchard must do this offseason what Przybilla failed to do prior to the game. Find a better option.