Portland Trail Blazers Mailbag: Rotations, Centers, Schedule

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to a technical glitch this week's Blazer's Edge Videocast comes to you with 100% less video! Hear the answers to multiple questions about Portland's rotation in this text-only version. Read about Wesley Matthews, Portland's center corps, and more!

Today was supposed to feature the second installment of the Blazersedge Videocast Mailbag featuring yours truly and our video-audio-multimedia coordinator guru Sam Tongue.  We got the 'cast in the can in 22 minutes sharp...amazing job.  Then when we proofed it we found a technical glitched ruined it.  Wah-wah-waaaaaaaaah.  We'll take up the video portion again next week, but for today you get the text-only version of the Videocast!

Admittedly this is more a dramatic recreation of the questions and answers than a transcript.  Just imagine you're sitting back in the theater seat, waiting for the curtain to rise, and you hear an announcement over the P.A.:

Today the part of Sam Tongue will be played by bold type.

So, a couple weeks into the season now and we're starting to get a feel for things.  How do you feel about the Blazers so far?

With a 5-2 record, how can you feel anything but good and excited?  The Blazers had a great win against Detroit on Monday night.  The three pointers are falling like dominoes.  Everybody's shooting confidently.  The ball is moving.  LaMarcus Aldridge is playing out of his mind.  Damian Lillard has started the season well.  The defense isn't much statistically but you can see the effort and attention there.  We're seeing some pretty basketball...it's enjoyable.

Speaking of defense and pretty basketball, we have a question from "Loki" to start us off.  This is going to be the rotation version of the Videocast with questions covering guys in and out of the lineup.  Loki wants to know about Wesley Matthews.  He's exploded early in the season.  Is this going to keep up?  Could he be an All-Star candidate?

Two important things are happening for Matthews.  First he seems to own his offense, distinguishing between good and bad shots better than he has in past years.  For him that means a good shot being a catch and shoot three or an open, straight-line drive to the cup.  Bad shot means basically everything else.  By not trying to do too much, he's actually doing more.  Second, the Blazers offense is designed to get him that shot.  He's the outlet in the halfcourt, the guy who will make you pay for shading towards the stars by draining that back-breaking triple.

As long as this keeps up he should see a steady stream of good shots.  The caveats are that the long ball is unstable even for the best shooters.  He's not going to shoot 52% from that range all season.  Also defenses will eventually adjust, figuring out where and how to double team more effectively, or just eschewing the double altogether in some cases.  If an opponent can keep a man on each player, Matthews' effectiveness will drop.

I don't see All-Star candidacy anywhere in Matthews' future.  He's not that kind of player.  Three-point contest maybe.   But hopefully he'll remain an effective weapon.

Joel Freeland has been another surprisingly effective weapon early in the year.  How do you see his role and why is he looking so good right now?

Freeland and Robin Lopez have similar effects on this team.  Statistically they're unremarkable...and at certain points terming them so was being kind.  What do they do?  They sell the defense.  They get their body in position.  They commit, reach for rebounds even if they can't get them.  That kind of thing has no doubt been preached by the coaches over the last few years but the Blazers haven't seemed to buy in or value it.  They've relied on skill and talent to get them by.  But you can't see Freeland or Lopez out there doing these things without examining what you're doing.  It's like seeing a messy floor with five brooms stacked against the wall.  If nobody else grabs one you have an excuse to ignore it.  But as soon as one guy starts sweeping, you have to as well.  Otherwise you look like a jerk leaning while he's working.  That's the Freeland-Lopez effect right now.  It's not that they're overwhelmingly good, but they give the team something that was missing.

Talking about "missing" brings up a question from Rizwan, who says:

I want Myers Leonard to succeed as much as the next guy, but its clear that Joel Freeland deserves the backup center spot and looks in much better shape phsycially and mentally, and has started to look much more comfortable and effective. But I'm not a fan of Leonard being 3rd string and just sitting on the bench and playing garbage time minutes every now and then. He's still only 21 years old and very raw with only 1 real college season and 1 NBA season under his belt, but he has plenty of potential of being a serviceable big man in the league. And I think the best way for him to learn and improve is by playing, so would it be wise or effective sending him to the Developmental League to do just that, develop?

How do the Blazers get Leonard involved?

One possibility is to slide somebody--either Leonard or Freeland--to reserve power forward if you don't think Thomas Robinson is cutting it there.  Keep in mind that early-season rotations are fluid, not set in stone.  Right now T-Rob gets minutes but they're sporadic.  Come December, who knows?  Maybe Leonard sneaks into the rotation through the side door.

The D-League is another possibility, as you mention.  My issue with the D-League is that it doesn't seem really clear what the purpose of sending down players is.  I'm not sure NBA front offices know or the D-League teams know.  Take Leonard.  You could send him to Boise, but if he's getting 15 mid-range jumpers a game there as a key hub in the offense because he's the "big league" player and that's what he's good at, that's not analogous to his NBA role nor will it get him on the court when he returns.  But if the main goal is defense, rebounding, and the like, can he work on those things in the same way against that level of competition?

People equate the D-League to baseball's minor league system.  It's not an exact fit.  In baseball everything is focused on bringing along players to the major league level.  Managers, coaches, front offices...everybody knows the deal.  The D-League is more nebulous.  Until that gets sorted out, I'm not sure its value to NBA clubs will be known.

Anyway, part of Leonard's problem right now is that he's not Robin Lopez.  The Blazers will be able to make offensive adjustments to accommodate Leonard's strengths, no problem.  But they're not going to be able to change around their defensive sets.  Leonard has to do what a Blazers center is called to do in those sets.  That's not his skill set, nor is he experienced enough to compensate.  Either he has to spend more time picking up his role or the Blazers have to learn to depend less on a center in the paint on "D".

Let's move to a player not yet in the rotation, but perhaps coming back soon with high hopes:  CJ McCollum.  Jason asks:

Six games are in the books and it is clear that Coach Stotts is set on a 9 man rotation. Since we as fans don't get to see training camp, what would have the possibility been of CJ making the rotation? If he were to make the rotation what would that look like?

First of all, I suspect Coach Stotts is running a 9-man rotation at least in part because that's how deep his reliable players go.  By the time you get to the bottom of that rotation you're getting kind of sketchy.  I don't think he'd be opposed to a 10-man rotation if he could get that 10th man.  I don't think he'd be opposed to somebody taking over the 9th spot either.  Again, it's fluid.

So yes, I think there's room for C.J. to earn minutes.  Health is the first concern.  The second, of course, is Mo Williams.  He and C.J. play a similar style: heavy on their own shot, light on defense.  Both can score.  But Mo is more experienced and can dish the ball.  For those reasons he's more trustworthy than C.J. coming out of the gate.  Since the coach's goal is to win ballgames, he's going to go with the guy he trusts most.

C.J.'s best bet is showing something he can do as well as Mo and/or showing a new wrinkle that Williams doesn't have.  Youth and future promise will give him an "in", but he has to demonstrate something.   If he can shoot a high percentage, that would help.  Any kind of defense would be great.

And honestly, all of McCollum's minutes wouldn't have to come at Williams' expense.  Mo has been playing a ton of shooting guard.  He could also play point.  Damian Lillard's minutes could still go down a little.  You could see a Williams-McCollum, scoring-heavy backcourt, especially if you were running guys like Freeland and Robinson in the frontcourt...guys you don't want creating their own offense, who mostly score opportunity buckets and need guards to generate offense.

Bottom line, if C.J. can play they'll get him in there.  He has to get healthy first.  Then he'll probably need some time to show what he can do.

Let's wrap it up with a look ahead.  The Blazers have some road games coming up.  What will the next couple weeks look like?

Well, they have Phoenix at home Wednesday night.  I suspect they'll win that game, but then I thought they'd win the first game against Phoenix.  That was the sloppiest, most discombobulated and listless effort the Blazers have shown so far.  The Suns were also riding home opener mojo.  Somehow I think the Blazers won't want the result repeated.  6-2 would be a nice cushion to take out on the road.

After Phoenix 7 of Portland's next 9 games are away from home.  It's a little worrisome because, again, the Blazers are relying heavily on three-point shooting to win ballgames.  Shooting backgrounds change in enemy arenas.  Travel, fatigue...a lot of things can throw you off.  Sometimes even a little "off" is enough to mess with your long shot.  On the other hand the caliber of opponent isn't stellar over those 9 games.  Portland's two home contests--Bulls and Knicks--measure out tougher than almost any of the road games.  So this might be a good way for the Blazers to get their sea legs under them without taking too much damage.  We'll have to see.  December and January get more demanding so it'd be nice to build a good record early just in case.  This stretch will determine whether that happens.

We'll be back next week at this time with an actual VIDEOcast.  On behalf of Sam, thanks and see you then!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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