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Quick Chat Recap February 8th, 2007

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Here's our weekly recap of Oregonlive's Quick Chat hosted by Casey Holdahl.  As always this is a paraphrase of the questions and responses.  You can listen to the entire chat here.  

Oregonian Beat Writer Jason Quick is up first.

Q:  Reflections on the Phoenix game?

A:  The team continues to show progress.  They're playing with teams better than they are.  The hurdle to get over is winning these close games.  It was happening early but lately they've been having trouble closing out.  The injuries and changing rotations are part of that.  Nate has said they have to find their rhythm again.  The team is better, but still one of the bottom teams in the NBA.  People have to be content with taking a step forward.

I think, really, that's all anyone was looking for coming into the season.  Nobody in their right mind thought that the team was going to be good compared to other teams.  But everybody hoped the team would be better, not just in terms of wins (though that has come) but in terms of effort, cohesiveness, and entertainment value.  There's no doubt they have taken that step.  At this point I don't care so much what the final record ends up being.  If we're good in a couple years nobody will remember it.  If we're still in the dumps we have bigger problems than that.  As long as the team keeps improving incrementally and doesn't abandon their post I think we all can be happy with this campaign.

Q:  What about Portland's perimeter defense?

A:  It's brutal and there's no cure-all.  Juan Dixon, Jarrett Jack, Martell Webster, Sergio...they're all poor defensive players.  Up and down the line the Blazers are below average.  Joel and Ime are the only exceptions.

Brandon Roy is sometimes better and Jarrett still has his moments.  Jarrett just looks lost out there sometimes on either end of the court and he doesn't know how to find himself yet.  But it's a good call on the generally poor quality of the defense.

Actually I'm not sure I'd characterize it entirely as perimeter defensive problems though.  To my mind our interior defense this year has been rather weak and that has thrown off everything.  If you know you have solid guys at your back you can take more chances and be more confident out at the edges.  But if the core is rotten it's like balancing on stepping stones out there.  You know it's over with one slip.  Especially with the young guys that can't be encouraging.  I'd give a lot for some solid, veteran defenders in the lane.  Then I think you'd see Roy and Jack be able to step up more.  This is ironic because a little bit ago we were doing semi-OK inside with Przybilla and Ratliff but our perimeter defense was abysmal with Martell and Sebastian.  (I wince even putting those two names together in this context.)  One of these days we'll get both.

Q:  What about Outlaw's lay-in?  Can he overcome it?

A:  I was impressed with Travis after that game.  He handled things like a pro, answering every question head-on.  The next day he was fine with it.  I don't think it'll have any lasting effects.

Q:  Is re-signing him a priority?

A:  They are undecided.  He was gaining momentum before he was hurt.  He's athletic and can play up-tempo.  But now he has to prove he can come back from injury and regain his form.  He was a factor before the injury, even in the fourth quarter.  They were counting on him.  These final games may be more important to his future than for anyone else on the roster.

I was really impressed with his energy coming out last game.  And I think Nate showed some real confidence in him.  How long will either last?

Q:  Will Joel be benched in favor of Lamarcus?

A: I don't know if that change will be made yet.  Practice is in 20 minutes and we should know more then.  But my sense is that a change will be made.  The team can't continue to lack production at that spot.  Nate's lost confidence in Joel.  Jamaal is not the answer.  Everybody can see Lamarcus' potential, especially in an athletic, wide-open type of game.  He can open things up for Zach because he doesn't need the post.  He can hit a jumper and he's learning to move his feet on defense.  It'll develop him and make them a better team.  I could be wrong but I expect Nate to make the move.

Jason's latest report says Nate needs to "sleep on it" but is leaning towards Jamaal.  I thought that didn't work out so well earlier in the season?

Q:  What does Lamarcus have to do to keep out of foul trouble?

A:  It's a problem but he still gives them a different element.  Joel makes it four against five on offense.  Lamarcus isn't at Joel's level defensively but he's not a stiff.  It's better for the future of the franchise to play Lamarcus.

 

Uhhh...I think that means "He can't".

Q:  How will Jamaal take it if Lamarcus starts?

A:  Jamaal's resigned to the fact that this isn't a good fit and he's not highly valued.  He's asked to be traded but that's not happening right now.  There are some rumblings of a buy-out if he's not traded, allowing him to sign with another team.

Q:  Is that a smart move?  You have to pay him anyway.

A:  It frees up a spot for someone else.  Plus he's not going to be happy at all and that's not a good situation.

I think the Blazers already have a spot free now (Stephen Graham) so that's not an issue.  But I guess not having a guy in a funk in the locker room might be.

Q:   What do you see that Joel's not doing right out there?

A:  He's really tentative.  Part of it is he's not getting the chance to play. Nate pulls him quick and doesn't play him in the fourth.  That's messing with Joel's head.  He's pressing, trying too hard, getting fouls, and not even looking to touch the ball on offense.  

Yes, fouls.  Lots and lots and lots of fouls.  He gives more hugs than Barney, Lamb Chop, and the entire cast of Sesame Street combined.

Q:   It seems like Jarrett Jack is also pressing, especially making mistakes on the break.  Does he see Sergio over his shoulder?

A:  No, that's just his learning curve.  He's been solid this year.  People forget he's only in his second year.  That said I still think he'll be available in trade this summer.  With the emergence of Sergio and Brandon's development running the point in the fourth quarter I think they wouldn't be totally against moving him.

This is the fourth time I've heard that and every time I wonder why not Jarrett as the combo guard off the bench if he can't start?

Q:   Might they look to bring Steve Blake back in the off-season?

A:  It's a possibility.  Nate and Kevin Pritchard love Steve and Steve loves Portland, he'd bring more stability, but I can't say that's on the radar.

I think we're going to be priced out with Blake if he keeps playing well in Denver.  And I think Steve wants to start.  I don't think that would sit well with Jack, Sergio, or the fans.

Q:  Do you think Sergio will get the chance to start at all this season?

A:  No, I don't think so.  There is good news about him...he's off crutches and walking around without a limp.  I still don't expect him back until after the all-star break.  I don't think he made this road trip with the team.  I don't think he'll be a starter this year though.  Nate likes what Jarrett provides and doesn't feel comfortable giving the reins wholly to Sergio yet.

Q:  Why is that?

A:  First of all it's a defensive issue.  But Sergio and Zach don't really fit well.  Nate also likes the second unit to come fast and up-tempo to provide a contrast in play.  He did this in Seattle too.

I bet Sergio gets at least one shot with the starting unit late in the season.

Q:  The team's on a three game losing streak going into a four game road trip.  What do they need to do to win?

A:  First they need to execute better late.  They've had jumbled offensive sets in critical moments.  Second they need to play better defense.  They face some formidable guards on this trip (Arenas, Wade, even Jameer Nelson) and their perimeter defense will be put to the test.  It sounds cliché, but they also have to play defense for a full 48 minutes.  An overlooked play in the Phoenix game was the late possession when Zach came over and stole the ball from Amare Stoudemire under the hoop.  That's pretty rare for Zach and he needs to do that more than just when the game's on the line.  He's more focused when the game is on the line late but he needs to understand that a possession in the middle of the first quarter is as important as one late in the fourth.

This is pretty much what we've been saying and it's the main reason to have a beef with Zach these days.  Everything else has generally gotten better.  But the full-game effort also applies to many of his teammates.  It's just he's the one who should be leading it, as the guy who takes most of the shots and all.  It's only fair.

Q:  Who's working with Martell and what are they telling him?  Is he improving?

A:  I saw improvement from him midway through January when he started taking the ball to the hoop more.  But then he went into another lull where he was just absent.  Then in the Phoenix game he appeared again when he put the ball on the floor and drove.  The whole staff, especially Nate, has been imploring him to be more than just a guy who drifts around out there beyond the three point line.  Nate says the same thing happened with Rashard Lewis and it took him four years to learn how to score.  Martell's a disappointment so far.  I expected more out of him, but we have to remember he's only 20.  Another thing that has to get better is his free throw shooting.  He's been brutal lately.

I think we'll all be at peace if we just chalk this up as a learning season for Martell entirely.  It's not like we're losing anything by doing so.  He's not the difference between the lottery and the playoffs or anything.  Right now any positives for Martell are good.

Kevin Pritchard joins the show.

Q:  Tough game in Phoenix.  What did you see?

A:  Are there moral victories?  That's the question.  We're growing as a team.  We are developing multiple go-to guys, especially Zach and Brandon.  I love the play Nate drew up.  We got a great shot with Travis.  People want to put heat on Travis but I don't.  I'll take that shot every time and it'll be a learning experience.  It's good to compete with some of the upper echelon teams.  There are some games that are "huggers", where if you win everybody hugs each other.  It builds team camaraderie and gives confidence.  That game could have been one.

We'll have to remember that next time the Blazers win a game while we're chatting on Blazersedge.  How do they do that?  {{{{hugs}}}}  Is that it?

Q:  Have you talked to Travis?

A:  One thing you don't want to do is make things more important than they are.  The last play is important but not that much more important than the 30th one.  I tell guys all the time, if you can just do one extra thing per game--pass, block, good rotation, etc.--then it doesn't have to come down to the last play.

Amen.  And that's the theme of the day, apparently.  48 minutes of effort.  (Or more like 53 lately...)

Q:  What did you see in the Chicago game?  That was also close.  Is this team growing enough to expect wins in these games soon?

A:  Last year I felt like we were an easy out.  Teams were coming in playing casually and trying to turn it on and they still beat us.  This year teams know they have a tough game on their hands.  The upper echelon teams can still come in and just play average and beat us though.  I'm hoping soon we'll be the type of team you have to play good basketball against to beat.  We have a lot more energy now that we did last year, that's for sure.  Our intensity is higher.  We have guys willing to take shots and chances.  Losing Sergio has also been hard for us because he's a guy off the bench who can create shots for everybody and change the tempo.  He's a real x-factor who can make good or bad plays.  But if he comes in either of those games and makes a couple good plays we might win.  Not to put too much pressure on Sergio but we miss him.

Kevin really does value Sergio highly.

I mentioned something similar several months ago when discussing the level of teams in the NBA.  At the bottom of the ladder are the bad teams that everyone takes lightly but they lose anyway.  The next rung consists of teams that others take lightly but they're better than expected and start winning.  I thought we had a chance to go higher than that at one point but it appears this year we'll be stepping back and forth between those two rungs.

Q:  How is Sergio taking to not being able to play?  He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would like that.

A:  When he got hurt I went back in the locker room.  You can tell a kid's tough if he really gets hurt and you don't know it until way, way after.  He got up immediately and tried to walk it off.  He wanted it taped up tight so he could help his teammates.  He's a tough kid and he was worried about his teammates more than himself.  We expect him to be back right after the all-star break.

Q:  Speaking of the all-star break, if Allen Iverson isn't able to play in the all-star game will you guys put in a push for Zach to replace him?

A:   That's a David Stern free pick.  I've had conversations with Mr. Stern.  I will do everything I can to help our players.  I think it's important that we're advocates and that we get out there and tell our story because this is an organization that is coming up and it's important.  Plus they're our players and I'll do whatever I can to get them to every event.

The guy everybody should be concentrating on getting to the all-star game is Nate.

Q:   Do you know when he'll announce?

A. He'll do it when he feels like doing it.

 Q:  Is that your sense about how he operates with most decisions?

A:  He's very influential.  He's taken this league from a small company to a mega-billion dollar worldwide industry.  He has a lot of clout with owners, media, and fans so he can rule with a strong hand.

Very political.  I expect Mr. Pritchard will escape that question with his knees intact.  Had he said anything else though I'd fully expect him to wake up the next morning with Blaze's severed head in his bed.  "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!"

Q:  How does Paul Allen wanting to buy back the Rose Garden affect things?

A:  First and foremost it means that we have one of the great owners.  People have been tough on him.  The bankruptcy has been tough and he was considering selling.  But we're in a great spot now.  Paul got re-energized from the team and the draft.  We're hoping the building gets done and we can control our own destiny.  If we have the building and team together we're going to compete again.  It gives us advantages.  The Knicks are spending $120 in payroll and small-market teams can't compete.  Getting the revenue back will help us.  Paul has been an unbelievable owner.  Now the heat's going to get even hotter.

EEK!  Don't invoke the Knicks!  We want to compete with THAT?  That's like being in congress and saying we need to raise taxes so we can build the Star Wars 2 Missile Defense Program.

Q:  When you made all those moves to make sure you got the rookies this year it looked like Paul was sticking with the team.  Was that your impression?

A:  I feel like I have a lot of responsibility to shoulder...bringing in great, team-first kids who are tough and have talent.  When I start worrying about anything besides that it gets too complicated and too much for me.  I love basketball. I watch 15 games a week at least and meet with scouts and evaluators.  I talk basketball all day, every day and that's what I'm meant to do in this life.  I focus on the basketball and I trust Steve Patterson and Paul Allen to run the business side.

Again very political.  I also surmise Kevin will make it through the day without his computer files being hacked and his credit rating being jimmied down to -492.  

Q:  There have been a lot of buy-outs of players' contracts this year.  What are the pros and cons of that?

A:  It comes down to basketball philosophies.  Some guys don't fit with teams' philosophies going forward and just can't be traded.  At that point you've got to go with what makes sense financially.  We have an owner who's very strong financially so that doesn't weigh on us as much.  Paul wants to make sure we do everything we can to make a player play to his highest capabilities.  That's on me and I take responsibility for that.  In some cases it may make sense.  It might make sense here someday but we're not there yet with any of our players.

He really emphasized that last sentence.  I couldn't tell whether he was being dead honest or over-dramatically sarcastic.  I'd guess about a 95% chance of the former, maybe 5% the latter.  I imagine he wouldn't let anything tip if they were planning to buy out anyone as that would tend to lower said player's trade value significantly...

Q:  Chad Ford and others have mentioned Zach is available.  Some fans don't support Zach.  But Zach is having a great season.  Is there something he needs to do to get fans to realize that he's a pretty good player?

A:  I've struggled with Zach with some of the things he's done off the court, as we all have.  That being said I hired one of my best friends, a former UNLV head coach, a guy who's recruited some of the best players in the NBA who have also been difficult players at times.  In some cases it's taken him years to develop those players, and I don't just mean their talent.  Part of this league sometimes is developing players off the court, challenging them to be better people, better organized, to learn discipline.  That's why some of the guys who come out of college fare better because they've learned that discipline.  If you ever sit down with Zach Randolph and just have dinner he's a delightful kid.  Trust me.  I wouldn't lie or put my reputation on that.  Sometimes he gets into things he shouldn't when he's not with good, focused people.  But we brought in Bill Bayno and he's done a great job developing people on the court and developing trust.  I think part of our job is developing people off the court too.  

He's not the best defender.  He's working on it.  If you watched with a trained eye and watched his defense it's getting better.  He's never going to be on the all-defensive team but he doesn't have to be.  He just has to give consistent effort, know his rotations, and make sure his guy doesn't get easy buckets.  He competed harder than I've ever seen him compete on the defensive end in the Phoenix game.  Can he keep that up is the big question.  Bill Bayno and Monte Williams work on Zach every single day.  Offensively he's as talented as any offensive post player in the league.  Those don't come very easy, so we're trying to develop him defensively and off the court.  What's funny is everybody talks about trade here or there but we don't actively go out and try and move guys.  We listen to offers.  And quite frankly Steve and I like this team.  We have enough talent that we can organically grow.  We can add some young guys, some veterans who aren't on the downside of their careers, and we have a chance to be pretty good in a couple of years.

OK...this is the single best answer I've heard given in one of these chats ever, by anyone, to any question.  And I'm not just blindly throwing daisies at the guy...stepping back from the actual answer and just looking at the meta-process of how he gave it and what kind of information he delivered, this was flawless.  And it's very difficult to do that.  It's an important question and he needs to tell the truth.  If he dodges the question, hedges, or if he only gives the positive view, he loses credibility with his audience.  ("Why do we even listen?  He's not going to say anything important.")  However there's also the question of how much truth to give.  The audience obviously expects some, but they also expect you to continue to function in (and be true to) your role as a team executive.  If you do anything to lessen your ability to function in that role, or hurt the team, they will be angry even if what you're giving them is exactly the truth they asked for.  (For instance if he said he was really frustrated with Zach and hated his play most nights then Zach would be upset and feel undermined and other people might perceive that answer as lessening his trade value, both of which would make the fans go, "Bad Kevin!  No Kevin!  Back to your room with no cookie!")  Basically the situation was, "Here's this hot-button issue...now give us the truth, but not too much and not too little...  Go!"  To be able to balance the needs of his audience, his job, and where that line was on short notice and without equivocating or bailing out of the answer and STILL coming across as truthful, trustworthy, and approachable was no small feat.  Professionally done.

As far as his answer itself, my impression is that fans aren't concerned right now with Zach's off-court stuff so much.  Almost nobody brings it up anymore except in the context of how it might influence the younger players, which is a legitimate concern but even then is rarely mentioned.  And I think most folks are seeing those small improvements in Zach's game.  Jason Quick mentioned his defensive stand against Amare prominently and it was mentioned here too.  We talk about him occasionally setting better picks and when he drives the lane instead of settling for jumpers.  We are noticing that.  The chief concern is exactly the one Kevin mentioned, which is that we're a long way from 48 minutes of solid effort from him.  And it's probably not entirely coincidental that that's being mentioned as a serious problem for the team right now too.  The main criticisms of both Zach and the team lately have been incredibly slow starts, poor offensive choices early, and as Quick said above not recognizing that the plays you don't make in the first and second quarters come back to bite you in a game that goes into overtime.  We will not be able to trust Zach, nor do I think we'll be able to win on a consistent basis, until we see that concentrated effort.

When Casey phrased his question it sounded like, "Why aren't the fans getting it?" and Kevin's answer kind of reflected that.  To me it's clear that the fans--most fans anyway--ARE getting it but we're seeing more or less the same things and having exactly the same concerns that the staff is.  There's reason for legitimate praise, but there's also reason for legitimate concern, and we've seen plenty of both this season.

Q:  We're on a three game losing streak and face four tough games on the road.  What do the Blazers need to do to get right?

A:  You have to put together 48 quality minutes.  We've had some quality wins on the road.  But we can have lapses, which is why you see Nate call quick timeouts.  It's very difficult for him.  I've seen the chat rooms.  I know people get frustrated because Nate doesn't seem to have a regular rotation.  But when you look down that bench you don't know who's going to give their best or play their best so you just have to make an educated guess, which is very difficult.  We just have to get back to playing 48 minutes with consistent effort.  That's difficult because of injuries too.  I know Nate believes in playing harder, smarter, and more unselfish and giving yourself a chance.  We've played a lot of overtimes which means we're getting close.  Last year we had to play flawless basketball to win.  This year we can make a few more mistakes and still win.  Like I said earlier I want to turn this into the kind of team where you have to play great basketball to beat us.  I don't think we're there yet but we're moving towards it.

This is exactly what I mean.  We need the type of team where Nate can look down the bench and know pretty much what he's going to get from whom.  Good teams have that.  Part of it is needing to let our guys get more experience.  Part of it is needing more veterans.  But part of it is also that we have key guys that have games you just don't know about on any given night...Zach (defensively and most ways besides scoring), Travis, and Juan being chief among them.  I don't think you can have many of those guys in key positions and still win (e.g. Ricky Davis in Boston and now Minnesota) let alone having them as your main guy.  Either that has to change or we have to move some of these people when it comes time to win.

Q:  The Blazers are starting their own social networking thing...

A:  One of the things we're trying to do is create a MySpace for Blazer fans.  All our players will have a page.  There will be interaction.  We wanted to be at the forefront.  We talk about being on the forefront of social networking.  We're excited about it and I imagine you're going to read and hear more things on that than anywhere else.

Q:  What do you look for on the forums?

A:  A lot of times it's news-driven.  I just want to get a pulse of how the community reacts to an overtime loss, for instance.  I also read the million trades people do on ESPN trade machine.  I'm not above learning.  This business is fun and exciting.  We'll get together and throw the craziest ideas out there.  Believe it or not one of those crazy ideas turned into Sergio Rodriguez.  We thought he'd go higher.  We play fantasy basketball in a way.  So I do take this stuff in.  I can't say that I act on it every day.  But I'm a basketball fan at heart.  All good basketball managers are.  Sometimes you have to separate the emotions from the decisions, which can be difficult.  But at true heart I'm a basketball fan.

That was a nice sentiment to end the interview on, and this guy has a career in politics waiting for him if he ever gets tired of basketball, I'm sure.  But if he's learning anything from those trade-checker posts I'm really, really worried for the future of our team.  Seven drunk monkeys with a laptop and a week's worth of Jack Daniels could come up with 99% of that material.  (But then I often think the same of national columnists...)

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)