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Rookies and Responsibility

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The recent flurry of conversation about Greg Oden (and, well, before him Jerryd Bayless, and before him Rudy Fernandez and before him Nicolas Batum and before him Sergio Rodriguez) reminded me of a common, wholly understandable misconception that I've been meaning to address.  This isn't a new line of reasoning.  It's been around since Sebastian Telfair and Martell Webster were rookies...longer, even, but it wasn't as pronounced when the team was good and the focus was winning playoff games instead of developing players.  The misconception can be summarized in two sentences:

Fans and some educated observers argue that a player needs to be given playing time to develop his skills and confidence.

The reality of the NBA is that you have to develop your skills and confidence before you earn playing time.

The echoes of this argument should be evident to anyone who's followed the conversation surrounding any of our first-year players for the past couple of years.  We've seen several iterations. 

"Why don't we play more of a low-post isolation game so Greg can get touches and scores?"

"Why don't we run more so Sergio can use his gifts fully?"

"Why don't we start Jerryd and let him loose to score?"

As I said, these arguments are understandable on many levels. 

First, we love the new and exciting.  Drafting a highly-touted rookie and then not seeing him play, or even just getting isolated glimpses of him playing, is like getting a Ferrari that can hit 200 mph and only driving it through school zones.  OK, it looks cool, but when do we get to open this baby up?  And if we're not going to, why did we bother getting it?  15 mph is not what we had in mind when we saw it in the showroom!  Knowing a guy has talent and potential but not seeing him able to display them is like having an itch that you can't scratch.  That's no fun as a fan.  This was doubly true in the years when our older players were, for the most part, dunderheads who weren't leading us anywhere and whom nobody bought a ticket to see.

That last part is a reminder that this team has just exited an era where player development was not only a major key, but really the only reason to watch the team.  Let's face it, those 20-win seasons were a drag.  If you were watching for the basketball, aesthetically or otherwise, you got ripped off royally.  The reason we all watched was to see how many strides Martell made, how Travis harnessed his leaping ability, how soon Roy could make an impact.  Under those rules it made total sense to argue for an approach that favored players over wins.  Not getting Martell minutes and touches would scuttle the whole reason for the season.

I think it's obvious that times have changed.  We now have more experienced players who are worth watching and who generate wins.  We've gotten to the point--just this year in fact--that winning is the entire agenda.  We have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs and taking the next step in our evolution towards greatness.  Nevertheless it's hard to shake the instincts ingrained in us from observing the last five years of Blazer basketball.  Our instinctive, passionate response is still, "Let the guys develop and do whatever is necessary to make that happen."

That isn't so simple anymore though.  For one thing we have far more young, talented players than we did even two years ago.  Peruse the first paragraph of this post and you'll find five guys who are either in their first year or getting their first serious dose of playing time.  It's amazing all of those guys are getting regular rotation minutes.  It's impossible to imagine designing a system that would play to all of their strengths simultaneously, especially when some of those strengths differ.  The dump-it-in-the-post set that favors Oden rather wastes Sergio and Bayless.  Hooking up Sergio and Rudy puts Batum in the weak-side corner.  It's not entirely black and white but it's still evident that if we changed the offense every time one of our developing young players looked promising we'd be changing it every three games and shutting out the last guy for whom we changed it in the process.

This says nothing of our more experienced, steady players.  Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge are far more proven and productive than any of the players we've named so far.  They've shown what they're worth and what they can do.  If the offense is going to feature anyone it should be them.  Of course there's plenty of room for others and there are plenty of plays to try different things, but you have to protect, reward, and go to your best players first otherwise you're not only slighting those guys, you're sending a message to the team that something besides taking your best shot is taking precedence.  There's no quicker way to scuttle a locker room or your team's production than that.

When considering making changes based on rookies and inexperienced players you also have to factor in the roller coaster ride they'll take you on.  Unless you're talking a ready-made superstar like LeBron James your player is probably going to go through a number of stages.  First he'll have the deer in the headlights look.  Then he'll get comfortable and bust out with some really nice games.  After he churns out two or three of those opposing scouts will start to note him in the game plan and defenders will start watching for his pet moves.  With the defense having the book on him your rookie stops looking like a superstar and starts getting all deer-ish again.  Now we're back to square one, learning, figuring out how to get those pet moves off anyway and developing new ones to keep defenders off-balance.  After he gets that down and starts earning real minutes then comes physical fatigue and the rookie wall.  This is another learning process.  Providing he overcomes that and manages to shine anyway the defense gets even more intense.  How do you deal with double-teams?  To whom should you pass and when should you shoot?  Your decision tree just grew four new branches.  Back to school yet again.

At what point in this process do you, as a coach, start saying, "It's time to put some major emphasis on this guy and have everybody run plays for him"?  If you're smart (and if you have any other viable alternatives) it's not until he's proven he's in the end steps.  That's not to say you ignore him completely.  But you're not going to tell your veteran, productive players to get this guy the ball no matter what because you know four games later they're going to do that and he's going to totally bork it.  Then they're going to look at you like you're crazy for taking shots away from them and giving them to this unproven kid when this kind of regression happens 99 times out of 100.

This brings up the final point, somewhat philosophical but quite important.  Nothing is ever given in this league.  It has to be earned to be real.  The players themselves tend to know and judge when somebody has earned enough respect to be fed the ball on a consistent basis.  They know who Brandon Roy is.  They know who Lamarcus Aldridge is.  Brandon Roy has transferred a lot of respect to Travis Outlaw this season by getting him the ball in critical situations and people are beginning to know who Travis is.  They're not sure who Oden is yet.  He hasn't shown it on multiple nights against multiple opponents.  They'll get him the ball, sure.  But they're not going to feed him the ball until he earns their trust.

As soon as a coach steps in and says, "No...wait, just give him the ball so he can learn how to do it" both the coach and that player are going to lose all respect.  Everybody who came up the normal way and had to fight for their place is going to say, "What makes this dude so special?  I'm really good too.  Why didn't I get that?"  From that point on the player is the guy who got the silver platter treatment.  

The coach can draw up the plays.  Those plays can have plenty of options to go to that player.  But until the player earns respect by demonstrating that he knows what to do with the ball when given it the coach cannot mandate that he be made a part of the fraternity.  The player himself has to step up, call for it, and show it.  When he makes the most of his small opportunities on a consistent basis he'll get larger ones and everyone will be on board with that.  Giving him those larger opportunities--be they minutes, shots, or a starting role--before he's earned them makes everybody jump off the bus and usually dooms him to failure.

If you're wondering why we don't see a more Rudy-centric offense or why Oden doesn't get fed the ball 20 times per game in the post, this is the answer.  The better way to put it would be why we don't yet see a Rudy-centric offense and why Oden doesn't yet get fed the ball 20 times.  Those things will come but you cannot skip steps and have them come to fruition any more than you can over-water a seed and make it grow faster.

If you ask if I think Greg should be kept in the paint more, I am on the record as saying, "Yes!"  I am also on record as saying he should establish strong position and demand the ball more down there.  But even if those things happen you won't see fantastic production or a sweeping change in the offense in his favor until he plays as well against the Suns, Jazz, and L*kers as he does against the Knicks, Warriors, Bucks, and Wizards.  You won't see them until he gives two months of amazing effort and production at a time instead of two games.  That's no knock on Greg.  This isn't an easy league, nor an easy process, to master.  But it must be mastered if you want to make the kind of impact we expect him to make.

In a winning system you aren't given playing time to develop, you develop so you can get playing time.  I'm willing to sacrifice a little rookie bling in order to make the Blazers a winning franchise.  If the cake needs to bake that's fine, but don't be reaching in the oven grabbing handfuls of gooey batter and shoving them down your throat.  You're just going to get burned.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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