Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Defense, Wesley Matthews, Meyers Leonard, Spurs-Blazers Parallels

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Mailbag Week continues at Blazer's Edge as Dave answers questions about defense, Wesley Matthews' durability, GM knowledge, parallels between the Blazers and Spurs, and more.

Mailbag Week marches on...

Hey Dave,

Can you explain to me why defense is so hard for NBA players to learn? Seems like every year there are more and more talented players with superb athleticism and great work ethics who can't play defense. And when coaches or analysts talk about a great defender, they talk like they've discovered gold in the Yukon.

I'm 5'11, 35 years old, and I can rarely hit a jump shot outside of 10 feet. But when I hit the court, I know I can play pretty good defense, even if I can't help my team any other way. Seems like it's mostly about paying attention and not getting intimidated. Of all the aspects of the game, it seems to me like the one that takes the LEAST amount of natural talent/athleticism.

Is there a fundamental difference between rec ball and the NBA? Why can't these guys learn to keep their guy off his spots, off balance, and out of rhythm?

Willie
Yesterday's Mailbag discussed the pitfalls of learning under the pressure of the NBA environment. But defense is a special case.

I think you're correct in suggesting that defense requires copious amounts of attention and commitment, qualities that most professional athletes should be able to muster. But several factors complicate the picture.

1. Everybody learns the game through offense first. No 7-year-old's mom sees her son with a basketball, asks what he's doing, and hears, "Nothing, mom. Just doing out to the driveway to defend a little." Everybody picks up offense. Some also pick up defense but there's more precedent for the former than the latter.

2. In most situations the offensive player is in control and the defensive player is reacting. (When that reverses the results are devastating, but that doesn't happen often and then only with the best defenders overmatching lesser offensive players.) When you factor in reflexes and options the guy in control always has the advantage. When talent is relatively equal it's harder to defend than to initiate offense. In the NBA the talent isn't just equal; you're playing against the best in the world.

3. Offensive sets and habits are easier to understand. You get immediate feedback. Defensive sets tend to be more varied and nebulous. Your goal is to stop the other guy from...doing whatever he is doing. It's harder to see where you made the clearly right call on a defensive choice than it is on offense. Some systems call for clear goals such as, "No shots in the paint" or "No uncontested threes". But it's possible to fulfill those directives and still give up a good look.

4. Defense also depends on your teammates. Four committed defenders plus one slouch equals easy bucket for the other team. A great offensive player can get a shot even when playing with four mediocre scorers.

5. Defense also gets less attention and, to be frank, it's far more rare for a guy to make big bucks for his defensive chops than it is for a guy to make big bucks as a somewhat above-average point-producer.

So...defense isn't as instinctive, isn't easy, gets complex, is teammate-dependent, isn't rewarded as immediately or as well, and still requires the commitment, constant attention, and sacrifice you mentioned above. Some guys will go through all of that. Others won't. And I think that provides your answer.

Personally I tend to respect good defenders more than I respect all but the most gifted offensive guys. But maybe that's just my blue-collar Blazer roots showing.

Dave,

Is Wesley Matthews his own worst enemy? He prides himself on playing every game, even when injured. However, this can lead to compensation injuries and/or worsening of existing injuries. This Summer he's already done a platelet-rich plasma injection on his ankle and an arthroscopic procedure on his elbow. That feels like a lot of work on a 26-year-old athlete.

Does the team medical staff need to intervene during the season, and force him to rest when injured?

Tim
Yes? No? Honestly, I don't know. Of all the questions that cross my inbox, injuries are the hardest to deal with. It's hard to know when they're coming. It's hard to know what caused them. It's impossible to know whether doing anything different would have prevented them or not. It's a lot of "what ifs".

We do know that getting players to play differently, especially if that differently means "slower", tends to make their game awkward. That can't help. In football they say that the guy looking to not get hit is always the guy who gets hurt. True or not, I think the same can happen in basketball. If you're thinking and protecting instead of moving naturally, stuff's going to go wrong. I don't think you can ask Matthews to play any differently than he does. Nor do I think he'd be the same player without his heart and drive. You just have to let him go and let the chips fall where they may. I'd rather have a whole player for 4 seasons than half a player for 8.

On the other hand the coaching and medical staffs do have a say in how much he plays. I have no concern with playing him big minutes but in general you don't want to be on the outlying end of pushing your players. If your guys are playing a relatively normal NBA schedule compared to others, you're good. If not, dialing it back would be appropriate. Matthews played 35 mpg and 2400 total minutes last year. Those are well within the curve for a starter. I'm not sure I'd do anything different.

On the other hand things like Damian Lillard showing up on the Trail Blazers' Summer League roster make my eyebrows raise. I remember calling Ben and saying, "If he plays a second of Summer League ball after playing the most minutes in the NBA last year somebody ought to get shot." Fortunately he was there in name (and maybe practice) only so my fears were for naught. But you don't want to get wacky like that. You just want to be...normal. If you're down the middle and injuries happen, that's life.

Dave,

Having followed the questions regarding Meyers Leonard as everything from a project to center of the future for Portland, it nags at me that he grew tall relatively late in his development as a basketball player. Whereas the likes of Greg Oden and Shaq were born big and tall, is it at all possible that Meyers developed with a guard or forward mindset and is therefore, in fact, a guard and or a forward in a big body that may never become a true center? Thanks!

Chris
I'm not sure what a "true center" is anymore. A guard in a 7-foot body would be welcomed with open arms in today's NBA. Leonard will never be an Oden or Shaq kind of center but he'll have a nice career. At minimum he'll be a nice offensive back-up guy for 10 years. Probably he'll end up with a bigger role than that. You don't have to worry about his talent. The question is whether he can become well-rounded enough to merit starting on a good team.

Dave,

Here's something I have wondered about for some time. We hear all kinds of rumors and innuendos about which team is doing what with trades, in the draft, etc., but much of that is just that - rumors and innuendos. How much do the GMs in the inside REALLY know - or at least have a fairly decent idea - about which team will be pursuing which players? How much more do they and their sources know than say a reporter from ESPN?

Don

The variance is so wide there I'm not sure there's a single answer. Sometimes media reports are just speculation or a retweet of a nebulous source. Sometimes the media has it nailed. We've seen media folks caught by surprise when moves happen. We've also seen GM's find out about trades only after they've been announced in the media.

Put 30 people in a room making conversation and deals and it'd be unlikely that two guys on one side of the room would know what two guys on the other side are doing. That's more true when those 30 guys are spread across the country. It'd be impossible to know what every team is plotting at every moment. But since it's their job I'd guess the average GM is more clued in to the rhythm of the league than all but the most elite of media rumor hounds.

Mr. Olshey, if you'd like to chime in with more, feel free.

Hey Dave,

When examining the run of success the Spurs have gotten from their big three, it's especially impressive how the mantle of leadership and dominant play has gradually swung from Duncan to Parker. Seems like Parker has been carrying them a lot more now, not just during the Finals or even this year's playoffs, but throughout the season (at least as far as I can tell from watching them sporadically from a distance).

Do you think seeing the maturation of Tony Parker and the way that his play has helped to prolong Duncan's career might have any sway in convincing LaMarcus Aldridge to resign with Portland now that Lillard is in the fold? If, along with Batum, they represent the Trail Blazers "big three," am I crazy in thinking that Aldridge's prime can extend well into his thirties if Lillard ends up shouldering the load and Batum continues being an adequate all-around third banana? And is anyone pointing this out to LaMarcus?

Jelani
Your observation is totally accurate as far as the Spurs go. The differences between that situation and Aldridge/Lillard are three:

1. The Spurs already had championships in tow and were winning more as Parker matured. That's a heck of a foundation upon which to build and a heck of a selling point to keep everybody in the fold.

2. Tim Duncan has a unique personality which that kind of loyalty fits.

3. Duncan is well past his prime now whereas Aldridge is right in the middle of it. LaMarcus isn't thinking about extending his career as much as making the most of it. And despite points 1 and 2 the Spurs did have to deal with some friction when Duncan was in his best years and Parker was aching to become a star.

The Blazers aren't even close in any of these categories so I doubt mentioning these things to Aldridge would provide strong selling points. While he might not find last year's Rookie of the Year on every team, he can probably find another decent point guard to play with and another star of some stripe to help prolong his effectiveness.
Dave,

Why do you hate Robin Lopez?

Also Robin
This is silly. I don't hate Robins of any variety, neither centers nor question-askers nor the ones snagging bugs in my side yard as we speak. Why in the world would I hate Robin Lopez? He seems like an interesting dude and he's a Trail Blazer now.

Let's say you walk into a bike dealership to pick up a shiny new 10-speed and whip out a $20 bill. I'm watching you and I lean over and whisper, "That's not going to be enough." Is the appropriate response then, "Why are you hatin' on the $20 bill???" I'm not hating on the bill. $20 bills are good things. At the right store they can go a long way. That doesn't change the fact that you can't get a new 10-speed with one. Voila! Analysis.

Hate, love, or indifference don't come into play much when evaluating players and moves. Some players I've liked and rooted for I've also judged fairly harshly. Some players I didn't care for as much I've also praised. The game is the game. How I feel about it sometimes matters but not as often or as heavily as people think. Mostly how I feel is that I want the Blazers to do well and I'm happy when they do so.

Dave,

Portland fans love B-Roy, without question. What are the odds the team brings him on in a coaching role? Obviously not head coach, but maybe an assistant that can help the guards out?

Michael
That would depend on what kind of coaching inclinations and ability Roy has, I suppose. Also I'm not sure about the technical rules about paying off his old contract and employing him for a new one. But even if everyone were amenable and able, I think it would have to wait until his contemporaries were off the team. That's an odd situation otherwise and it's not like Roy has the age and experience of Jason Kidd to mitigate the discomfort. If that ever happened, I'd guess it'd be down the road.

Keep those questions coming to the address below, marked "Mailbag". I'm trying to do a mix of recent and backlog questions in each post, so if your previous inquiry hasn't been answered yet, it could be soon!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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