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Quick Chat Recap 3 29 07

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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.  

Despite Jason being the only guest (usually there are two) and under the weather to boot this was one of the most fascinating chats in a long while.  Props to Casey and Jason both.

Oregonian Beat Writer Jason Quick is up first.

Q:  What are your impressions of the Pritchard move?

A:  It's not surprising.  It's a good move.  They did interview others though I don't know who.  Kevin earned this and I think he'll do a good job.

 Q:  What will be his first order of business?

A:  Handling the draft is the first thing.  He's proven he's adept at scouting and data gathering.  His next order of business will be what to do with Zach Randolph.  I think Kevin was among the group who was disturbed by Zach's actions last week.  We've seen that this team is radically different without Zach and to most that's a good thing.  I think they like the way this team looks without Zach.  Kevin hasn't indicated that one way or another and I don't think he ever will publicly.  But he'll explore what's out there for Zach and see if he can make this team better by engineering some sort of deal.

It's an interesting take, and a subject that has been brewing for a while.  I'm not saying Kevin dislikes Zach.  Nor would Kevin EVER say something overtly derogatory about one of his players in public, I'm sure.  That's exactly as it should be, and bravo to him.  But between the lines it really seems like Kevin's vision of the game and Zach's vision of the game are different, perhaps to the point of eventual incompatibility.  Even if nothing gets done this summer I don't think this issue is going away.

Q:  What's your take on it being a five-year deal.  Is that a long contract?

A:   It's pretty standard.  That's what Whitsitt had.  Patterson had four.  It's a good sign, but not anything out of the norm.

Q:  What are the implications of Zach's strip club trip?

A:  The Blazers were disappointed.  They couldn't really punish him for it but it's another example of poor judgment on his part.  Whatever justifications he gives for it, it's not something you want to see your players doing, especially not your supposed leader.  It lets down his teammates more than anyone else.  If I were Jarrett Jack or Brandon Roy or Lamarcus Aldridge out there playing and giving it my all and I heard he was using his time off to visit a strip joint I'm not sure that would sit well with me.  This team is trying to get away from those kind of distractions.  Kevin Pritchard talks a lot about the culture and this doesn't fit the culture.  I don't think that if Lamarcus or Brandon or Jarrett or Martell or Travis had a bereavement leave the team would have to worry about hearing about them being in a strip club or anything else besides traveling where they need to be.  That said it's one of those gray areas with Zach.  You can't punish him for it because he didn't do anything illegal or even against the rules.  He just chose to do something I don't think a majority of us would do.  It comes down to the culture.  On a larger scale the Blazers are always holding their breath with Zach.  Day to day they have to worry about what he's going to do.  I think they want to get away from that and get the roster to where it is with the rest of those guys, so they don't have to worry.

And this is the issue, isn't it?  You can argue all day about the legality and the morality and the psychology of the deal, but when it comes right down to it when mom and pop ticket-buyer read the words "bereavement leave" and "strip club" in the same sentence that's not going to leave a great impression, nor encourage them to think the culture has changed, nor give them confidence to buy tickets.  If you're a public face in a company that depends so heavily on public support you have to think about these things.  It's simply a different level of responsibility when all is said and done, and Zach's unwillingness or inability to grasp or act on that probably rightfully frustrates the powers that be in the organization.

Q:  There was a perception in some circles that the Blazers weren't as concerned with having Zach back quickly so they gave him that long leave which they might not have done earlier in the year or if they were still fighting for the playoffs.  Was that the case?

A:  No.  They were trying to be a responsible and caring organization.  I did ask Kevin and Nate that question about ulterior motives.  They were taken aback by that notion.  They said it was ridiculous and absurd.  Nate insists that when he called Zach in for a meeting Zach was visibly shaken and hurt.  That's why they gave him the time off.  Nate is a straightforward guy.  He doesn't lie.  If you convince him there's something wrong then I tend to believe there is.  There was no ulterior motive except to be a good, caring organization.

This is yet another reason for frustration regardless of legality or other issues.  The team was going out of its way to be generous and supportive.  Nate in particular made a move away from his usual tough-guy, in control approach here.  Usually when someone does that the recipient makes sure to use that gift in the wisest way possible...and certainly not in any way that gives even a hint of a reason for the giver to regret the gift, let alone be harmed by it.  That didn't happen here.

Q:  What did you see from the team while Zach was gone that you don't see when he's there?

A:  Two things.  First the defense.  With Lamarcus Aldridge in there the defense was better.  They were able to double-team, to trap, and they were more active.  He has a controlled scrambling out there, going from man to man, helping, switching...stuff that isn't necessarily there with Zach.  The thing that Nate points out is that in those games the number of easy baskets for the opponents almost completely vanished because the defense was better.  The second thing is the ball movement.  The ball was shared and different people were taking shots.  With Zach it slows down so much.  The team is obsessed with getting the ball into him and once it does go down into him Zach holds it, waits to identify the double team, dribbles, then makes a pass or forces a shot.  It was more sharing, team-oriented basketball.  You could see that reflection in the locker room.  The team had a different aura...happy, together.  That was a result of the way they were playing together.  There was a lot of trust and sharing.  It was a different brand of basketball.  Also Zach is such a powerful presence in the locker room.  Talking to the traveling party on the plane they remarked that when Zach wasn't there the plane ride was so different.  Everyone sat together, laughed, talked, and shared stories.  When Zach came back that ended and everyone went back into themselves.  It's strange because I think Zach is a well-liked guy but at the same time he casts a different aura on this team.  I don't know if the players are afraid of him or intimidated by him but for whatever reason the mood changes when he's around.

 

The ball movement in the first part of the Memphis game was better even with Zach in there, so that may not be solely a Zach problem...rather one of a young team trying to run an offense.  (Though Zach certainly doesn't help sometimes.)  The defensive issue, especially in terms of easy buckets, is obvious and something we've talked about all year.  Even the worst teams in the league don't lose by much more than six points a game on average.  That's three stupid or lazy plays per game...like letting your man go by unopposed, failing to rotate, or not getting past halfcourt before the other team puts a shot up.  I'd be surprised if Zach did those things fewer than three times per game.  The transition defense did look a lot better on the road trip.

The whole plane trip story is very interesting.  It's possible that some people have that effect without meaning to, just because of their position or personality.

Q:  Who is the more important player for this team, Zach or Brandon?

A:  Brandon provides a second option and another ball handler.  That's the thing that got exposed in the Chicago game.  They needed another ball handler.  Brandon is also important as that second go-to guy.  But I'll say it right out, I think this team is better without Zach Randolph.  Right now with Lamarcus' emergence you're stunting his potential by keeping Zach on this team.  His best position is power forward and the longer you keep Zach the more you're keeping Lamarcus at center and really keeping him from completely flourishing at his best position.  We've seen that Lamarcus can put up the same numbers as Zach, shoot a better percentage, and with that you're getting better defense.  I realize that part of why Lamarcus gets good shots is because of Zach's presence.  But Lamarcus has also shown that he can play in control, take smart shots, and play rugged basketball and bang ruggedly like a true power forward (like in the Atlanta game) even without Zach.

 Q:  Do you think the Blazers would be better over an 82-game season without Zach?

A:  In the short term, no.  They have so many young players.  Lamarcus has not experienced a nightly double or triple team for instance, though that is coming soon.  But over time I think they will be better without him.  They need to cross that bridge.  You're only hindering Lamarcus' development the longer you keep him away from the power forward spot.  The time is right, Zach's value is high, and I think this latest interest was the last straw for the organization.  They're frustrated and looking for a clean break.

The guys talked tonight about the possibility of trying Lamarcus at small forward too.  I guess he has some of the perimeter defensive skills and he has a shot out to 18 feet or so and he runs the court well enough.  But will he get in foul trouble guarding those smaller, hyper-athletic players?  And more importantly with such a young guy do you want to keep messing with his position and style of play?  Yes it's great to be well-rounded but you can also end up screwing with a guy's confidence and comfort level pretty easily.  Rasheed Wallace played small forward for us for a year and didn't like it.  And he was a well-rounded veteran who knew exactly what to do.  What if the same thing happens to Lamarcus?  How far behind do you put him?  Or do you ruin his progression altogether?  From what I can see we very much need this guy and he is one of our big hopes for the future.  I'm not really keen to play him anywhere or in any way that's not leading to his best growth...let alone a way that might hinder it.

I said more or less this same thing before the season about Martell and the move to small forward.  Whether he belongs at small forward or not is less the issue than his comfort level at shooting guard, which was apparently higher than his current comfort level at small forward.  You changed his role, changed his position, and at least so far it appears to have ruined his confidence.

Q:  What do you look to get back in return for Zach if you trade him?

A:  The areas of concern for this team are small forward, veteran point guard help, and a big man.  If they could get two of those three components for Zach they would be doing well.  I would put small forward at the top of that list.  Ime Udoka has done surprisingly well and they should try to re-sign him because he's valuable on so many fronts but he's basically a role-player and I think he's comfortable with that.  Veteran point guard help is also important because Sergio has shown that he's still got a steep learning curve to get over and Jarrett (if they do keep him) could benefit from having a proven guy there--a Derek Fisher type--who's been around but would swallow a back-up role.

Q:  Assessments of Zach's value are all over the map between the low post scoring, the character issues, the defense, and the black hole accusations.  What's another player in the league who's relatively equal in value to Zach?

A:  I don't think Indiana would do this but I think someone like a Jermaine O'Neal.  Jermaine is a better player now but he's on the downside of his career and only has maybe two or three years left while Zach has eight or nine.  I don't think Indiana can do that though because of the image problems they've been having.  That would go against everything they've been trying to tell their fans.  That will be factored into it--a hurdle they'll encounter--if and when the Blazers try to move him.  I don't know if they want to, it's pure speculation at this point, but other teams will be scared by Zach's baggage.

Between the contract and the character thing I would guess Zach's value is a fraction of what it would otherwise be.  The question is, how big of a fraction?  I think it's safe to say we could get cap relief OR some level of talent for him, but not both.  If we want talented guys they're going to be contractually expensive relative to the amount of talent they possess.  If we want salary flexibility we're going to have to make do with very little talent.  The big hope is that we're not at (and don't get to) the point where no talent AND bad contracts are all that's offered in return...assuming we look to trade him at some point.

Q:  Would the Blazers bring in an assistant who has more strengths with X's and O's, like a Dwayne Casey?  There's a perception out there that Nate is a great motivator but not as strong in the X's and O's.

A:  Nate has said he doesn't want to replace any of his assistant coaches but he's like to bring in Dwayne Casey in some capacity.  Casey is very thorough, very good at preparing and scouting and developing game plans.  Dwayne is also a nurturer who can take guys under his wing and bring them along.  That was his role with Rashard Lewis.  That counterbalances Nate's aggression and heavy-handedness.  Nate is very stingy with his compliments to players and gives them in an indirect way.  Sometimes players need the nurturing.  Dwayne has a reputation as one of the best in that area...not coddling or babying but encouraging and bringing them along.  I don't want to get into who should be replaced but I think there could be a spot for Dwayne on this staff.

That makes a lot of sense...not so much from the X and O perspective but from the balancing personality and style perspective.  I actually think that on critical plays the ball gets into the right people's hands a good proportion of the time on offense.  Defense has not been so good but that may be due to our inexperience as much as anything Nate is saying or not saying.

Q:  Jamaal Magloire has been getting more time lately and he appears to be playing better.  Is there any chance he re-signs with the Blazers?

A:  If you asked me before the last road trip I would have said zero.  After watching him on the trip they have increased.  Jamaal isn't sure what he can get out there and isn't confident of his next contract.  But this road trip opened people's eyes, including Nate's.  He played very well.  There was one instance in particular that should not be understated.  Jamaal gives this team such a tough and rugged presence.  He pushed Tyrus Thomas down once.  Somebody got fouled hard and they started getting into it and Jamaal came to the defense and stepped right in the middle.  He is this team's enforcer.  He gives them toughness.  That's so important for a team filled with young guys.  During the course of a game it's important to have a big vet like that.  Mike Barrett was telling me that Joel Przybilla was saying that Jamaal's core strength is so remarkable that he's stronger than anybody else in the league outside of Shaquille O'Neal.  Joel cannot move him.  And the rest of the NBA knows that.  Knowing that he's there...he's a presence.  I think the Blazers will look at re-signing him for the mid-level exception or something lower.  I think Jamaal will look to re-sign here.  He likes it here.  He likes his teammates.  I've been really impressed with him as a person.  He's very enjoyable and is starting to find his groove here.

Well...we know we need an enforcer.  How much are you willing to gamble, pay, and/or put up with in terms of the occasionally botched play in order to keep one?  The problem I see is this:  We've already given Joel a full MLE contract.  That's $5-7 million a year for the next five years.  We don't know if he'll be injury prone or how well he'll play when he returns so there's no guarantee we'll be able to get out from under that contract before it expires.  So let's say we sign Jamaal at a more reasonable $4 million a year plus raises.  That's not bad for a center.  But combined we're paying from $9-$13 million a year for a couple of centers that we're not sure will work out and that are probably average (or slightly above) in the realm of centers even when they are playing well.  That's a lot of money and cap space.  You might be able to get a good center for $10 million a year.  You'd certainly be able to get a good player at another position for their combined salaries.  I know you can't fiddle with MLE's like that but at some point the goal should be to get under the cap and get some flexibility and this wouldn't help.

Q:  How does the rest of the team respond to Jamaal?

A:  He's very well liked.  After that New York game when he had 14 points and 16 rebounds he was out on the court doing a radio interview.  When he came back in to the locker room all of the other players started chanting, "Mali!  Mali!  Mali"  It was a great thing for him to hear.  If they didn't like him they wouldn't have done that.  They respect him and they like the way he's handled his up and down season.  Obviously he would have liked to play more but he handled it the right way.  If he had grievances he aired them with Nate and not the paper or his teammates.  He's been a true professional and the players know that.

He's one of those players that really finds his own without Zach on the floor, probably because they take up the same space.

Q:  Some questions about the still-open President position for the Blazers.  1.  What does the president do?  2.  Who would be a good one?

A:  I don't know who would make a good one.  In the past the president has overseen the arena finances, which it appears they will get back.  He will oversee the operations and finances of the arena.  He is more of the public guy who goes to the rotary meetings and sponsor meetings.  He's the figurehead, the public link.  The GM handles the day-to-day basketball operations.  It's more of a financial role.

Q:  Are they waiting until the end of the season to see if somebody gets released from their current team?  Are they looking at people currently outside of the Blazers?

A:  From what I'm hearing now they're looking outside of the Blazers.   The rumblings are that they're looking to make a big splash with a big name who will generate interest from potential, big-time sponsors...somebody with name recognition who will form that bond with not only fans but sponsors so they get a better financial footing.  I don't know if that means a Jerry West or a Donnie Walsh, both of whom are rumored to be leaving their current teams.  But that's all pure speculation.  

The problem I see with a big-name splash is that most of these guys became big names for their basketball decisions, not their sponsor schmoozing.  Would one of these guys be content to be the public face, stick to the sponsor/sales end, and keep their fingers out of Pritchard's pie?  Somehow I doubt it.  The Blazers probably need to be careful here.  Too many cooks and all...

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)