The Portland Trail Blazers took a giant leap sideways in the 2011 NBA Draft, swapping out an aging point guard for a younger version of similar ilk, dropping a non-functional three-point specialist for a possibly-functional one, and adding another combo-guard project to a stable filled with them. The moves in order of significance:
Trail Blazers-Nuggets-Mavericks Three-Way Deal
Portland sends Rudy Fernandez [edit: and the rights to Finnish point guard Petteri Koponen] to the Dallas Mavericks for the 26th pick in the draft, Texas forward Jordan Hamilton, then sends Hamilton and point guard Andre Miller to Denver for point guard Raymond Felton. The Blazers also receive the rights to the 57th pick, Tanguy Ngombo, from Dallas but are in negotiations to trade his rights.
The best news for the Blazers might be that this deal did not include Nicolas Batum. Batum was a feature of nearly every hot pre-draft point guard rumor out there. Part of the subtext of this trade may be the Blazers yet being in love with their young small forward and the defense and depth he provides.
It's safe to say that the Blazers were not enamored with Miller and Fernandez. Rudy's faults were obvious: shooting and shooting. Miller's situation was more murky. Some speculated his attitude wasn't up to snuff even during this, his best year as a Blazer. Off-record whispers had him too complacent in the face of losing. His lack of an outside shot was also evident. But he was a serviceable, veteran point guard who kept the club afloat during difficult times. He was ultimately reliable and good for the team but neither quality was enough to keep him off of the block.
The question marks in this deal don't revolve as much around what the Blazers gave up--parts they weren't planning on using anyway--as around what they got in return. Part of the negative Raymond Felton reaction lies in the fact that he's not Steve Nash or Devin Harris or another flashy name. Those players probably weren't available for any permutation of a Miller-Fernandez package but that doesn't soothe the heart. This was the Blazers' home run swing and they came up with a guy who looks mostly like the guy they just sent out, just a little younger.
Age is the biggest benefit to Felton when measured against Miller. Andre was 35. Raymond is 26 yet still carries 6 years experience under his belt. We may not have seen his best ball yet. Felton also shoots considerably better from distance. 35.3% from the arc is hardly a number to write home about but it looks positively rosy when measured against Miller's 10.8% clip last season. Even so, Miller's overall shooting percentage was 46.0% and Felton's was only 42.5%. Because of the three-point shooting gap Felton's Effective Field Goal Percentage outstrips Miller's 48.3% to 46.2%. When you factor in free throws with True Shooting Percentage, though, they're practically even with Felton at 52.4% and Miller at 52.9%. The offensive advantage goes to Felton when shooting deep, Miller in most other situations. Their turnover percentages were near identical, assist percentages were near identical, and usage percentages were close. Felton scored a little more and notched a few more assists on a per-minute basis. Miller earned a slightly higher PER. Steals, rebounds, turnovers, free throws drawn per minute were all close. Statistically there's very little to distinguish one of these players from the other.
Is this a bad thing necessarily? It could be. On the face of it getting a guy 10 years younger who performs as well as the older player is a good deal. But Felton's contract runs but one more season, just like Miller's did. Age is meaningless if you can't milk those extra years out. Will Felton re-sign with the Blazers? If you can't convince or afford him you're left with a stable of young, untried reserves...a disaster waiting to happen. Nor can the Blazers dip into the trade well again. They're scraping bottom on expendable players and will reach absolute bottom when Felton's and Marcus Camby's contracts run out next season.
Even assuming they can keep Felton, this move didn't materially change the course of the team. At best it's six more years of staying the course at point guard. That's great if you're a championship-level team already but the Blazers aren't. They needed a kick in the pants. That's probably not Felton. Consider:
- They haven't lessened their reliance on Greg Oden and Brandon Roy's health one iota. Any hope for forward progress still hangs on that duo.
- They haven't addressed their defensive rebounding woes.
- They may have alleviated their shooting deficit slightly but Felton bombing away isn't a cure for what ails their offense.
- They haven't added winning playoff experience. They barely added playoff experience at all, as Felton has played in only 9 playoff games in his 6-year career.
This doesn't feel like the spark that will light the team. This feels like more plodding forward, hoping the spark will catch.
Summing up: If this doesn't work it's a disaster. If it does work it's more of the same. That's an odd thing to have to say about Portland's huge swing for the fences, the BIG MOVE (tm). The best hope now is that the Blazers really, really know what they are doing, that Felton IS Mr. Right (instead of Mr. Best We Could Do Right Now) and that a little bit of distance shooting will be enough to push the team over the hill. Part of me really wants to believe that. Then another part of me asks, "If Felton is that transformational why were Charlotte, New York, and now Denver willing to part with him in short succession?"
Best-Case Scenario: This move makes the team better, but not better enough. That's true even if there's another second-round pick coming Portland's way in the completed deal.
Blazers Draft Duke Guard Nolan Smith with the 21st Selection of the First Round
Here's my pre-draft blurb on Smith:
The Duke pedigree would be a big draw here. You know this guy knows how to play. Height is good if he's a point guard, bad if he's a two. He's a nice catch-and-shoot guy with just a touch of distance to his game, probably needing to develop more if he's going to be a Blazer. He scored 20 per game his senior year, drew 6 foul shots, but took over a quarter of his team's possessions to do so. He commits plenty of turnovers and his 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio is anemic. The big questions revolve around his ability to play point in the NBA. If he's the point guard of the future it might be a far future. He's another potential second-round pick Patty Mills replacement along with Jackson and Morris.
Little has changed since then. The good: he's an all-around player, the Blazers need a catch-and-shoot guy, he can score, he maybe lets you pass on making Patty Mills the qualifying offer, saving a buck or two. Smith probably has a better chance of being an eventual starter than Patty, though Patty is likely the more productive player right now. The bad: He might not be a point guard! He turns the ball over a bunch, scoring is a calling card, he's only an average athlete, and he's 6'4" which is too short to play off-guard. Have we not been through this before in various incarnations? Jarrett Jack? Jerryd Bayless? Patty Mills? Armon Johnson? Maybe even Elliot Williams? Not that those players are carbon copies, but they all bring up these kind of combo-guard questions. And now...another? I remember an episode of the WWI version of Black Adder where one of the British officers ordered a direct charge against the German trenches. When it was pointed out that this had been their strategy multiple thousands of times in a row--the only strategy, really--he replied, "Exactly! After having seen it so many times they'll never suspect it to happen again!"
Maybe Smith is finally The One. He could be. But the only possible response to this pick--having left one of the best rebounders in recent memory on the table to make it--is not whooping and celebrating but looking at the front office and saying, "Please tell me you got it right this time. If you did, huzzah for you. But we'll wait and see. And by the way you do know that you cannot have gotten it right with Smith AND Johnson AND Williams AND Felton all at the same time, right? Cuz that won't work."
Again at best we're left with a pick that doesn't change the course of the team or offer anything new. It's more of the same.
Blazers Draft Ohio State Guard Jon Diebler with the 51st Selection in the Second Round
This deep in the draft you don't expect much. You're happy if a guy even makes the squad. Diebler does one thing: he shoots. He's a shooting guard, 79% of his attempts come from three-point range, and he connects on 50% of them. He doesn't defend well, he's not a great athlete, he's no good on the drive, he'll not rebound he just shoots. The Blazers, coincidentally, need spot-up shooters. It's a natural match. It's also like a chef who decides that his dish needs a little sweetness to it so he pours in some granulated sugar. It'll get sweeter but it's also obvious, ham-fisted, the kind of thing any home cook could do. That's not to say the Blazers should be faulted for this pick. Again, at 51 why not? It's unlikely they'll earn any Michelin stars for it though.
And that, my friends, is it. No questions were answered, no vistas revealed. There was plenty of motion but no real movement. It's possible this was the best the Blazers could do. It feels like plenty of teams did better though. Our own Ben Golliver suggested via phone that it felt like the Blazers were dealing from a place of weakness and got fixated on a task it eventually cost them too much to complete. That may be true. I wonder if the task needed doing in the first place, or whether some fresh vision might have opened up new possibilities. At best these moves earn a C at this point. The burden of proof is on the team to show that they should be graded higher...something we won't know for a while. If they don't pan out--especially the trade--this could be a D- or F-level draft...the kind that makes you wonder how guys on the inside talk themselves into these things when it's obvious to everyone else that it isn't going to work. That judgment must also be reserved. Either way it's clear that reasons for optimism have run short. The Blazers must convert these point guard moves into forward momentum and they must do it now. Otherwise they're just wasting everybody's time.