Ah bliss! As has been the norm this season, a day off from games for the team means a chance to catch up with the Mailbag. As always, you can submit your questions to email@example.com. Please include "Mailbag" in the subject line.
How important is getting the 12th pick in this year's draft? We are two games ahead of Dallas? Should we care? Normally picks represent high upside at a controlled cost but we need every dime we can get for the free agent summer. What would you prefer. A 1st round pick or the money for an experienced player?
None of those assets are valuable unto themselves. Cap space and draft picks are only as good as the players you can acquire with them. Someone once took me to task for saying this, comparing it to saying, "Money is only as good as what you can buy with it". The situations aren't analogous. For the most part you can get a supply of whatever you wish given enough money. If the Rolls Royce dealer is out of stock today, he can order more. The pool of talented NBA players is far more limited and far less easily replenished, especially within the finite span of time in which your picks or cap space are useful. If somebody signs Dwight Howard or picks Nerlens Noel, you can't just wait for another to come back in stock. A better comparison would be "x" number of dollars in your hand but the store only has two loaves of really good bread, six loaves of decent generic, and 18 loaves of moldy, week-old stuff. Once those two good loaves are gone the utility (and thus value) of your cash diminishes greatly.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, both the free agent and draft markets suffer from a similar lack. Most of the players available aren't enough to turn the franchise's fortunes around. Those that could are going to be hard to acquire given Portland's relative draft position and amount of cash available. The Blazers will need to compromise and plan on acquiring multiple players of significance.
Obviously it's easier to compromise and think about multiple players in the free agency market than it is in the draft. The Blazers will have one first-round pick at best, not multiples. Compromising on a veteran is easier than a college/international draftee. You can plan around a variety of known strengths instead of risking a variety of unknowns in a potential bust. For these reasons I suspect that most of Portland's damage this year will come via trade or free agency, regardless of pick.
That doesn't exclude a pick being part of the overall growth package, however. I'm unimpressed with this year's draft crop so far but somebody in the group could be part of the answer even if they're not the exclusive answer. In certain scenarios $2-3 million in cap space makes a difference but in most scenarios you'd rather have a draftee with that money than a veteran player you signed for that amount. The difference between the two could be vast. For that reason alone the Blazers would prefer to have the pick, at least to start with.
You can always trade a lottery pick if you need extra cap space. That's easy. The reverse, converting cap space into a lottery pick, requires more resources in trade and in some cases isn't possible at all. You always want to start with the most chips possible in your stack and the most options to play them available before you on the table. Even if they don't end up using it themselves, there's no doubt that--all other things being equal--the Blazers would prefer to have that pick in their possession when draft season comes around.
While early in games the Blazers seem to utilize the pick-and-roll offense followed by motion and passing (sometimes), later in games they seem to simply go to Aldridge on the extended low block or far out on the side. Against Memphis, that meant repeatedly going against Gasol. Why does all the movement and motion evaporate? I realize they are going to their best scorer, but I thought Stotts used the assumption that effective team basketball (motion and movement) created the best scoring opportunities. Is it your opinion that simple plays are better at the end of the game or should the Blazers make more use of their motion offense sets to take advantage of the fatigue of the defense and keep all their offensive players involved?
It's a good point. The efficacy of star-dominant scoring versus just running your plays has been hotly debated this season. And to be fair, we've seen the Blazers take at least three different options--Aldridge, Lillard, and Batum--in critical closing situations this year. Though none of these plays looked much like a normal set, it's not like they're stuck in "Give it to Kobe and clear out" mode.
The broader answer to your question is that focus changes between the two situations you've described. During the flow of the game the goal is to get the best shots for the biggest amount of players. Whether Aldridge, Matthews, Lillard, or Maynor scores a given bucket is less important than the quality and comfort of the shot. Batum might be open on one play, Leonard on another. The ball is supposed to follow. If a player misses a decent shot, well, there's always another play. Odds are it'll go in next time.
At the end of the game you're not concerned about the greatest number of open shots for the greatest number of players. You have one shot only. You know it; the defense does too. Unless extraordinary circumstances intervene, that shot is not likely to be wide open no matter how many times you pass the ball. The defense will know your favored tendencies and work hard to take them away.
The question you ask in this situation is, "Which of my players has the best chance of getting into position and hitting a contested shot?" The list narrows rapidly depending on your players' talent, physical attributes, reliability, experience, and desire to take the big shot. As an All-Star with range and a near-unblockable shot, Aldridge is an obvious (though not the only) answer for the Blazers. Therefore you'll see them getting the ball to him in these situations instead of just making him part of the flow as they did earlier in the game. You'll also note the Blazers getting Aldridge the ball when the offense is going south and they need to turn it around quickly.
It's not like teamwork goes out the window totally in those sets. If the other team feared Aldridge so much that they double-teamed and left a man open, I'd guess the ball would zip to that open shooter even if it started in Aldridge's hands. Heretofore the opponents have decided to defend one-on-one. Given those constraints, every player with a single defender, Aldridge is probably the best bet the Blazers have.
Also keep in mind that the more things you attempt in a given set the more things have a chance to go wrong. Running a screen and roll seems easy, but who's going to set that screen? Aldridge doesn't screen well. Employing another Portland big means putting a non-scorer in the middle of a critical scoring play. How will the opponent defend the play? What happens if they jump the dribbler? Can you get the ball inside anymore? Will he get stuck and have to loft a twisting prayer over double defenders? Will the necessary pass get intercepted? Will the recipient of that pass be in comfortable scoring position? If not, how will he get there and how will his teammates and the defense react? It's not like the Blazers have a ton of players who can freelance a dribble into a good closing shot regardless of situation. If the defense traps Lillard the next guy touching the ball is going to be forced to shoot from wherever he catches it. Given all that, it's simpler and safer to call a low-risk pass to the highly-proficient Aldridge in the post and let the offense develop from there.
If the sale of the Sacramento Kings goes through and the team relocates to Seattle, how do you think that would affect the alignment of teams in the Western Conference? Would Seattle remain in the Pacific division while Portland stays in the Northwest? Personally I'd like to see Portland back in the Pacific division (with Seattle and the rest of the teams actually located along the Pacific Ocean) and move Phoenix over to the Northwest Division and possibly rename the division to something more appropriate. Or would the sale and relocation preclude another grand "realignment"?
I doubt they'd make immediate changes, but they'd be well-served doing something. The geography of the "Western" Conference is all screwed up anyway. Memphis, Tennessee is West? Really? Minnesota is in the Northwest of what, exactly?
Personally I'd prefer a north-south alignment as you suggest, perhaps expanded to include the whole conference.
Pacific Conference: Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, Blazers, Sonics
Mountain (Plains? Prairie?) Conference: Suns, Jazz, Nuggets, 'Wolves, Thunder
Southwestern: Conference: Spurs, Mavericks, Rockets, Hornets, Grizzlies
I wouldn't mind seeing a more regional alignment across the whole league. Midwest teams within shouting distance of each other are in completely different conferences while the Blazers travel 2000 miles to play somebody in their own division. That's crazy. I'm sure an enterprising reader could come up with a conference/division alignment that made more sense than the current system. Then again, so could a drunk monkey.
Kaman, Dalembert, and Gortat (who has another year on his contract) have all been discussed as possible Blazer signees. But age, cost, and role on the team don't appeal to me. I would prefer the Blazers go after a younger, cheaper, more defensive oriented center like Mosgov, Pachulia, or Aldrich to play alongside Leonard as he and they both develop. What do you think of that approach/those 3?
The Blazers will need to make a philosophical decision about the center position. The availability and cost of centers around the league plus their assessment of Meyers Leonard's potential will be the key factors informing their decision.
They can try to solve all their problems in one, fell swoop, going after a franchise center (likely Dwight Howard). The chances of success are slim and the cost would be all their available cap space and then some. For that reason this approach is unlikely.
They can take a step down by deciding that their main acquisition of the summer will be a center, filling a gaping hole in the roster. They'd depend on their new guy being a major player for years to come, as their cap space would be all but consumed acquiring him. Making a run at other teams' Restricted Free Agents (Nikola Pekovic, Tiago Splitter) would fall into this expensive-but-decent-payoff category. The main question here: is one player enough to cure all their ills?
Failing that, the Blazers are left looking for a serviceable center at a bargain price. All the options you outline fall into this category. Leonard's development comes into play here as much as cost. Do you go with an experienced center, giving you the benefit of immediate high(-ish) quality play but the drawback of declining returns as the years pass? If so, you're renting a guy to fill minutes until Leonard is ready to take over. A guy like Dalembert would make sense. But if you're not sure Leonard will be your guy three years from now, you have to go with a younger guy like Mosgov or Aldrich. You don't get the immediate proven play but there's a better chance at future returns. The problem here is fielding two relatively inexperienced, relatively flawed centers at once hoping one of them will pan out. All of your benefit lies in the future. The only virtue now is saving money. Plus there's no guarantee either one of them will fill the bill later. You may be settling for nothing...a position battle between two players who shouldn't be manning the position they're battling for.
There's another possibility here. Maybe you don't need an amazing starting center. Maybe the Blazers would be better off investing their money in talented smaller players, living with serviceable journeymen in the middle. In that case you probably go with the veteran guy (Kaman, Delambert) for a couple years and plan on Leonard turning into that journeyman when they're ready to leave. Either that or you just go out and find the next journeyman. Really good centers being as rare and expensive as they are, the Blazers might consider this a viable option. How much utility do you get out of $10 million at the pivot versus the shooting guard position or invested in a second, "fake center" power forward with scoring skills?
This entire season has been a roller coaster. One day we lose to the Hornets, the next, we cream the Spurs. Overall, this year we have a better record against teams over .500 (16-17) than below (14-17). We all want to read into this as a sign of how good we can be, but isn't this also a danger sign of either the team or coaching? Either, we have a staff who cant get our team motivated to play lesser opponents (a death knell if you want to make the playoffs) or we are getting by with good teams looking past us to other "quality opponents". So, the question is what needs to be fixed in the offseason so we get back to winning 80% of our games against teams with losing records
Experience will help. This behavior is typical of younger teams, though the Blazers have taken it to a bit of an extreme (anecdotally anyway). A bench will also help. No matter the quality of the opponent, 40 minutes on the floor is 40 minutes. Back-to-backs are back-to-backs. The Blazers have beat themselves before the opponent had a chance to, particularly in first halves. More rest should help the starts.
I'm not convinced that this is a sign of danger or hope, however. In fact I'm not even sure it's a sign, period. The Blazers have played an inordinate number of close games this season. By definition, those boil down to two or three plays. At that point the game becomes more like poker. Poker pros will win in the long run but there's no way to predict the outcome of any given two or three hands. The NBA isn't as random as dealing cards but relative advantages and disadvantages will stand out far less in the short term than they will over time.
Assuming there is a sign here, though...
Attributing the losses against bad teams to coaching implies that they could have been changed for the better with a different approach. If anything, it's amazing that the Blazers have performed to the level they have. No approach would have made that bench better. The only way to curb the fatigue factor would be playing the bench more. Common sense would indicate that wasn't the path to more victories this year. You might have bought more wins on those tired nights but you probably would have lost some of those close wins against better teams in the process.
Using the victories against good teams as the true measure of the team's potential is equally flawed. It's Travis Outlaw syndrome applied to an entire team. Take a carefully-sliced version of any player or team and you can find something promising. That isn't the measure of success. In the NBA, as in life, you're defined by what you do every day, not just on your best days. Everybody can fall in love with somebody...the sparks, the physical attraction, both parties on their best behavior. Marry them and stay together for 20 years then ask if those determine the success or failure of the relationship. Sure they come into play, but married people stay married because of their endurance and trust on their worst days, not just because of the sky-high feeling on their best. Those that don't get it, can't do it. Those who bet on Outlaw becoming a superstar because of his amazing 20-point outpourings lost their shirts.
Young, emotional teams beat the Lakers then give back the next night against the Bobcats. But young, emotional teams don't win titles or even get far in the playoffs. Playoff-level success isn't about how high you can fly at your best and most motivated. It's about how well you perform when the highest-level opponents take away your best options, your favorite tricks, and your emotional comfort zone. When the Blazers let down against the league's weaker sisters and still come out double-digit victors then we can regard wins against great teams as a positive sign. Until then, 37-45 is a losing record...no more and no less.
Keep those questions coming!