We've had some great discussion over the weekend about what's going on with the Blazers. There are some people on the fringes either way but I see 99% of folks honestly struggling to figure out what is going on and I think that all comes out to the good.
I want to highlight and discuss one of the excellent comments from the Houston Game Recap thread. This was from Fizbin. He says:
But I'm getting a deeply unsettled feeling in my stomach because I see these same problems with a team--no evolution whatsoever.
1. See the quotes after the game? About digging a hole early? We've had 3 years of that. No progress.
2. Perimeter defense is still bad. It went from Stoudamire, to Telfair, to Blake, to Jake, to Roy... no progress.
3. I don't understand McMillan's stance on Przybilla. Two years ago he was giving minutes to Ratliff. Last year it was to Magloire. This year it's to Channing Frye. I don't get to see many games--just box scores--but I never see a statistical reason for this. Even last year, Joel--in very limited minutes--would appear to be having a decent game. Last night, you yourself said Joel had a good game. Yet we see Frye in the 2nd half and McMillian is talking about making the change permanent. Why? He says for more offensive punch. Really? With Roy, Martell, Jack, and LMA the answer is more OFFENSE? When I hear us getting killed on the perimeter and lack defensive rebounding, the answer is Channing Frye?
4. Once again, as I listened to the game last night, we're fighting the shot clock. No movement to the offense. Players unsure who's supposed to take the shot. Confusion. We've had confusion with no progress. This notion of a revamped offense is looking an awful LOT like the last two years. No progress, no evolution.
5. Many, many people are confused about Sergio, you and me included. His impact on the game is as unmistakable this year as it was last year. Particularly in a game like this; particularly when the coach has vowed for an up-tempo offense. This is a trend that extends into last year. One thing that DOESN'T happen when he's in the game is all the stuff that happened in item 4 above. McMillan's attitude towards Sergio was a sore point last year, is just as sore this year, and I wonder if there's something personal going on.
6. What point guard CAN play for McMillan? What point guard CAN have success under McMillan's scheme? Whatever player he's trying to create, it's starting to look like he's burning through the professional careers of several players. It's clearly in Jack's head. Sergio can't seem to buy minutes. Blake is not performing like he was in Denver.
7. I wonder if this is more Pritchard's team than McMillan's. Pritchard got Przybilla back. Pritchard wants the up-temp offense. Pritchard likes Sergio. It's Pritchard's assessment that brought in Roy and LMA. It's Pritchard--and Roy--changing the culture. It's not obvious to me how McMillan is adding to that equation right now.
Again, I'm not trying to throw the team under the bus. But I think you paint an overly rosy picture in your post. What I'M looking for are things changing... and I don't see that. And I'm troubled by that. I'm watching games not to see if we win so much as to see if we have some progress or some glimmer of a plan coming together. I'm fine with 3 losses if I had seen some of those glimmers. But reading about last night's game... honestly, you could have imported the write-up of several spring 2006 games and not known the difference.
This is exactly the reason that I love Blazersedge. I'm not sure I can ride the train all the way to the station with every point Fizbin makes, but all of them are thoughtful, provocative, and well-stated. I really enjoy getting to see and think of things from a new angle.
Also I'd like to say up front that it's perfectly possible Fizbin is 100% correct. Maybe this is exactly what is going on: we're stalled in our evolution and coaching is a large reason for that. I don't know. And that's the point I'd like to make I guess...we just don't know. It's far too early to say conclusively that this, or anything else, is going on other than what we see in front of us in the games. In other words we know a little bit about what is happening (although even that is only three games' worth of evidence, and with an incomplete roster at that) but the why is beyond us at the moment. It could be the players, it could be the coach, it could be the way the roster is put together, it could be injuries, it could be something else entirely. And it could be that nothing is wrong that isn't going to be better soon...that this is just what being the team with the best young talent in the league looks like when the "youngest" weighs more than the "best talent" and when some of that talent is missing (or missing in action).
To my way of thinking, trying to pin what's happening on the coach, his style, his substitutions, or his game plan is premature. I'm not necessarily an apologist for coaches, but I do feel that they're the first avenue of blame even when things aren't their fault. Or put another way...you could hire any other coach you wanted, even one that would play Sergio and Joel 48 minutes a game, and we'd probably still have an 0-3 record at this point. That doesn't mean I understand what Nate is doing or what's going on, it just means I think there could be other explanations for all of these points and until we've narrowed it down to specifically "the coach is a problem" it's not fair to jump there.
I want to look at Fizbin's points individually and give what I think are other possible explanations. These may not be right or true themselves, they are just alternate ways of looking at the situation that don't necessarily incriminate the coach as much.
We are indeed stuck in a pattern that many young teams follow. When superior teams come against us they are usually prepared at the start of the game. They come out and beat us up, for all intents and purposes ending the night early. By the second quarter they're relaxing, which allows us to make a run back into the game...sort of. As soon as we threaten and the lead gets below double digits they put the foot back on the accelerator and we're left in the dust again. We look a lot better when the game is out of reach than we do when it's contested.
However I think it's fair to say that this has little to do with a coaching plan and everything to do with our level of talent and experience versus the competition. Unless Nate is a huge Muhammed Ali fan I can't believe he'd consider Rope-a-Dope a viable game strategy. It's possible at this point that we just don't have the horses to run with some of these good teams unless they take us lightly. The fact that they're not shows that we might be getting there, but the trip will be slow.
This is true. Perimeter defense has been an issue for years. But there's a common thread to those guys you mentioned: all are limited defenders. The zone defense this year and the rotating double-team schemes in the past couple of years were designed to compensate but the fact that we have to employ them tells you right off that we don't have the chops to play straight-up in the first place. There is only so much covering you can do. No coaching scheme can turn a pig into a purse. It's like saying to Dale Earnhart Jr., "You lost the race with a Honda Accord, a riding lawnmower, and three Oldsmobile sedans. Can't you drive?"
I openly questioned Nate's use of Joel last year. It was confusing for me too. But having seen Joel this year I now understand the difference between what he was then and what he should have been (and is now). In a halfcourt game featuring Zach-style offense Magloire really was the better choice than Joel given how Joel was performing last year. He was far slower and far less apt to contribute. That wasn't Nate's doing. That was part injury and part Joel.
With the offense we're trying to run now Magloire would be woefully out of place...a complete anachronism. Joel is the clear choice, which is why Mags is no longer a Blazer. The team has shown confidence in Przybilla and it has been rewarded with his improved conditioning and play. However there will still be nights when he's not the answer. In New Orleans he was playing soft from the get-go. He was running away from plays he usually helps with. I don't know why, but frankly I would have pulled him too. He was back against Houston but there the problem was Yao Ming. Joel is completely ineffective in that matchup. Lamarcus and Channing, as scorers and runners, at least add a different wrinkle to the matchup and caused Yao some minor frustration. You could argue that this was the wrong choice, but you could also argue that given the way the games were going it was the right one.
There is some confusion...there will be with any new system, especially with younger players. The opposing defense--very good in two of the games so far--also causes confusion by cutting off options. But even with all that the offense is still night and day different than it has been the past couple of years. There are far more passes and movement even when we're still playing one-on-one too much. You don't see people standing around for vast tracts of time. You really don't see many shots against the clock compared to what we used to endure.
If anything this team passes up too many shots that should be taken...especially the guards. I mentioned in the Houston review that we have to start shooting open jumpers when they come in the flow of the offense. If I had a coaching question/concern this would be it: do the guards have the green light or has the concept of driving been so drummed into them that they're nervous every time an open shot presents itself?
Either way this is probably not as much a coaching issue as an experience issue. They need time to settle into the new offense. Keep in mind that in essence every player on the court is playing with four brand new teammates. I know that some of them actually played together last year but Zach so dominated the offensive flow that this might as well be a whole new team. Nobody's ever played with Lamarcus as the focal point. Nobody's played with a healthy Przybilla. Jarrett has never had this much responsibility. Blake hasn't played with these guys. Martell has not been on the starting unit. Roy is the only guy who can lay just claim to having the same position and role as he did last year. Again...progress will be slow under these circumstances.
This is a hard one for many folks. And this may be right...maybe Nate doesn't see what Sergio brings. Maybe there is something personal. But there could be other explanations: Sergio is young, Sergio has flaws we don't see, Sergio runs with the first unit in practice and it doesn't click...who knows?
If any of these are true I actually empathize greatly with Nate here. Part of my job involves visiting with people. That's a private, confidential thing between me and them. Sometimes, though, even when I want to visit with people I can't. I'll call them and they'll explain to me why it won't work...again usually for private, confidential reasons (something they're undergoing or maybe they just don't like visiting). Every once in a while someone else who is concerned will call me and ask, "Have you visited with so-and-so?" What do I say in that situation? Option A is to say, "No I haven't, and here's why..." and then blab that person's confidential stuff to a third party. Option B is to say, "We've been in touch..." and just leave it at that. Option C is to say, "I can't discuss such things." Either one of those last two make me look like a dolt who hasn't been doing his job, but they protect the privacy of the people I'm supposed to be serving. Option A justifies myself but throws those poor people under the bus. Which one am I supposed to choose?
I think it's possible that Nate is in the same situation. Maybe there are reasons he's not playing Sergio despite how nifty his play looks to fans. It could be as simple as him telling Sergio every, single practice, "If you want to play more, do this one thing on the court" and Sergio never does it. But what is Nate to say when somebody sticks a microphone in his face and asks him why? Is he supposed to throw Sergio under the bus, airing all the things that are wrong with him to the media and fans to save himself and make himself look good? Is it possible that Nate's, "Don't keep asking me about that" stance is not to justify himself, but to protect his player and his relationship with him? If that is so, how difficult it must be to maintain that stance when people are throwing accusations of personal bias against the very person you're trying to protect. And how difficult it must be when positive statements you make about other players--like Taurean--are somehow construed as negative statements against the player you're protecting...when everything comes back around to this one issue and you can't shake it.
Except for extremely rare occasions when Nate has publicly said he needs more out of his stars, which at the time meant established veterans like Zach Randolph, I have never heard Nate put any individual player through the wringer in the press. He'll talk about what the team needs but he doesn't hang his guys out to dry. That's a pretty good track record considering what kind of personnel he's worked with over the past few years.
I'm not saying this is the way things are, but I am saying that things like this happen. They have happened to me. And if you're any kind of decent person your response to them will look just like Nate's response right now.
Other than not having Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony to dish assists to I'd say Blake is performing about the same now as he did last year. Remember George Karl was up and down with him too. We don't know what kind of players Jack and Sergio are or will become, so I'm not sure it's fair yet to say Nate has "burned through their careers". Certainly if you look at, say, Sebastian Telfair's contributions after he left Portland or Luke Ridnour's contributions after Nate left Seattle it doesn't look like there was that much material there to work with in the first place.
But let's say Jack and Sergio aren't going to work out for various reasons. Let's even say it's because Nate is not the best coach for them. What about guys like Lamarcus and Roy (and maybe, knock on wood, Webster)? They are flourishing under Nate. Are we to say that every time a player does well it's because of his own ability but every time he does poorly it's because of the coach? I don't think that's what Fizbin is arguing but I do think many people believe that as a practical matter.
The question of style and influence is a good one. Are coach and GM on the same page? If not that could cause difficulties down the road. However we must also remember that Pritchard coached this team for a while after Cheeks left and his won-loss record was not sterling. Also I suspect Nate's influence is stronger than we hear about or than he gets credit for. Finally, and probably most convincingly, whatever that vision is--for coach or GM--it definitely includes Greg Oden being present and having a couple years of experience under his belt. Unless and until we have seen that we don't have a basis to judge one way or another.
I am not particularly convinced by any of these arguments (meaning Fizbin's or mine or anybody's I've seen). I don't know what the truth is right now. There are simply too many possible explanations--too many unknowns--to be sure. That's why I think the best course is simply to wait, watch, and see. And waiting will probably be more enjoyable if we love the team for what it is (or what it's trying to be) right now and try to put the best possible face on things as they grow.
P.S. You can read Jason Quick's story on Nate McMillan's lineup contortions here.