Blazersedge Mailbag, February 23rd, 2012: Young Guys, Playing Time, Przy, and More

Thank goodness the Blazers have an 8-day break from games because I haven't had the chance to answer mailbag questions since the beginning of the season. I'll try to play catch-up as much as I can this week while still getting in some things I want to talk about.

Dave,

Why in the name of Bill Walton's Ghost is Nate not playing the young guys? Anybody can see that the season is going down the tubes. Elliot Williams and Nolan Smith are the future! Getting them playing time now makes the franchise better later. That's more important than 2 or 3 wins even if you can argue that Felton and Crawford are bringing the team that much.

I'm not sure everyone would agree that the season is either lost or fated to be mediocre, particularly not the guys in red and black or their coach. I get the feeling that both players and coach are looking at the names on Portland's jerseys and thinking that this team should win. In any case, until upper management signals a change in direction towards rebuilding--either by announcing it or by shuffling the roster--the coach's job is to win as many games as he can, period. Heck, even in rebuilding mode you don't want to put many priorities higher than winning. In general the people playing should always be the people who give the team the best chance to win. The players you mentioned have talent but it's not overwhelming Brandon Roy/Greg Oden/LaMarcus Aldridge potential. (And even Aldridge played behind Zach Randolph his first year, if you recall.) Plus this is their first year playing in the league. Plus it's a season that allows for little, if any, organized practice. They've no doubt been drilling on their individual games. Each has shown improvement. But those drills are no substitute for running the sets with the players they'll actually be alongside on the court. It's ironic that the compressed schedule increases the need for younger bench players to contribute while at the same time making it harder for them to do so.

Most folks want to make his kind of decision in a vacuum. Coaches don't have that luxury. They have to deal with a team full of real people playing in a culture advancing assumptions and priorities that most of us don't consider.

Two forms of currency in the NBA transcend all barriers: money and playing time. These are the two reasons people play the game, to get paid and to get on the court. Money is a powerful motivator, especially when you're on your rookie contract and you see everyone else making serious dough. But most veterans with claim to starting or playing decent bench roles have made some. They're not getting Kobe money, but even $4-5 million per year will set you up pretty well when spread out over a four year deal or more. Once the season starts and the contracts are signed, playing time becomes the currency of the realm. It's the key to respect within the league, fame outside of it, and of course that next contract. In a very real sense minutes on the floor become a player's salary...their immediate reward for producing.

Imagine you had worked 30 years on the job (the rough equivalent of your 8-year veteran in the league) when your boss came in to have this conversation:

Boss: "Hey, sit down. Look, we respect what you're doing for this company and we need you to keep producing, but Jim over there is one of our up-and-comers. He's important to our future. I hope you don't mind but while he's getting some on-the-job training we're going to give him half of your paycheck."

You: "You're going to pay him half as much as I get, you mean?"

Boss: "No, we're going to cut your paycheck in half and give the money you were making to him."

You: "What? Wait...does he produce more than me? Is he trained better than me? Is he doing more for the company?"

Boss: "No, but we think he will someday. We need to get him some experience and make sure he's happy here."

You: "But I've been here 30 flippin' years! I could run circles around this guy! I've worked hard for this money!"

Boss: "I know...I know. But come on, be a team player."

So...OK. How are you going to react? There's no [word not allowed on Blazersedge] way you're going to be happy with this. Even if you stayed with the company they're going to get no more than half your usual effort. If you can find another job, you're SO out of there. If not, you're going to sit in a corner, sulk, and rip them off in any way you can. You're not keeping quiet about this either! All of those other 30-year guys need to know how this company is treating you, that it doesn't value experienced guys and effort and earning your check, that they could be next. How are they going to take that? You might not see open mutiny, but you'll get plenty of muttering, shaking heads, and morale issues. And hey, what kind of reception is Jim-Just-Stole-Your-Paycheck going to get from all of those veteran co-workers when he shows up in the office? That's not going to be a healthy environment for him either.

This scenario rears its ugly head when you suggest playing a young guy over a veteran because it would be "better for the team in the long run." It can be done, but that young guy better evidence a world of talent and help his team demonstrably. Either that of you better have told the vet when you signed him that he was keeping the place warm for the rookie and playing that veteran mentor role. Neither of those scenarios are happening here. Instead Portland's veterans are going to react just like you would if you try on their shoes. You wouldn't like your money being taken away and given to a less-deserving person who hadn't been around as long as you. They don't like their playing time being taken away in that manner either. Therefore the bar for making such a move is exponentially higher for the coach than it is for folks looking at the situation in the abstract.

(P.S. I know it's going to confuse some folks that I'm equating salary to playing time when NBA players make salaries in addition to playing, but it's the correct correlation if you want to understand what this feels like to veteran players and the dynamics in play. The closest thing someone could take from you that feels the same as taking playing time from a player is your money.)

Dave,

Why did the Smiths (Nolan and Craig) fall out of the rotation? I thought they played well! Nate's decisions seem crazy to me sometimes.

Two separate issues are at work here.

For Nolan the problem was the rotation ahead of him. Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Gerald Wallace all need to play effectively and get minutes somewhere. At the beginning of the year that looked like Felton, Matthews, and Wallace starting while Crawford and Batum came off the bench at shooting guard and small forward. Crawford also played a little point but N. Smith still had some wiggle room. Smith didn't do badly, especially for a rookie. Unfortunately for him the other players did a square dance of chaos. Batum played so well that he merited more minutes. That shoved the other guys out of their time. They, in turn, shoved others. When the dominoes stopped falling Smith was at the end. And really, it's hard to argue he should be playing ahead of the veterans, even when the vets aren't performing that well. None of these guys are really maxed out minute-wise. If more minutes come open because somebody's playing poorly, they'll be spent topping off guys like Crawford or Matthews instead of going to Smith, particularly as the team makes a run towards the playoffs. But that's not a permanent condition. Wait a year and see what happens. Personnel, if not direction, are likely to change. That'll open up more room for Nolan Smith.

Craig Smith worked his way into the rotation by rebounding. The problem was, once he got ensconced he forgot what got him there. His rebounding rate started going down as his shot attempts increased. His defense slipped as well. For a few games there it looked like all he wanted to do was get the ball in the low post and score. Granted the Blazers need some of that, but Smith isn't going to carry the scoring load for this team. The team needs him to crash the boards and intimidate. Scoring is a bonus. Becoming a black hole is a definite no-no, especially if you're not fulfilling your primary duties. So Smith went back to the drawing board. He'll get more chances, though.

Click through for questions about Joel Przybilla, closers, and the not-so-hidden cost of Linsanity.

Dave,

I'll be the first to ask. How much better does Joel Przybilla make this team?

Marginally. But the team so needs another big body that marginally may be enough.

I went on record early in the season saying that the money move for Portland was finding the NEXT Joel Przybilla, not the last one. Under-appreciated centers are hard to find. I assume they never found anyone who satisfied them. But anyone who saw Przybilla play the last couple years should know that 2012 Joel won't be the 2004 version. And yes, it was 8 years ago that Przy first came to this team. Consider that as you factor in the benefit.

But hey...7-foot is 7-foot. If he can give 10 minutes per game with a little defense and rebounding the Blazers will have come out ahead. They may need more Jamal Crawford dribble magic to get open shots while he's on the floor, though.

Dave,

Where does this idea come from that you need a "closer" who "can create his own shot"? Is that REALLY better than running your normal offense (i.e., for the Blazers, through Aldridge)? If so, why wouldn't the Blazers, or Mavs, or Clippers, or Magic, just ignore their star big men and rely on their guards the whole game? Or if not, why not run the late-game offense the same as the rest-of-the-game offense?

Would love your thoughts on that question. I am totally not a fan of 1-on-1 isolation basketball, and I cringe when I see this behavior at the ends of games.

The idea comes from getting the ball into the hands of your best player in that situation and letting him decide the game either with a shot or by commanding so much defensive attention that somebody else is free. A closer has three irreplaceable attributes:

  1. The ability to dribble and "get his own shot" as you mentioned. This is crucial because defenses will be keyed in during game-deciding situations. If a player can't move the ball or can't get a shot up after moving the ball a defense will find cutting off both him and any passes ridiculously easy. Consider former Blazers and Bulls guard Steve Kerr. Dead-eye shot. Won a world title for the Bulls with a three-pointer. He'd never be considered a good closer because he couldn't dribble into a decent shot. If you're a defender you're going to get right up on him when the game's on the line. What's he going to do if he dribbles around you? Skill and talent aren't enough. You have to threaten in multiple ways to keep the defense off guard.
  2. The ability to actually hit a shot when he gets it.
  3. The desire to step up in pressure situations. This one is underrated. Some people light up when you put a camera on them. Some shrink away in fear. It's the same when you toss guys the ball for the critical shot. A few relish the opportunity. Most say, "Oh crap!" and either pass it or rush a miss.

If you don't have at least one guy like this on your team you'll have a hard time disrupting the defense enough to get a clean look. It's not that a guy has to play 1-on-1 and be selfish in order to make the play. Rather you have to make the defense commit somewhere in order to free up the shot. If they don't have to worry about anybody doing these three things they can keep a man on each player and cover every possibility. If they know a closer can beat his man 1-on-1 they have to make a choice: send help to stop him and risk someone else getting open or try to defend straight up and risk him winning the game over an over-matched defender.

You mentioned four teams. Dirk Nowitzki is the closer for the Mavericks. He can dribble, he can pass, he has that nearly-unstoppable step-back jumper, and he's an MVP-level talent. This shows that closers don't have to be guards, as you seem to suggest. Chris Paul will be the closer for the Clippers right now. Blake Griffin doesn't have the fundamentals nor as much offensive range. But Chris Paul will also look to get someone else the ball if they have a better shot. This shows that the closer himself doesn't always have to take it. Sometimes the 1-on-1 ability is used to set up something else. Without that 1-on-1 ability, though, the other option wouldn't be open. Dwight Howard is not a closer for the Magic because of critical holes in his game. His range is limited, and he can't hit a foul shot. As soon as he catches the ball the opponent is just going to swarm and hack him. In this case the Magic wouldn't be better off running their normal offense for him. If he shot 90% from the foul line or could score away from the hoop it might be a different story.

The critical question for our purposes, of course, is the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge is their best talent by far. He can score from range but he's bad off the dribble. He'd make a great option if the opponent single-covers but they're likely to deny him and keep an extra man close even before he gets the ball. That's why he needs other threats on the floor with him. One solution would be to surround him with deadeye shooters so he could loft a pass to the guy whose man left to double-team. The Blazers don't have enough of those. The other would be a true closer who could draw attention and then get the ball to a single-covered LMA. Felton is disqualified from the discussion because of his shot, Matthews because of his dribble, Wallace because of his dribble and lack of a pull-up game. That leaves Jamal Crawford and Nicolas Batum. Of the two Crawford is the better bet right now. He fulfills all three criteria. He and Aldridge play well together. Batum may become that guy in the future if he keeps working on his dribble and decision-making but that dribble thing could be a stumbling block.

In any case, putting the ball in Felton's hands and running the usual offense isn't the best option for the Blazers in this situation. What you'd probably see is Crawford breaking down the defense off the dribble looking for LMA, his shot, or an outlet to the corner for a three in that order. Or at least theoretically that would be the order. In Crawford's mind the first two may be inverted, which is part of why Blazers fans don't like the idea of him being the closer.. But that's what the Blazers have right now.

Dave,

With Jeremy Lin having so much success in New York this season and really revitalizing a drooping Knicks team, with Lin becoming a free agent this summer, would the Blazers benefit from using some of their capspace to offer Lin a contract and could he have this success here?

I stayed out of the Jeremy Lin thing completely, and for good reason.

To answer your question as asked, no, that wouldn't be a good pick-up for the Blazers right now. Lin has talent but he's also playing in Mike D'Antoni's system. Was Steve Nash really Steve Nash after D'Antoni left? Is Raymond Felton the same point guard here that he was in New York? Lin is a prime example of NBA guys having talent and being able to show it given the right environment. Lin here, or almost anywhere else, is going to look closer to the guy who left Golden State than the guy you see on ESPN every night. Plus if he keeps playing this way he's going to be expensive. Neither risk nor reward would be worth the cost, even if the Knicks did let him go.

Now let me go beyond your question a bit. I enjoy a good story. I am ready to celebrate what Lin has done...be captivated by it even. But I find the whole media maelstrom around this kid disgusting. I'm not disgusted with him, but with the media itself.

Sports media folks have always been in the exaggeration business. They make both stories and men into legends, larger than life. Inevitably, on the flip side, the media also makes good from the fall of heroes. Our entire mass media experience has come in the era of this "build-him-up, tear-him-down" cycle.

Once upon a time this cycle took years. Guys like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan rose to prominence on the back of their accomplishments, on the court and as entertainers. After years of seeing them rise we discovered their less-attractive foibles. The media told us of gambling, womanizing, arguments in practice, self-centered attitudes. These reports tarnished the image a little, pulled the heroes off of the pedestal. (Or in Barkley's case, he kind of jumped.) But in the end we had plenty of evidence on both ends, plenty of texture, and we were able to put their careers in perspective, appreciating greatness and balancing it with humanity.

In 2012 that cycle doesn't take years, it takes days. Greatness is no longer the prerequisite for becoming a huge story. Doing anything unusual qualifies. I appreciate Jeremy Lin's play the last couple of weeks. But this has become such a huge story now--the media in its eagerness for the next headline has gotten so out in front of this kid's reality--that even if he became Barkley-level great he'd barely fulfill the chatter that's surrounding him. There's no way he can live up to it. Nobody could.

This means that his fall is inevitable...not because of personal shortcomings but because the bar is so impossibly high that he'll never meet it. The media has written the story of his fall already, guaranteed it, by running this far, this fast. They can write the "What happened to Jeremy Lin?" copy already. And I think that stinks. They're not giving us the truth about him, his situation, or his play. They're propping up a false image so they can get us to believe in it and then tear it down in front of our eyes, generating ratings all the way.

The problem is, there's a real guy--an actual basketball player--attached to that image. As high as he's riding right now, Jeremy Lin is going to end up paying the price for the media's use of him in the end. And before you say he's getting the rub for the attention, that's true but he'd get the same rub if they just mentioned him once every couple days or so instead of every minute of every hour everywhere. I'm sure he'd be fine if people talked about someone else at this point. It's gotten obnoxious.

As soon as that real player begins to play normally (or as soon as the media tires of this real guy's story, whichever comes first) his fall is going to happen just as quickly as his rise did. But unlike Barkley and Jordan with their years of career evidence to back up the hype and keep their name respectable, what does Lin have? Nothing. There will be nothing left in the wake of this story...just a kid who played well for a while, got used for it, and got butchered. Anyone who remembers his good play will remember that he never lived up to the hype. Anyone who remembers his fall will just shake their heads saying he turned out to be not worth the fuss at all.

This makes me sick. In my view the media's job is to tell the story, not feed people through an impossible hype mill and spit them out with a broken image and career on the other side. This is exactly the kind of thing that causes people to "hate" on players who don't end up perfect...and none of them are. This is exactly the kind of thing that causes every team's fans to declare every off-season acquisition perfect, the piece that finally puts the franchise over the top. This is also the kind of thing that causes those same fans to rip on the same players without mercy when those fantasies don't come true, which they don't for 29 teams in this league. Jumping too soon into hyperbole, treating real people like they were comic book characters, and tossing them when they become yesterday's news has consequences. How do we even know reality when the hype is all we have?

To me the role of "professional media" folks, by definition, is to ground us in a baseline of truth, giving us a reference point for our flights of fancy and thus an alternative to those negative consequences. Apparently that doesn't exist anymore, at least not on the national level...not if the Jeremy Lin story is any guide.

I'm all for fans going crazy. I'm all for people oohing and aahing. I'm all for "Linsanity" sweeping the nation the same way "Where's the beef?" or the Macarena did. But Woodward and Bernstein weren't actually reporting a beef shortage based on that commercial and I don't recall Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather doing the Macarena every night during the evening news. Taking a story and running with it is one thing. Making a story--distorting it and then calling it real for your own self-interest--is quite another.

We've always had legends, but they used to spring from the sport. Now that's inverted. The sport springs from the legend if it springs at all. How long will it be before there's no sport, just a bunch of fairy tales told to satisfy a public nursed on the artificial breast of the media machine?

I'm about a million questions behind but if you'd like to send in yours, ship it to the e-mail address below and put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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