A Few Thoughts on the Rotation

I know I’m not the only one who was shaking my head and sighing last Wednesday during the first half of the Blazers game. It was looking like the kind of performance that would lead to their first 3-game losing streak of the season. Then Stotts suddenly cracked the code, inserting Thomas Robinson to reenergize the team in the fourth quarter. With all this in mind, I decided to pen some of my thoughts on the game and Stotts’ postgame comments on the rotation.

First of all, how good were the starters? LaMarcus registered his fifth 30+ point game of the season, Nicolas Batum posted his second triple-double of the year (or first, if you ask him), and Wesley’s grit helped the Blazers fight back at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Even Damian, who scored only 11 points, hit a timely three pointer in the fourth to put a comeback out of the Magic’s reach. Undeniably, our starters haven’t had any trouble producing, this season or even last. Upgrade the center spot with Robin Lopez, and – bam! – faster than you can say James Edward Hickson Jr., the Blazers have exponentially improved their interior defense. Not to mention the fact that Aldridge’s improved rebounding numbers are largely the result of playing next to a legit 7-footer. Thanks, RoLo! That said, there are some questions that must be addressed about why the Blazers struggled in the first half and in their previous two matchups against the Kings and Sixers.

For the answers, we turn our heads to the bench: a group that had looked solid most of the year, but has faltered of late as Terry Stotts tinkers with the rotation. This has hurt the Blazers’ ability to maintain, or sometimes even build a lead while the starters are out. The tinkering began with the metrics analysts, who pointed out sometime before Christmas that Thomas Robinson hurt the Blazers offensively and defensively when he was in the game (did they consider the team’s record at the time?), leading to Meyers Leonard replacing Robinson in the rotation. It continued with Dorell Wright’s demotion in favor of Will Barton on Tuesday against the Kings, and the issue was only exacerbated by CJ McCollum’s return on Wednesday. After the game – in which Leonard, Robinson and McCollum all saw time off the bench – Terry Stotts made some interesting comments about the rotation going forward.

Stotts alluded to basing the rotation on matchup advantages in future games, essentially using two of four players (McCollum, Wright, Robinson, Leonard) as the eighth and ninth men, depending on the opponent. Wednesday saw an abysmal run for Leonard, where he couldn’t seem to box out the more physical Glen Davis, whereas Thomas Robinson provided a major spark in the fourth quarter to help the Blazers retake and build the lead. McCollum looked hesitant and nervous at first, but settled down towards the end during garbage time. All in all, it seemed a bit chaotic at times, and the Blazers were lucky that Stotts found the right formula with Robinson in the final quarter, just in time to close out the game and avoid the team’s first 3-game skid of the season. Nevertheless, the mark of a great coach is that his players know what to expect before the game begins. For now, in this transitory phase where McCollum returns, the players will rely on chemistry and sportsmanship to keep personalities in check as they figure out a permanent rotation. If, however, Stotts plans on using the aforementioned four players on a game-to-game basis, he will need to make it abundantly clear who is playing when. Otherwise, the management will have to consider the possibility of packaging two of those four players to acquire an eighth man who can play in every kind of game and create a matchup problem for the opponent, rather than addressing a matchup weakness for the Blazers. (Props to Joel Freeland, by the way, for establishing himself as this team’s legitimate seventh man. Who saw that coming at the end of last year? Put your hands down…)

The Blazers like the way that Meyers Leonard spaces the court with his ability to shoot from midrange, but his inability to rebound and complete lack of defensive awareness make him such a liability that they’ve begun playing him next to Robin Lopez. This must be considered a failure, as the object of having two big men off the bench should be to play them together, especially because Aldridge and Lopez are so effective together, and it detracts from that tandem when Lopez is forced to expend energy covering Leonard’s tracks. Thomas Robinson is a player who aggressively attacks the boards on both ends and plays adequate on-ball and help defense for a bench player, but his inconsistency on the offensive end, especially shooting the midrange jumper and generally rushing things, causes issues with the "flow". The ideal scenario, then, must be for the Blazers to package some kind of deal for a player that combines the best attributes of both big men, in order to give them a second big to play next to Joel Freeland.

Pause: I’m now going to state my suggested trade package, and then attempt to explain why it makes sense. Please try to keep your head from exploding, if possible. The Trail Blazers send Meyers Leonard and CJ McCollum to the Boston Celtics for Brandon Bass.

Treason! How dare he suggest we trade CJ after just his first game in a Blazers uniform? This guy is supposed to be a star, a carbon copy of Lillard! Off with his head!

Got it all out of your system? Take a deep breath, relax, and continue reading, because I will do my best to convince you. And if you finish reading and conclude that I haven’t made sense, then I’ll be in a bunker somewhere, bracing myself for the torches and pitchforks, (read: I’m not going down easily). The Blazers already have the most valuable type of backup player: a ball handler. Mo Williams is a guy who can make plays off the bench and conduct an offense. This is invaluable for the Blazers because it keeps the team going when Damian is on the bench, but also because it allows Damian to play off the ball when they’re both on the court. And CJ McCollum can… uhhh… well, he does the same thing. Aside from the fact that he may be a slightly better shooter, may be better at creating his own shot, and may have more defensive potential with those long arms, the main thing the Blazers expect to get from him is shot creation. So if you want to keep a shot-creator, but CJ is better than Mo Williams, why not give the Celtics Mo instead of CJ? Simply put, because Danny Ainge isn’t an idiot.

Mo Williams came to Portland as their fifteenth rostered player (yeah, I’m not counting Terrel Harris, sue me) after rampant speculation that he would take a pay cut for a chance at a title in Miami. Well, he took the pay cut regardless, but preferred to be in a situation that was comfortable for him and his family, and chose Portland based on his familiarity with Stotts and Neil Olshey. When he signed, he was thirty years old, and his contract spanned 2 years, with a player option for the second year. In training camp, Williams described how he enjoyed the city of Portland and the culture of the team, stating that his goal was to play for the Blazers until he couldn’t play anymore. More recently, Williams said that he intends to opt out of his contract this summer, but would prefer to return to Portland. At 31 this summer, the veteran will be looking for job security, rather than salary, and could be had for roughly the same price, if the Blazers were willing to offer two or three years. They would be smart to re-sign him, as Williams gels extremely well with the starters, is a natural leader for the second unit, and can be effective in the way he plays for a long time because he stays below the rim and keeps himself in shape. But what does this have to do with CJ? Bear with me.

CJ McCollum will be underpaid for the first four years of his career because of the contract he’s guaranteed under the current CBA. This makes him extremely attractive to other teams, especially those looking to eliminate long-term salary in favor of acquiring assets for the future (assets being a young talent with potential, as well as cap space). Teams are high on McCollum for his IQ and NBA-ready game, as well as his proven offensive ability. Most importantly, teams are high on him for what they see him becoming in their mind’s eye. This is where the Blazers have an advantage: within their system, with Damian already and Mo Williams presumably returning beyond this season, McCollum would likely never flourish into the player that some other teams think he could become at this point. If, however, they were to sell him high, they would be able to acquire a player that would be more effective in and helpful to their system than McCollum ever could be. That’s no knock on McCollum, but there simply does not seem to be a role for him to develop in the Blazers system in the next few years. And, to top that off, the Blazers likely wouldn’t be able to retain McCollum beyond his rookie deal, at least not if they hope to keep Aldridge, Lillard, and Matthews beyond their current deals.

Insert Brandon Bass. He fills a need for the Blazers, while simultaneously allowing them to save as much face as possible in dumping the disgraceful Meyers Leonard and capitalize on CJ McCollum’s all-time-high trade value. Brandon Bass will be more helpful to the Blazers than either McCollum or Leonard in the immediate, and long-term, future – both on the court and off it. I say this because, in addition to the rebounds, midrange touch, and defense, Bass brings a pedigree of having played in big games with Dallas, Orlando, and Boston that will help the Blazers in their attempt to get out of the first round for the first time since Aldridge joined the team. If you can’t see the value of winning playoff series with respect to keeping Aldridge beyond his current contract, then you don’t deserve eyes. Aldridge set the bar modestly low this year, pronouncing the Blazers a seventh seed at the beginning of the year. However, with its current level of success, the team will be expected to make it out of the first round with a starting five that has won a total of two first-round series. That’s where role players with experience will be absolutely essential: Mo Williams, who played in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Cavaliers, Dorell Wright, who won a championship with the Heat in 2006, and Brandon Bass, who pushed the Heat to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Celtics in 2012. Such experience would fill in some of the gaps and lighten the load for the starters, increasing their success and confidence in the first round and beyond. Brandon Bass is also a great team player and a stand-up guy off the court, who would only improve the team chemistry within the locker room (if that were even possible).

Having Brandon Bass, specifically, would be wonderful for the Blazers, but I don’t want the importance of having a set rotation to go unnoticed. A player of his caliber is capable and deserving of playing in every game because he can make a positive impact off the bench against every kind of opponent. With Bass and Mo Williams as co-sixth men and Joel Freeland as the eighth man, the Blazers would have three players that they could trust to contribute off the bench in every game, as opposed to two plus two question marks. With eight players of that quality, there is almost no need for a ninth man, especially not once the Blazers reach the playoffs. As for the regular season, Stotts would be free to play the ninth spot by ear, bringing in Wright, Robinson, Barton occasionally, or no one at all. No one goes deeper than eight in the playoffs anyways, and the Blazers’ next step as a franchise must be making a commitment to doing the things that will help them succeed in the playoffs.

So if this deal were such a home run for the Blazers, why would shrewd Danny Ainge agree to the terms as stated? Well the Celtics, as evidenced by the Courtney Lee for Jerryd Bayless’ expiring contract deal, are clearly trying to rid themselves of long-term contracts in order to have cap space to take on high-profile players this coming summer. Bass, at age 28, is due to make $6.45 million this year and another $6.9 million next year, and does not look like a part of the Celtics’ long-term plans. Instead, the Celtics are currently looking to try out young players at little to no risk to themselves, in hopes of discovering a future superstar or flipping their young players for an established superstar at a later date. Let’s face it, Danny Ainge doesn’t like to lose, and he doesn’t want the Celtics, with all their history and tradition of success, to go through an extended period of mediocrity before they return to contention. So, the more assets he can acquire now, the better for his immediate future. Remember, Ainge was the one who turned the fifth pick, Al Jefferson, and spare parts into two future Hall-of-Famers in the summer of 2007. The Celtics could give Leonard a run with such other bigs as Sullinger, Olynyk, and Faverani, though I doubt even Brad Stevens could make anything out of him. Their real prize would be McCollum, whom they could pair with Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, or Rajon Rondo upon his return. As a scoring guard noted for his ability to create his own shot, he would be extremely valuable, as he would allow the Celtics to match offers for Bradley this summer, and comfortably let fellow scoring guard Jordan Crawford go. They could also count on him as a cheap option beyond this summer, as he won’t even threaten to constrict them financially until 2017. Though Danny Ainge would rather screw over than improve his trading partners’ teams, he could grudgingly agree to such a deal, if for no other reason than to show other executives that he can occasionally make mutually beneficial trades, in order to encourage them to negotiate with him in the future.

As I previously noted, the Celtics are expelling long-term salary in favor of expiring deals or young players; the Courtney Lee deal may be the best example of "highway robbery" since the Blazers traded Gerald Wallace for Damian Lillard. Thank you, Billy King! That said, Brandon Bass clearly sees the writing on the wall, and seems to be handling the prospect of being traded quite well. On Kurt Helin’s PBT podcast this past week, he spoke in the usual sort of clichés about the rumors that he’s next in line for a trade, but he seemed hopeful that something would be worked out to his benefit. Bass, after having played with a contender the past few seasons, would like to contribute to a team with championship aspirations. In fact, I would argue that he absolutely needs a change of scenery, as his uncharacteristic outburst at Jeff Green on the bench a few weeks ago indicates his frustrations with losing have finally boiled over; understandably so, too, as Bass is currently in his prime and shouldn’t be content to waste his best years playing on a team that’s "riggin’ for Wiggins". Bass’ only qualm over moving to Portland would likely be the fact that he couldn’t wear number 30, which he has since college. Shoutout to Terry and Bobby!

That said, the rotation in Portland would look significantly better with Brandon Bass in the fold. The Blazers could bring him off the bench for about 20-25 minutes per game, based on the current distribution of minutes to the seven main players and considering that Stotts could stop with eight or choose to play a ninth player. Such a distribution also allows the Blazers to match up better with small-ball teams, with Bass at the four and Aldridge at the five. Bass runs the floor, can shoot from midrange, and defends threes, fours, and fives. With Bass at the four in their small-ball lineup, the Blazers would also be able to rebound better than with their current small-ball lineup (with Batum at power forward), and thus break out and run more. As I said before, it’s important to have players you can use to counter your opponents’ lineup, but it’s even better when you have players that can force your opponent to make adjustments. Bass is a player who can be used to do both. Overall, the Blazers are a greatly improved team with Bass instead of McCollum, with potential to get to the Western Conference Finals or beyond.

Hate me if you want, but I honestly believe that Brandon Bass would make the Blazers better than McCollum can, both in the present and the future, and the time is right now to get him.

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