Welcome to the Thursday edition of the Mailbag! Onward...
A week ago when I heard that Jermaine O'Neal wanted to come back to Rip City, I thought it was great. People asked my why. I said [among other things] he can be a mentor to Meyers Leonard. I realized that me included, people use that as a reason to hire vets a lot. (Think Jared Jeffries). Is it really something that we need, or is that a coaches job?
You're right that mentoring is cited far too often. It seems like every time you get an older player and a younger player on the same roster people assume the vet will become the wise guru leading the young pup through a music montage which will result in amazing development. Wax on, wax off Meyers! When you can catch a fly in your chopsticks you will be ready to offensive rebound in this league.
Questions to ask:
1. Can the veteran teach?
2. Does the veteran understand how he, himself developed even?
3. Are the skills the veteran could teach appropriate to the young guy's game?
4. Will the young guy listen?
5. Most of all...is the veteran inclined to do this in the slightest? Does he see himself in that role? What's the benefit to him?
That last one is a huge sticking point. Yes, everybody in this uniform is a teammate. But we became teammates because each of us individually demonstrated the skills and talent necessary to wear the jersey. If that doesn't hold true any one of us could be gone tomorrow and a new guy would fill his place. We're teammates but we're also replaceable.
Even more, 12-15 teammates are fighting for 5 positions on the floor, 48 minutes total for each position. Those minutes are usually merit-based. Whichever teammates do better will get more.
More minutes and more responsibility equal more exposure and chances to produce. Those, in turn, lead to more and better contract terms. Take my minutes and you're taking my money.
Let's pretend I'm an average veteran. I'm 32. That's getting old in basketball terms but in life terms I'm still a young man. I don't feel, look, or act old. I'm nowhere close to retirement by any internal standard. Absent a career-ending injury, the competitive environment is the only factor forcing me out. This is the only life I've known, the pinnacle of my professional life. Once it's over odds are against me ever hold a job this prestigious or well-paying again.
Now here I am looking across the practice floor at you. You're 20 years old. You don't know jack. You haven't paid your dues like I have. You haven't learned what I've learned through hard knocks, hard fights, and plain old repetition. You're so clueless that you don't even know that you don't know! You think you're a real NBA player already. Everybody's drooling over you because you've got 10 years ahead of you in this league instead of 10 years behind you like I do. It's all potential and physical gifts. But put the two of us on the floor and I'm going to mop the court with you and make you look stupid.
So wait...you're telling me that I'm supposed to teach you how to take my minutes? I'm supposed to wipe your nose and change your diaper for you so that you can edge me out of a job and maybe one more shot at a contract, sending me into a retirement from which I'll never return? I'm not only still good at this, I'm better than you at this! But people can't wait until you make me obsolete? I don't think so.
You earn it, Junior, just like I did. When you can look me in the eye after putting me to shame on the court then we can pass the torch. Until then I'll teach you all right. I'll teach you by showing you how a man earns his minutes in this league by beating up on and being better than all the young punks who think they deserve them. I'll demonstrate by winning games for this team while you sit on the bench and hold my towel. And if you want to try me, I'll put an elbow in the back of your head on an offensive rebound until you prove you can take it, dish it back, and push me out of this spot. I am not leaving until I have to, and I'll be damned if I'll make that "have to" come any sooner than it already will, especially not for the sake of a kid with a decade of learning and fat money ahead of him.
If you get any response better than that to the idea that a vet should mentor a youngster, count yourself lucky. You've either got a real pro with a deep sense of respect for the game and his team or you've got a guy who sees himself as a coach in a couple years. Those guys exist and mentoring does happen all the time, as it does in any profession. But you can't often sign a guy for that express purpose unless you, that player, and your young guy all know the deal. In general you sign guys to play. Rubbing off on the kids is a side benefit.
One exception would be mentoring prominent, high draft picks who are already de facto stars entering the league. In that case the veteran already comes in underneath the young guy. There's no real battle so he has little to lose by helping out. Teams want the right veteran back-ups in that situation and build accordingly.
Another possible exception would be the case at hand. Jermaine O'Neal will turn 35 at the beginning of this season. He's made a ton of money, had all the accolades, and will always be able to find a roster spot until he flat-out can't play anymore. He's been injured and won't want a ton of minutes. He'd still want to beat out Leonard for the reserve role but he wouldn't mind nights off while Meyers stretched his legs. He might even take pride in giving the kid a leg up and the chance to play that he, himself never got in Portland.
The first four factors listed above still come into play. But I'm guessing if you were going to sign someone with an eye towards mentoring, O'Neal's situation makes him a good choice.
I love all the talk about who the Blazers are going to get this off season and who we will trade for, but aren't we being a bit presumptuous on all this? All trades involve partners and you have to give something to get something, and while I'd love to trade the 10th pick and the ghosts of Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith for a premier big man or future All Star potential wing, I don't think teams are waiting by the phone for that one. Give us a dose of reality. Surprises notwithstanding, what might be a realistic trade opportunity this offseason?
It's going to be hard. We've been saying that from the jump. The unrestricted free agent class is either unobtainable, problematic, or anemic. Restricted players offer some hope but you need two to tango there. The draft won't produce many instant-impact players. That leaves trades as the first, best option for improving the team quickly. Since the Blazers have no liquid assets except for cap space and the draft pick, you have to look for teams looking to dump salary, rebuild, or get rid of redundant players. Teams in those situations will find Portland a great trading partner.
Who those teams will be depends largely on free agency, especially if you're talking about going after a center. As we've said a million times, Dwight Howard will be the First Domino. If he re-ups with the Lakers the Blazers lose an opportunity. Him moving anywhere else will probably cause a team to jettison salary or their current center, both of which fit Portland's criteria.
The other unpredictable possibility would be Portland playing the shell game with the Core Four. If they can use cap space to get a player who makes Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews redundant they may be able to wrangle another really good player by offering one or both of those core players and/or the pick. They'd still be short in overall numbers but their foundation could get more exciting.
Absent those moves the Blazers will probably hope to get one good player in trade (likely for the pick and some space) another good player in free agency with the remaining space, and manufacture short-term depth with the room exception and veteran minimum signings. You don't get anybody special this way but they'll hope that two good players added to their current four will be enough to make them relevant.
This past season seemed to be a Tale of Two Seasons, a Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, if you will. The first half of the season we looked great, were in playoff contention, and things seemed to be clicking fairly well (remember being 5 games over .500?) But the second half of the season was abysmal. I understand the last 14 games or so were tank time & was basically getting the rookies playing time to audition. But what do you think went wrong from the good start from the beginning of the season? We still didn't have a true center, our defense still wasn't great, I know Batum was healthy (healthier), but shouldn't the team have learned to play better as the season went along and learned to make adjustments and gotten better & better instead of collapsing?
A short list of factors besides the ones you just mentioned (defense, paint play, injuries):
--Huge minutes from the starters began to take their toll. Those early-season marathon performances from Portland's best players weren't sustainable.
--The only recourse was to a bench so bad that you'd rather watch 50 Cent do Shakespeare than see them play for one more quarter.
--Portland's weaknesses were obvious and exploitable from the get go. They got away with it during their first trip through the league as other teams were in flux. By the second time anybody saw the Blazers they should have had them solved. Most teams did.
--The schedule went from Cream-o-Wheat to solid brick after the All-Star break.
--Most of the team was too young or too limited to make significant adjustments.
--The idea that doing something badly long enough will make you good at it doesn't always hold true. (copyright: Arby's, John Romero, Star Trek Movies) You could throw everybody but Portland's four top players on the court for a century and they'd never gel into a good team.
Phil Jackson used to give each of his players a book to read that he thought would help them with their game. If you were the coach of the Blazers and wanted to follow a similar strategy, what book would you select for each (relevant) player, and why?
I love this question! Unfortunately I'm going to have to plead ignorance. The more I write the less time I have to read. I assume you've seen how much I write. I've not had the pleasure of casual reading for a while so most of the books I could cite would be technical and have little value to the players and no common reference point with Blazer's Edge readers. Therefore I'm going to let readers make suggestions on this one in the comment section.
However, since I felt a little loopy today I decided to change your question slightly, asking what books I think would represent the main Blazer players. If these guys were books, what would they be and why? The field is vast, so to hold the thread together I limited myself to children/teen books.
Damian Lillard-- The Harry Potter series because he's young, magical, and has gotten popular in the most obvious ways but we don't know yet if the ending will live up to the starting promise. Either way he's going to make somebody a billion bucks though.
Nicolas Batum-- The Twilight series because he looks good and has got a couple flashy moves but is probably overrated on the whole.
LaMarcus Aldridge-- The Narnia series because he's good at a bedrock level but not in a way you could make a movie about.
Wesley Matthews-- The Encyclopedia Britannica because he's solid and dependable but has no flash, little drive, and a bad finish. (Holla Holla Zymotic Diseases!)
J.J. Hickson-- Old Yeller. The beginning and middle were great but the sad ending is here.
Victor Claver-- The Little Engine That Could. "I think I can! I think I can! Darn! Missed the three again!"
Meyers Leonard-- Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever. Lots of raw material in there but putting it together in usable form is going to take some work.
Will Barton-- Any pop-up book in existence. Usually pretty poorly written but when the page turns right? DANG!
Joel Freeland-- Tim the Tiny Horse. Well, it's...errr...British.
Feel free to make your own literary list in any genre you choose or to answer Brian's original question about which books you'd like to give Trail Blazer players and why. And keep those questions coming to the address below with "Mailbag" in the subject line!