Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Lopez, Leonard, Robinson, Batum, and Stotts

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Dave takes a shot at answering questions about Portland's head coach, several young players, and the effect of legal herbs just to the north of Portland on free agency.

Mail call!

Hello:

Now that pot is legal in Washington and Colorado, will we see NBA players legally having a smoke or two after/between games? Will Denver be able to attract free agents like never before? Will Vancouver become the hot spot rest stop for visiting NBA players?

Cheers, Jerry

I'm going to preface this answer by saying that not all NBA players indulge in marijuana.

Even among those who do smoke, I don't foresee the practice becoming public.  As long as it's behind closed doors, though, what difference does legality make?  Unless you're going with Stoudamire-sized bricks of the stuff, it's doubtful the cops are going to come knocking just to write you a ticket for smoking.   In public, though, this is still an image issue.  What would happen if somebody snapped pictures of an NBA player with a regular old tobacco cigarette dangling out of his mouth?  People would be on and on about lung cancer and reduced performance and role modeling.  I can't imagine the reaction being less for pot.  Smart players won't be eager to put themselves in that kind of situation.

Legalization only changes the public consequences for smoking weed.  Since players won't do it in public either way, it doesn't change that much.  The new laws probably won't have that big of an effect on the average NBA player's lifestyle.

As far as free agent destinations...I doubt getting the stuff is an issue for any multimillionaire who wants it.  In neither case--legal or illicit--would you see the actual player making a public purchase in his home territory.  The same friend (or "handler") who ducks out to hit up the dealer now will be the friend who's waiting in line at the state-sanctioned head shop in Washington or Colorado.  So what difference does it make to the player where his buddy disappears to?

Also figure that intoxicants are only one leg of the great young guy entertainment tripod.  You can get marijuana anywhere, anytime.  Nightclub destinations that attract desirable clientele and are open all hours while providing relative anonymity cannot be manufactured if they don't already exist in your area.  If nightlife counts as much as your mood-alteration method (and for most into that life it does) then Colorado and Oregon/Washington still can't hold a candle to New York and L.A.

Howdy Dave,

How much do you think having Lopez will impact Meyers on defense? Is it realistic to think that Leonard could be a solid (good even) defensive center in a couple of years (when Lopez's contract expires), and that he could be our starting center?

Thanks,
Nathaniel

They're mostly independent factors.  Lopez will beat out Leonard as long as Meyers continues to suffer on defense.  I guess that's incentive for Leonard to operate more effectively at that end.  At heart they're two different players, though.  Lopez is slower, tougher, more ground-bound.  Leonard is more agile, relying on speed and skill.  Each can learn to adapt to styles of play beyond their norm but neither will change their basic makeup.  Leonard will make a living in this league on the offensive end and hope to become a decent enough defender to not hurt you.  Lopez will make his living at the other end and hope to make the shots he gets.  As the old saying goes, a fish can't teach a bird to swim.  Lopez is not going to transform Leonard even if he has the inclination to play guru.

It's realistic to hope that Leonard will be ready to start in two years.  The answer to that question will, at least in part, determine Lopez' future with the Blazers.  But Leonard probably won't be starting on the basis of his defense.  He'll be starting because of all his other gifts and because he's learned to play enough defense to survive.

Dave,

Hello Dave! Here are two easy ones. 1. Do you think J.J. can beat out The Manimal (Faried) for starting PF in Denver? 2. Does TRob have the potential to play a rebounding SF position on the Blazers with LMA and Leonard at PF and C?

Jerry

We've not gotten to Jerry questions lately so he gets extra today.

1.  I can't see that happening.  Faried would be upset.  You don't want to upset somebody named "Manimal".

2.  He's not good enough, agile enough, or experienced enough for that.  The bonus Leonard would bring over Lopez on offense would be more than lost by Robinson's lack of range compared to Nicolas Batum.  I wouldn't discount the possibility of ever seeing this lineup, but I can't imagine it being a regular thing.

Hello Dave,

Last year Nicolas Batum started the year like he was meant to be an All-Star but gradually went back to his old inconsistent self after his wrist's injury. I, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, never really understood if he had to play for 4 months under intense pain or if it was at one point just a minor injury that helped him cover the frequent lows of his production. Do you know better than me on this matter or have you at least an opinion ? I think the answer would tell us if yes or no he can still be something special, at least more than what he is right now.

Thanks
Nicolas

Yup.  We've been answering this one all summer.  Here's the deal:  what I think doesn't matter.  What you think doesn't matter.  What Batum shows on the floor is the only thing that matters.  No credit, no injury excuses, no overreacting to up or down games, no ridiculous comparisons to Hall-of-Fame players...at the end of the year we're going to look at Batum's production and those numbers will say what they say.  That counts.  Nothing else does.  Whether you want to credit it to injury, age, playing time, or what have you Nicolas Batum is not that special now.  He's valuable.  He's not bad by any stretch of the imagination.  But he's mostly unworthy of the hype and attention he gets.  If he wants to change that, he has to show it on the floor for an entire season.  Then we can start speculating how "special" the rest of his career might be.

Dave,

It seems like this season NOW comes down to player development. Does this coaching staff have the ability to take any of these players to the next level in their respective tiers as players? I guess I am nervous after suffering through previous coaches in Portland.

Mike

Portland does not have a coaching problem.  The Blazers really haven't had any serious coaching questions since Maurice Cheeks was here.  The Blazers have had performance expectations higher than their talent could deliver which then got blamed on coaches because that's the easiest "out".

In the case of Nate McMillan the Blazers had enormous talent and were making good on same.  No team that young had ever won 54 games in the history of the league when the Blazers did it in '08-'09.  Injuries to major stars cut the legs out from under those teams.  Simultaneously players who weren't able to handle the load got exposed.  Guys like Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, and Jerryd Bayless were massively over-hyped.  Nicolas Batum needed time to develop (and apparently still does).  When they didn't become instant contributors--in the case of 2 of the 4, even when they eventually dropped out of the league altogether--somehow this became Nate's fault.  Those players just weren't going to have the impact that people hoped.  No coaching technique was going to change that.  When the knees of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden went to heck, that ship was going to sink no matter who was holding the wheel.

Now we have a similar expectation bubble with new players and young players, just with a different coach.  The incoming players are decent but have been over-sold.  The team will improve but not by as much as people hope.  Mark my words here.  When Robin Lopez starts playing like Robin Lopez (decent but not transformational), when those bench guards make some nifty plays but ultimately suffer for a lack of defense, when the limitations of Portland's roster as a whole (lack of consistent rim attack, lack of defense) start showing...people are not going to ask the questions they should be asking.  They're not going to ask whether the Blazers are laying too much on Lopez' shoulders.  They're not going to ask whether bench additions would have made that much difference to a situation that was odd in the first place.  They're not going to start questioning the limitations of the players nor the strategy that put this group together.  They're going to point right at Terry Stotts and say, "He can't coach defense!" and "He can't develop players!"

Stotts has been put in a position where he pretty much has to win 50 games (with a team that almost certainly isn't capable of getting close to that) in order to get validated.  45 wins would be an ultra-heroic effort with this team--Coach of the Year material--but that would be taken as "normal".   Rather than riotous celebration, the immediate question would be, "What next?!?"  42 wins would be the high end of normal and even 39 would be a decent job.  The former would be greeted by a chorus of "Meh." and the latter with accusations of incompetence.  God help Coach Stotts if an injury or lack of chemistry makes the team bomb.  He'll be skewered.

Stotts will also get skewered if he makes the season about player development, as you suggest.  As soon as he throws Thomas Robinson out there instead of LaMarcus Aldridge, Leonard instead of Lopez, C.J. McCollum or Allen Crabbe instead of Wesley Matthews, the Blazers are going to start to lose games.  Ironically the focus you most want to see from him is also the focus most likely to get him fired, at least if it's expressed through court time.

This is part of the problem with the phrase, "This season is about player development AND winning" as opposed to setting expectations for one or the other and then following through.  That phrase is easy to say, near impossible to live out...else every team in the NBA would be doing it.  If Stotts plays his veterans heavy minutes while going for maximum wins he'll be accused of not developing his young players.  If he puts the young guys in the rotation he'll get lambasted for not winning (or at least not winning as much as folks perceive he could in an ideal world).  No matter what happens--outside of a dazzlingly perfect season--the only guy who won't win on the other side of it is Stotts.  That isn't because of his coaching ability or lack thereof.  It's how the expectations have been framed in the public eye.

Keep sending your questions to the e-mail address below!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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