Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Indicators of a Good Season, Assists, Rudy Gay, and the Rockets

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Dave answers reader questions about how to tell if this season will be special, the value of an assist, the desirability of Rudy Gay, and the promise of the Houston Rockets.

Here's a few Mailbag questions to keep your Thursday hopping!

Dear Dave,

What kinds of things will you be looking for as indicators that this Blazer team will have a truly special season? Will impressive preseason wins warrant higher expectations or will you be looking at more isolated signs of improvement in player's abilities and team defense?

Chris

I supposed you'd have to define "truly special".  For this team 45+ wins would qualify from my perspective.  That would require heroic efforts, consistency, and maybe even a little bit of chemistry.  By that measure, though, the only way you'll know a special season is after you already get it.  Blazer fans have been rounding up to special for years, making lemonade out of win-loss lemons, finding angles to make those performances look good.  At this point a 38, 40, or even 42-win season isn't really that special.  They'll either win a bunch of games over the course of the season or they won't.  That's how we'll know.

Obviously making the second round of the playoffs would more than qualify.  But that won't be known until it happens either.

Pre-season means nothing in terms of wins and losses.  As we've seen in years past, even the first month or two of the season doesn't necessarily mean much.  Every season has ups and downs.  People swing way too high on the ups, make excuses for the downs until the slump can't be avoided anymore, and then get down on the team or coach.  Jumping at shadows is the prerogative of fans, but it's also a curse.  Better to wait until that win total actually approaches 50 than to write checks that will later bounce for lack of funds.

You could also define special by the player development side of the "we're developing players without sacrificing winning" mantra.  This is probably the safer course.  The weather vane swings earlier here than it does with overall record.  If Damian Lillard makes steps forward in scoring, defense, or efficiency that's special.  Any breakout season from Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, or C.J. McCollum would qualify as special, giving the Blazers another rotation player, another asset.  A great season from Nicolas Batum would also tip the scales towards special but with him it needs to be a full season.  The bar is higher for Batum than for the rookies and sophomores.

Defensive and offensive schemes qualify as special to the extent they contribute towards wins, but that's the only sense in which they matter right now.  Absent victories it's unlikely the players running those sets this year will last beyond the year following.  Having a slightly better defense but not having the players to run it or the wins to show for it wouldn't be anything special.

Dave,

What do you think about trading Batum and Freeland for Rudy Gay? I heard the Raptors are looking to trade him.
Can he be the bonafide scorer that Batum hasn't been for us? What do you think about Gay's defense?

Andrew

Rudy Gay has become a pariah of sorts around the league, especially among the stat-savvy.  Criticisms include inefficient offense (true), drifting farther out to the perimeter each year when he's actually not that good of a shot (true), bad defense (used to be very true but got disguised in Memphis a little...probably still accurate), selfishness (whooo doggy yes), and a huge contract.  That last one increases the severity of all the others.  If he made $8 million a year instead of $18 million he'd be far more intriguing.

That said, the guy can score.  His points per minute last year destroyed Batum.  He had more rebounds per minute as well.  (As we documented last week, most big-minute small forwards around the league exceed Batum in these categories.)  Nic has a serious edge in assists and there's little doubt that Batum is a better defender.  Also attractive:  Batum doesn't dominate the ball like Gay does.

In certain situations you might consider Gay over Batum.  If you had cap space, a strong defense, and needed a scorer to put pressure on the opponent and you squinted your eyes just right, Gay would make sense.  The 2013-14 Blazers don't have cap space.  They don't have a strong defense.  In fact they're already looking to cover defensive holes all over the backcourt outside of Wesley Matthews.  Adding Gay to that mix would create a situation similar to J.J. Hickson's tenure last season.  No matter what kind of scheme you devise, somebody's going to leak through.  Also the Blazers already have a couple potent offensive threats in the starting lineup in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.  C.J. McCollum could become a third eventually.  Adding another bona fide scorer would be great, but not at the cost of weakening the defense and taking the ball out of Lillard's hands more.

If you were serious about Gay--and I'm not sure you should be--the time to nab him would be the summer of 2015 when the last year of his (by then) $19 million contract runs out.  There's no way he'll command that kind of salary again.  I'd expect it to be cut in half at least.  That could make him worth a look.

Dave,

I like assists.  They show who's unselfish.  If I read you right you're more skeptical about assists.  Why?  You seem like a guy who likes team ball.

Craig

I do like "team ball".  But you're right, I'm skeptical about the value of an assist.  They can help a team.  They don't always help a team, though.

If you look at stats like field goal percentage allowed and shooting percentage you're going to find a pretty clear correlation between success and wins.  Not so with assists.  If you look at assists per possession or assists per field goal made you're going to find playoff teams all over the map.  Some rank quite high, some low, and everywhere in between.  Assists are hardly the only stat to reflect this, but we should establish right away that they're not a critical category.

Assists are also the most judgment-prone stat in the NBA universe.  Different scorekeepers will call assists different ways.  They're the easiest stat to fake if you want to give someone a boost.

I can understand the casual correlation between assists and unselfishness.  By definition an assist means you passed the ball instead of shooting it.  The greatest point guard facilitators in league history are all heavy assist guys.  Carmelo Anthony is totally selfish and his assist rate corroborates that impression.  All well and good.

But assists only measure unselfishness by the single pass.  There are other ways to measure.  Clock time of possession and dribbles taken and you know what you're going to find?  All those high assist guys spend a massive amount of time with the ball in their hands.  If your point guard dribbles for 15 seconds, uses up three screens set by bigs, and then flicks an assist to a cutting small forward who lays it up in 2 seconds, who was the most unselfish player on the play?

Steve Nash is the archetypal point guard of this generation.  You'll not find prettier assist numbers anywhere.  But you knew instantly that pairing Nash with Kobe Bryant (the archetypal scorer of his generation) was going to be trouble.  Why?  Because scorer Kobe needed the ball in his hands to flourish but distributor Nash needed the ball in his hands just as much.  You might as well have stuck another volume scorer alongside Bryant, as the result ended up the same.  There weren't enough balls to go around either way.

Nash is clearly more likely to pass at the end of his time with the ball than Bryant is.  In that sense he's far less selfish.  But I don't think the Lakers would be better with the ball running through Nash's hands instead of Kobe's and I don't think Bryant would fare any better in a Nash-dominated scheme than Nash fared in a Bryant-dominated one.

Assists are interesting, sometimes helpful.  If a player does well in other important categories and also ranks highly in assists I'm inclined to call him that much greater.  But assists alone aren't enough to elevate a player, save maybe a specialized point guard.  They're frosting, not cake.

Dave,

Everyone seems to be drunk on the Houston Rockets Kool-Aid and I don't get it. Yes, they have two superstars, but who else? Jeremy Lin? Chandler Parsons? I honestly think they'll be battling Portland for the 8th seed in the west, not anywhere close to contending. What's your take?

-JH in Ottawa

They have to prove the same thing the Lakers had to prove last year, don't they?  I'm guessing they'll have a somewhat easier time because James Harden, one of the league's bright lights, isn't quite as established as Kobe was when Dwight Howard joined him.  Also Harden is used to playing with guys equal to or greater than he whereas Kobe wants to show he's top dog and only then invite you into the house.

The Rockets will be depending on Howard to defend like he did in his Orlando heyday.  That's an iffy proposition considering his injuries.  Without that solid middle Houston will be vulnerable, as their perimeter defenders are only so-so.  But keep in mind that the Rockets didn't lose any of their top four players from last season--not even Omer Asik--and even then they still managed the 8th seed last year, tied with the Lakers for 7th by record.  You'd have to forecast Howard adding zero wins, or close enough to not matter, in order to call them for the 8th seed again.  Maybe there's justification for that.  The Lakers went backwards after Howard arrived.  But I don't expect that'll be duplicated in Houston.

But if you're asking about the Rockets challenging for a title immediately, they still have to prove that.  I wouldn't completely discount it but it's far from a sure thing.  We need to see their strengths and weaknesses in action before we anoint them the Next Big Thing.

I'm guessing part of the fascination with Houston is the method by which they've risen to their current state.  The Rockets are one of the rare teams that has rebuilt without actually rebuilding.  After bidding farewell to the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady era in 2009, they've shuffled through about 22 players per season, juggling roster spots and cap space, waving a wand, and turning talent and cash into Harden and Howard.  If they can do it, why not all the other teams who are attempting the same feat?  Teams in a similar situation want a system like that to succeed and, more importantly, to be reproducible.   Frankly I'm not sure even Daryl Morey could do it twice, if nothing else because players like Harden and Howard don't come available that often.  How many teams--many with cap space, some with talent to trade, even--are searching for even one dominant player?  This guy got two.  Even if everybody ran the perfect rebuilding system the supply of such players would run out far before the teams in need did.

In any case, I suspect the Rockets will fare well but I also agree with your caution that they haven't won anything yet.  It'd surprise me to see them in the 8th seed but it wouldn't surprise me to see them experience growing pains.

Keep those questions rolling to the address below!  Please put "Mailbag" in the subject line, as that's how I search for them.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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