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Too Many Questions

You guys provided a lot of great feedback in response to yesterday's plan encapsulating moves that are still potentially available to the Blazers in the post-Hedo world.  But people are still having issues with the new era the Blazers are stepping into.  In particular many of us are having trouble letting go of the old era and its assumptions.  Today's post contains a discussion of some of those assumptions and what has changed to make them no longer applicable.

One of the most critical misunderstandings I'm observing is the interpretation of last year's 54-win campaign.  2008-09 was the Blazers' coming-out party.  They crossed a threshold between worlds, leaving behind sad-sack seasons and mediocrity both.  The disconnect between those worlds is stark and unforgiving.  Trying to survive and progress out of ineptitude or mediocrity is a wholly different game than trying to win big. The Blazers just pulled into the left-hand lane on the freeway.  It's either pass or get passed.  You can't dawdle.  You can't get back into the old folks' lane and decide you'll try again later.  Before this year the message has always been "wait".  That's done.  If you don't start winning now you're not going to win later either.  You have to do whatever is necessary short of completely selling out your future in a Celtics-like manner to make that happen.  Other than not trading Brandon Roy for a bag of peanuts, the best thing the Blazers can do to ensure winning a ton of games in 2012 and 2013 is to win as many as possible in 2009 and 2010.  It's far easier to continue excellence than it is to start it anew, especially among players who have been underperforming.

The argument continues after the jump...

Curiously enough the same line of reasoning that leads to under-appreciating the significance of 54 wins also leads to overestimating the significance of the ordinal position those wins bestowed.  "We were fourth in the West, which exceeded expectations" is a phrase frequently used to justify staying the course.  The reality of the conference last year was that a whole herd of teams scrambled to define themselves against the others and only the L*kers succeeded.  The Blazers could have sneezed and ended up second.  They were a game away from finishing fifth and just a few weeks before the end of the season lower seeds were definite possibilities.  At minimum the Blazers want to be the team that starts crowding the L*kers.  Within a year or so they want to have a legitimate shot of superseding them.  That hasn't come close to happening yet and the fourth-place finish doesn't change that fact.

One way of thinking--the kind that stems from the old perspective--says we don't necessarily have to win now because we've already proven a lot.  The other way--the new perspective occasioned by contemplating a potential step into the league's elite--says we do need to start winning now because we haven't really proven anything yet.  The 35-win teams in the league would love to be Portland right now.  Conference Finalists?  Not so much.

The dichotomies don't end there.  When you're an up-and-coming team potential is at a premium.  You get excited about what could happen more than what is happening.  Youth points to the future, which is theoretically better than the present, so you esteem it highly.  One 40-point performance makes you dream of a 40-point average someday so you love the guy who does that once or twice a season more than the guy who's giving you 13 and 5 every night even if the 40-point man also drops enough goose eggs to make a pool-sized omelet.  You value depth without worrying about shape, talent without worrying about role.  You're enthused about all of the possible ways you could beat people, never knowing which will actually appear on a given night.

Winning teams flip all of these conventions on their heads.  Potential doesn't mean "could be, someday" as much as "isn't now".  You want some on your team, of course, but you want it narrowed down to one or two players that you can bring along over time, that you know you'll have space for.  You don't want a team bursting with potential, you want a team bursting with production.  The 40-point wunderkind loses you far more games than he wins you.  You want to be deep enough to survive the season but that depth has to be calculated and maximized.  It does you no good to have your third best player at the same position as your superstar.  You want guys who are going to fit with your superstar...who will probably produce as much or more on a nightly basis as the more talented guy at the wrong position.  You don't worry so much about being able to beat people sixty ways.  You know you can only choose one or two per night anyway.  The L*kers and Celtics didn't win championships the last couple of years because they had a certain je ne sais quoi.  They won because they had a certain je just kicked your butt.  Elite teams don't win in this league by surprising people.  They win because even though everybody knows exactly what they're going to do nobody can stop it anyway.

The up-and-coming team is like a big hunk of metal.  It's heavy.  It's impressive.  But it makes an unwieldy weapon.  The mass and damage potential are there but nobody can swing it hard or quickly enough to make full use of them.  Only after the blacksmith forges, tempers, hones, and sharpens it does it achieve maximum utility.  Inevitably this involves changing its composition...losing certain attributes so you can accentuate others.

The Blazers are in exactly that situation today.  They've got incredible mass but not near enough swinging power.  They're the dude with the huge piece of lumber in the kung-fu movies.  He looks scary until the more knowledgeable, efficient martial arts master ducks his blows and delivers 92 shots to the jejunum.  Then both he and the lumber are on the ground.

Given the situation, moves that didn't make sense two years ago (or even last summer) suddenly do.  Simply put, the Blazers still have too many questions surrounding them and they're seeking to compete against teams that have very few.  Moves that resolve some of those questions are going to be welcome.

In yesterday's transaction post we talked about a basic core of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless, and Nicolas Batum.  If you prefer Rudy Fernandez be among that group, having Bayless or Batum become available, I wouldn't argue with you (for the purposes of this post anyway).  You could re-create this experiment with any two of the young three staying.  The point is, you have a five-man core remaining constant no matter which scenario you posit.  The basic question we're asking is, "Which type of supporting cast is going to be better for that core?"

The cast of Rudy Fernandez, Joel Przybilla, Travis Outlaw, and Steve Blake?

Or a cast including Kirk Hinrich, Shane Battier, Tayshaun Prince, or David Lee?

Again, we're talking the type of supporting cast here.  If you want to quibble about players, that's fine.  Throw in an Andre Miller.  Take out a Steve Blake.  Whatever makes you happy as long as someone is in the list.

The up-and-coming way of thinking balks at including Rudy and Travis in trade talks, as both of them have talent and potential.  It balks at trading youth for age.  It balks at including Joel, as he saved our bacon last year and has been helpful since he was signed.  But it pays for all of this balking by allowing numerous questions to endure:

  • Is Steve Blake the starting point guard?
  • Where does Rudy find his minutes?
  • How consistently can Travis produce?
  • What's the small forward rotation?
  • Who has scoring priority, both off the bench (Rudy and Travis) and as a whole (Rudy and Travis fitting in with Roy and Aldridge)?
  • Who is the starting center and how many minutes do Joel and Greg need?
  • How many of these guys do you get maximum utility out of even in the short term, let alone the long term?  (Probably only Blake.)

The new way of thinking is willing to part with some talent and potential in order to firm up the team and diminish the questions.  Let's assume the Blazers acquire Hinrich, Battier, and Lee.  The answers could look like this:

  • Hinrich is the starting point guard.
  • Rudy's minutes are a moot point now.  Either Batum, Bayless, or Battier gain minutes behind Roy instead of Rudy losing them to Roy.
  • Battier produces every night.
  • Battier is the starting small forward for the next couple of years, at which time the team makes a decision whether Batum is ready.  Martell is probably gone unless he can play off-guard.
  • Roy and Aldridge are the team's primary scorers and the weight is on their shoulders.  Everyone else is well-suited to play off of them.
  • Greg Oden is the starting center.  Lee or Aldridge fill in behind but both have utility at power forward so they're not wasted.
  • You're now getting maximum, or at least near-maximum, utility out of every player we just named including the ones already on the team.  Hinrich might be the exception if Bayless develops but at least you know you're well-insured whether Jerryd blossoms or not.

Maybe these answers aren't exactly right for you.  Different ones are possible.  But some answers need to be given.  You can't consider Rudy an awesome potential talent and then assume him playing 25 minutes per game for the next four years, being happy, and blossoming into that potential.  You can't paint Joel Przybilla as critical to this team and still say Greg Oden is going to become a monster starting center without Joel's role becoming less crucial.  You can't keep living with the uncertainty of a 6th or 7th man like Travis when you have potential certainty from another source.  For that matter you can't keep Batum, Webster, and Outlaw on the same team and assume that in three years they're going to be the answer.  The biggest argument against trading one (or more) of them is what you might lose down the road.  If you keep them together either somebody is not going to play (so you lost him anyway, in effect) or none of them are ever going to come to the fore, thus leaving you with the same mess three years from now.  Perpetuating that situation in the name of potential when options are available that would strengthen the team now would be criminal.

This team needs to be forged and finished.  Somebody is going to have to decide who, exactly, comprises the core of this team.  At that point any name not on that list has to be considered available if a move would support that core more than the status quo does.

I've said for years that winning teams minimize their questions and decisively answer those they can't minimize.  Once upon a time we Blazer fans loved questions because they meant that "Yes!" was at least a possibility in a world full of dismal "No's".  We're past that time now.  The team is beyond that point.  We have plenty of "Yes" factors now.  We just need to galvanize them into a cogent argument instead of a cacophony.

Let's answer at least part of this question today.  Who is your indispensible core of the team?  I limited myself to five players for the sake of this example, so you can as well.  Narrow us down to a small group that makes sense and then tell us what general type of player you need to surround your guys.

--Dave (