Blazersedge Mailbag: Friday May 13th, 2011

Note: This post has been bumped to the top of the page. Scroll down for Friday's news updates.

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It's Friday the 13th and that means it's time for another edition of the Blazersedge Mailbag.  Don't ask me why.  I'm sure the advanced statisticians among us can figure it out.  Let's jump right in...

Does the ensuing success of the Mavericks make you feel better about Portland's performance in the playoffs this year?  Or does it just make you sadder?

I was mostly nonplussed to begin with and that's how I remain. At no point in the series did I think, "Dallas sucks and the Blazers should be walking away with this."  It was evident early on that Dallas was a good team playing very well and were not going to give up the series without a fight. Dallas continuing to be a good team and not giving up wins to other teams doesn't change that assessment.  I thought the Blazers played fairly close to the Mavericks in most respects but didn't know how to take control and didn't have the personnel or talent advantage to overcome that lack of knowledge and/or will. 

Dallas beating the Lakers doesn't make the Blazers any better in retrospect.  They don't have one more bit of experience because that happened, nor did they acquire new talent because of it.  If the Blazers could have won that series they should have.  The fact that they didn't leaves them playing second fiddle (if the couldn't win) or playing the fool (if they could have but didn't) no matter who else Dallas beats.

The one lingering sadness I have is that this was supposed to be Portland's year, the big breakout.  The playoffs were set up to accommodate that too.  Had things gone according to plan (read: fewer injuries) at this very moment everyone would be crowing about the new Age of the Blazers and an impending Finals series with the Eastern Conference champion.  Give me Greg Oden and Brandon Roy plus this year's team and I'll put money on them against anyone left in the West.  But that's water under the bridge, over the dam, and down the drain.  And that sadness is too general to be amplified by the loss of the Dallas series or to be assuaged by the cold comfort that at least they were pretty good and beat the Blazers legitimately.

Are the Lakers done?

Do they still have Kobe Bryant?  Then they're not done.  They're on the downswing with this iteration of the team but we knew that already before their playoff disintegration.  But it's a nasty habit of fandom to translate the last ten minutes into eternity forevermore.  Even if the Lakers come back with this same lineup (which they probably won't) they'll be a threat.  Count them out at your peril.

Click through for questions about trading Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge's stardom, respect, strategy against Dallas, team identity, plus-minus, and more!

Would you trade Nicolas Batum now? Did his playoff performance hurt his stock? 

We'll address this a little more next week in Batum's individual season review, but since the question was asked multiple times let's jump the gun.

Batum's playoff performance wasn't that much different in tone than his regular season performance:  a few spectacular moments, some decent defensive play, stretches of disappearing.  The inconsistency is starting to hurt him.  He's young but he should be growing into a steadier, more productive rhythm.  We saw the heights of the ceiling this year, heretofore unrevealed, but we still didn't get a huge rise on the floor.  That's the next step for him and he needs to take it.

While it's fair to say Batum looks a little more trade-able at the end of the season than he did at the beginning--for the acquisition of Gerald Wallace if nothing else-I still don't think he's on the block for anything less than a spectacular offer.  As long as there's some forward progress the Blazers can expect more.  Expectation is a viable reason to keep a guy who has shown flashes of brilliance to warrant it, especially when he hasn't played that long.  Also consider this:  not only do Batum and Wallace play well together but they're great insurance for each other.  At what other position are the Blazers lock-tight secure?  Point Guard:  Miller and ???  Shooting Guard:  Matthews? and Roy???  Power Forward:  Aldridge and nuttin'.  Center:  Camby???  Oden????????  With these two players Portland has multi-position-ready, talent-laden depth.   This isn't 2009.  That's not something to be taken lightly.

LaMarcus Aldridge really broke out in January/February, but I'm concerned with how he played in March and absolutely the playoffs. I can't recall one time in the series against Dallas that he attacked the rim from a guarded post position the way that he did when he was building his All-Star credentials and the national media was proclaiming that he finally made the leap. Instead, this playoff series we were treated to the same long jumpers, turnarounds and fade away hook shots that we've seen from Aldridge for the past few years. So, the question is - was that run earlier in the season ultimate an outlier, or did he really change what type of player he is? Did Brandon Roy's return have anything to do with Aldridge's dip in aggressiveness? Is he really a #1 type of guy, or just playing one on TV?

No matter how good your competition in the regular season, the playoffs are a different animal.  The opponent is prepared for you.  After Aldridge's big scoring efforts in the first two games Dallas cranked down on him, staying in front of him on the perimeter, forcing him to cut sideways across the middle of the lane if he drove, then making him loft running hook shots over double defenders.  His teammates didn't help clear that lane by making outside shots.  Anyone would have trouble scoring under those conditions.  However Aldridge also rushed plenty of shots over non-shot-blockers and looked more shy than confident.  If he shook defenders and got free it was almost always on a jumper and almost never in the lane.

This is pretty consistent with the LaMarcus Aldridge story.  The guy has a great body and he's talented.  He's worked hard to become a productive player.  That combination of gifts and effort spell "Star".  But he's not an explosive star.  He's not a take charge and dominate star.  My old friend Gavin Dawson used to say the next fast-twitch move Aldridge makes will be his first.  This applies to more than just his physical attributes.  His style of play and demeanor are smooth.  But smooth doesn't make you a superstar in this league.  Smooth has to be followed up by nasty, imposing, and completely unstoppable.  That's not LMA.

Aldridge is a #1 guy, perfectly capable of scoring 22 a night, perfectly capable of dropping 40 on you.  But he's not THE #1 guy in the way that Kobe and LeBron--or even Kevin Garnett and Brandon Roy--are.  That's why Blazer fans are hoping that Greg Oden can add some size and inside play, Gerald Wallace some explosiveness and nastiness, the wings some outside shooting, Andre Miller some leading passes, and maybe even Brandon Roy some clutch crunch-time buckets.  Aldridge more or less needs all of those things to make his 20+ per game tell.

One of the ways LMA could step up to that game dominating level is to keep scoring the smooth 20 on offense but get really intense on defense.  You don't need permission or help and he's got most of the physical tools to become a nasty defender, especially off-ball.  The non-fast-twitch thing will hurt the shot blocking, but he could get up in people's grills more than he does with those long arms and good speed for a 6'10" guy.

When Dirk was torching us in the 4th quarter of every game, why didn't we double team him like they did to Aldridge?

Dallas hit every jumper they threw up.  Portland was dying from the poison they picked either way.  So they decided to defend straight up, hopefully force Dirk Nowitzki into tough jumpers, and then be in better position for rebounding having not sent help.  (When you have to run a second guy out to the perimeter you usually weaken your rebounding position.)  Sadly Dirk hit plenty of those jumpers and the Mavericks got the rebound anyway.  On the other end Aldridge couldn't get up clean shots and Portland's perimeter players were hit and miss...mostly miss.  Thus the Mavs kept double-teaming effectively while the Blazers couldn't.

Is it fair to question the Blazers "hearts" in the recent playoff series? I felt they were out-hustled by Dallas throughout.

Depends on what you mean by heart.  Portland wanted to win.  They battled back from difficult situations to keep games close.  They pulled out Game 4 against impossible odds.  But Dallas did want it more and willed it more.  The Mavericks KNEW they weren't going out in the first round this year.  The Blazers hoped they weren't.  There was a difference.  Maybe the Blazers will prepare to KNOW next season.

Another key factor was Dallas' made shots.  Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Tyson Chandler made a lot of hard work by the Blazers go down the drain.  When Dallas defended well they were usually rewarded with a rebound.  The Blazers defended well only to have Dallas hit a jumper or grab the offensive rebound.  At some point your intensity dims in that situation.  That's just human nature.

I think the Blazers did show a lack of heart/intensity at a couple points, most notably the fourth quarter of Game 2.  That was a sad performance.  How this series could have swung had they played a great 12 minutes of basketball instead of a halfway indecent 12 minutes.

At the start of the season the big PR push was "Now" as it was assumed we'd have a healthy Roy, Aldridge, and Oden at some point. With the Roy/Oden news it became courage, strength, or some other vague concept of unity through adversity. With the emergence of LaMarcus, and the addition of Wallace, it was "Right Team, Right Direction, Right Now." Yet here we are, after a bitter game 6 loss (again), at home (again), where the Blazers fell short in almost every category, and the two games we did win took herculean efforts. What do the Blazers have to do, aside from a new slogan (don't get me started on uprise), to not end up in the exact same place for a fourth year running?

The Blazers don't need slogans.  The Blazers can't hold onto a "now" that was supposed to come and didn't.  The Blazers have to start winning whatever it takes.  48 wins is decent, but they were aiming for 55+ and that's still the goal.  How to get there is the billion dollar question.  The only certain answer right now is health.  If that's not forthcoming this incarnation of the Blazers reminds me of the early 80's teams, pre-Drexler.  They had some nice players like Jim Paxson, Mychal Thompson, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt.  But they didn't have the right mix nor the dominant leader nor the mindset to rise above their talent level and that talent level just wasn't enough to take them beyond good.  If they never get healthy this team will probably field an All-Star or two and not get far past the first round.  The only way out of that pattern is to manufacture a blockbuster trade but the kind of players Portland needs to get over the top in the absence of Roy and Oden aren't available and would come at a cost that would pauperize the team.

If that extended run of good-but-not-great play happens I'm not sure that marketing can come up with a slogan that could sweetly frost the cake of bitterness enough to make it palatable.  They've got a couple more years before we reach that conclusion firmly though, so maybe for now they should go with, "It could happen!" and leave it at that.

Do the Trailblazers have an (on-court) identity?  If you were talking to a friend who's a casual fan and doesn't watch our team how would you describe the Blazers in one or two sentences?  A lot of the great teams are easy to describe: "Kobe (superstar) and a bunch of big dudes."  "Tough defense and veteran shooters."  "Three mega stars running fast, and a bunch of role players."  The playoffs showed a team that's confused about who option #1, #2, and #3 are, the style they play, and who leads the team in crunch time.  We talk about inconsistency all the time, but doesn't this team have to decide who they are and commit to it before they can do it every night?  Is it a mental issue on the players, coaches not laying out a clear vision, or is the roster simply not strong enough to win one single way night in and night out?

They're trying to develop one.  The key planks are tall, skilled defenders causing turnovers, rebounding, and unselfish passing leading to open shots that can be hit anywhere on the court.  They have the turnovers, were shaky on the rebounding (also allowing too high of a shooting percentage when they couldn't get the turnover), and got the unselfish part right but didn't hit enough of the shots to make it tell. 

Sum this all up and you have "Game Control through Ball Control".  Portland wants to get the ball from you and make you work hard (and usually get scored on) to get it back.  As soon as the other team controls the boards, doesn't commit turnovers, or forces the Blazers into one-on-one play Portland's identity is lost and they usually lose.  

Is Portland among the most disrespected franchises in the league by the refs, the media, just about everyone who's not a fan of the team already?

Disrespected how?  What have the Blazers done to merit respect or attention or favor?  They've lost in the first round three straight years.  Yes there have been injuries, but blah blah blah.  The only thing that earns respect for non-marquee teams (read:  Lakers and Knicks) is winning.  When the Blazers win they will get respect.  Until then, forget about it.  Asking for it only seems pathetic.

The team needs to understand this clearly.  By extension the fan base should too.  You get NOTHING ON CREDIT in this league.  What people perceive you will do someday means zero.  What people wish you could have done "if only" means even less.  The Baby Bulls found that out.  Chicago was destined for greatness, then the world fell apart from them.  They got their acts together, drafted well, now they're in the Eastern Conference Finals as the #1 seed and they're getting mad respect.  Many people have Miami tabbed as the underdog in the forthcoming series.  Do that and the Trail Blazers will get noticed. 

As I said above, had the injury situation been different the Blazers would be getting that same notice this year, would be the clear favorites coming out of the West, and people would be talking about a Blazers-Bulls Finals series before the Conference Finals had even started.  But that didn't happen.  Until it does, all the "respect" in the world is empty anyway.  Would it really make you feel better to hear Jon Barry or Kenny Smith say the Blazers are a really good team underneath all those health problems and it's sad what happened to them?  Let the team be remembered when they're dominating and let them be left alone otherwise.

There's been some debate about plus-minus and like stats around the site lately.  What's your take?

All stats lie.  People want to point to numbers as the final arbiter of an argument but those numbers were created and valued by people the same as eye-measured benchmarks.  The advantage of numbers comes in balancing all of the untrained eye testing out there, as we all start from the same base with hard statistics whereas relatively few people have the vision to see the game correctly (meaningfully) with consistent excellence.  But starting from a higher base level of knowledge doesn't mean that the upper reaches of that knowledge are any more perfect than that gained through corresponding eye measurements.  Both are limited by the analyst's value judgment in the creation of the measure and in its interpretation.  The key to prosperity on each of these parallel roads is the same:  accepting that your data is imperfect/biased and understanding specifically how, the better to know what you're measuring and what you're not.  No measurement--eye or mathematical--does everything.  You want to mine your measure for its strengths and discard it in favor of a better when your question is beyond its ability to answer.

Plus-minus and allied stats attempt to measure an individual's effect on the system rather than a specific part.  You can say a player got 10 rebounds, but how did that affect the game?  By measuring points for and points against when a player is on the floor you start to get an idea of how that player affected the bottom line.  If a guy gets 10 rebounds consistently but the team falls behind by a point per minute when he's on the floor, maybe those rebounds aren't so valuable. 

The problem is, how do you know it was that guy and not someone else causing the deficit?  Maybe the rebounder gets subbed in with Lazy McDefenseless who allows an opposing gunner six open threes in a row.  That's not the fault of the board man but plus-minus will paint him with the same incriminating brush as his teammate.

Plus-minus lies like a mug-mug when the sample size is small.  In an isolated incident there's simply no way to filter out the actions of teammates and opponents to pin causation on a single player.  Your plus-minus is going to look different against Dallas than Sacramento, against the first unit than the second, when you're sick versus when you feel great, when you're playing alongside certain guys and not others.  But over the course of an entire season, playing against every opponent scheduled, playing with a variety of teammates under conditions that can be termed normal when spread out over an entire year, it starts to take on meaning.  The exterior factors don't disappear, but they average out.  If you're saying, "This happened because of my teammate and this happened because of the opponent and this happened because it was Wednesday and this happened because the ball was too slippery and this happened because of the refs" over the course of an entire season you have to start asking, "OK...in what world do things like that not happen?  And why was that other guy able to have a more positive effect on the bottom line when all of those things were happening to him too?"

Plus-minus doesn't do well when you narrow it down to decimal points.  The difference between a +3.6 and +3.8 isn't worth debating over.  Plus-minus won't tell you exactly what is going right or wrong.  Plus-minus won't tell you conclusively how a player would perform if taken out of their current situation and placed in another, say in a trade.  Plus-minus is NOT a conversation-ender.  It's not a measure of absolute value by any means.

The best way to look at plus-minus is as a question mark or exclamation point after all of the other stats.  A guy with a bunch of great numbers plus a high plus-minus gets some emphasis after the analysis.  A guy with great numbers and a low plus-minus gets at least a "?" and maybe a cautionary flag that there's something beyond the numbers you can't see.   It's up to you to figure out whether it's an aspect of his game that's not showing up in the numbers, the teammates he's playing with, or what. But at least the stat leads you to ask that question.

Using plus-minus a player's body of work can be compared against teammates in broad strokes.  Plus-minus can also be useful year-to-year, judging whether a player got better or better acclimated, adapting to a new role or system.   LaMarcus Aldridge's high plus-minus does both, helping us understand that his otherwise-impressive stats weren't lying.  Something went really, really right for him this year and it translated into a huge team benefit.  But it would be laughable to look at the plus-minus of all players around the league and decide that Aldridge is the best of them all because he's at the top of the league in a certain version of the stat.  Aldridge for LeBron still won't fly.

As long as you understand the questions plus-minus and associated stats are leading you to-and as long as you understand how they're trying to lie to you, or at least seduce you into seeming-obvious-but-wrong correlations-they're great to play with and can be educational.

I didn't get through even a tithe of the questions in the inbox, but if you have one to add go ahead and send it to the e-mail address below.  Be sure to mark "Mailbag" in the subject line so I can sort easily.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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