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Coaching or Players?

There's been quite a bit of muttering among Blazer faithful as the team has sunk to .500 with some disappointing losses.  One question that seems to be reverberating is whether the disappointing start is a matter of coaching or personnel.  Frankly, it's always a little of both.  Coaches of high expectation teams didn't fall backwards into their positions.  They're not dummies, nor did they get where they are by coaching losing basketball.  Whatever the system is, if the players execute it with energy, passion, and a little smarts they're going to be successful at least to some degree.  You may not win a title with every scheme but you won't flat-out lose games by executing a coach's game plan.  On the other hand coaches can lose the ears of their players and become ineffective.  If nobody's listening the battle plan doesn't matter.  In that case the coach probably needs to go no matter what his qualifications or ideas.  When teams fall short like this it usually means that the team has lost direction because they're not devoting the proper attention (shortcoming in coaching) or effort (shortcoming in playing).  Who's to blame?  Everyone.

Because Portland's teams have been young and full of potential in recent years there's a particular refrain sounded around Blazer Nation every time the team stumbles and individual performances fall short.  The tune goes like this:  "The coach is keeping Player X down" or "The coach is messing with Player X's head" or "The coach has no idea how to use Player X effectively".  Pick any young guy on Portland's roster in the last five years outside of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge--who have always posted proper numbers, thus avoiding the list to the point of occasionally being called coach's pets--and you can find a time when these phrases were uttered about that player.  The implication of this refrain is clear.  It's not a two-way street.  Bad performances are the coach's fault.  Another coach with more sense or sensitivity would get more out of Player X who in turn would give more to the team which in turn would win more.

This assertion is a life-preserver to Portland fans in the midst of any storm.  It's easy to lean on because the alternative is far more distressing:  despite all the hype the Blazers might not actually have the players to win as much as we expect them to.  Maybe this combination of talent isn't that potent.  Maybe other teams have made greater strides.  Maybe 8-8 really reflects the team's potential at this juncture.  Maybe Portland will have to rebuild.  Switching coaches is a more palatable possibility by far, and not just among fans.  Look how often the Clippers have switched coaches over the years.

I want to look at the assertion that the Blazers have boundless potential individually and as a group but are being held back by coaching.  To that end, I've compiled a list of every player who has departed the Blazers during Nate McMillan's tenure.  It reads:

Steve Blake, Juan Dixon, Jarrett Jack, Viktor Khryapa, Voshon Lenard, Darius Miles, Sergei Monia, Travis Outlaw, Ruben Patterson, Zach Randolph, Theo Ratliff, Ha Seung-Jin, Brian Skinner, Charles Smith, Sebastian Telfair, Martell Webster, Dan Dickau, Stephen Graham, Fred Jones, Raef LaFrentz, Jamaal Magloire, Jeremy Richardson, Sergio Rodriguez, Luke Schenscher, Ime Udoka, Channing Frye, Taurean Green, James Jones, Josh McRoberts, Von Wafer, Jerryd Bayless, Ike Diogu, Shavlik Randolph (about six times), Michael Ruffin, Travis Diener, Juwan Howard, Jeff Pendergraph, Anthony Tolliver, Fabricio Oberto

In that list you'll find plenty of players drafted or raised with tantalizing promise.  And again, in all but the most mundane cases you'll find people about whom the claims "Nate has been holding them back" and "Nate should play them more" has been made, usually repeatedly.

So how many break-out stars are listed?  Quick Answer:  Zero.  If Nate had been holding all of these guys back, messing with their heads, inhibiting their growth, wouldn't you think at least a couple of them would be flying free and fulfilling their God-given potential once release from the chains of this franchise?

In fact, how many of those players are doing better or even equaling their Portland production with their new franchises?  A couple have gotten better because the Blazers traded them away before they were fully-formed as players.  Jarrett Jack comes to mind.  I expect Jerryd Bayless will as well.  But the teams to which they were traded gave up on both players, trading them themselves.  Von Wafer had one decent season in Houston, got jettisoned, and now can't get playing time in Boston.  Channing Frye is scoring 10 points in 30 minutes for Phoenix, a system that caters to his strengths.  Zach Randolph continued to score 20 per game for the Knicks (who couldn't stand him) and the Clippers (who couldn't stand him) before settling with the Grizzlies (who aren't winning with him and for whom he's not scoring 20 anymore).  Even in these best-case-scenarios these guys haven't improved the bottom line of their multiple teams, let alone led them to glory.  If they've been kept down--if they're populating teams that would explode with wins were they just used properly--then it must be a conspiracy.

Coaching does play a part in slumps but we can't be so quick to pin lack of performance solely on the coach or how he's handling a given player.  That's seldom the whole story.  If any of these guys--or any current Blazer such as Nicolas Batum--doesn't like the coaching or feels he's being oppressed the recourse is simple.  You have to play your rear end off on defense every minute, every possession.  You have to be smartly aggressive on your offensive attempts no matter how many or few you get and hit your shots.  You have to rebound as best you can, sell yourself for the team every moment on the court, and show the world that you are a player to be reckoned with and a burgeoning star.  If your coach then refuses to play you or berates you for doing those good things he looks like an idiot and the decision about his future is easy.  At that point you have all the leverage you need to get your coach dismissed...leverage that plenty of great players have employed successfully in this league's history.  But if you're just going to wilt out there, disappearing even in facets that don't require any special dispensation from your coach, then we have to ask the question whether it really is coaching or whether you're just not living up to the hype.  If the list above is any evidence, most of the time you're just not living up to the hype.

Long before any of this started, at a time when most folks were still speculating this would be another bullish year for the Blazers, I stated publicly in this space that if the Blazers didn't have a decent year and didn't advance in the playoffs they'd be looking long and hard at a coaching change.  I'm not advocating Nate be kept no matter what.  In fact I think that kind of change is inevitable, perhaps desirable, if the team can't excel because it's easier and more prudent to try a new voice before dismantling the roster.  But that's no guarantee that such a move would right the ship.  Absent significant personnel changes it usually doesn't.  

Whatever faults Nate may or may not have, the roster's contributing factors cannot be ignored.  Placing everything at the feet of the coach and solving every perceived shortcoming with the "He's keeping them down" meme quickly becomes wishful, if not flat-out sloppy, thinking.  If there are serious problems with this team--if slumps like the current one become the norm--we're going to find out in the long run that coaching was the least of their worries.

--Dave (