How about a trio of Mailbag questions about two of the Portland Trail Blazers most interesting players?
Nicolas Batum drives me crazy. Blazers Edge had an extended debate over him last year and now we're going to do the same thing again. Don't get me wrong. I love what he brings to the floor when he's on. But he's inconsistent and doesn't bring it every night. It makes me nuts. Should the Blazers trade him while he still has value? I don't get why they're paying him and keeping him around.
Yes, Batum can be frustrating. But that's not enough to condemn him. You have to understand why he's frustrating, what can be done about it, and what things we need to just let lie.
Let's start with the contract thing. Batum is making $11 million a year. That's a healthy figure but not out of line for a starter. Let's say you replaced Batum with Decent Small Forward X. DSFX starts, plays 30+ minutes per game, fits well enough with his teammates. How much would you be paying him? Somewhere between $7-9 million wouldn't be shocking. So even if you think Batum is overpaid you're talking about a total difference of $2-4 million in salary. What exactly are you going to do with that extra money? The Blazers are $4 million over the salary cap right now. Slash that amount off of Batum's contract and you'd still wouldn't be able to afford a single extra player.
Once that ball goes in the air I don't see that it matters what Batum makes. Sure you can talk about greater salary equaling greater expectations but you have to differentiate by tens of millions if you want to make that point, not just a couple mil. In the summer when you're comparing trade possibilities and free agent opportunity costs salary matters. During the season not so much.
I'm not sure "inconsistent" is the best word to describe Batum either, particularly if you take a long-term view. True, he disappears for quarters, sometimes games, sometimes longer. But he's been doing that since he was a rookie. He'll peak and regress, making his stat graph looking like an EKG. That's an old story too. This is Nicolas Batum. This is consistently Nicolas Batum, right down to the early-season magic, the mid-season nagging injury, and the corresponding statistical drop. There is no mythical, All-Star version of Batum who gives you near-peak production all season. There's just Nic, good and bad.
Though his effectiveness remains a point of debate, most of the time Batum plays hard on defense. That helps the Blazers more than his statistical fluctuations hurts them. When Batum does go off he makes the Blazers difficult to handle. By contrast his dud nights don't equate to automatic losses. That means the Blazers are in a pretty good place with him right now. They've constructed the starting lineup well enough that they can benefit from the good without getting hamstrung by the bad. On balance his stats this season are in the middle career-wise. That's probably good enough.
Even if good enough isn't good enough, the Blazers can't trade Batum right now, especially in the middle of a season. You may be able to compensate for 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per game but you'd never find another small forward to defend and facilitate the offense in the particular ways Batum does. In this system he's unique. It's designed, in part, to take advantage of his particular combination of gifts. Eventually the Blazers could change the system to make him less necessary and to make a trade more practical. But they can't do that in mid-February during a playoff bracket race.
That's not to say things are perfect in Batum-land. As you've identified, he doesn't do everything he needs to do every night. Part of that is his price of admission with Nic but part of is wholly preventable and shouldn't be happening to an NBA player of his caliber.
Ironically one of Batum's biggest problems is over-passing, rejecting open looks in favor of dishing the ball. Some nights his style is just as selfish as the guy who shoots at every opportunity no matter what's going on around him. For Batum the pass replaces the shot in that equation but the result is nearly the same...in some ways worse. At least a bad shot has a chance of going in. Ill-timed passes don't.
No doubt some will clamor, "5.3 assists per game! More dimes than most any small forward! How can you call him selfish?!?" Consider the real definition of "selfish" though. Selfishness is doing what one thinks one should do (or wants to do) regardless of whether it's of benefit to the greater group or not.
Let's say that 200 of us Blazer's Edge readers were lined up for cake at a big party. As we're standing in line the guy at the front says, "No, no, no! I can't possibly go first. Please, next person in line...you go. You too, third person. I'll just squeeze in somewhere in the middle. And during my turn I will make sure to take a small-ish piece of cake, for it is impolite to take the biggest when other people are behind you. Which slice has the least volume? I'd better check..."
Everything that guy is saying is technically unselfish. Letting others go first and taking a small piece are good manners! When 199 people are waiting behind you in line for a slice of cake, though, that behavior isn't good. It's an odd form of grandstanding...showing off just how "charitable" and "concerned" you are and holding up the line by doing so. What would actually be best for the group in that situation? Just go to the table and take your damn slice of cake like everybody else! Nobody really cares if the slice is big or small or if you went first or 154th. This isn't rocket science. It's cake! Take it! Eat it and let the rest of us get some too!
Switching the analogy to the basketball court, when Batum passes up open looks that he can make in order to toss the ball into a 4-on-5 situation, he's not contributing to the greater good even though the pass itself registers as an "unselfish" act. The Blazers need Batum to be a facilitator, but they also need him to be a basketball player, understanding his place in the whole just like all the other players. Damian Lillard is not a more selfish player than Batum because Lillard will pop a three when he's capable. It'd be more selfish of Lillard to think, "As a point guard I cannot possibly take this shot. I must pass so I can fill my role and be a good teammate." Just take the cake and everybody wins! Instead Batum picks up the cake and tries to hand it to people behind him, spilling it all over their suit jacket in the process. Now not only are his teammates not getting cake, they have to help clean up the mess. When a player gets an open shot in his range in the flow of the offense he has to take it. Passes exist for the sole reason of setting up those good percentage shots he's passing up.
Portland's offense is designed to get Batum more assist opportunities than most other small forwards in the league. To function optimally he also has to be smart in doing so, not regarding assists as the sole barometer of his success but playing like a normal, functional professional shooter who has the added, and extraordinary, benefit of dishing the rock well when the opportunity arises.
If Batum were more aware of this dynamic--if he were able to blend his instincts with the situation instead of giving us the feast-or-famine, "I am attacking hard" or "I am passing everything tonight" approach--the frustration with him would ebb to a manageable level. He'd look more consistent, aggressive, and less prone to "disappearing".
Dave,[Thomas Robinson's] block! OH WOW! Was that the best block in Blazer history in your estimation?
If you follow my Twitter account @DaveDeckard you'll know that I gave due credit to the rejection following the game. (And if you don't follow my Twitter account, what are you doing?!?) Best Buys across the state of Minnesota did record business today as Timberwolves fans streamed in to replace their shattered TV screens. The NBA tried to make a poster out of the play but the paper kept curling up in fear. Corey Brewer had to go into witness protection. He now lives in Boulder, Colorado under the name Guadalupe McShamey. It was a masterpiece and a half.
All-time history, though? I'm not sure. Theo Ratliff and Joel Przybilla had some mighty swats, often multiples on the same night. I still remember a young Jermaine O'Neal rejecting Kevin Garnett on a 1v1 breakaway. That was significant not only because of O'Neal's talent finally coming to the fore but because Garnett was one of the breakout stars of the league. You know KG. He had bad intentions for poor Jermaine. But O'Neal said, "Nope! Don't care who you are. Get that out of here." The physical block wasn't as spectacular as Robinson's but the symbolic significance and impact were pretty high.
I'm sure I'm forgetting some impressive championship-era and vintage Jerome Kersey blocks as well.
Are we finally going to admit now that T-Rob deserves playing time? More importantly will [Coach] Stotts admit it and play the guy? All he's been missing is minutes to prove himself.
We've seen great moments from Robinson before. We've even seen good games from him. These are followed by two weeks of near-clueless play when he barely looks like he's seen an NBA play drawn up. That does not take away from his accomplishments last night...though it may inform us why he was able to succeed so radically. The 'Wolves didn't respond to him well, allowing him the benefits of being T-Rob without making him pay for being T-Rob. But a single game does not a season make. Nor does a single stretch of success mandate that a player be handed similar stretches without proving that his success is sustainable.
Robinson has gotten chances this year. He's appeared in 48 games, earning nearly 12 minutes per appearance. He's seldom been used as blowout fodder. (For one thing the Blazers haven't experienced that many blowouts.) When he plays Robinson gets a standard second- or fourth-quarter slot...sometimes both. The nights when he's been unimpressive have outnumbered the nights when he's impressed. The nights he's been awful have outnumbered and muted his flashes of brilliance. Until that changes, feeding him more minutes isn't going to do anything but expose him.
Hopefully this will change someday. But that transformation has to come first, extended minutes second.
Robinson's first step to rotation glory would be performing well (and on a consistent basis) with the 5-6 minute stretches he's already getting. Every time that's happened Coach Stotts has left Robinson on the floor longer that very game. Robinson has also gotten the call in the next game or two following his good nights. He's been given multiple chances to beat out the bigs around him. Inevitably Robinson gives back those minutes through poor play. As soon as he stops doing that he'll find a regular place in the rotation.
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