Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Chris Kaman, Ex-Blazers, and Defense

Ronald Martinez

Blazer's Edge readers inquire about the value of Chris Kaman, some ex-Blazers, and a defensive-minded coach.

Monday's here, the site is back running normally, and it's time for the Mailbag!

Dave,

Why did Chris Kaman's value drop so fast? Wasn't he an All star? (though he was replaced for B Roy's injury)
I thought he was one of the better centers in the league when he was playing for the Clippers. In 2011-12 he was getting paid 14+Mil and it dropped to 8 in one year and now he is considered a retread.

Sangwoo

Injuries took mobility out of an offensive game that was already considered shaky. Kaman had good moments for the Clippers but he was never a guy you'd rely on, particularly defensively. As he struggled on offense he became something of a black hole, calling his value further into question. I agree that Kaman could still be of value as a minute-eater in the middle, kind of like your third starter in the rotation in baseball. He wont' take you to the next level but he might keep you from slipping through a shaky floor. Whether signing him is worth it depends on your aims and cash on hand.

Dave,

Everyone from Paul Allen to my kid nephew knows we need rim protection. All the talk has been center, center, center. I agree with this wholeheartedly. It should be our main target in the offseason. But I think a dynamic shooting guard is just as pressing of a need. Various articles I've read seem to think its going to be a one-or-the-other type of situation where we need to hit a homerun on either a big or a guard, with the nod generally going to the big. I don't think this is the case. Would adding a cheaper, less-proven center like along with an unpredictable scorer work?

Andy

Depends on what you mean by "work".

The Blazers would do well to hit big with either a guard or center. Not all options are created equal, however. The differences between backcourt and pivot show up in how said player would be acquired, how much they'd cost, and what other moves the team would need to make.

If the Blazers hit big at the center position they could call their off-season a success no matter what else happened. For our purposes, "hitting big" would mean the Blazers believe they've acquired a long-term starting-quality center, probably with defensive chops. Adding that guy to their Core Four would complete the starting lineup. They'd fill in with bench players around the edges, then use cap exceptions to add more next year.

The problem is that these players are rare and, except for Dwight Howard, none are unrestricted free agents. The Blazers need cooperation to make this happen...a team willing to trade or unwilling to match an offer for their restricted free agent. Getting that center will cost Portland a current starter, their lottery pick, tons of money, or all of the above.

The other problem with the center position is that the next tier down--guys good enough to start but not good enough to rely on or to solve all your problems long-term--will be darn near as expensive cap-wise. You could easily blow 60% of your cap space on a mediocre big man. The whole point of spending money on a center is being able to say your biggest holes are filled. If that doesn't happen you've just wasted that money even if the position reads "C" on the roster card.

Mostly-dynamic shooting guards are more plentiful on the unrestricted free agent market, easier to acquire in general, and usually less expensive. The Blazers may not be able to hit big when measured against the Hardens and LeBrons of the world but given enough money they could hit big enough. They can also find reasonable bench options at the wing positions while preserving enough cap space to sign another player.

The difference here is that the team could acquire the best free agent shooting guards on the market, spend a ton of money doing so, and still be staring at a gaping hole at center which must be filled somehow. I don't think the Blazers can enter next season with Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland as their only options at center. That team will suffer no matter how good the smaller players are. The peril of going wing is that they can take the biggest swing possible, spend the requisite dough, and still end up wanting.

The cold reality of center availability may take the choice out of Portland's hands. If they can get a good starting center you have to believe they'll do whatever they can in order to do so. But you can't just manufacture opportunities out of thin air. If the guy's not there, he's not there.

But all's not lost if the Blazers take the wing and/or the two-fer options. The more talent you acquire the more trade flexibility you have later. Getting a potential starting small forward or shooting guard eventually makes Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews into trading pieces. Or maybe you trade the guy you just signed a couple years down the road. One day the Blazers could end up with a center who's not available on this summer's free agent market, provided their cupboard is full enough that such a trade wouldn't decimate the roster.

Option #1 is the starting center. But if that's not available then they'll probably do as you suggest, sign the best guy they can, and fill in with makeshift (too young, too old, or limited) centers until they can swing a deal for a guy they'll like. Either "works", it's just a matter of how long and how well.

Dave,

Seeing Zach Randolph and Jerryd Bayless in the conference finals is driving me crazy! Do the Blazers and their fans give up on players too easily? Seeing former Blazers make good stabs you in the gut, right?

Bobby

Not really, half because I wish most (non-Lakers) players well and half because I have a memory more than ten seconds long.

I'm glad Zach Randolph has developed his game, found a place in the league, learned how to contribute his obvious talent to a winning team. Memphis is a great place for him. Both he and the Grizzlies coaching staff deserve credit for that. Bravo.

That doesn't mean the same thing would have happened in Portland had Zach stayed. He needed three stops, two rejections, and three years of life experience before he rid himself of the asterisks attached to his game. His last couple years in Portland were horrible in every way imaginable: horrible defense, horrible attention to detail, horrible team morale, horrible community relations. The entire city held a party when he got shipped out of town. He produced good numbers for the Knicks and Clippers but they found the story much the same. He needed multiple changes of scenery, the last-chance threat, and some age-bound wisdom to take advantage of both in order to prosper.

Would you have wanted to live with the other stuff, unabridged and unabated, in the meantime? Would he have ever reached his "come to Jesus" moment if Portland had kept pouring chance after chance, paycheck after paycheck, into that relationship while chasing his 20 points per game? Would he have found an environment or a reason to curtail the shenanigans and play winning basketball?

Zach Randolph is a power forward. LaMarcus Aldridge is a power forward. When you see Zach play for Memphis now, consider that having him means you'd have traded Aldridge before his last contract came up. There's no way you could pay both of them eight figures to play the same position, nor find enough minutes for each. If you offered Aldridge for Randolph the Grizzlies would probably feel they got the better end of that deal.

Jerryd Bayless is doing alright for himself but he isn't the kind of player you lose sleep over. He's not been above average in any full season he's played. He's also been through multiple stops while trying to find a place. Most of the fond reminiscing revolves around potential (largely unrealized) or stems from the current state of Portland's bench. Even average players look like superstars compared to Portland's 2012-13 reserves. But you couldn't make basketball decisions based on that kind of decline back in 2010 when Bayless was traded. Even if you did, you wouldn't forecast him making enough of a difference to matter...and he wouldn't.

Looking at the list of Blazers who have departed since 2007 you don't see a ton of glittering names or "wish we had them back" mistakes. You might be able to argue Portland's taste in acquiring talent based on that list. There just aren't a lot of rueful goodbyes.

Hi Dave,

Many of us have been thinking the team needs a defensive coach. You have written that no matter how good the coaches are, if the players can't play defense it doesn't matter. So my question isn't Blazer specific. I am just wondering how a defensive specialist's role as an assistant coach is delineated. Basketball is a fast-paced game; players change from offense to defensive at least twice a minute. So how does it work? Apparently Steve Kerr fired Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix for not hiring one so maybe it's not easy for some coaching styles?

Steve

Teaching defense isn't easy. Most everybody grows up learning how to score. Defending isn't as natural. You have to explain concepts like control of space, floor position, and proper technique without the immediate reward of a made shot reinforcing the point. A good offensive player can operate on his own. Defenders depend on knowing where 9 other guys are on the court and where they're going to move. Your team initiates offense. Defense depends on knowing the tendencies of the other team and cutting off what they most want to do. You adjust to individual opponents, changing your tactics from night to night. You have to impart all of this to your players while at the same time convincing them to work hard each possession and sacrifice for the team in ways that won't show up in the box score or highlight reel.

The best defensive coaches start out with a philosophy. They define good possessions and bad possessions, emphasizing what they'd most like to take away from the opponent. They modify this philosophy according to the individual gifts of their players, putting their guys in position to succeed. They're able to explain the philosophy to their players, defining what success looks like beyond just a missed bucket. They show each player how they contribute to that success, breaking down the system into individual decision trees simple enough to process on the fly. They adjust those decision trees based on opponent. Multiply this a half-dozen times over for different schemes and you've got it.

Unlike offense, where you can often bail out of a bad possession by getting the ball to your star, it's hard to compensate for the system breaking down on defense. If even one player misses an assignment the whole defense is going to crumble.

Plenty of coaches suffer when forced to confront the defensive end. A few abandon it. Some go to the other extreme, designing systems so complex and comprehensive that they paralyze their players with a hundred options. Others go with one system and expect it to fit all situations. Yet others go with a system unsuited to one or more of their players and spend their season yelling at their guys for what they're not instead of coaxing out of them everything they are.

All of this is an extended way of saying that great defense isn't a one-man creation. Combining coaching philosophy, knowledge, teaching skill, and adaptability while fielding able players with commitment and team spirit...that's rare. You need the right coach leading the right players, enough chemistry to make it work, and enough wins to reward the effort. Take away any of those factors and your defense will suffer.

Dave,

Everybody's talking about improving the defense, but how? What should the Blazers do to make it better?

Max

I'm no expert, or I'd be coaching instead of writing. But I'll give it a shot.

First of all you need to get a shot-blocker, somebody to watch the rim. If you can't get a credible backstop the ball's just going to keep sailing through.

Give me that and my guess is Portland should build around defensive mobility. They may not have a ton of lateral quickness but they have several players who can get from Point A to Point B in a hurry. They've got a couple of long guys too. Instead of depending on the wings to stop people individually I'd prowl the passing lanes, trap, base success on forced turnovers, defended threes, and shot blocks from my inside guy. Instead of sending one perimeter guy right and left with his man I want help coming from my bigs inside and then recovering back to the middle. I want my mobile side defenders shading inwards to cover for the bigs in case a quick pass comes. The key motion in each case is towards and away from the rim. One guy helps, one guy covers. If the opponent wants around this they're either going to have to thread a needle pass to the paint or get the ball to the side when one of my guys is helping. Either way their scoring window is short if my players are moving quickly enough. I'm going to give up some inside buckets but I'm also going to foil passes and keep the opponent wary.

Again, though, if I don't have a shot-blocking goalie by the rim this all goes out the window. Without quick-striking protection the opponent just needs to get a pass behind the help defense and he's got an easy bucket every time.

The disadvantage here is that mobility/turnover-based defenses tend to suffer in the playoffs. But hey, just getting there is good enough for now.

Mailbag questions are always welcome at the address below. Please put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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