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Figuring It Out

Since yesterday's hubbub about players and coaches needing to "figure out" how to get out players--and particularly their offense--clicking that question has been posed via the inbox multiple times.  I'm pretty sure everybody is reading too much into the situation.  Show me a decent team that doesn't grouse after losing a couple of stinkers like that.  Things will be said.  Those things might or might not have deeper implications.  It's difficult to know until the final results bear out.  But the question is interesting nevertheless, so I'm going to take a stab at answering.  How do these players and their coaches go forward and work together?

1.  The Blazers must push the tempo on offense, period.  No excuses.  No exceptions.

We've been talking about this subject for a couple of years but it's now become critical, and not just for the reasons you think.  Yes, pushing tempo generates more possessions and more easy buckets, thereby relieving some of the stress on the halfcourt sets.  Just as importantly, it helps resolve one of the main chemistry issues we're experiencing right now:  how to work in Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden with their diverse, yet important, offensive styles.  Pushing the ball up the court is one of the two main ways to keep LaMarcus involved.  He's a gazelle with a habit of getting past his man and finishing.  Generally he does well when the Blazers run.  The second way is, as we've suggested before, making him the main scorer every time Brandon takes a break.  Between those two strategies there's not as much pressure to get him abundant looks with the first unit at the outset of the game.  He'll need to be an integral part of the offense, sure, but the key word there is part.

Three things are going to have to happen for the Blazers to get faster.  The first two are obvious:  defend and rebound.  The rebounding they have down already.  The defense will have to be stronger than we've seen in the last couple games.  But then again we've seen some pretty abysmal efforts in the last couple of games.  Portland doesn't have to be perfect.  They just can't let opponents top 50% on a regular basis.  There's far more to say about defense but we're going to leave that for another post.  I do think the Blazers should be running it up and setting the offense early even on made baskets though.  It's a good habit.  No more walk-trot-saunter either way.  That's a start.

The third thing that has to happen is that, to whatever extent Nate McMillan and Andre Miller are experiencing distrust of each other, they need to make peace.  Miller has a point.  This team is somewhere in between the freshman and sophomore year of high school in its developmental arc.  They've achieved a few things.  The reins are starting to loosen up.  But they're not at the point of going out and living independently yet.  They still have plenty to learn, both fundamentally and about the game.  That's well and good, except that Miller just came into the classroom with his college degree already in hand.  Re-doing all of those early-high-school lessons and living under early-high-school constraints chafes big time.  Even if you know the situation you're getting into it's neither easy nor natural.  Miller should be allowed to break the mold a little.  Maybe he doesn't have to show every step of his work on math problems.  Maybe he's allowed to show the kids a shortcut or two that subverts authority but still gets the job done.  He's here to be the teacher's aide, not re-take the class.  On the other hand Nate has a point as well.  You can't break the mold by coming out taking (and missing) four shots in your first six minutes, matching 2 turnovers with your 2 assists, and playing lackadaisical defense when you're a point guard.  That's not healthy subversion.  That's not educational, nor even an example of growing up.  That's walking into the classroom with a beer.

These two guys have got to find a way to work together.  Andre needs to do whatever he can to stick with and contribute to the game plan.  Nate needs to let Andre work even when he sees opportunities apart from that game plan.  Trust your point guard.  Help your coach. 

This has to happen because Miller is our best chance at moving the ball faster.  The break--primary, secondary, tertiary, or whatever stripe you choose--just doesn't work as well without him.

2.  Greg Oden needs to assume LaMarcus' traditional role as the guy who gets established offensively early in games and quarters.

Oden is a bona fide low post presence who can pass.  He gives us a different wrinkle than anybody else on the team.  With his physical presence and his high shooting percentage he potentially creates the inside-out game that is the key to success in the halfcourt.  LaMarcus, for all his skill, does not change the game that way, nor does he create the same kind of mismatches, nor the same kind of space on the floor for his teammates.  We've softened the blow by giving LaMarcus alternate scoring opportunities that his fellow stars won't have.  But Greg needs to be the initial offensive option in the game.  Make or miss, he's going to create better opportunities for others.

3.  Once Oden has battered the door down, or at least drawn extra defenders to keep him from doing so, Brandon Roy charges hard.

Once the opponent knows they have to watch the lane I want to see Brandon with the ball in his hands.  This is true pretty much every time we're not on the run.  Fast breaks are egalitarian.  Anybody who can fill a lane gets a chance.  But the halfcourt offense is merit-based and Brandon has the most merit.  If point guards feel disenfranchised by Roy initiating the offense, too bad.  One of them is best suited to be an outlet shooter and the other should get us to run more if he wants to handle the rock more.  Once we've slowed down into rhythm, this is Brandon's team.  Note that Roy routinely gets good assist numbers so it's not like we're expecting him to shoot 40 times per game.  But I want defenders specifically having to pick their poison between Brandon and Greg, unable to double-team both.  Brandon is cleared to drive, to hit the pull-up jumper, to shoot the turn-around...whatever he thinks will get the job done.

4.  Everybody else needs to fill their role, period.  If you can't, you can't play no matter how good you are (or might be) otherwise.

One of the problems with our deep bench is that we have a lot of pretenders to the throne.  Granted this has been diminished by injuries, so right now we're actually scrambling to cover certain positions with guys not completely suited to them, but even in those cases those guys are trying to do too much.  Let's break this down simply.   With Oden in the post, Roy slashing, and LaMarcus running and taking the mid-range when appropriate the job description for the other wings reads "shoot it when you're open, pass it when you're not".  The shooting part will become particularly critical to the extent that Roy and Miller play together in the backcourt.  But Martell Webster has three-point credentials.  This is also the strong suit of Blake and Fernandez.  Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw fill the bill as well.  Though we may eventually need Rudy, Nic, and Travis to do more we have to start with the basics.  You're not going to get 20 shots per game.  You're not going to get a quarter to warm up to the game.  We don't want to see you dribbling the ball for 10 seconds.  We don't want you hesitating or passing up open shots.  When you are free and you get the ball, shoot it.  If you are covered, make the best pass you can, choosing first to attack with the pass if possible and if not hitting an outlet player.  The offensive measure that will determine your time in this lineup is how many of your shots you hit.  Theoretically you should be open.  If you cannot hit an open, stand-still jumper we're going to put in the guy who can.  If none of you can manage to fill this role then we need to trade for someone who can, hoping that you'll get more of a shot at the role you desire in your new home.  Someday there might be more room for creativity on this team, so don't despair.  But we're on Square One here and for you, the writing on Square One says, "Hit your open jumpers or hush."

Obviously there are other roles to be filled.  Joel Przybilla doesn't fit the above mold and neither does Jerryd Bayless.  Przybilla should defend and rebound when he's in and Bayless should push, drive, and draw fouls.  Everybody knows when those guys go in that's what we're looking for.  The coach's job is to send them in accordingly, when their gifts are needed.

Blazer fans would do well to adopt some of the same short-term role narrowing and long-term patience with the ancillary players.  The idea that every bench player is a star in the making isn't productive.  Even if it were true (and it's probably not) this team doesn't need a star in the making.  This team needs to integrate the stars that it's got.  Only when that happens will we know what room is left over for another extra-special player, provided he exists on this team.  If these guys can't fulfill the basic criteria of their positions (at least their positions on this team) they're not going to be able to fulfill the advanced ones either.  It does no good for them to do six dozen things well if they can't provide the three we really need. 

Everybody else on this team steps in line behind the Big Three right now.  No more "Why didn't Player X get more minutes or more shots or more of a chance to develop and show what he can do?"  The only relevant offensive questions in the short term are "Did he hit his shots?" and "Did he keep the flow of the offense going?"  At the point where one or more of the Big Three start to show that they're not capable of handling those roles then we need to re-evaluate.  At that juncture maybe more latitude opens up for the other players on this team and more possibilities open up for acquiring people through trades.  But we're not there yet.  We have to see if this works first.

Right now this whole process feels like a committee meeting where a guy who has heretofore been a strong, directive leader opens up the floor for ideas and new leadership (voluntarily or not, we don't know).  It sounds like a great idea, but in practice when this happens it usually results in a dozen people talking at once spraying different suggestions, critiques, and agendas all over the place.  Organization goes out the window, feelings get hurt, momentum grinds to a halt.  Everybody has a different method to fix it, but that's exactly the problem.  You can't hear 12 people at once and you can't follow 12 agendas at once.  The solution isn't necessarily returning to centralized control.  The solution is narrowing your focus and having your best, most talented, most suitable and apt people take charge.  They hold the floor and everybody else follows.  As the committee gets more experienced with each other, their charges, and the new style of leadership more people blend in and lead, getting the chance to express their gifts more fully.  But that day never comes unless the committee gets going in a single, productive direction first.

In our committee Greg Oden opens every meeting and bulls through the obvious obstacles standing in the way of the work.  Brandon Roy does the lion's share of the actual work and is the main mover of the group.  LaMarcus Aldridge speaks up and takes over whenever there's a suitable opening or a situation which requires his special gifts.  Everybody else takes notes, volunteers to do the grunt work, and takes care of those nagging-but-important details left untended.  They might have project suggestions of their own but they hold them until the group gets two or three things going successfully.  Twelve people, a small handful of tasks, one direction.

That's my take, anyway.  Have at it yourselves in the comment section.

--Dave (