Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Minutes, Losses, Hero Ball, Buyers and Sellers

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More mailbag questions submitted by the readers of Blazer's Edge. In this edition: Do big minutes for starters hurt the team? Should the Blazers be avoiding success this season? Are the Blazers buyers or sellers in this year's trade market?

Dave,

At what point does playing our starters so many minutes a game start hurting us? Maybe it already has with the Batum and Matthews recent injuries. I don't think we should "tank", but man these guys are going to start getting injured, and for what, an 9th or 10th place western conference finish?

Nick

I don't believe there's a fulcrum point at which the practice starts hurting, nor do I believe it necessarily leads to injuries. Guys playing 25 minutes a game get injured too, as we've seen from recent Blazers incarnations. Every year one or two stars around the league play an obnoxious number of minutes. Usually it works out fine until they've piled up a few straight years of insane duty. That's not Portland's plan for these guys.

Nevertheless the issue remains live. Playing one guy big minutes--say, LaMarcus Aldridge--is just dandy. Having to play four or five isn't a viable strategy. Somebody is going to wear down. Also consider that outside of Aldridge these guys have been platooning their whole careers. Wesley Matthews is the only one of the non-Aldridge starters to have averaged more than 32 minutes per game for a complete season. 38 minutes is uncharted territory. At that rate when Damian Lillard hits the rookie wall it'll be a head-on collision.

Coach Stotts has tried to play the bench more as the season has progressed and he's going to be forced to lean on them further, for better or worse.

Dave,

How important is it to this team's future that they DON'T make the playoffs, with the 2013 draft pick being top-12 protected? Isn't that extra incentive for Olshey to not make a trade before the deadline? Then again, making the playoffs may help with bringing in a free agent in the summer.

Aaron

You never, ever strategize to lose...at least not until all hope has faded. The most valuable lessons the Blazers will learn this season will come from fighting to win every game possible. If the Blazers can make the playoffs this year they should and they will. If that happens I will be the first guy on my feet leading the thunderous applause. They will have exceeded every reasonable expectation and proven themselves a cut above their presumed talent level. It would be an amazing accomplishment, the best I could conceive of. They should fight towards this goal independent of draft considerations, free agent signings, or any concern beyond the present. That's their job.

Which would you prefer, a team that says, "We're going to be great no matter what!" or a team that says, "We all know we're not great until somebody else gets here"? Start chanting that second mantra and you're not going to be great no matter who else comes. You'll always be waiting for the next guy to fix your circumstances instead of overcoming them.

Relatively low expectations and faint chances of immediate success allow the Blazers front office folks to bide their time, waiting for the right deal instead of striking immediately to reach a goal. If the right move comes along they're free to make it. If not, they can wait. But there's no mandate to be awful, nor should that be an aim of any franchise. I can imagine a front office passing up moves that would only improve a team incrementally compared to the cost. In theory that's what the Blazers are doing now. I can't imagine a front office passing up moves they feel would legitimately improve the team just to stink for a while longer. How many of those "right" moves come along in one career?

This team wasn't designed to make the playoffs, but this team wasn't designed to not make the playoffs either.

Dave,

Do you agree with Henry Abbott's assessment that the Blazers would be better off running plays at the end of the game instead of watching Damian Lillard play "hero ball"?

Martin

Too soon. Let the guy enjoy his first-ever game winner for a minute or two.

I can see where Henry is coming from in the abstract but let's take a look at the specifics of this team. Who has the skill set to take the ball in hand on the final play? We've seen Nicolas Batum succeed in a specific situation: no ticks left and you need a turn-and-fire. With 12 seconds remaining only two guys fit the bill, Lillard and Aldridge. Nobody else can get their own shot from enough places while still seeing the floor well enough to take advantage of other options. In the New Orleans game Aldridge was off the floor with a sprained ankle. That left Lillard. That's not hero ball. That's necessity.

Now, you can argue that Lillard looks for his own shot too much in various situations, including that one. It's his default mode, much like Michael Vick's was "scramble" when he was young. That's understandable. Give a puppy a bone and puppy's gonna eat it. Or in Lillard's case bury it...from distance. When the dog gets bigger it understands that more options are available. That's when you'll see more plays come to fruition.

Even in those cases, though, Lillard will still be this team's "hero". He's just going to be the hero with the shot sometimes and with the dish others.

I must admit that I found this part of the reasoning curious:

"But here, let me tell you how things go back in reality: Lillard makes about 37 percent of his 3s. By the time he retires, I suspect that in crunch time, his 3-point average will be no better than that, and likely worse."

That's true as far as it goes, but most of the time when you take a three in the final possession one of two things is true:

1. It's wide open, presumably the best shot you can get.

2. You need a three.

Granted neither of these were true of Lillard's recent game-winner. If you want to say the Blazers won't prosper if Lillard just keeps hucking contested threes no matter what the situation then I agree...as will the whole rest of the world. But under normal circumstances one of those two criteria will be met. If it's the first then we have no argument...it was the right shot. If it's the second, if you need a three, then you have to ask how bad 37% shooting is. Only four teams finished above 37% shooting from beyond the arc in 2011-12. No matter how many times you pass the ball, that's not going to change. You could argue that getting the ball to an excellent three-point specialist would be superior but opposing teams aren't going to leave that specialist open unless they're threatened by a ball-handler who draws the defense. That requires exactly the type of proficiency Lillard is trying to demonstrate. In other words, unless he shows some ability to be the hero in these situations he's not going to find any free teammates to run plays for.

Dave,

What is one trade you would be happy with prior to the deadline? Name the players, why, etc.

Casey

You got me. I don't think there's an ideal one achievable. The Blazers don't have enough assets or cap space to spare to make an in-season move that would significantly improve the team. Prospects will be better during the summer.

I can give you names that could go out for the right player: J.J. Hickson, Wesley Matthews, and any of the bench players. I can also tell you that we probably need to see Hickson or Matthews continue with this team, even if it's in a reserve role, if the overall talent level is to rise instead of flat-line.

I can also give you names I'd love to see come in from a pure talent standpoint: power forwards like Kenneth Faried or Derrick Favors, centers like Al Horford or Anderson Varejao.

What I can't tell you is how in the world to match up Column A with Column B before February. There isn't enough juice in Column A and the needle-moving players in Column B range from unlikely to untouchable.

So, you know, I'm going to say Jeffries, Freeland, Smith, and Pavlovic for Varejao and leave it at that.

This brings up an interesting question, though. The NBA sites across SBNation are doing features today on whether their teams are buyers in the market this winter, sellers, or both. What would you say the Blazers are?

I believe the Blazers are buyers in the sense that they want to amass more talent. They could be sellers in a way, as they have plenty of pieces they'd be willing to part with. But my final analysis would be that the Blazers are wait-and-see-ers. If the right move came along they'd leap in a second but they're not antsy to make a given move within a given time frame yet. They'll bait the hook and throw in the line but then they're likely to lie under a tree reading a good book unless the rod starts shaking really hard. That's going to change come June, but for now time is on their side.

What say you?

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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