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Quick Chat April 12th, 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:  What are your impressions of the game last night?

A:  This team continues to impress me.  Even thought they're not winning games they're showing heart and giving us good thoughts for the future.  Nate says the last two weeks have impressed him.  He says it's made him excited to go into the offseason...because Kevin Pritchard is the GM and because he's seen things from these guys that makes him think there's something to build off of.  This is a direct quote from him:  "I think if we do some good things in the summer, if we take our time and think out what we need to do, and add some pieces and be smart about it, then I think we're moving in the right direction and that's exciting."  I suggested to him that the team was two moves away, adding a dynamic small forward and a veteran point guard.  He said, "I agree and if we add that we should certainly be in the playoffs next season."  That's really encouraging that the coach and the organization have that positive thinking.  This offseason will be very important and they're thinking if they make the right moves they'll be in the playoffs next season.

Yes Nate!  Whoooo!

But as a fan I'm still OK if we don't quite make it next year.  Unless we're at the bottom of the league again that won't be too much of a failure.  The year after, however...

Q:  What will the Blazers try to do with their pick?

A:  My sense is that they'll look at all their options but end up packaging their pick in a trade.  They see that as a way to get better instantly.  The only way to get that dynamic small forward is through a trade.  They feel like they already have enough good, young components to build around.  Now they need some proven pieces to get them over the hump.  This is going to be a dynamic summer where there's going to be some big-time moves.  I think they'll look to move Zach Randolph.  I think they'll see what they can get for Jarrett Jack.  Last night the picture became clouded a little bit more as Nate McMillan saw Freddie Jones play point guard and play it well.  Nate says he's going to play Freddie at point guard a lot in the last four games.  He says he wants Freddie to lose 15 pounds over the summer and if he does that he can become a point guard for the Blazers next year.  That crowds the point guard position for next year since they have Jack, Dickau, Sergio, and Brandon.  I think you can guarantee the Blazers will make some kind of move at point guard this summer, be it minor like moving Dickau or major like moving Jack.  Freddie Jones' play has accelerated their thinking.

Q:  What did you think of Jones at point guard?  Is he a solid backup?  A starter?

A:   He wouldn't be the starter.  He'd be a backup.  He's not a spot-up shooter who sits in the corner and hits the outside shot.  He's more of a slasher.  He needs the ball in his hands.  Nate was really encourage by how he ran the pick and roll and created his own shot.  This came out of a conversation the two had about two weeks ago where Freddie was imploring him that he could play.  They tried to find a way to get him some playing time and this was it.  Freddie said he played it in high school and a little with the Pacers and had some success.  Freddie realizes that he's playing behind Brandon Roy and that he'll have to accept a backup role.  All he wants to do is play and contribute.  This is a way to get him some playing time.  It looks like he'll start a game soon at two-guard because it looks more and more like Brandon Roy will be shut down for the season.  Right now the plan is to play Brandon tomorrow night against the Clippers but then Nate will probably shut him down.  They'll definitely keep him out of Saturday's game.  Last night when Brandon rolled over Tracy McGrady's knee Nate said it sent chills down his spine because that could have been Brandon.  There's really nothing more that Brandon can prove.  He's got two sore knees--swelling in the right and tendonitis in the left.  They really want to be careful that he isn't hampered in his off-season conditioning and work.  They just want to get out of the season without any more injuries.

Q:  Is there any good reason for him to play?

A:  There probably isn't and that's what Nate is fighting right now.  He sees his team competing and playing smart, together, and the right way and he likes that environment that's being created right now.  But he doesn't want to hurt Brandon any further.  I think he's going to play him one more game and that'll be it.

There's a lot of stuff there.  

--As far as keep or trade the pick (and for what) the whole issue gets solved if we're in the top two.  I'm going to wish for that until it becomes impossible then cross the other bridge when we come to it.  

--As far as Freddie at the point...hmmmm.  To say I was opposed would be overstating it.  I like his game a lot.  But even when they're talking about his success it's in terms of how many points he scored and how he can create shots for himself.  Neither one is necessarily first on the skill list of a traditional point guard.  Having them is great, but there's a lot more to it than that, especially (it seems) if you play for Nate.  I don't know...this just feels like one of those things where nine months later we're saying, "Well, that didn't work."

--You already know my thoughts on Brandon playing any more this season.

Q:  Is McMillan penalizing Jack and Sergio because of their mistakes or a lack of effort?  Are they being punished with fewer minutes?

A:  It's not for lack of effort.  Both of them are giving their all.  Before last night Jarrett Jack was spectacular in four straight games.  He shot close to 65% and did a nice job running the team.   With Sergio he just hasn't deserved to be out there.  He's really hit a wall and is making dumb, careless mistakes.  In a lot of these games the Blazers have been in it...the Spurs, Houston twice, Utah.  It's Nate's competitive fire that he wants to win these games.  It's about creating that culture and environment of competing, playing right, and deserving to be out there.  We've seen that with Martell too.  Nate's made a commitment to play him more, around 30 minutes, in these last four games but before that he said the guy has to earn it to get out there and to stay out there.  It's a good precedent to set that you're not just going to play because of your contract or where you were drafted.  They're kind of beyond this development stage of giving guys development just because they need it.  They're trying to create a winning, competitive environment.

I never got this idea about Nate "punishing" people.  It doesn't make much logical sense.  He starts the guys he thinks are best suited for the job, right?   And that's because they're playing the best at their positions right now.  And he doles out minutes to subs on the same basis.  Supposedly when people don't play up to expectations he "punishes" them by taking them out of the game prematurely.  But who does he put in to replace them?  Guys who aren't playing as well as the first guys, or THEY'D be starting!  So wouldn't he have to punish them too, if that was his M.O.?  "Jack's playing poorly...no court for you!  Sergio, you're in!  Now he's playing worse than Jack.  No court for you!  Dan, get in there!  Oh man, he's not playing as well as either of the first two.  No court for you!  Ref, we're only playing with four tonight."  Nate is playing the people he thinks gives us the best chance to have success by whatever his definition is.  If he's not playing your favorite player it's not because he hates your favorite player or is holding a grudge against him or punishing him (and, by extension, you) it's because somebody else gives us a better shot in that moment and your favorite player needs to work harder to be that "better shot" guy in more minutes.

Q:  Does that apply to Martell as well?  His performance has been lackluster at best.

A:  His playing time is more a product of injuries.  With point guard there's still a full stable available so it's harder to throw a guy out there just to develop him.  With Martell they're down to two small forwards.  You even saw Brandon Roy play some small forward last night.  Travis Outlaw is playing most of his minutes at power forward so they're really thin.  That's why Martell has that opportunity.

 

I think Jason jumped the gun earlier in saying we were past the development stage entirely and Martell is an example of that.  Martell is being developed, or at least tested.  I think it's more accurate to say we're 85-90% "real game" playing and 10-15% developing whereas in the last two years the percentages have been much more slanted towards development.  I also think that Jason is accurate in saying that even so, Martell wouldn't be getting these minutes if more small forwards were healthy.

Q:  Do you think Nate is apprehensive about sitting guys to avoid the impression of tanking?

A:  No.  The Blazers have answered that question.  They are competing in these games.  Tomorrow night will be the seventh straight game the Blazers have played someone in the playoffs or competing for the playoffs and they've been highly competitive in all of them.  They are 2-4 in those games.  The Dallas game was kind of a runaway but they were without Brandon, Lamarcus, and Zach.  But San Antonio was tied in the third quarter and they beat the Rockets and Jazz.  I think they've answered those questions about tanking.  It doesn't play into things at all.

It amazes me the impressions people have of how Nate makes his decisions.  (And keep in mind that many of these are fan-submitted questions, not Casey's alone.)  A couple of paragraphs ago he was a stone-headed tyrant lording over the lineup with an iron fist. Now he's wringing hands about what the rest of the league and/or media thinks of the team.  Why can't Nate just be a coach doing, you know, coach stuff?

Q:  Of Travis Outlaw, Ime Udoka, and Jamaal Magloire who will be re-signed?

A:  I think they'll make a huge push to re-sign Ime.  And by the way we just found out today that Ime is scheduled to have knee surgery on April 19th, the day after the season is over.  He has a torn meniscus in his right knee.  It's the same knee where he's had two ACL surgeries.  The surgery is similar to the one Joel Przybilla had.  They're going to go in, clear stuff out, and repair the meniscus.  It's a 4-6 week recovery period.  Incidentally Joel Przybilla is back with the team...running and shooting.  His recovery is looking good and I don't think ther will be any concerns with him coming in healthy for training camp.  Back to Ime...I really think he fits this team.  I don't think they want him as a starter but he's a very nice role player and a Nate McMillan type guy:  tough, good defender, smart, team guy.  Those are valuable players.  The only question is how much Ime will command and how much the Blazers will be willing to give up.  After that Travis Outlaw is probably number two out of those three.  Nate has gone on record saying he wants Travis.  They are convinced he'll reach his potential. I don't think they envision him being a starter or superstar player.  But the league is gravitating towards smaller, more athletic lineups, especially at power forward, and that's where Travis fits in.  Those two I would expect to be back.  Jamaal is a big question mark.  The only way I see him coming back is if the Blazers trade Zach Randolph.

Q:  If their goal is to be a dynamic, starting small forward...you have Ime coming back, you have Travis, you have Martell, you have maybe Darius Miles...that's five small forwards.  Is that a situation where one of them has to go?

A:  Darius Miles coming back and contributing is a longshot.  Last night he took part in the team photo and he didn't look like he was on any type of return schedule.  I'd be surprised if he were healthy and on a level where he could contribute.  You can take him out of the equation.  That leaves the Blazers without a bona fide small forward.  Small forward is the most dynamic position in the NBA.  It's where you have the best athletes.  A lot of teams' leading scorers play that position:  Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Shawn Marion.  Those are big time, athletic players.  That's the biggest hole in the Blazers' starting lineup.  I think they go out and try to work a deal to try and get a Rashard Lewis type player to improve the athleticism and scoring of this team.

Hmmmm...sounds like an interesting discussion question.

Q:  Is there a particular veteran point guard the Blazers would key on or a particular style?  And would that point guard start or come of the bench?

A:  They're looking for a special kind of guy who is a veteran and will be willing to accept a backup role...somebody along the lines of a Derek Fisher.  They won't be able to get him since he's locked up with Utah, but somebody like that.  They want a guy who can mentor, accept a role, and still be effective for 10-12 points and 4-5 assists.  I haven't analyzed what's out there or picked Pritchard's or Nate's brains but they're looking for a backup type guy.

My question is, who doesn't play then?  If you think fans are upset now wait until Sergio becomes the #3 option...and for a geezer.  I agree getting such a guy would probably be the right move but will it be a popular move?

Q:  Why do you think Blazer fans don't think Zach has value in the NBA?

A:  He's a difficult guy to move for 2-3 reasons.  First he has a huge contract and those are tough to move in this day and age.  Second he comes with a lot of baggage.  A lot of teams are worried about image and past behavior and Zach has had a lot of off-court behavioral issues.  Third the Detroits, San Antonios...the good teams with a brand or culture...he doesn't fit them.  He doesn't play defense well, he commands a lot of shots, he has trouble in the running game.  All that being said, he's still a 20-10 guy with credible offensive skills.  There are teams out there hurting for inside scoring.  Chicago comes to mind.  I think there's value out there.  I don't think teams are salivating over Zach but that's why Kevin Pritchard gets paid the big bucks.  He gets to figure out whether moving Zach Randolph will make this team better.

I think the best way to put it is that Zach doesn't have as much value as he otherwise would.  But then if he did we might not be looking to move him.

Kevin Pritchard joins the show.

Q:  What are your impressions of last night's game?  Can you build on it for next season?

A:  This team has pride.  When a guy scores on them or they don't play well in a quarter or half they feel like they can come back.  We've proven that when we were down 27 earlier in the year to New Orleans.  Why should it be any different now?  If you have pride, you go out there and work your tail off...sometimes you get beat because that happens even to the best teams...but I was proud that they came back and competed.  I was happy that Freddie Jones finally got going.  He needed that for his psyche.  As long as you have Brandon Roy on the floor you have a chance to win.   He's willing to take the big shots.  He made some tough shots the other night.  He was going against one of the premier forwards in the league in Tracy McGrady and he was effective (though Tracy was too).  I was really proud of this team in the second half.  We could have packed it in and quite frankly in the past we would have.

Q:   Fans are asking why not let Brandon rest on Friday and play at home on Saturday so his fans can see him?

A:   With his knee he can play on a day's rest but when he doesn't get it he struggles, so we have to rest him on the second day of back-to-backs.  I can appreciate those who want to see him play but it's more important that he plays when he can and gets that rest.

KP didn't answer the question there.  I would also prefer him to play against Seattle, though for different reasons.  I think that's a game we could win with him in.

Q:  They also want to know why he's still playing if he's injured at all...

A. Ime came to us and said he didn't know if he could go.  We don't ever go to players and ask them to take it easy.  That's never been my style.  I want to be a GM that fosters a winning culture and I don't think that does.  If I told Brandon we wanted him to sit the rest of the season he'd look at me like I had six eyes and two heads and fifteen ears.    He's all about a winning culture.  He epitomizes what we're about.  I'm not going to sway him off that line of thinking.  It'd be bad to do it and I don't want to do it.

Q:   So it's up to Brandon Roy?

A:  Yeah.  If he's healthy and can get out there we want him out there.

Woohoo!  Here comes my first real disagreement with Kevin Pritchard.

In an ideal world I think he's right.  But the world is far from ideal.  You need both talent and culture to win consistently.  Culture without talent is a nice team that wins more than it should but probably misses the playoffs.  Talent without culture is a team that wins less than it should and even though it makes the playoffs misses the ultimate (and only) prize.  The two have to be married in order for you to have success.  I'm sure Kevin would agree.

In an ideal world both talent and culture work side by side.  What enhances one, enhances the other.  But in this messy, imperfect world which includes things like knee injuries, sometimes protecting your culture and protecting your talent become divergent goals.  The question then becomes one of cost/benefit.  How much will choosing to protect your culture cost you in terms of talent?  How much will choosing to protect your talent cost you in terms of culture?  In this particular case our star backcourt player (and consensus future of the team) has a legitimate knee injury with four games left in the season.  The potential cost to the culture in asking him to shut it down might be the loss of one or more of those four games and also perhaps a semi-bad message to the rest of the players if they're not sure the injury warrants it.  I suppose you'd also count breaking that rule about not interceding unless a player asks out.  What is the potential cost to the talent though?  If Brandon messes up his knee by playing on it he could cost himself at least an off-season of work.  And it was said last week that the summer between your first and second years is often the greatest in terms of growth.  He could potentially be set back a half year of development.  But what if it has longer implications than that?  What if in a year or two we are ready to make our move but he's not 100%?  You've preserved your culture but hamstrung the thing the culture is there for.  To me the potential cost of shutting him down culturally is far less than the potential loss of not shutting him down talent-wise.  The first is a minor, correctable bump in the road even at its worst.  (Four games + legit injury = relatively small cultural message.)  The second has the potential to affect this team for years to come.  There's no comparison.

You need to add into the equation that young Brandon will probably never make that decision on his own.  When you're young you tend to believe in unadulterated ideals whether they're possible (or practical) or not.  Often that helps you make wonderful decisions.  Sometimes not.  The 22-year-old Brandon will probably see every game in his first season as important.  He will probably see proving himself as a tough guy as important.  He will probably see not letting his teammates, coach, or general manager down as important.  Hopefully the 32-year-old Brandon will still have those ideals.  But it's overwhelmingly likely that the 32-year-old version, after 10+ years of wear and tear on achy knees, would determine that a relatively insignificant four-game stretch at the end of the regular season would not be the wisest place to take a stand on those ideals, the better to put them into practice when they matter most.  The 32-year-old Brandon would also know that those ideals would still flourish even if you have to contravene them every once in a while.  But the 22-year-old Brandon doesn't have the experience or foresight to make those kind of decisions.  That is where the 30- or 40-ish-year-old General Manager and Coach have to step in and help him make them...up to and including saying, "You are the man and the toughest so-and-so I know but you're sitting out these last four games and I don't care if I do have two heads."

One of the great truisms in life is that your greatest strength also becomes your greatest weakness.  There is no doubt that idealism and principle are enormous, enormous strengths for Kevin Pritchard.  In fact I believe you are watching those qualities resurrect this team before our very eyes.  But in order to avoid becoming a weakness there are times when they will have to bend, and this is one of them.  You're not abandoning them.  You're remembering that they are there to serve a greater purpose, which is the health and success of this team.  To the extent that they serve that purpose you must hold onto them, and 99% of the time that will be the case.  But if you do not let go a little during that other 1% you run the risk of losing that greater purpose, and with it the meaning of the ideals you were clinging onto in the first place.

Q:   Is point guard Freddie Jones' natural position?

A:  He's good with the ball.  I don't know that he's a pure point guard but I like him as a secondary pick and roll guy.  His decision making with the ball has been good.  I don't know what his assist/turnover ratio has been with us.  But he's made good decisions with the ball.  I don't think he's scored as much as he's used to but he's been unselfish and made good decisions.   And really that's all we ask of him.  He came into a new situation and had to get comfortable and obviously he has.

Q:   So theoretically you have four point guards with Freddie, Sergio, Jarrett, and Dan.  Can a team carry four point guards?

A:  Four is tough.  You carry three.

Q:  So where does that leave the fourth man?

A:  Ultimately there will be opportunities for trades and contracts to expire.  But with the league getting faster and faster you need at least three.  We'll always carry three.  I'm not sure who those three are.  Brandon gives us the ability to play different styles and positions with them.  That's fun.  That can create tough things for other teams.

It will be very interesting to see how this develops in the off-season.  My gut tells me it's looking worse and worse for Jarrett but that's just a feeling of course.

Q:   Injuries have been a big issue in the NBA.  Where would this team be without injuries this year?

A:  That's a tough question.  You are where you are for a number of reasons.  Injuries are a factor.  But it's also important you have a good bench.  I've always said the 12th man is as important as the 1st man because ultimately during practice or a game he gets a shot.  We're going to build a team with good backup players who, when it's their time, will step in and keep things going.  All good teams have that.  All the good teams have good depth and use it to their advantage.

And as we're seeing right now, despite the seeming flood of players at certain positions, depth is a real issue for us.  We have a couple of guys who can move into the starting lineup and show credibly but after that we really fall short.  One of the things we'll probably have to do in the next couple years is fall out of love with some of our current players.

Q:   What do you say to the perception that Nate McMillan isn't fond of Sergio and thus he isn't getting playing time?  Where is Sergio in his development?

A:  We really like Sergio.  Everybody likes playing with him  But he needs to learn to be better defensively and to pick up signals better.  But we love his energy, his enthusiasm, his ability to find people, to get them easy shots.  That's not going to go away.  He's a 20 year old kid who's maybe getting a little tired, who's maybe hitting that rookie wall.  Nate recognizes that.  I think we want to be a little protective of him.  We don't want him to get burnout.  We want to bring him along slowly.  There's no rush with Sergio.  He's going to be around for a long time.

You can tell he's struggling physically.  It's written on every line of him out there.  This was going to happen and it'll be fine.  I like Pritchard's reminder that he's young.  And he simply hasn't played a ton of organized basketball on a high quality, adult level.  Remember he came off the bench for his national team.  He has a learning curve mentally and a physical challenge as well.

Q:  Nate sounded really optimistic about next season as long as you get a dynamic small forward.  Is that your main goal in the offseason?

A:  I think it's a position of need.  Whether we get that through free agency, the draft, or trade I'm not sure.  It really all starts with the draft and then into free agency and trades.  We're going to make the best draft decisions we can and improve our team with the best talent and then everything plays from there.  You hope to get the best player available that's at the position you need.  Sometimes that works out, sometimes that doesn't.  There are going to be a lot of options with this year's draft.  I'm not opposed to trading the pick for a great player.  I'm willing to go into three-ways.  I'm willing to look at every avenue to make this team better.

Q:  Are there rules when it comes to talking about European professional players like there are about underclassmen?

A:  Yes.

Q:   If you could start the season over again would you have brought Joel Freeland here?

A:  Probably not.  Joel needs some time.  He needs basketball experience.  I wouldn't want him wilting on the end of a bench.  Could the minor leagues be good for him?  Probably.  But I want to do what's best for the team long-term.  I'd like to see him on a good European team where he can play and get experience and then ultimately bring him over for us.

Q:  So it's going to be at least one more year before we see him over here?

A:  Well, no, Casey.  No...I'm not going to make that decision now.  I'm going to see him in summer league and reevaluate after that.  He may come in and play great.  He may not.  Summer league will be a big influence on us.

When I saw Joel play he reminded me of Sergio in the sense that he had some smooth talent to his game and moved pretty effortlessly for his size but he wasn't the dominant physical specimen and you could tell he had a ways to go with his game.  I would say the safest way to look at it is if he contributes at any point for the Blazers we should count that as a gain.

P.S.  If Pritchard uses Casey's name at any time during the chat besides the opening and closing salutations, that's kind of like your mom using your full name when calling up the stairs.

Q:  How do you keep track of these European players?  Is there someone devoted to that?

A:  Yes.  We have Jason Phillipe [editor's note:  I have no idea on the spelling.  Kevin pronounced it "Fih-lee-pee".] a European scout who also does some work in South America but his full-time job is Europe and it is a full-time job.  He does a great job. He was instrumental in bringing in Sergio Rodriguez.  We're very confident in what he does.  With many second-round picks maybe the Euros become more important to us.

I was just thinking the other day that we haven't reached the end of the Euro Boom (and probably never will) but we have now reached the end of the Euro Superstar that you haven't heard of.  I would bet for many teams the Euro scout is nearly as important and respected as their college scouts, maybe more so as there's probably less video evidence available for evaluation.  You can expect NBA teams to draft European players but I don't expect many of them to be a surprise to people anymore.

Q:  You have quite a few guys with expiring contracts this off-season.  What process do you use to decide how to spend that money?

A:  The big thing is the decisions haven't been made.  We're trying to get through the season and then we'll look at the body of work of each player...not just one or two games but the entire season.  Then we'll sit down with the coaching staff and the management staff and we'll talk about it.  We'll look at the risks and rewards.  Hopefully we'll come up with a good process to make sure we sign the right players at the right money and continue to maintain our winning culture.

Q:  So it's not position-by-position but an overall issue?

A:  We definitely look at each position.  But it starts with the overall question of does this guy fit what we're about.  If he does then it gets to the next discussion which is whether he fits us positionally.  The most important thing is that we're bringing in good people of good character with high talent that can help us get to the playoffs.

Q:  The reason I'm getting at this is because between Ime, Travis, Martell, Darius, and somebody you'd like to bring in at small forward does that become a positional issue?

A:  A lot of those guys are multi-positional, which is a benefit.  Brandon can play point, Ime can play two, Travis can play three.  You get a lot of options that way.  I try to put as many great players as I can on the team and then we figure out how to get those guys on the floor and have success.  A lot of the successful teams figure out their five best players and get them out there.

Q:  So with the draft, ideally it's best player at the right position but is it more best player and then position or position and then best player?

A:  It's best player available for me.  I don't care what position.

What Casey's trying to get at is we're still imbalanced, and he's right.  What I worry about more is that maybe some of these players we're unbalanced with don't have the talent to justify being unbalanced for.  Casey has identified point guard (Jack, Sergio, Dickau, maybe Jones, maybe Roy) and small forward (Ime, Martell, maybe Darius, maybe Travis, maybe a new guy through draft or trade).  If you look at that list, there's a whole lot of question marks in there.  What if we ended up with none of those players at those positions in three years?  (Meaning, for instance, that Brandon would remain a two-guard.)  That's possible.  Which is another good argument for drafting as KP suggests by talent first and position second.

Also multi-positional is kind of an asset but really when you think of most of the ultra-talented players in the league they pretty much have a position and stick to it.  Sometimes that position will change during the course of their career but you don't see many true multi-position players achieve the highest levels of success.  (Meaning, I suppose, that a lot of multi-position players are less of the "this AND that" variety and more of the "not quite this OR that" variety.)  That's another great argument for getting a superstar through draft or trade if you can.

Fine work by Casey as always.  If you've never written and thanked him for doing this, you probably should before the season ends.  His e-mail is choldahl at oregonlive dot com.  I put in the "at" and "dot" to keep the spambots from eating him alive.  Replace them with their appropriate symbols.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)