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Blazersedge Mailbag: March 12th, 2010

Welcome to the latest edition of the Blazersedge Mailbag.  As always, a disclaimer that I've paraphrased some of your questions.  I hope I got to the heart of them.  If not, let me know.

Joel Przybilla re-injures his knee in a freak shower accident.  Is this team cursed?

I have a good friend, a reliable aficionado of all things sports-related, whose Number One Rule of Fandom is simple:  No matter what happens never, EVER start believing your team is cursed.  If you do you will bring a host of ills upon yourself and your team that may well last for generations.

I trust my friend's wisdom so it remains now as it always has been:  No cursing on Blazersedge.

What are the practical effects of the Przybilla mishap?

When I first considered this question I thought, "Not much."  But as I turned it over in my mind it became more complex.  As seems to be typical of things happening to this franchise lately it's not the event, it's the timing.

In practical terms we didn't know exactly when Joel was coming back.  Now we still don't know, except whatever "x" was it's now "x + 3 months" at least.  We talked a little bit about this on the radio yesterday morning.  If you believe Greg Oden is coming back maybe that extra layoff isn't fatal, assuming Oden finds a way to play 30 minutes instead of 20.   If you don't believe Oden is coming back or can find a way to contribute regularly then we're probably arguing whether the Blazers will be a mid-level playoff team or a low-level one next year, which isn't a critical distinction in the long-term perspective.  While the opportunity lost there might be painful it's not the end of the world.

Some are speculating that Joel might never come back.  I think it's too early for that kind of talk, but if it were to happen I would be sad.  Joel has quietly given a lot to this franchise and I'd like to see him prosper for years to come.  Even as I say that I'd also affirm the paragraph above:  Oden is the key to the Blazers' future hopes at center, not Przybilla.  I'd love to have Joel alongside Greg for life, but if that doesn't happen the Blazers will just have to work around it.

The more interesting variable in this whole mess is Joel's contract situation.  He has a player's option for next season at $7.4 million.  Some speculate he might just retire.  I don't know what's in his mind exactly but I'd consider that unlikely.  Athletes of any stripe tend to believe in themselves and their recuperative powers.  If Joel was rehabbing the first knee incident he'll be rehabbing the second right up until the point that a definitive medical diagnosis takes a return out of the picture.  There's also the matter of $7.4 million to consider.  If there's any way he could conceivably come back he's going to want to take that money.  You would.  I would.  Heck, the guy probably deserves it for what he's done already.  If I were advising Joel I'd tell him to pick up that option unless he's 100% sure he can't come back.  And even then, I'd probably tell him to pick it up anyway. 

In reality it would probably be better for the Blazers' cap maneuverability if Joel did pick up his option.  If he didn't they'd be left with less than $5 million in cap space...probably much less if you factor in draft picks and the extra guys they have to sign to fill out the roster.  Plus you have to consider that all of their trade-bait players have miniscule salaries compared to their talent and potential.  That extra couple million in cap space from Joel's retirement may not get you the guy you want in exchange for our young players as easily as Joel's $7 million expiring contract ballast would.

Thinking about potential trades is where you see one of the potential costs of the shower slip.  I was saving this for the end of the year, but since it's likely a moot point now...  One of the possible scenarios for the end of the season was packaging Joel's contract with a young guy or two and going after someone big.  (The step after would be re-signing Marcus Camby to take the back-up center role.)  There's potential in trading a starting or strong back-up center plus a hotshot or two, all extremely affordable for their production.  If Joel's not certain to play at the start of the season, though, the deal becomes much less attractive.  Expiring contracts attached to non-functional players are far more valuable in February than July.  Maybe somebody would take him anyway.  The Clippers took Outlaw and Blake for Camby when I didn't think they would.  But in general I don't think that door is open now.

I also think this incident puts the Blazers in more of a pickle about what to do with Camby.  If Joel were healthy I don't think Camby would stay short of the trade scenario that I just mentioned.  Now that Joel might be in doubt well into the season you start to ask what Portland will do in that still-critical back-up center spot.  7-footers are both hard to come by and expensive.  Are you going to find a better guy than Camby?  But do you want to pay what Camby will ask in order to stay?  It's not such an easy decision anymore.

I agree with an earlier statement by Ben that Joel has serious potential to be dealt as next year's trade deadline approaches.  His expiring contract will be valuable then even if he's not 100%...even if he's 0%.  People will bring up the Raef LaFrentz non-trade but the situations were different.  At $13 million LaFrentz' contract was almost too big to move in such a manner.  At that kind of money you're either looking at a star that the other team won't want to give up for just cap relief or an overpaid not-quite-star whose enormous contract you won't want to take back.  You could posit two or three players coming back at $13 million but it's hard to find that many guys a team will want to give up for space alone.  At a comfy $7 million and with the potential of those cheap, young friends alongside the Blazers should find a wider array of suitors for Joel than they did for Raef.

I'm beginning to think that if the Blazers do eventually get hamstrung on the way to their goal it's not going to be the big things as much as these hidden, little things that we look back on.  I think Greg Oden will end up fine.  But you look at Raef being the wrong contract at the wrong time, Darius Miles coming back on the books, Joel's down-time getting wonders if the small bumps will end up doing just enough to keep the team off course.

Click through for questions about playoff bonuses, the worst Blazer ever, ideal point guards, Bayless criticism, LMA in the clutch, Chad in Portland, and much more...

Do NBA players make extra money for games played in the playoffs?  Is that x-million dollar contract worth the same whether you play 82 games or 110?

Teams get bonuses for getting into the playoffs and advancing.  The farther you go the more your team gets, starting in the six-figure area for making the first round and advancing into the low millions when you make the Finals, last I checked.  However I emphasize "team" here.  The money is given to the organization and traditionally the players (perhaps coaches, not sure) vote how to distribute it.  The beneficiaries often include the training staff, players who played part of the season and were traded, and the like in addition to the current players.  When you split the check that far it doesn't end up being life-changing money for anybody and isn't even contract-changing money for most of these guys.  It can be a nice bonus for minimum-contract guys but it's more along the lines of a nice vacation, not a new car.  (At least not the cars NBA players drive!)

You're pretty Portland-positive.  Who is the worst Blazer ever in your estimation?

For me it's J.R. Rider, hands-down.  Certainly he was incredibly talented.  We owe him the first-round win against Phoenix in '98-'99 at least.  But I've never seen a player who would so completely, obviously, and intentionally disappear on the court, leaving his team in the lurch.  Even when he was focused his mistakes all over the court were glaring.  He'd win us games but he'd lose us just as many.  I once called him the least valuable 20-point scorer in the league.  This was actually the first time I ever made the newspaper, as Dwight Jaynes got hold of my stat work, conclusions, and that money quote and ran them nearly verbatim in his column.  (This was before I was blogging and while he was still working in print.)  [Edit:  Yes, he gave me full credit.  I was honored too!]  Couple all of that with Rider's off-court issues--remembering that he was in the locker room when Sheed and Bonzi were babes here--and you just get one, big, regrettable mess.

What are the traits (skill set) you would look for in the Blazer's PG of the future? (Assuming the rest of the starters are Roy, Batum, LMA & Oden?) Which skills are vital, and which ones are not as important?

On offense he would be able to hit the three but not be totally inept penetrating.  He'd be able to strike quickly with the jumper off of the screen.  He would be equally comfortable throwing the fast-break bomb or a simple post entry pass in the halfcourt.  He would normally score in the mid-teens but be dangerous enough to give you 20 upon occasion.  He would understand that this is Brandon Roy's team, play off of him, and be able to kick Brandon in the butt and tell him it's time to take over while still creating enough opportunities for the other players in Brandon's down time to keep them happy.  He would not turn the ball over.  He would be equally comfortable with the ball in his hands and deferring to Roy, receiving the catch-and-shoot.

On defense he would move his feet and keep his man in front of him.  He'd be tough enough to fight through a screen, quick enough to go behind one, and smart enough to know which one to do without being told.  He'd basically bookend Roy with Batum on the other side, taking the pressure off of Brandon to be a defender.

He'd be 6'4" or taller, have long arms and huge hands, be someone you'd trust holding your baby, but be cute enough to make my wife interested in watching too.

Which of these traits would be most important requires forecasting how the Blazers will end up playing in the future.  I'm half hoping that Portland's frontcourt will be so dominant defensively that we can ease up on the defensive requirements a little, letting the backcourt just score.  But if the bigs end up leaky you must have a defender back there or you're just going to end up as a glorified version of the Raptors.

Is there a real-life PG who has these skills and is even remotely possible for the Blazers to acquire?

No.  But frankly the more I've thought about it the more I'm hoping that we experiment without the traditional point guard at all...that Rudy Fernandez or Nicolas Batum get shots alongside Roy and someone else...maybe Bayless if we can bank on his shot more.

Since we seem to be set at 4 positions in the long term, is it realistic to hope that we will have 5 young starters who all grow up together and compete for titles? Or is it fine just to cycle through veteran PGs every few years?

I don't think at this point you add or depend on another young point guard outside of what you already have, at least not without a strong veteran presence.  You certainly wouldn't posit a young player learning the ropes while starting for this team.  If you want to talk Devin Harris-type young, that's fine.  He's been around.  You could easily pull a young point guard from somewhere around the league to take Bayless' spot (providing you don't think Jerryd is that young point guard) but you'd need to keep Miller around to start.   It's time for this team to win, not least primarily.  They need someone at that position that they don't have to think about. 

Cycling in another veteran after Miller wouldn't be the worst thing ever, but consider also that at some point the starting lineup you mentioned will become the veterans.  We're probably two years away from that point now, maybe three or four if you want to be safe.  At that point they can absorb more young talent.  The problem with trying to grow all five guys together is that they have a hard time growing without experienced players getting minutes alongside.  It's not that they're incapable, rather that decisions and actions that veterans complete without thought take active processing power from the young guy's brains.  When you have five guys all processing at once play tends to suffer even if all of them process correctly and reach their conclusion at the same time.  When one or more of them processes wrong or takes too long the whole machine goes "Boink!"

Does it seem as though LaMarcus' free throw percentage in clutch situations in significantly lower than his seasonal average? I seem to remember a couple situations (the Dallas/Miller 52 point game) where he missed two in the clutch. Could this be a reason the ball rarely seems to go to LMA when the game is on the line?

Perhaps, but this might be a chicken and egg thing as well.  Does LaMarcus not get the ball because he's not comfortable with the pressure, including from the line, or is LaMarcus not comfortable with the pressure because he hasn't gotten the ball enough?  I need to see him get it more before I'm ready to say which is true.  But I'm also quite comfortable with our cadre of guards, starting with Roy, who are quite happy to score in pressure situations.  If they're doing well enough I can handle never finding out about LaMarcus.  I do believe LaMarcus could learn to be a fourth-quarter guy if called upon.  I just wonder how many repetitions it would take to make him comfortable and how many games we'd put in jeopardy finding out.

Let's put it this way.  I'm not going to scream at my TV if anybody throws it to LaMarcus for the game-winning attempt.  But if they don't have to, I'm not going to say they should either.

How do you decide what you put in your recaps?

I came to the realization early on that I was going to have to choose a style and format. There's just too much to every game to include it all.  Even if I could write it, you wouldn't want to read it 82 times a season.  So I made the decision to be approachable, accessible, and translate the overall flavor of the game as best I could (with humor when possible), making the recaps feel more like you were discussing the game around a water cooler in the office than you were hearing about it in a seminar.  I try to include enough analysis to help you understand what the boxscore says.  I try to highlight what I see as the most significant aspects of the game.  I also like to mention anything that might be unusual, especially anything new we see from the players.  You'll actually see the tenor of the recaps change as the season progresses.  In the early games when nobody has seen the team in action I'll tend to give more details about everybody, especially the major players, as it's all new then.  But at a certain point you've talked about LaMarcus' post play or Bayless' great transition work enough.  Everybody knows those things already.  So I only mention those aspects when they appear to seriously impact the game.  Otherwise I won't mention them unless something changes (LaMarcus has a fantastic game in the paint or Bayless is uncharacteristically bad on the drive or something).  As the year progresses I'm more likely to mention smaller things about those players and/or concentrate on the players we haven't talked about. 

The only exceptions to the above come when a guy seems to be a hot topic, particularly when people are wondering aloud what the heck is going on concerning said player.  Often this comes in the form of "This guy's an idiot!" or "Nate's an idiot for not playing him!"  If the questions get consistent enough I'll try to point out what might be going on with the guy that people aren't seeing.  I often catch flak for going against the grain, but I think it's useful to have alternative explanations if they're available and plausible.  This is why, for a time in the history of this site, I spent quite a while talking about Sergio Rodriguez's game in the recaps even though Sergio wasn't anywhere near our most important player.

I've also made a conscious decision to keep the recap stats basic, partially because the advanced metrics take longer to generate after games and longer to explain, partially because that's really become Ben's bailiwick and you're well-served there, and partially because they tend to get in the way of the flow of the piece.  The simple boxscore doesn't tell the whole story but when you generate the same numbers for 82 games, even simple numbers can give you the idea of how a guy's night went in comparison to his other nights.

As you have probably noticed I use the previews to talk mostly about the opposing team and the recaps to talk mostly about how the Blazers did.

It seems like Jerryd has received a lot of criticism on this site lately. Is it fair to Jerryd to be criticized by fans for playing like a back-up point guard when those same fans were crying for Steve Blake's head because Nate was playing Steve instead of Jerryd?

Every player receives undeserved criticism.  Every player receives undeserved praise.  In general it's better to just let both ride.  Things can reverse at the drop of a hat.  Yesterday's underappreciated diamond in the rough becomes tomorrow's crown jewel after a few good games.  However I also believe there's a cycle to these things, and oddly enough it starts not with undue negativity but with overwhelming praise. 

You have to understand two aspects of the sports fan mentality nowadays:

1.  Everybody gets more excited about a young, unproven guy than they do about the steady, known quantity even if the steady player is better.  Blazer fans, in particular, seem particularly fond of, and hopeful for, their young talent.

2.  At least part of this is because in the modern sports culture we invest our self-worth as fans more in correctly predicting the future than in accurately describing the present.  Young players, with their ambiguous present and unbounded future, allow us easy opportunity to make such predictions.

These factors result in people overreacting to stimuli with young players.  Case in point:  Jerryd Bayless has a couple of phenomenal scoring games mid-season and people start anointing him the Next Big Thing, predicting dominance for him and the team.  Inevitable questions follow.  If Jerryd is the NBT in the NBA why is Nate not playing him more?  Why doesn't he keep scoring?  Why aren't we trading away everyone in front of him? 

Answering those kinds of questions requires an analytical look at what is happening in the present juxtaposed against the projected outcome.  Jerryd is a marvelous penetrator, finishes well on the break, draws and hits foul shots masterfully, can spark the entire team with his drive, and has decent defensive potential if nothing else because of his speed and body type.  But Jerryd is not a reliable catch-and-shoot guy, he tends to foul too much, he tends to get out of position more than Andre Miller even though Miller is no great defender himself, he doesn't set the offense as well as Steve Blake did, and he needs the same ball and space as Miller to operate.  All of those things, plus the needs and skills of Jerryd's other teammates, factor into decisions made regarding him.

While that analysis is necessarily and helpful in explaining the situation it also entails a fair amount of criticism. 

But we're not done!  The culture works on the other side too.  Once the criticism comes to the fore people will latch onto it and make new predictions based on it.  So we get, "Jerryd Bayless will never be a real point guard!"  The competing riffs of "Next Big Thing!" and "Never Be a PG!" go back and forth in the popular conversation like an old Miller Lite commercial.  All of the stats and visions are pulled out in support with each refrain. 

Meanwhile the guy's actually playing games which show his progress and needs, but those observations tend to get sucked up into the whirlwind with "See?  I told you so!" being shouted after every 4 or 40 point game Jerryd has. 

As a person who tries to do such observation I've been called both an apologist of and a hater of most every player who's been even remotely controversial.  In reality you may notice that I tend to do very little predicting and a whole lot of explaining.  I may be weird but I figure that one's worth as a person who talks about sports shouldn't be all invested in a guessing game about the future, rather in your ability to accurately and understandably portray what's happening now and what it might mean.  I have my leanings, sure, but I try not to invest too much of my self-worth into them, not to harness the blog too much to them, and to take it in stride when my leanings happen to be wrong (as everybody's turn out to be at one time or another).

In case you're interested, here's the process I go through when deciding what to criticize: 

First, I observe as closely as I can, including double-checking plays or trends that I think I might call a guy out for to make sure I'm really seeing what I'm seeing and that it's really his responsibility and not just something he's caught up in.  I also check the stats involved, if any.  If the stats and my observations fit together I might mention either or both.  If the stats and my observations differ I'll for sure mention both, give you the reasons I think the discrepancy is there, but let you make the final decision on what weighs more or whether my reasoning is faulty.

Second, I make sure the behavior is repeated, not an aberration. 

Third, I examine the guy's role and team needs.  What are the Blazers looking for him to do?  If they're relying on him heavily in 92 areas it seems cheap to call him out for not also filling the 93rd.  That's what teammates are for. 

Fourth, I ask whether the shortcoming is significant.  Is it affecting the game or the player's progress towards playing time or the team's progress towards its goals?  If not, who cares?

Fifth, I ask how new the information is.  As I said above, after you've established that Rudy Fernandez might not be the best defender, Andre Miller's jumper is shaky, and Jeff Pendergraph fouls too much you're not adding anything by harping on the point.  Once established, I'll only mention those things when something changes or when they obviously affect the outcome of a game.  In general I tend to follow what I believe the best coaches do, which is understanding a player's weaknesses but talking far more about what they can do instead of what they can't unless the situation specifically calls for the latter.  If you're thinking about trading a guy you need to remember what he isn't because the other team will be looking at that.  But in general you judge Martell Webster's game by how many threes he hit, not how many times he took people off the dribble and scored.

Sixth, rookies always get a break and their positives get emphasized way more than their negatives unless people are already going overboard in that direction.  Frankly in most cases you're grateful for anything a first-year player does well.  You expect him to make mistakes in a ton of other areas.  In some cases this extends into a player's second and third seasons as well.  I followed a critical growth curve along with Travis Outlaw's development.  In the earlier years I emphasized most of the things he did well.  As he got into his fourth season the standards got tougher.  By his fifth year I was much more critical of him on the occasions he didn't have his game together.

Finally (and this is important to me)... I may say things with a sense of humor, I may lay things flat-out sometimes, but you will never see me calling out a guy like it was something personal between him and me and you will never catch me writing things I would not say to a player in person.  Now granted, I would probably have a huge, disarming smile on my face and try to chuckle as much as I could when saying to Andre Miller, "What happened out there?  Your jumper had the same arc as George Bush's approval rating!"  But I would say it with the same sense that I write it...the sense that these are real people doing real jobs who have worked harder than I'll ever understand to get where they are. 

I think most players understand that public criticism goes with their position.  I think most of them take it well.  Most of them probably even know when they've had a bad game and are saying worse things to themselves than we say about them.  But just because we can criticize these guys doesn't mean we should be jerks about it, nor exalt ourselves by doing so.  I try not to do either.

From a non-Blazers fan:  Every fan base has their blind spots.  What is the biggest blind spot of Blazer fans?

I think it's the one I've mentioned twice already:  we get way too excited about young potential.  The Jermaine O'Neal trade ruined this fan base.   Also through the lean years we did nothing but bank on young talent.  We had to hype guys before they were ready because that was our only visible chance at salvation.  We're still kind of stuck in that mode and I don't think we'll get out of it until we get a taste of success with these players when they're older. 

Do you really love sticking it to C.I.P.?

I'm amazed at how far this has grown.  Keep it up and we're going to have to get in a cage for 2 of 3 falls!  Then again, Chad does a lot of cage work at Chippendales, so maybe I should insist on an Iron Man match instead.

In actuality I enjoy Chad very much.  I love talking Blazers with him and he's a kind, down-to-earth, and interesting guy.  Gavin Dawson is quite different than Chad--unqiue, really--but he's also someone I enjoy.  And I think everybody should have the chance to sit at the learning tree with Dwight Jaynes for a while.  I respect Dwight a ton and I love the opportunities I get to talk with him about the Blazers and sports media in general.  I only tease the people I like, am comfortable with, and trust.  That should tell you something about all of these guys.

You have to understand that your perception of any public person is colored by the medium through which they transmit.  Most people have a fairly positive impression of me.  I hope that's been earned over time and I hope it's accurate.  But that impression is possible because I've spent over four years with you, day by day, conversing and listening to you in what has ended up being millions of words over thousands of hours.  That makes it easier for us to feel like family.  Dwight Jaynes and John Canzano haven't operated in the same medium.  Their job isn't to talk with you, it's to put together something to be thrown on your porch twice a week...something informative, expert-oriented, and startling enough that you'll keep asking them to land on your porch.  Gavin and Chad are tasked with keeping a certain demographic tuning in every morning to wonder what the heck is going on and how emotionally invested in it they can get, for good or ill.  By nature those job descriptions are not going to create the same bonding association you feel with someone like me.  But that doesn't mean those people are any less interesting, welcoming, or wonderful in real life than any of us are.


Thanks as always for the questions.  We kind of got meta-media there as much as Blazer-oriented but that's OK every once in a while.  I do have more late arriving questions in the hopper for next time.  If you'd like to add yours, just send it to the e-mail address below.

--Dave (