Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Pressure on Lillard, More Aldridge, and Cap Space

USA TODAY Sports

We start today's mailbag with pressure on Damian Lillard and finish with same, just pressure of another kind! In between we talk trades and cap consideration.

Today's mailbag starts and ends with pressure on Damian Lillard and throws a little trade and cap action into the middle. Enjoy!

Dave,

Defensive pressure forced the ball out of Lillard's hands a lot last season, and the consensus seems to be that he needs a second ball-handler on the team. Do you think he can improve enough as a ball-handler to face this pressure, or will he always need support?

Adam

Yes on both counts.

Lillard will learn how to break pressure. He won't be as addled as we saw him mid-season nor as easily shut down. But you're always going to be in trouble with only one ball-handler on the floor. The way Portland's roster was constructed this season the defense knew if they could keep Lillard from getting past them the lane was sealed tight. Who else was going to get it in there? They also had a pretty good idea that anyone he passed the ball to would either execute their offense within a six-foot radius or have to pass again.

Unless you're an amazing physical specimen like LeBron James or Dwight Howard the best way to defeat a defender is to make them guess. You watch them try to read your mind, shade toward Choice A or Choice B, then pick whichever one they didn't choose. If they fear Choices A, B, and C so much the better. Without at least one more dribble threat on the court Portland's opponents are choosing between A and alt-A every time the ball leaves Lillard's hands. That's why the pressure worked so well.

You also have to consider the burden on Lillard having to set up every play. This is part of why the Blazers tried to run through Nicolas Batum more this year. Plus Lillard works well without the ball himself. He'd have more fun, and clearer scoring opportunities, if his teammates could occasionally reverse the ball and threaten before it came back to him.

The Blazers don't necessarily require an All-Star penetrating guard next to Lillard but they need some kind of threat off the dribble to make Lillard more effective...not just against pressure but against every defensive game plan.

P.S. A big to set solid picks would help.

Dave-

I love Portland and the Blazers. I'll be a fan for life, but I don't see any moves that the team can make right now that will make us a Championship contender without trading LaMarcus Aldridge. I have serious questions about LA leading us to a title. Can LaMarcus be a defensive force in the middle? Even with a true center along side him, I feel like he would still be a liability defensively. Far too frequently he gets caught standing around and watching on defense. He is amazing offensively, but will his defensive effort ever match his offensive output? So my question is this, what could the Blazer's realistically get for LaMarcus Aldridge? Who would you rather have than LaMarcus? Kevin Love? Marc Gasol? Brook Lopez? If we could trade LA for a big name in the middle or upfront that is an improvement on D and maybe a slight dropoff on the offensive end wouldn't it make sense? Especially since we could re-sign JJ Hickson at that point. Thoughts?

Nate

Wait...you want to trade LaMarcus Aldridge because you feel he'd be a defensive liability even with a defending center playing alongside him but you're OK with re-signing J.J. Hickson to play power forward instead?

As the kids say, "lolwut?"

As far as Aldridge's effort, I agree that he flagged somewhat on defense as the season wore down but that was only after playing one...billion...minutes and the team falling out of contention. And really, the fall-off wasn't that bad. It was more him not being able to save everybody else who crumbled around him (including and especially Hickson).

Will Aldridge's defense ever match his offense? No. But it doesn't have to. He's still one of the best players in the league.

The problem with trading one of the best players in the league is you seldom get equal value, let alone greater. Absent the Blazers remaking the roster prior to an Aldridge trade there's no way it could be viewed as anything besides a white flag and total rebuild. I love Marc Gasol. I like Brook Lopez. Either one would be a nice get to play alongside Aldridge. Neither can replace Aldridge, nor would the Blazers go anywhere if they tried. Kevin Love is a special case. He could probably step in and produce like LMA does. But even then the Blazers don't gain significant ground without other major additions.

You may be right about Aldridge alone not being able to lead the Blazers to a title. That reflects less on him as a championship-caliber player and more on the team they've assembled around him so far.

Dear Dave,

What is the worst case scenario for this off season? With few notable free agents along with lots of teams with cap space this summer, what are the chances Neil Olshey chooses to preserve as much cap space as possible and wait until next year to find a big ticket center or sixth man? How much cap space could he preserve and would it be better to wait for the better 2014 draft class?

Chris

Technically the Blazers might be able to preserve some space. Right now they don't have any contracts scheduled to expire and cause cap holds next summer. But their current players under contract get more expensive as time goes by. They'd also be adding this year's lottery pick and presumably next year's lottery pick to the cap. Between the raises, two more lottery players, the mandatory roster minimums, and factoring in a cap increase, I'm guesstimating they could hold over $8-9 million of cap space maximum.

Even if the free agent class is better in 2014, what's $8-9 million going to get you? Not the superstar you'd need in that situation.

You'd need that superstar because in order to preserve that space the Blazers couldn't sign anybody this year. Every player they took on would have to play on a one-year contract and become disposable at the end of that year, lest those cap holds creep in and soak up the available space.

How many players can you find to play on single-year deals? You're talking the bottom of the barrel, guys just trying to stay in the league. Absent trades, the roster would actually look worse next year than it did this year. That doesn't even climb to the level of sad trombone time. More like broken kazoo.

The only way out of the trap would be trading for expiring contracts. But if you're going to move what little talent you have, wouldn't you prefer to bring back a player you know can help you long term instead of a nebulous shot at maybe landing a free agent next summer?

You also have to respect the Aldridge Factor. His current contract expires in the Summer of 2015. The Blazers dare not let him get to that point without extending him or trading him. They cannot afford to have him walk for nothing. How are you going to convince him to marry you for the remainder of his prime years when you've built around him so poorly to this point?

Even if the answer to your question about preserving cap space is a technical "yes" it's a practical "no". You'd sacrifice way too much for diminishing returns and still not have any guarantee of making a leap forward when you got to the end of the process.

Dave,

In case you haven't noticed, Damian Lillard is gettin' some major press and major props from the national media. Magazine covers. National media interviews during the playoffs, even though the Blazers aren't there. Arguably, he's gotten more attention from the national types in his one year than LaMarcus Aldridge has gotten in seven. Dude can play--and such attention can be a good thing, especially if it translates into superstar whistles as he continues to (hopefully) improve his game. And to his credit, he appears to handle it well.

Does Lillard deserve all this hype, relative to his production, and his teammates? Is it good for the Blazers if this particular circus comes to town and puts up its tent? Or does this set of alarm bells in your head? Any concerns about team chemistry, or that Lillard might decide he's arrived, and fail to make further progress in his game? And what do you think is different about Damian that has caused him to get so much attention, when prior high-achieving Blazers have been more or less ignored?

Scott

Hype is a funny thing. It follows talent but it's also situation-based. Plenty of talent guys get little or no hype. Some less-talented guys get more than their share. "Deserving" and "Hype" make for a tenuous pair at best.

Let's look at some of the reasons the league's PR machine has gotten behind Damian Lillard.

Lillard is hyped because he's talented. Not only can the kid play, he makes your jaw drop every other game. Who has a quick release step-back three like that? He put Isaiah Thomas-like finishes on a couple drives this year. He scores, he passes, he makes color commentators swoon. Blazer fans need not be ashamed or suspicious of this. Ironic Hipster mode fits Portland best but sometimes it's OK to be the prettiest girl at the ball. Lillard's talent isn't going away, so we might want to order more than one dress made.

Lillard is hyped because he's a rookie. To the national audience Damian's peers aren't his own teammates. They judge his performance against fellow first-year players. Lillard was clearly the most exciting and productive of the bunch based on raw numbers. Statisticians can quibble but accountants don't make hype.

The number that defines Lillard more than any other may be 6, as in "Drafted 6th Overall". Having the 6th pick turn out head and shoulders above everyone else (at least to casual viewers) not only makes a nice media story, it gives hope to everyone in the draft process. The league and its fans benefit when everybody thinks they have a chance at greatness despite the selection order.

Lillard's rookie status also contributes to the flavor-of-the-month phenomenon. Lillard is less productive than other young point guards but we've heard about Kyrie Irving and Mike Conley before.

All of that is going to disappear as soon as this year's draft commences. Then Lillard will be old news, compared to a large pool of guards instead of a small cadre of high draftees. He'll need to score more or lead his team to far more wins in order to hold this kind of attention. It won't come as naturally and easily as it did his first season.

Lillard is hyped because he's small. Big men never garner the public adoration that small guys do. They don't score off of tricky drives against comparatively giant opponents, they don't launch rainbow threes, and they don't make you think, "I'm that height! With just a little more quickness maybe I could..." You can practice Damian's step-back on the playground and dream. You can't practice being 6'11" tall. No matter how much LaMarcus Aldridge produces and no matter how efficient his play gets he'll never draw the same attention or fire the same kind of imagination.

The same point that held for rookie status holds here though. So far Lillard's only real competition for hype has been Anthony Davis, a big. Next year he'll be compared to a ton of guys as small and potentially dazzling as he. The show isn't getting less interesting but the cable box is adding tons more channels.

Lillard is hyped because he's charismatic. Not only does Damian have the "It Factor" on the court, he can't seem to pass a microphone without saying something charming into it. Less than 10% of the players in the league play distinctly enough to get them in front of a mic in the first place. The bulk of those who do either have disagreeable tendencies (on or off the court) or don't make for a great interview. Guys with talent and the ability to make you feel like you could grab a beer and shoot some pool with them are rare gems. Damian's already in the top 2% of the league in that department and there aren't that many players to begin with. Given the number of on-camera hours, he's going to be in high demand unless his play and personality give out.

Some of these factors will change. Some won't. It'll be interesting to see where the train goes from here. Best guess: his star dims nationally but never goes out, then rises again if and when the team gets better.

In any case, whether Lillard deserves the hype in comparison to teammates and league-wide point producers is immaterial. Hype don't care about that. By hype's own criteria the fresh-faced, surprisingly adept, and charismatic Lillard was overwhelmingly deserving this year and has a fighting chance to remain so.

And yes, this is good for the Blazers. Portland's enemy isn't just mediocrity, it's irrelevance. Like all professional leagues, the NBA is a mixture of sports and entertainment. (Resisting...urge to...mention...Lakers...whew!) You can be good or bad and still be playing sports. Entertainment isn't as egalitarian. If nobody notices or cares, you're done. It'll be far easier for the Blazers to get talented and get wins by their own devices than it will be for the Blazers to create hype by their own devices. Lillard eases that concern, at least for now. The Blazers shouldn't just welcome the circus, they should put up the elephants in the finest hotel in town and build a peanut factory next door.

Team chemistry depends on Lillard's personality and Aldridge's desires. LaMarcus is the only Blazer with reason to be affronted by Lillard's fame. If Damian walks around with his nose in the air it could sour the room. If Aldridge is sick and tired of getting overlooked despite his enormous talent then the Blazers better get enough wins to get noticed quick. Either way, those two will have to work it out between each other and with the franchise. If I had to guess I'd say that Damian carries himself well enough to overcome the natural resentment about a rookie getting as many touches and shots as he wants. Those assists probably help. But I'd also guess Aldridge must be bristling inside at least a little that Lillard has been trotted forward monthly to receive an award, was tapped to deliver the season-ending public address, and has become the clear fan-favorite among current players. LaMarcus probably understands that the national media will do whatever it wants but the Blazers themselves will need to be careful who they hype and who they forget.

Oddly enough I have few worries about the effect of the hype on Lillard himself. Either he's the greatest faker of all time or he's taking this in stride. When guys have their head on wrong hype and no-hype both have negative consequences. We've seen plenty of that from past Blazers. When your head's on right then both lead to good. Lillard will probably take the hype as confirmation that he can be a star, causing him to reach for it. When the hype falls off he'll probably look to prove to everybody that he was no fluke. Either way he wins and so do the Blazers.

I believe Lillard wants to be a star, a winner, and the kind of guy who creates his own stage instead of hopping on to someone else's bandwagon. Portland needs a guy who understands that anybody can go to L.A. and look like a star but the real luminaries bring the spotlight to their house. Lillard seems more like that guy than anybody who's come along since Brandon Roy. Before that you have to go back to the Drexler era to find that kind of player.

In short, whether the hype is good or bad depends not on the phenomenon itself but on how Lillard takes it. So far things look great. Enjoy the ride.

The inbox is rolling with questions but there's always room for more. Send them to the e-mail address below and please put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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