Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Lillard's Athleticism, Mediocre Free Agents, and BPA

USA TODAY Sports

Today's mailbag topics include underrating Damian Lillard's athleticism, the perils of getting stuck with mediocre free agents, best players available, and more!

Another batch of Mailbag questions await us!

Dave,

One of my biggest irritations from the media (particularly ESPN analysts) last year was that whenever Damian Lillard was mentioned they talked about him not being an elite athlete. I think we need a definition of elite athlete? Because how can Lillard have tested almost the same as Derrick Rose (who the media loves to talk about as an elite athlete) and yet still not be an elite athlete? Is this bias because of the way he plays? Because by numbers, the guy is a sick athlete.

Joseph

Shortcuts are common in the quick, churn-out-the-words world of national media coverage. Once a meme takes hold it's hard to break out of. Most shorthand phrases like "not an elite athlete" have some truth to them. The problem is, we don't know which truth they're trying to get at. Left to guess, we stab at the wrong one. Misconceptions spread as the meme gets repeated from source to source.

This is why I prefer to listen to people who know what they're talking about, or at least are willing to treat the subject carefully. National media guys are often the best source of information on teams like the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat. They spend all their time and energy on those teams. Everything else is going to be some version of a shortcut from all but the best, most dedicated analysts.

My guess is that "not an elite athlete" was not meant to equate Lillard with a 40-year-old MLB relief pitcher. Part of it may be Lillard scoring outside rather than bulling in the lane like Jerryd Bayless once did. Lillard's physique is not as hulking as the Bayless-types either. People tend to equate "athlete" with size, strength, and looking ripped rather than speed. "Not an elite athlete" could have been code-speak for "spent four years in college" or even "plays smart instead of relying solely on physical gifts". Some of those things are compliments packaged in a supposed weakness.

Either way, people in the know understand that Lillard is a good athlete, has superb conditioning (another underrated part of athleticism), and that his brain allows him to make more of his physical gifts than you might expect. No need to worry on that account even if other NBA point guards look good for different reasons.

Dave,

After reading all this free agent talk, I could not help to reminisce on the free agent class of 2009. Only this time instead of think of Portland's failed courtship of Hedo Turkoglu, I started to think of Detroit's terrible decision making which left them with Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva eating their cap space. I fear we are in a similar position where we are trying to reach instant success in order to appease the veterans on our team, as Detroit did for Prince and Hamilton. Your view on Evans, Mayo and Reddick seemed eerily similar to Ben Gordon a la 2008 and 2009. You have also state, I believe accurately, that the Blazers must spend their money this summer. So my question is, would it be better for the Blazers to go after a high risk/reward player where if it works we are championship contenders but if it doesn't we are bottom feeders, or spend the money on overpaid mediocre players that may get us to the first round or may get us a high teens pick again?

Peter

This is what's great about the NBA. In the broadest sense your concern is justified. The Blazers will need to distinguish between Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now when courting free agents. But the equation is too complex to be encompassed by any one generality.

Ben Gordon carried some nice offensive numbers when he hit free agency, had a reputation as an iron man (which would disappear soon after), and had even won the 6th Man of the Year award in his rookie season. For all that, though, he was still a 6'3" shooting guard who couldn't defend a lick. Gordon's demise was aided by his move to a fractured team with a rookie coach. He returned to the bench after starting in Chicago, losing minutes and shots in the process. It never worked out. His game got exposed and he was never the same.

If the 2009 Ben Gordon were available today the Blazers might be intrigued. At the same time we'd be asking some serious questions. As a 6th man this team would probably welcome him. But starting or even playing serious minutes alongside Lillard would be a near-non-starter because nobody could compensate for the lack of backcourt "D". We'd have to ask if Gordon was the kind of guy who could get in, get his points, then get right back out of the way. Although his efficiency numbers were pretty good, that was never his style.

O.J. Mayo is probably the closest analogy to Gordon among the players you mentioned. He's neither as prolific nor as efficient of a scorer as Gordon was at his peak. But you're getting him mostly for offense, relying on his jumper to generate buckets, straddling the line between whether he'll start or come off the bench. If it's the latter, you have to be worried about him. His spotty track record also makes you question if you're buying a guy at his best-looking moment only to rue it later.

Tyreke Evans is a completely different animal. He'd likely start for you as he has in Sacramento, though there's some question about his fit with Lillard. He's a driver with size, a guy you'd get for his style of play and the new wrinkle it gave your offense as much as his ability. You'd worry about defense but you could also chalk up his poor showing so far to playing in Sacramento.

J.J. Redick's shot is never going away even if you blindfold him. He's a bench player and nothing but except in an emergency, making his flaws less important and his mindset more secure. He fits more naturally than any of the above three guards but he doesn't have the same potential to transform the team. He's less of a boost to the engine, more of a tune-up to maximize efficiency.

Which of these players you'd favor depends on what you're looking for. Production alone says Gordon. Fit alone says Redick. Potential sides with Evans. Mayo is a mix of the three. The point here is that none of these guys, even Gordon, would be an automatic signing for the Blazers. If I had to handicap the race I'd say the Blazers would be more interested in Evans, Mayo, or Redick than they would be in Ben Gordon circa 2009 unless they were dead certain B.G. would happily come off the bench again. If he's the archetype of the player you don't want to sign you don't have to worry. The Blazers probably wouldn't sign him.

Because the Blazers have to be careful with their money--needing help at multiple positions--and have to get these decisions right the players they're looking at will be under a microscope. Nobody will be perfect but the combination of price, talent, fit, and potential will have to add up before Portland pulls the trigger. If they can't find a couple mid-priced guys who meet their requirements they can always try to blow big money on one guy who does. This isn't 2011 when they're throwing last-second money at mediocre players to shore up a last, desperate run with a crumbling roster. They have to build solidly, for the future. That's what they'll try.

As far as the home run versus safe double question, you've pretty much set it up to answer itself. If the home run swing is there and the odds are anything north of miserable you take the chance. But if you can't get your home run you have to take two doubles and hope to score. The Blazers seem to self-assess as being "close" so they'd prefer the doubles to a huge-risk homer cut but they won't say no to a reasonable home-run chance. That said, reasonable home-run chances don't usually hit the open market.

Dave,

You keep saying the Blazers should target the best available talent this off-season. I'm not arguing.

Are you restricting your view of 'best available talent' to free agents, or do you believe that criteria can apply to all players in the NBA?

Finally, is Josh Smith the best available talent to the Blazers?

hellofromengland

The Blazers need the best available talent any way they can get it. Trades, draft, and free agency all qualify.

However the Blazers also have to distinguish between theoretical and functional talent. Josh Smith is a huge talent theoretically but his attitude and playing style have combined to lessen his impact in Atlanta, where he fit comfortably into the rotation. He'd fit less comfortably into Portland's. There's no reason to speculate that he'd reform his ways here. Therefore the payoff wouldn't match the potential. If he had a reputation as an incredible worker, a guy who does anything to win, the story would be different.

Hi Dave,

You've said that we need to draft talent over need and your approach would be to draft the best player available. If there is one guy available at each position, each with exactly the same level of talent, which one would you select and why?

JonathanPDX

This would never happen. That aside, assuming you mean with Portland's highest pick, you draft the shooting or combo-guard because he'd have an easier time adjusting and making an impact than a center would. Also he wouldn't have to start. Then you go out and get a veteran center.

Dave,

Do the Blazers have any say over whether Nicolas Batum can play international ball in the off season? I know Nate McMillian used to support, thinking the more Nic played, the better he would get, and far be it from me to tell someone not to play for their nation. However, each of the last three seasons, Batum has suffered injuries towards the end of the season that, when combined with the fatigue that comes with the NBA season, have contributed to a distinct decline in his play.

It seems to me that he and the Blazers both would be better served if Batum chose not to play in the offseason, instead focusing on getting completely healthy and working on specific aspects of his game to improve.

Scott

They don't and they won't. McMillan had him as a young, raw player. It's likely that his tune would change now. And I agree. Nicolas shouldn't be playing in the summer if he can't put in a full, energetic, and relatively injury-free season for the team that's paying him $11 million per year. But that's not our decision. If extra exposure back home or national pride impel him to play, he'll do it.

Dave,

I've been watching the playoffs and, as a Blazers fan, can't help but notice the play of Jarrett Jack and Jared Bayless. They are both playing great basketball on the big stage. Who, if any, would you rather have back on the Blazers: Jack or Bayless?

Matt

Given the choice, Jack. He had the better attitude and would give the Blazers more of what they need. You didn't need Jack as much if you had Brandon Roy. Now the Blazers could use him.

If you have a Mailbag question you can send it to the address below with "Mailbag" in the subject line. Thanks to all those who are sending questions in!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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