Blazer's Edge Mailbag: All About Centers

USA TODAY Sports

This edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag covers centers, centers, and more centers. What are the possibilities as the Portland Trail Blazers look to address their biggest need?

Dave,

I think you're underrating Marcin Gortat. He's not a superstar but he's good at everything and comes at a reasonable price. He's just what the Blazers need.

Eddie

I agree.

I'm finding it increasingly helpful to think of potential Blazers center acquisitions in two broad tiers.

The first tier contains players who would be game-changers in their own right...stars or guys with a couple overwhelming skills whose presence would transform this roster. In this tier you're not asking about expense, value, being well-rounded. All you want to know is how talented the guy is and how much he'll bend the game towards your side. You also acknowledge that players in this tier will likely be expensive enough that they're your only major acquisition for the summer and you're OK with that because of their ability. Talent is the advantage here but the disadvantages are expense and putting all your eggs in one basket.

The second tier is made up of place-holder centers. These guys won't change your team but they'll hold down the position well, plugging the hole and allowing their teammates to shine. In this tier you're not looking for a transcendent player. Instead you're measuring expense-to-production ratios because in addition to this center you're going to go after a player at another position to provide the pop that this guy lacks. You don't get the talent of the first tier but you aren't left in the awkward position of trying to solve all your problems with a single expensive guy.

The question about centers posed in the Mailbag you're referring to asked for a comparison between four players: Joakim Noah, Andersen Varejao, DeAndre Jordan, and Marcin Gortat.

Noah and Varejao are pretty clearly in Tier 1. They're proven veteran game-changers. You're not getting them just to hold down the position. You expect them to have a dramatic impact on your team. You can trot them out at a press conference and say, "Yeah, we did something pretty special here. You may applaud now."

DeAndre Jordan is in an odd spot because he's neither proven nor does he bend games yet. But he's young and expensive. If you go after him you're doing so because you assume he will become a Tier 1 center, breaking opponents with his shot-blocking and rebounding. Noah and Varejao are extra-base hits. Jordan is a home run or strikeout. Either way he's not a place-keeper.

The more I ponder Gortat the more I'm realizing that he's not the last option in Tier 1, he's actually the ultra-elite option in Tier 2. Keep in mind that these tiers are not strictly divided by talent. Style, function, and priority also change between the two tiers. Gortat may end up being more talented than Jordan if DeAndre busts but you'd still never pick up DJ to be an all-around place-keeper just like you wouldn't pick up Gortat expecting him to be a star.

In this sense comparing those particular four centers isn't fair to Gortat. Since three of them fulfill a Tier 1 role you have to do it on that basis. Under those criteria Gortat would be the last of the bunch as he's the least likely to lift your team on his own. But if you're using Tier 2 criteria--asking which player would give you the best value, the best all-around game, and be inexpensive enough to allow you to sign a second "pop" player in addition--then Gortat clearly comes out ahead. In fact you'd have a hard time finding better in the league.

Dave,

DeAndre Jordan? Really? Did you watch the playoffs? I don't trust this guy as far as I can throw him and he's way over two bills!

H.

This goes under the category of "you're going to have to give up something". The perfect center isn't going to stroll into the room, announcing he has just arrived from outer space and is ready to play for the cosmically-fabulous Blazers.

I can think of plenty of reasons to avoid Jordan. He's mercurial, has holes in his game, and as you say he didn't show very well in this year's playoffs. On the other hand he's young, lines up next to a fundamentally unsound frontcourt teammate, and has a couple of great skills the Blazers need. Would I rather have Larry Sanders? Sure. But he's not coming on the market. If the Blazers did get Jordan I'd be more enthused about the change in environment helping him develop than I'd be scared about his playoff performance this year. Remember how Theo Ratliff looked like a near-deity when he came to the Blazers because their defense was that bad and their need for a shot-blocking center so great? Jordan would probably look good the instant he donned the uniform. You hope that positive feedback would be enough for him to develop a sustainable career.

If you're comparing him to the list of all centers in the NBA Jordan wouldn't be at the top of my target list. But if you compare him to possibly available centers he's got some unique things going for him.

I'm not sure you'll have to worry in any case. Jordan coming up for grabs would depend on the Clips finding a better center option elsewhere.

Dave,

How would you feel about the Blazers picking up JaVale McGee? His stock seems to rise one week, fall the next. Would he fit our needs?

Clinton

Week to week? His stock is up sky-high one minute and the next everybody's gathered in the backyard trying to pull it out of the well. As long as you realize that this is part of the package, I don't see where he'd be a bad get.

Even though he's widely regarded as a blockhead he's actually improved since he entered the league, both in cutting down the truly stupid plays and in his impact on the game. Shooting percentages, defense, points...all going up as the years progress. His rebounding has always been strong, though he's more of an offensive rebounder than defensive. His free throw shooting has been weak and probably will remain so. If those two things remain constant and he's incrementally improving everything else, you can anticipate he'll be a nice player when his prime hits.

As with Jordan, you'd trade for McGee expecting he'd develop into a Tier 1 type guy. His upside and salary mandate it. As with Jordan, you question whether he's reliable enough to bank on in that capacity. If McGee is your Big Move this summer you approach fall with a mixture of excitement and fear.

On the other hand, maybe that's just what this team needs. Every party needs that one crazy dude to bring it life. Portland is rolling with talented, competent, and accomplished players. They're all really nice guys. Really nice. "Throw your hands in the air and wave them around like you...oh, excuse me. Did I brush your shoulder when I was throwing my hands in the air? I'm sorry. It was an accident. I want you to know I respect your personal space and boundaries. Here's my card. If you experience any medical complications from this call me and I'll reimburse you." You'd love to have those boys over for dinner but sheesh. Is there such a thing as too polite and competent? Maybe a guy like McGee is just what the team needs to funk this joint up a little. Two or more guys like that is a disaster, but one out of fifteen could be a blessing.

Don't worry, non-McGee fans. This deal seems pretty unlikely.

Dave,

I was reading about Kelly Olynyk and watching his scouting report, to me he seems like another Meyers Leonard. (No D, weak on the boards). This led to me thinking about how many real defensive bigs we have in the NBA. Not shot blockers, Javale and Deandre Jordan get their share of blocked shots but it's mostly weak side, and they play only decent D. I could only think of Asik, Sanders, and Taj Gibson. (Excluding the obvious people D12, and Timmy).

How many solid low post and interior defenders are there in the game today, and which of them can we get our hands on?

Karan

Short answer: not many and not many.

To be fair, the league has changed. When we think "good interior defense" we conjure visions of space-eating, 7'2", 300lb monsters banging against each other like rhinos, shoving people out of the paint. Who posts up anymore? Brook Lopez? How many of those post-up centers are the first, or even second, options in their offense?

We live in a drive and kick league now. Small guys in the lane used to be an affront to the defense. Now they have stamp cards: get 10 punches and your 11th drive is free. The mantra used to be defend the lane at all costs and give up the deep shot if you must. Now coaches want their wings scrambling to stop the three even if it leaves a potential avenue to the lane.

Covering a wider space has become a more valuable defensive commodity than total dominance in a more limited radius. With defenses spread and hand-checks illegal you assume little guys are going to get in the house. You're not looking for your big defender to be a bouncer at the door anymore. The pests will just fly through the window as he stands there. Instead you want your interior guy to run from room to room with the fly swatter, smashing them before they get to the goodies in the fridge. That mobile, weak-side shot-blocker you're talking about is the new paradigm. There's no way 300-pound Joe can cover enough square footage. 6'11", trim, quick, and jumping out of the gym gets the job done.

You still need traditional post defenders, of course. Witness what happened to the Blazers once opposing teams figured out that Meyers Leonard was clueless in the post this year for an example. All of a sudden every random big turned into Patrick Ewing as opposing offenses went old school and iso posted all over the place. But the role of the guy who can only defend low has diminished.

This is exactly why guys like Shaquille O'Neal disparage the depth at center nowadays, calling Lopez the best (and close to only) "real" center in the league. By "real" they mean really old-school. Despite their protestations mobility, agility, and timing are the new "big" and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

It looks like it's Mailbag Week around here, so keep those questions coming to the address below and put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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