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"It's a Young Team"

You've heard it all summer and all season long from Kevin Pritchard, Nate McMillan, Mike Barrett, Jason Quick, and schmucks like me.  We're a young team.  It's become such a ubiquitous cliché that it needs some parsing out at this point.  Some don't believe it means that much.  Others use it as an explanation for everything but the rain.  Where does the truth lie?  What things are attributable to being young and what aren't?

You don't even have to dig into the arcane practices of NBA basketball to understand the rudiments of how being young affects players.  Simply remember when you were young and/or very new at a job.  Even if you were pretty smart and had the basics down that was only the first part of the process.  Every day there were contingencies that you weren't prepared for, that hadn't been (or maybe couldn't be) explained.  The more experienced workers took them in stride, probably compensating for them without comment.  They had seen enough to know what to do.  But you? highbeams.  This is the single largest effect of inexperience.  You cannot plan for or cope with events beyond the norm.  As long as everything is on track you're fine, but one decent-sized speedbump puts you in the ditch.

Understanding that, let's look at some of those arcane practices...

The most basic, familiar unit of NBA activity is the play.  We're all familiar with the X's and O's that tell you how to attack or to respond to the opponent's attack.  Every play is designed with a primary goal in mind...the ideal result.  But every play also has options, a minimum of one or two per participant but often several, which are contingencies in case reality falls short of the ideal.  This is critical because unlike your day job in the NBA opponents are actively seeking to make sure your primary goal never gets achieved.  It's a simple point, but significant.  Even when a customer was giving you a hard time in your first rinky-dink retail job their primary goal was basically the same as yours:  reaching a satisfactory transaction.  Imagine having to do that job with a guy standing beside you whose only goal was to make sure you never made that sale.  Furthermore this guy has a pretty good idea how to push you into every difficult contingency in the book, plus some that haven't been recorded yet.  Even with all your training and schooling your learning curve was already pretty steep in that first job for a few months.  Having that guy around could push the learning curve from months to years.  Welcome to the NBA.  

At its most basic level experience allows you to see the floor clearly and instantly, make decisions instinctively, and act quickly, not giving the other team much of a chance to read or recover.  Inexperience makes you have to look longer, makes you see things that aren't there (or not see things that are), makes you take longer to process information, and greatly increases the time it takes you to act.  I don't remember the exact game but I remember reading a story somewhere in the last few years about how one of our opponents was basically calling out our own plays to our point guard because he not only knew the signals, he could also read the court before our young guy had figured out what was going on.  The NBA game is very fast and horribly athletic.  That split second often makes all the difference between success and failure.  Until seeing, processing, and acting come instantaneously and fall under the heading of "second nature" you might as well be playing with extra five-pound weights on your ankles.

This is exactly why you will see young players look like world-beaters while prosecuting one-on-one moves they've done their whole lives but falter seriously when they have to do team-oriented things, especially without the ball.  This is also why they say point guard is the most difficult position to learn.

Things get even more complex when you figure that set plays encompass only about half of what goes on out there.  It's impossible to cover every contingency with a play.  Even if you try, plays break down for any number of reasons.  When that happens you need some idea of what to do.  That's why along with the plays coaches usually try to impart an overall philosophy.  This also proves difficult for the inexperienced.  Generalizing again, new folks are usually quite competent at framing their jobs in terms of tasks.  They have much harder time seeing the bigger philosophical picture.  When you were young you knew how to work the cash register and had some vague idea of how that helped the company.  But if pushed to frame the why of cashiering, or worse to make a leap from the tasks of cashiering to the overall philosophy of the store and translate that into a specific response while under pressure, it was at best a coin flip whether you'd get it right.  It's no different for young players.  Most of them have a pretty good grasp of, "On this play I set the pick at the top of the key."  They can also handle a couple options based on whether the dribbler uses the pick or not.  But when all that breaks down and those options are taken away they need to fall back on the bigger picture...a picture that they have a hard time seeing because they're doing all they can just to get their task accomplished right.  

This is why you see things like two guys trapping a dribbler at halfcourt but then relaxing and standing around like fools after he has passed the ball.  Their task was done, but the overall philosophy of the defensive scheme eluded them, at least for a couple seconds.  And again, in the NBA those couple seconds are enough to cause a complete breakdown.

Another notorious shortcoming of the inexperienced is their inability to see, understand, and coordinate with others.  Going back to the cashiers, you can often tell an inexperienced one because they will allow the line to get to twenty customers before they call in a backup.  It's not that they're ignorant, they just don't see much beyond their own till yet.  When they look up and see that enormous line they're startled.  It's much worse in basketball because everything you do depends on others.  You have to see and understand 10 guys out there on offense and defense to be successful.  And as we said you not only have to understand how things are supposed to go, you have to understand what's happening when you and your teammates start working on the fly.  This isn't a stage play where everything is blocked and everyone performs memorized lines from a common script.  Especially in the NBA it's more like Improv Comedy in the vein of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"  You have the general rules of the skit and a common focus but success depends not only on you being funny, but how you react to and interact with everybody else out there.  It looks easy when it's done right but it takes a hell of a lot of practice, trial, and error to get it down.  Brandon Roy taking two steps towards the baseline may signal a progression of events so obvious that you might as well shine a spotlight on him.  It doesn't matter if half the team doesn't notice.  It's like Colin Mochrie feeding a straight line and then Ryan Stiles starting to quote Shakespeare.  

This is why you'll often see two guys posting up on the same side of the key, three guys standing on the same side of the court all looking for three pointers, or the team triple teaming opponents (or doubling a non-scorer when a single defender would have sufficed).  They're acting without reading the situation.

Bundle all of this together and collectively what it looks like is a bunch of stupid mistakes:  an open lane not driven, an open player not passed to, an opponent allowed to waltz down the lane for an unopposed dunk, a deadeye shooter left wide open for three.  It looks idiotic, but it's not really.  These guys are not stupid.  They've all played basketball for a long time now, even the rookies.  They know that's wrong.  They are simply missing cues, failing to communicate, and hesitating a lot more than players who have been in the league 7-10 years.  It's not like they see the right thing to do and fail to do it, they just don't see it until it's too late.

That is why the really stupid, bonehead mistakes don't really bother me.  I know that for the most part they won't be making them in another few years.  The halfcourt trap example cited above won't happen in 2010.  Most of the truly glaring, head-slapping events won't.  And since we have 3-4 of them every game (at least to my untrained, fan's eye...there may be more) and that translates into 6-8 points per game in a league where a 4 point average deficit is big, it's reasonable to assume we won't be giving away so many games in a couple years either.

Far worse to my eyes are the low-grade, constant shortcomings that have more to do with individual ability than experience.  Jarrett Jack's inability to stay in front of point guards, Steve Blake's inability to get his own shot, Travis Outlaw's ugly dribble when he's trying to attack the basket, Channing Frye's lack of a low-post or rebounding game...those things aren't going to go away with experience.  We may be able to cover for some of them better with age (let's face it, everybody's shortcomings are airing out in the breeze right now) but these are fundamental talent and skill issues.  There are more than the ones I've mentioned too.  Basic personality types seldom change either.  Our lack of toughness concerns me because smooth finesse guys seldom morph into intimidators no matter how many years pass.  Guys who shy away from contact or driving tend to drift even farther outside as they age.  Players who never dive to the floor when they're on their rookie contracts don't do it when they're veterans either.  Not every shortcoming on this team is youth-related.  There's still some work to do with this roster.

Another issue that should have nothing to do with youth is effort.  In an ideal world hustle would come standard with every model right off the showroom floor.  Young or not there should be no excuse for not busting your butt out there, even if it's busting your butt doing the wrong things.  The one mitigating circumstance is that young guys don't always understand how to take care of their bodies off the court or how to give effort in the right spots while conserving energy in others while on the court.  This makes it harder to approach the game with the mental/physical/emotional energy you need.  But all other things being equal a young team can still commit to playing harder than the opposition.  If they do so they will win their fair share of games from that alone.  That's important when the experience deficit hamstrings you in other areas.

It's hard to generalize, but I'd say that even on a youth-oriented club the ideal ratio for your top eight players would be five talented veterans and three young guys, with at least one of those young guys in the bench rotation.  That way at any given time 3/5 to 4/5 of the guys on the floor are seeing the court and (hopefully) reacting appropriately.  Obviously a quick look at the Blazers will tell you we aren't anywhere close to that ratio, especially when you consider that Steve Blake and Joel Przybilla are veterans only in comparison to the rest of our squad and haven't really been steady starters for most of their careers.  This alone would warrant a lot of the troubles we've been having even if our guys were talented out the wazoo (which I believe some of them are).  Whether they can find their way without much veteran guidance, depending only on the coaching staff, while adding at least one more key young player next year--if not two with our lottery pick--is an open question.  In many ways it's the blind leading the blind.  I would not be at all surprised to see a shift in philosophy towards veteran supporting players as we progress towards the new decade, even at the cost of one or two of our youngsters.  It's not so much that we can't win otherwise.  Rather our problems will be exposed, magnified, and propagated far more than they need to be, making it that much harder to win, ultimately leading to a much longer trip to reach our destination.

--Dave (