It's time for another edition of the Blazersedge Mailbag. I didn't get through all of the questions in the hopper so we'll probably do this again early next week. E-mail me your questions at email@example.com if you want them included. I tried to pick a few of the older and a few of the most recent/topical questions for this edition. For some of you I have edited down your question to the heart of the matter. Forgive me for paraphrasing, but it helps for clarity.
I'm having some serious internal turmoil about this team right now. Do we have "great young talent", or is this what you get from a group of not fully developed guys who are supposed to be role players in this system?
The answer to both questions is "yes". We do have some nice young talent, guys that many teams would love the chance to develop. We also have, or at least had before the Outlaw trade, too many of them of the same age at the same positions. In normal circumstances there's a progression. An older star mans a position while a younger guy plays the understudy for a couple years then the star is moved to make way. Or maybe a role player plays ahead of a young guy but you don't particularly care whether the role player gets 40 minutes or 4 depending on how quickly the youngster develops. Or at least you surround the young guy you're throwing into the rotation with veterans who can cover for him and guide him along. None of these situations cover what the Blazers have gone through in the last couple of years.
It's all too easy to forget that Roy and Aldridge, the mainstays of the team, are only in their fourth seasons. How many minutes does a fourth-year star give up for an up-and-comer? Zero. They're the ones grabbing the minutes. How soon can you foresee those players making way for the younger guys. Oh...in about six or seven years. How well are fourth-year players, even the best ones, able to cover for their teammates? Not very well. They're still about their own game. Then you throw in Martell Webster (who has never gotten steady, let alone big-time, NBA experience), Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, and Dante Cunningham even. All of these guys are rightfully fighting for what's theirs. All of them have to think about their own game more than each other. They need to establish themselves, they need to develop their own confidence, and they just don't have the experience to see the game the way a 10-year veteran does. When you think about it like this it's a miracle the progress has come as quickly as it has. That's a testament to the talent that's on this team and their willingness to do the best they can to put the team first. This could be a complete disaster. Instead, even at its worst, it's simply uncomfortable. For that you have to give everyone involved a hearty "Bravo!"
You also see why we've been moving to acquire guys like Miller and Camby. But even they are a finger in the dike at this point. You still have role players who aren't really role players but (theoretically) budding stars. You still have little room for those guys to develop and little assurance that the situation will change. You have a bunch of guys running around trying to find themselves and still win games against teams that may look less promising on paper but at least know what they're about. This is a big part of the inconsistency you see. You have a bunch of young guys looking to their future and not seeing any avenue to gain the minutes they think they deserve. That's a big part of the discontent, frustration, and yes, sometimes pressing you see.
The inevitable question will arise, "Isn't this what the coaching staff is supposed to do, define roles?" Yes, it is. But you also have to play the hand you're dealt. If you want those roles established in a more classic way you also have to live with some of these young guys flat-out not playing. There's not room to develop them all or let all of them reach their full potential. The coaching staff is trying to balance wins, development of talent, role definition, and chemistry. Strengthening one often leads to a weakness in another. I'm pretty sure the picture became clearer when Blake and Outlaw were traded. We'll see if it doesn't clear up more over the summer.
Is the system at fault or would we get killed by speeding up the game?
Despite the predictable nature of the offensive system we run, I don't think it's necessarily designed to be as slow as it is. How many times have you seen the coaching staff jump up and yell, "Stop that!" when the Blazers are on the run? Indeed most of the Blazer huddles we see on the national broadcasts consist of Nate begging the team to cut harder, move more, and pick up the pace. However if we're going to run iso sets for Roy and Aldridge we also have to deal with the reality that both of those players take a long time to set up their shots. It's made worse, of course, by the defense already knowing what we're going to do. How do we speed up the game? It doesn't start on the offensive end, but the defensive. Knowing that we were going to get the rebound off of every missed shot would go a long way towards speeding up the game, as some of our guys could legitimately leak out then. Greg Oden should help with that. Great defense in the lane, forcing shots to come from farther out, miss more, and rebound long would also help. Again, Oden should up the quotient there. Generating turnovers would benefit the offense greatly, as we've seen in the last couple of games. Heretofore we've been conservative on defense because we haven't had that anchor in the middle to watch players' backs. My hope is that, again, great lane defense will allow guys like Fernandez, Batum, and Miller to take more risks on the perimeter. If we can become a more opportunistic defense while maintaining integrity and dominating the boards, you're going to see the pace and offensive production rise. And no, that won't kill us. It's going to make us very, very dangerous.
Did we do the right thing in building around Roy, LMA, and Oden? After all, Oden and Roy have both fought injuries throughout their careers and LMA is inconsistent. Whether these 3 can even play together (STILL!) remains to be seen. Our core, the 3 guys that most fans pin championship hopes on, how many games have they even played together in the last 3 years!?! 50? 75?
The follow-up question here is, "Right thing as opposed to what?" What alternatives did we have? The obvious one is Durant and people are going to talk about that throughout the ages. We've covered it ad nauseum. It's a marathon in which OKC is leading after 4 miles. Let's see where we finish. It's fairly certain Durant would still be scoring in a Portland uniform. How much, how well alongside Roy and Aldridge, what you'd ever see of Nicolas Batum or Martell Webster, and whether you'd ever get some of those critical things we mentioned in the last answer or whether you'd be stuck in the same grind with a different name on the uniform...those are open questions. Who else would you have wanted to build around from the Roy-Aldridge draft? Who would you have traded either for in the meantime? Amare Stoudemire? I'm not sure we'd like him any better. In any case both Roy and Aldridge will have high trade value into the future so it's not like you're in a huge pickle if you want to make changes.
The injuries have been a major bummer but we also have to ask if they've disguised potential greatness while we're asking if they've disguised an inability to play together. The truth is that we don't know yet. Give me another 100 games with them playing together and I can give you a better answer. Let's hope that doesn't take the next four seasons though!
I guess at this point the answer to your question, with the obvious asterisk of Kevin Durant, is yes...we probably did the right thing.
Click through for questions about Martell Webster on the drive, Jerryd Bayless at the point, the right offense for Rudy, the meaning of the season, the meaning of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland's playoff chances, Stats vs. Observations, and more...
Will Martell Webster ever learn how to drive off the dribble?
I don't think so, but I know people who disagree with me. I'm happy he's learned to defend better.
Will Rudy be able to thrive in a such a static system that depends on fixed sets, or does he need a faster, more flowing offense to have a real impact?
Rudy needs the NBA 20 years ago. Actually many folks would like to see the NBA of 20 years ago. I don't think there's any doubt he'd be utilized better in a system like Phoenix or New York. However I think he can create some of his own system, either with the right second unit guys or perhaps as part of a point guard committee in the starting lineup. I don't think we'll see the same offense in two years. Then again Rudy may not be a Blazer in two years.
Will we ever acknowledge that B-Rex is undersized at the 2 and is not a 1, but instead is the classic (dreaded) short combo guard?
It's a hot topic (and in this case a loaded question). I am still taking a little bit of a wait and see attitude while maintaining that the percentages are still against Bayless becoming a classic point guard. As I said in a recent mailbag though, the Blazers might not need a classic point guard in the future. And good short combo guards can still make a living in this league. Even if he's not solidly in the rotation Bayless could become that Herm Gilliam player who scored 30 in a playoff game and saves a series for us. Heck, if the guy can even defend point guards we'd be way ahead.
What could we even get if we packaged up some of this talent?
I'm going to hold off on this question until summer but I believe I have at least 6-7 reasonable moves that would help the team now and in the future. I don't think Portland's hands are tied by any means. Have patience for a couple months and see if you aren't excited.
Will we ever have a player who can, night in and night out, establish himself on the block with a back-to-the-basket game and get us some easy baskets?
Yes, as soon as Oden gets a year under his belt.
Is this truly a lost season?
I once had a friend who got cancer in his mouth. As with any cancer, the treatment was not pleasant. He described it this way: "Everything goes on as normal, it's just that your ‘normal' is different. Your old normal was planning for retirement and things you'd do next year. Your new normal is prospering today, or maybe even in the next five minutes...whatever you can make. Your old normal was sitting down to a great meal and enjoying it. Since you can't taste food anymore your new normal is getting some nutrition and enjoying the people you're with." There was more, but you get the idea. I have been amazed how much his wisdom applies to a lot of situations in life including, in a homely and not-nearly-so-serious way, the one the Blazers are in. The old normal was fighting for the division crown, getting into the second round or maybe the conference finals, establishing a firm rotation and making the final moves to ensure your franchise will dominate for years to come. The new normal is getting healthy, winning enough games to make the playoffs, and getting even more player evaluation time in. Given the number of wins we've seen and the fact that we probably will make the playoffs the season is far from lost. It's just not quite what we hoped once upon a time.
Do the OKC Thunder have a more promising future than we do?
I don't think so. There may be some epic battles coming down the pike though.
Where exactly do we go from here?
Denver first, then to Los Angeles, Dallas, or back to Denver for the first round of the playoffs.
You stated in a recent post that the Blazers were 99.99% likely to lose in the first round of the playoffs. Defend yourself, knave and rapscallion!
OK, I made up that last part. It did seem to summarize a couple of people's thoughts though.
You have to remember that the playoffs are a different animal altogether. It's a specific, focused environment to which the regular season has some, but not exact, correlation.
Obviously the Blazers are going to be facing a superior team record-wise. It's likely Portland will find itself in the 7th or 8th position looking at a matchup with Denver, Dallas, or the L*kers. All of those teams have been firing on all cylinders all year, at least when compared to the Blazers. None of those teams will show up with major gaps in the lineup as the Blazers will. All of them will have home court advantage. All of them are stocked with veterans who have been preparing for the post-season all year, not struggling to get into it.
But it goes deeper than that. It's possible to steal wins during the regular season based on the schedule alone. You catch a team unprepared, taking you for granted. You're just 1 of 82 games. In the playoffs there are no other teams to worry about. These stacked, talented, motivated, accomplished, veteran teams are sitting around all week with nothing to focus on but you and no other agenda on their calendar except beating you into an involuntary vacation.
Even in Portland's best wins you can easily identify three or four areas of constant weakness: lack of points in the paint, shoddy interior defense, shaky rebounding, inability to fast break...there are probably more. We get away with it now because not every team is good enough to exploit those weaknesses and not every team prepares for them well enough. Playoff opponents are going to exploit the heck out of all of these shortcomings. There will be nowhere to hide.
People argue that Nicolas Batum is coming into his own or we have Marcus Camby now or the team is going to gel. All of those may be true but they don't change the fundamental make-up of the team. If the ship's got holes in the side you can soup up the engine and fine-tune the rudder all you want...it's still got holes and will have a hard time sailing. This team has holes. They're not going to shoot fewer jumpers. They're not going to develop into a fast-break, easy-bucket team. They're not going to defend the lane like they would have with a full complement of centers.
If Oden and Przybilla had been back for a month already the outlook would be different. If the Blazers could climb up into a 4th or 3rd seed the outlook would be different. If everyone on the team except the Geezer Squad had five more years experience the outlook would be different. Heck, if we still played 5-game first-round series (like we should) the outlook would be different. None of these things is going to happen.
Speaking of multi-game series, your measure of success in the regular season is just one win. If you beat the L*kers you've done your job and get to celebrate. It's not like they can come back tomorrow and take the win away. That's exactly what happens in the playoffs. 1 win means nothing. You have to get 4 or you lose.
The great hope, I suppose, would be to draw an easier matchup even from a low seed. But "easier" here is relative. I would say the L*kers and Denver will automatically crush us. A win or two I could see but I would give Portland no chance to win 4 of 7. The heart wants to say there's more opportunity against Dallas. I'm not sure that's real either. There's also a chance that Utah could sneak in there. If we had Oden back I'd love that matchup. But if you look at what the Jazz have done to us this year and you look at the acumen with which they prepare for opponents, is that really a lower hurdle to jump? There's just no way out of the box here, at least not any that wouldn't require a miracle set-up. And if we're hoping for a miracle why don't we just hope to win a series outright no matter who we play?
It's the great question of the last few years: Stats or Eyes?
But you also have to understand that both suffer from the same weakness: for better or worse you need a human being to interpret the data and whenever humans enter the picture there will be bias. The statistical revolution was (and is) supposed to correct the annoying habit of observers to credit favored players or attributes above others. But even though numbers provide a level playing field the choice of where that field is located and how much territory it covers still lies in human hands. Numbers are not neutral. Somebody chose what to quantify, how to quantify it, and most importantly what conclusions that quantification leads to. Functionally this ends up looking similar to somebody choosing which players to watch, how to watch them, and what conclusions you can draw by doing so. We've all known folks who exalt their favorite players or attributes. I bet you've also known folks who exalt their favorite statistical measuring stick (often the one they've invented). You can compare more players using numerical data. That doesn't always mean you've looked at them in a clearer, more useful way nor does it mean that you've seen them with less bias.
One of the more important questions is whether your observations and the stats in questions are actually leading to wins and/or the player being a good fit for the team. One of the things people often do is cite a stat or observation that is probably fourth or fifth down the list of critical issues for said player or team. The game is not always as simple as, "We need more rebounding so let's go get the player with the best rebounds-per-minute rate in the league!" (And/or "Let's go get that huge, post-playing power forward!")
Neither knowledge of the game nor knowledge of the numbers proves sufficient in isolation. The image of the grizzled scout who can look at a guy for two seconds and assess his career arc is a myth. The best scouts will tell you it's a guessing game, a game in which you examine every scrap of data possible before you make your decision. The corresponding image of the Mathlete who can type an equation into a computer and give you the key to a championship is also mythological. The best numbers guys understand that their findings are part of a greater whole and, more importantly, understand the limits of any given data set and their own ability to interpret it into real-life situations.
Ideally your observations and the statistics should be within shouting distance of each other. If they're severely at odds then you have an interesting case for further examination. Perhaps your observations are wrong. Perhaps the stat is an aberration or, more likely, doesn't correlate exactly to real life the way it should. In either case that dichotomy begins the research and discussion. It doesn't end them, as so many people try to make it do. "This player's X-Stat is this! End of story!" "Well, I know what my eyes see! End of story!" It's likely you're both wrong, not necessarily in your data but in how you're trying to use it.
How much you rely on each is a matter of personal preference. I would say that if you're a casual observer it's better to rely more on stats because they do tend to keep you on the straight and narrow, at least in the sense that they don't value that 360-tomahawk jam as highly (and probably erroneously) as your eyes and heart do. I would guess that at the highest levels of decision-making most execs rely on their observation and/or gut for the final say even when they've taken in all of the statistical data. The data leads them to the correct fork in the road and their experience tells them which path to take. Nevertheless anyone who relies solely on their gut or solely on statistics in this day and age is likely to get out-performed by organizations that have both in their repertoire.