Who Plays a Role?


Could you explain to me how the Blazers get one of the better point guards available in trade (Felton) and one of the better free agents on the market (Crawford) this summer and still end up no better? Or maybe worse? We have Gerald Wallace too! What's up with that?

This is the fascinating thing about sports and basketball in particular. You can make the right move in isolation but you never know the results until those moves are stirred into the mix. Should the Blazers have traded for Felton? Yeah, probably made sense. Should the Blazers have turned down Crawford? Of course not! Where were they going to find a better free agent? But the results of these decent-to-good moves haven't been what fans (and presumably management) hoped for. Individual performance is part of it. Adapting to a new system is probably another part. But the more I've seen this team play the more I'm convinced that we're seeing the shadow-side of the way the Blazers do business, of their definition of "good move". That side is defined by this question:

Who does the dirty work on this team? Who goes after the blue-collar rebound, sets that crushing pick, works outside of the limelight so other players can glory in it? In other words, who really plays a role here?

Mind you, I'm not talking about players who have this as part of their portfolio, nor players for whom it's a nice added bonus to their game. I'm talking about guys who know they're in this league because of their defense, because of their rebounding, because of their blue-collar grunt work...guys who know their paycheck and livelihood depend on it.

Run down the roster.

  • Raymond Felton is supposedly a good defender and has decent rebounding numbers for a guard. I've quibbled a bit with the defensive designation but no matter what you think of that, his calling card has always been offense. That's where his heart lies. That's where his check is coming from.
  • Jamal Crawford? No.
  • Gerald Wallace is an energy guy and does plenty of dirty work but he's also been his team's star, he's arguably the second-best player on the roster, and his energy fades when he's not in the flow of the game. He's not a role player and wouldn't be happy as one.
  • Nicolas Batum defends well but he's not a blue-collar guy. Like Wallace he's more than a role-player...a potential star or at least a good offensive player with a well-rounded game besides.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge is the star of this team.
  • Marcus Camby is the closest the Blazers have. He's accepted his role as a defender and rebounder. He's also one guy and he's good for about 25 minutes per night tops.
  • Kurt Thomas is a role player, rebounding and drawing charges, but he's good for fewer minutes than Camby.

If you exclude the young guys trying to make a name for themselves (and generally not playing anyway) you're left with two names: Wesley Matthews and Craig Smith. Matthews isn't your typical blue-collar icon but you could see him defending and spotting up for threes, a little bit of a multi-talented role player. The problem is, he also likes to score 20 a game and when he gets the bit in his mouth his offense runs faster than his skill will support. As soon as he starts being productive we start seeing an emphasis on offense and, in particular, on shots that shouldn't be taken. It's clear he views himself as more of an all-around player, perhaps a star-level player. The Blazers might also, given the contract they gave him.

Smith is a great rebounder and seems promising as that hard-headed guy, but his playing time is dwindling and fondness for shots increasing as the year goes by. Even he goes offensive when given the choice.

Assuming the Blazers sign Joel Przybilla, he would fit the definition of blue-collar role player. He always has. But he's older and limited in minutes like Camby and Thomas.

In short, Portland has three role players, all centers, all older. Among their forwards and guards not a single person fits the description. Everybody's either a star, a near-star, or wants to be a star..."star" being defined by their offensive production. Granted, everybody but Crawford has multiple skills and several are good defenders, but you're defined by the things that put food on your table. Every single one of them (save perhaps Wallace, but really even him) thinks he puts food on the table with his offensive game.

Going back to the original question, even though Felton and Crawford were good gets, I'm not sure they changed the mentality of this team. They made up for some of the sorely-missed offensive prowess that left town along with Andre Miller and Brandon Roy, but there's no way to argue that they bring more offensive ability than those two did. So the Blazers ended up with either the same or less offense plus no discernible positive change in character, grit, will to win, or dirty work...all of which are in question with the rest of the roster. It's not hard to see where you'd end up with either the same or a slightly inferior product.

This is a tricky thing. You can't counsel that Portland choose less than the best free agents available to them. Perhaps the definition of "best" needs examining. You get these guys who want to be stars at every position. They might have that potential but it's not going to happen for all of them at once. The question then becomes, what can they give you besides? How suitable are they for filling a particular role and are they willing to accept it? If the answers are "not very" and "no" you end up with a team that looks plenty good on paper but comes up short in real games.

I don't see a Buck Williams, Jerome Kersey, Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier, Michael Cooper guy on this team. I see players with some of those skills, but I don't see anybody willing to sacrifice and devote themselves to being that role guy. I don't see anybody whose game will blossom, who will delight in doing so, who will make a living that way. I wonder if losing a couple of almost-stars in favor of a guy who knows his role and won't let anybody take him out of it wouldn't improve this team's performance.

That's food for thought as both the trade deadline and the summer salary-cap seasons come around.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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