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Mortimer's Question

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Mortimer asked a question in the comment section of the last game recap that I think has broader implications so I'm going to re-post it and talk about it here.  He says:

WHY does Nate play Outlaw so much in the 4th quarter of close games?   Nate has been going with him in the 4th no matter how he has played the entire game up till then.  Since he is only a scorer and a defense-messer-upper, it seems so odd to me that Nate actually looks to put him in at the end of games when we need smarts and Roy and Aldridge shooting... not Outlaw.   I totally concede I could be missing something important about Outlaw's play in the 4th, or what he adds to the mix.

Before I begin I should say that I'm probably not the best Travis apologist in the world right now.  I appreciate that he has brought more energy lately and that he appears to be trying hard in most games this year, which is a step up from years past when he just looked lost.  He is clearly having a better start to his season than he ever has.  Nevertheless his game and level of development still bother me.  I remember distinctly thinking during the Sacramento game, "He plays at the level of a decent rookie with upside."  That would be fantastic if he weren't in his fifth season.  In other words I'm trying a difficult thing here, which is not to make my point but to guess at why somebody else is making theirs, in this case Coach McMillan.  I have suggested to Mortimer that the Oregonlive Quick Chat would be another great avenue for this inquiry and I hope somebody pursues it this week, as Jason Quick would probably have some good insight as well.

I have gone on record as saying that in general I would prefer our five best players out there to end games, those in my estimation being Roy, Aldridge, Webster, Jack, and Przybilla right now.  I suppose you could argue for Blake but one non-scorer on the floor is enough for me and I prefer Pryzbilla.  Roy, Aldridge, and Jack have usually been out there, often with Blake.  That leaves one choice from the trio of Przybilla, Webster, and Travis.

Joel Przybilla has been getting a lot of love from announcers and fans lately.  He covers defensive mistakes and rebounds well.  His free throw shooting has improved dramatically.  He's even evidencing a little bit of an offensive game.  All of these recommend him.  It also makes intuitive sense to have a center out there if you've got one.  Small ball lineups are notoriously gimmicky and usually not something you want to bet your game on...at least not on a regular basis.  However this is a difference between coaches and fans.  While we are free to make generalized assertions based on paper lineups Nate actually has to coach to specific game situations.  Joel has a lot of strengths, but he's also a matchup disadvantage for us in many scenarios.  One obvious one is if the other team goes small and/or has a center who can operate from the outside.  Joel is far better defending the paint than he is getting out to cover perimeter guys.  Sacramento, Philadelphia, Denver, Washington, Detroit...all are recent opponents who either have mobile centers or who will opt not to use their starting center in the final, key minutes.  In these cases Lamarcus Aldridge is a far better choice at center than Joel.  Even for rebounding purposes Joel is not going to be as effective if he has to guard Marcus Camby above the free throw line.  And then there's the offense.  There's no comparison between Joel's and Lamarcus'.  Joel has been doing great...for Joel.  That's exactly like saying a guy runs the bases fast...for a catcher.  In the second quarter teams are going to let the Blazers get shots that they will try much harder to deny late in the game.  If Joel were in on a crucial offensive possession it's guaranteed that the opposition would overplay like heck and try to make Joel a scorer.  If he went for his only bankable move--the dunk--they'd foul him and let him test out his new shooting prowess with the game on the line.  I assume Nate likes Joel's progress.  I doubt he's willing to bet a game on it yet though.  Plus it's always been Nate's hallmark to finish the game with the guys who played most of the game.  I suspect he's a rhythm-type coach and believes in rhythm-type players.  He does fairly few situational substitutions of guys with specialized skills, preferring to depend on the all-around guys who got him there to close it out.  Joel doesn't play a ton of minutes and for these purposes is more of a situational guy in Nate's lineup.

Martell Webster is also a viable candidate for these late-game situations.  His play has also improved vastly.  He's a great shooter, has learned to put the ball on the floor a little, and he's busting his butt on defense and rebounding.  As with Joel, the sunny-seeming improvement is graded somewhat against himself rather than against the NBA norm.  Martell tries a lot harder to keep guys in front of him this year but he still runs up against players who beat him off the dribble fairly easily.  Travis lets people get by too, but with him it's more of a lack of concentration (which may or may not happen) than a personal limitation (which are always in force).  Martell hasn't really shown himself to be a clutch player either.  He tends to make or miss in droves and you don't know which you're going to get until he releases.  Any way you twist it his primary contributions are going to be offensive and when our backs are against the wall the only two words that matter offensively are "Brandon" and "Roy".  But even assuming that all of this is minor (which it may be) Joel's absence still creates a lineup problem that Martell can't solve.  With Lamarcus playing center we need a power forward.  Frye is completely out of the question for defensive reasons at this time.  Outlaw can play some power forward.  Martell can't, especially since we could be talking Blake, Jack, and Roy at the 1-2-3 positions already.

Two other things really recommend Travis in addition to all of this.  First unlike Martell and Joel he can get his own shot anytime, anywhere.  If the opposition does manage to shut down Roy and Aldridge he's an acceptable emergency outlet at any given time.  Second he's pretty good at help defense, which can often be critical in the closing minutes.  Yes, he may be equally likely to save or blow a play but at least that "save" element is in there.  This further differentiates him from Martell.  These are two things on which I think Mortimer may be selling Travis a little short.

Would I go with Travis?  Probably not.  But I can see why Nate does.

Also keep in mind that we're 12 games into the regular season and things are not set in stone, especially with this team.  You may see several different people rotate in and out of the crunch-time lineup just as we're seeing them in and out of the starting lineup.  This is Travis' audition period.  If he really does blow a game or two I'm sure it will be somebody else's turn to try.

This brings up the broader point I was talking about, and I am diverging from Mortimer's specific question here to make it, though I think it applies.  The elephant in the closet right now is "Who else is there?"  We are an unbalanced team, horribly thin at the big positions.  I count myself a fan and so I feel confident in saying that's never something fans like to hear.  It is a prerogative of fans everywhere to invent good players when their team doesn't really have any (or many, anyway).  We always do it with the people who ride the pines either in overall minutes or situational minutes.  We can't very well do it with the people who are playing because they're proving that they're not quite up to the task right in front of our eyes.  So we take the people who aren't getting playing time and elevate their skill level.  This usually falls apart once they take the court but if we're lucky as fans we won't have seen everybody until at least two-thirds of the way through the season.  At that point, having exhausted all of our possibilities, we are close enough to the end of the campaign to say, "Wait until next year!"  Joel or Martell or whoever often seem like ideal possibilities until they actually go out there.  At that point they usually don't end up making that much of a difference.  They don't bomb maybe, but they don't revolutionize our late-game performances either.

Coaches don't have the luxury of falling in love with back-up quarterbacks.  They see these guys every day and they know how they play and usually in what situations (if any) they can contribute and succeed.  Sometimes they misjudge, but not nearly as often as fans would have it.  It may be that Nate is playing Travis because Travis really is the best choice at that time and position.  That doesn't mean Travis is a good choice, just that we don't have better ones.

I see a lot of potential for this team, but frankly that potential rests mostly in Roy and Aldridge with a sprinkle of Martell and Jack thrown in.  Maybe there are one or two other players who might excel under the right circumstances.  But it still mostly comes back to the Big Two (soon to be Three).  I feel absolutely confident in saying once again that there is no savior on the Blazer bench.  Not this guy, that guy, or the other guy...not right now anyway.  Nobody is going to come in and win us a lot of games we would have lost.  Nobody is going to come in and average 20 a game or make a ton of defensive stops that we weren't getting.  The only player there who would make a giant difference is wearing street clothes and rehabbing his knee.  I think it's fair to talk about Nate's coaching choices just like we would any other coach, but it also needs to come with the caveat that it probably doesn't matter much who he puts in.  We are who we are right now.  No scheme, substitution, or "Win 8 of 10 for the Gipper" speech is going to change that.  It's hard to accept when you want the team to be better than it is, but it's pretty much true anyway.  

In most of these cases when we ask, "Why don't we see this player or that player?" we're really asking, "Why can't we lose with this guy instead of the other one?"  If the guy we want gives us a 7% chance to win but the coach's guy gives us a 10% chance he has to go with his guy, even if it means hearing us complain about losing 9 games out of 10. Saying any player is the wrong choice implies that there's a right one.  In many cases this year that may not be true.  That sounds harsh, but so is the NBA sometimes.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)