Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Batum, Babbitt, Bench, and More!

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Dave answers questions about Luke Babbitt's play, Nicolas Batum's impending stardom, Portland's bench utilization, Allen and Glickman, free agent combo guards, and more!

Time for another edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag!

Dave,

Nicolas Batum is playing well this year. He seems to have blossomed under a new coaching staff. Is this his ceiling or how much more does he have left?

Brent

Batum has plenty more ceiling left, at least as far as talent and skill. It's been interesting watching him develop two aspects of his game this year: passing and clutch shooting. If Batum ever puts it all together he has the potential to be one of the best small forwards in the league and a legit star. It'd help if he could get his production levels back on a part with previous years. He's slipped in field goal percentage from really good to just normal. That's helped to keep his scoring modest and the Blazers could use a few more points.

With apologies to those who already read the comment, I'm going to repeat something I said in response to Lang Whitaker's Slam Online article which Ben cited a couple days ago. The post was off the top of the page by the time I said this and I think it's critical because it points straight to the heart of this question.

Here's Whitaker's quote:

Looking at the collection of basketball tools available to Batum, expecting him to be a specialist-to become a scorer like Durant or a rebounder like Varejao-was never of interest to Batum. Forget being like Mike. "I always liked Chicago, and Scottie Pippen was my favorite player," Batum says.

I don't know how much of this is Batum and how much is the author's interpretation, but either way it doesn't wash. They're badly misreading the players involved in a way which excuses rather than helps Batum's game. Consider:

1. In his prime years Scottie Pippen averaged around 20 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists. Plus his defensive rating hovered near or below 100 and his PER topped 20. He was averaging 18, 7, and 6 in his third season. "13" wasn't anywhere in the equation until he approached his mid-30's. I don't think anybody would quibble with even 19, 5, and 5 from Batum regardless of PER or defensive rating. (Batum's has been 107-108 to this point in his career.)

2. Pippen didn't get to that level because he wanted to be kind of a good player at most everything. He got to that level because he wanted to be considered the best player in the game, period. Anyone remember the nuclear-level incident when Phil Jackson called a game-deciding play for Toni Kukoc instead of Pippen?

3. Ironically enough Pippen burned for this level of achievement because he was stepping into the shoes of the actual best player who ever laced up sneakers, the same Michael Jordan that this article suggests Batum doesn't want to be like. Jordan, by the way, routinely averaged 6 assists and rebounds, a defensive rating hovering near 100, and a PER above 30 while he was winning those scoring titles. Plus when asked to (functionally) play point guard he immediately bumped his assists and rebounds to 8 per game each. He was a shining example of an "all-around player". He was just one who refused to let anything beat him.

4. When you're talking about not wanting to be like Kevin Durant, you're talking about a guy who's averaging 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game himself, whose defensive rating this year is 101, whose PER is above 29, who is one of the two best small forwards in the league, and who led his team to the NBA Finals last year and who will probably do the same this year.

None of the three players mentioned are "just" scorers, nor does aspiring to be an "all-around player" excuse one from giving the most production possible in every way or of aiming to be the best player possible. Nor does it eliminate the determination to be the best player in the league and to succeed in every way.

Being an all-around player doesn't mean being satisfied with being mediocre at everything. It doesn't mean looking at the best players in the league and saying, "I don't really aspire to be like them." Being an all-around player means working to score like Durant AND rebound like Varejao AND defend like Pippen all at once.

And make no mistake, the Blazers need every ounce of everything Batum can give. They need him to burn to be great. Granted, he could have a nice little career and become a very valuable role player on a championship squad led by other superstars. But this is Portland. Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant aren't clamoring to join this franchise so Batum can coast in their shadow and make some understated (but key) contributions. If he's going to fulfill that kind of destiny it'll have to be somewhere else. If he's going to remain in Portland he needs to push to become the kind of star player that this article seems to say he doesn't aim to be--ironically the kind of star that the pre-Portland Pippen was--because the Blazers don't have enough talent around him to accept anything less.

Aight Dave, you've been asked this 12 times already but suckazzz gotta know. When do you give up the season, play the bench, and tank? Is it time yet?

Jayz

P.S. Spill it. Do you edit mailbag questions?

Yes, I often do edit them for brevity, clarity, and spelling. But I left yours as-is. Although I do think four "z's" was excessive. The Chicago Manual of Style says three is sufficient.

Briefly answering your question:

When do the Blazers tank? Never, intentionally anyway. I've discussed those reasons multiple times: backwards thinking, contradicting lessons you're trying to teach, low morale, losing the team.

When do you start playing the bench more? On their own merits you avoid it as long as possible. However at a certain point it's going to be futile to play the starters so hard. The bench is already getting more run than it was earlier in the year and you'll see that more as the season progresses. You might even see a starter or two go down for the remainder of the season. But as long as the Blazers are in the 9th or 10th position within a couple games of a playoff seed, you can't give up. Things can change in an instant. Houston is in 8th right now. What happens if James Harden goes down with a season-ending injury? The gap between them and Portland could evaporate in a week and the Blazers could be sitting in a playoff slot. You don't want to give the impression that you've shut down the season...well, ever in theory, but in practice you don't want to even think that way until you're pretty well buried in the standings. The Lakers are passing the Blazers as we speak. Given Portland's rough year-end schedule Dallas may not be far behind. When a potential Houston blow-up would still require the Blazers to pass a couple (theoretically) good teams in order to leapfrog into the playoffs, then getting the youngsters more playing time and the starters more rest will make more sense.

Dave,

I keep reading in posts and comments that the starters legs are going to fall off from all the minutes they're playing. LA isn't really playing more minutes than he ever has, and when I look at other teams rosters, I don't see drastically different numbers from their starters. We all know that Portland has no bench, but do I sense a hint of hyperbole from the masses?

Thanks!

Theo

Yes and no. As we speak Damian Lillard leads the league in minutes played with Batum 5th and Lamarcus Aldridge 10th. No other Big 3 even comes close, though several teams--notably Houston--play a "Big 2" for healthy minutes. That third player in there makes the numbers look really bad instead of just slightly-eyebrow-raising.

I'm not sure that the consequences will be that dire if the phenomenon lasts but one season. In that sense the "hyperbole" description is correct...albeit understandable given Portland's recent injury history. The Blazers can't continue to do this for three seasons straight, though. At that point you'd see some serious wear-down and perhaps injury risk.

We've seen trouble in back-to-back situations, which is expected. I'd also anticipate fatigue taking its toll as the season winds down. I don't foresee the Blazers hulking up and vaulting into the playoffs. But if you can live with those outcomes, don't sweat it unless the bench doesn't improve over the summer.

Dave,

I'm curious what you think about Harry Glickman's comments on Paul Allen being a bad owner. Should he have called to congratulate the new NBA execs? Has he caused more harm to this team with his meddling? If he were to sell, would that likely be the end of an NBA Portland team?

Tim

This is the kind of thing that only matters when your team's losing. Both Glickman and Allen are accomplished men. Glickman is right that the culture of the franchise changed when Allen took over. On the other hand Allen has managed to keep the team in town and functional for two decades plus now. In any organization you'll find good people who don't see eye to eye. When that happens you usually shake your head, shake his hand, and move on. If that hasn't happened here, it's nothing that a couple playoff trips couldn't render insignificant.

I don't believe Allen selling would end Portland's NBA run. It'd be on shakier ground though. It's just no fun being a smaller-market NBA franchise right now. You look at Sacramento and Seattle and feel the axe hovering above your outstretched neck.

:::covering ears::: La, la, la! Is the draft coming soon?

Dave,

What do you think the front office is going to do about our backup PG situation?

Alex

Sometimes I look at Nolan Smith and wonder why he's not better than he is. He's got physical tools. He's aggressive enough. He's a pretty smart guy. Just somehow you put the stuff together and it ends up...wrong. I don't know what's up with that but it's a pretty safe bet that the Blazers won't be retaining many of their bench players (including Smith) into next season, which means they'll be looking for a back-up point.

Typically people mention big names as potential replacements. I don't think the Blazers will be getting anybody else's (significant) starter to ride their pines unless they see that guy as a combo guard. They won't want to spend that much money and there won't be enough minutes behind Lillard. If they could get Jeff Teague on the cheap or something they might go for that, but my guess is that they'll look for a steady veteran, perhaps more productive than Ronnie Price has turned out to be.

Their real problem here is cap space. You'd like a guy like Luke Ridnour but he's making over $4 million next year. That's not a lot in absolute terms but it does erode Portland's ability to go after a bigger-name free agent or even a couple of really quality bench guys this summer. If you want to go on a search, figure Ridnour is about the ceiling talent- and money-wise and work your way down into minimum salary veterans with a bankable skill or two.

Dave,

What are the chances of the Blazers bringing back Jarrett Jack this offseason? I'd think he would significantly strengthen our train wreck of a bench and allow Lillard to not have to play almost 40 minutes a game -- plus at $5.4m this year, Portland should be able to sign him and still have enough cap space to get a center.

Jay

Jack will no doubt be expecting a raise so he may not be that cheap. It'll depend on the center and on who else the Blazers target besides. (In the example above getting Ridnour would all but kill the possibility of getting Jack and a significant starting center, for instance.) But he'd be a good get for Portland. He'd have tons more offensive responsibility and leeway than he did the first time through town, plus he wouldn't be expected to play point guard exclusively.

Dave,

Is there a valid statistical way to test how good a player's defense it? Mathews claimed in the preseason he usually held opponents under their scoring average. Is that true? Do Batum and Aldridge also do that? How's Lillard doing? (I hesitate to even ask about JJ!)

Jerry

There's no single stat that I trust...not even the "usually held opponents below their average" one. How do we know that's due to individual defense and not, for instance, a slow pace for your team? That's the problem with quantifying defense. If a guy gets credited for a made or missed shot you can be pretty sure that the shot left his fingertips and so he has primary responsibility for it. Sure he gets assists or screens to help, but in general you know what you're getting when you read "6-9 from the field, 2-3 from the arc". With the amount of switching, help defense, zones, and other defensive wizardry employed by NBA teams, how do you know a certain guy was guarding another guy without significant help on a given defensive possession? It works the other way too. Let's say a guy shadows his man to the hoop instead of getting in front of him and his guy dunks. How do you know that's him blowing an assignment as opposed to him being instructed by the coaches to channel him towards help that never came?

There's a science to judging defense. You have to watch body position, hand position, floor position, space covered, and the skills and activity of the opponent (just for starters). You have to understand the clock, the goal, and what other players are doing around the defender.

There's also an art to judging defense. Sometimes you just have to watch the whole floor, let it wash over your brain, and see what stands out. Sometimes you can tell by the offensive player's posture what he was trying to do and understand that what didn't happen shows great defense even more than what did happen.

You also have to understand that defenses are just going to fail sometimes. Part of it is the nature of the game, part because every kid in the universe practices hitting shots long before they practice defending them. Expecting defensive perfection is a fool's errand. You want to measure in big chunks with plenty of observation.

Most of those things are hard to quantify statistically. It can be done and at various times, for various reasons, I find common defensive statistics helpful. But you're never going to come to a final conclusion based on defensive stats and I'd suggest you not try. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and the stats aren't contradicting it completely, assume it's a duck.

Dave,

Is that Luke Babbitt or just an optical illusion floating around the floor? Why do you think he has disappeared? During a stretch this season he looked like one of the only bench players worth a darn. He played hard, knocked down shots and was actually rebounding pretty well. Can you help shed some light on the player formerly known as Chalupa Man?

Aaron

It's not hard. What you see is what you get. Babbitt is a good-to-great distance shooter. But there's no wiggle room in the analysis. He has to be a GREAT shooter, period, in order to justify his minutes on the court.

We just talked about defense and the need for observation. Babbitt has been better this year than he's ever been at getting his feet moving and getting to the right (or at least right-ish) place on the court. But intimidation is also part of defense. It's not enough to be there, you have to force--or at least threaten to force--the offensive player to make choices he otherwise wouldn't prefer. The next time an NBA player is intimidated by Luke Babbitt being in front of, around, underneath, beside, or closing on him will be the first time. At that point said player would have to surrender his NBA credentials immediately.

Despite people making a bigger deal out of his rebounding this year his per-minute averages and rebounding percentages sit right in between his rookie and sophomore numbers...no big improvement. Plus to the naked eye most of his rebounds have been of the "fell to me" variety.

So...the one number Babbitt has to hang his hat on to remain viable is three-point percentage. If that's really good we can argue back and forth about his other subtle benefits or drawbacks. If it's not then nothing else matters.

Last year's numbers said 43% from the arc on 6.7 attempts per 36 minutes. This year's numbers say 34% on 8.8 attempts per 36.

This means you're only going to play him when other players really need a rest or when you really benefit from a stretch forward's three-point shooting threat. Neither of those is justification for retaining Babbitt over the long term. The Blazers might still do that, but at this point it looks like a minor consideration rather than a major piece.

Hey folks, we're going to start the big push towards sending those kids to Blazer's Edge Night. We have about a month and a half left to donate 600-700 tickets. CLICK HERE to see how you can help us achieve that goal!

As always, feel free to send in Mailbag questions to the e-mail address below. PLEASE put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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