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Blazersedge Mailbag: March 24th, 2010

Here's another edition of the Blazersedge Mailbag to get you through the off-days.  This one is even (nearly) Penn and Pritchard free!  Yay!

How do you see the Blazers' chances in the playoffs this season?  Jason Quick has alluded to the "magic" surrounding this team recently, and other writers/bloggers are starting to say, "Hey, maybe this team can do some damage in the playoffs!"

Dim, mostly.  Notice how the magic and goodwill coincided almost exactly with the team drawing poor defensive squads (and some downright bad teams, period) on the schedule.  I'm not minimizing the Blazers finally getting as healthy as they're going to be this year.  I don't want to minimize the acquisition of Marcus Camby either.  Both of those things have been key in making sure we get to the playoffs.  But you're still seeing the residue of what the team has been through:  disjointed play, stale sets, lack of trust and confidence in each other when the pressure gets high.  You're not going to find too many bad defensive teams in the playoffs.  You're going to face a ton of pressure. 

The Blazers are going to draw the L*kers, Nuggets, Mavericks, or Jazz in the first round.  Maybe you hope for Dallas because you've at least been able to beat them.  Maybe you hope the Nuggets will struggle with the Kenyon Martin injury.  But I'd have a hard time predicting four wins over any of those teams with a straight face.  Two wins?  Sure, could happen.  I'd be ecstatic with three and a chance for a Game 7.  But the 7-game first round is set up precisely to make upsets like this harder.  I don't see any non-wishful reason to go with Portland winning a series this year.

Define "success" this season.  How about next year?

The clock has been moved back a year because of the downpour of ill luck the Blazers have had.  Just getting to the playoffs is success.  Having won this many games is success.  Not tucking our tails in, feeling sorry for ourselves, and limping into the lottery is success.  That's this year, though.  Next season we're right back to "Better make the second round".  I believe it's crucial for this team to advance next year.  Ideally they'd play in the Conference Finals, which is not beyond the realm of possibility.  Portland cannot linger in the first round for multiple years.  Teams that do so don't tend to prosper.  Besides the confidence and unity of this team will be shaken unless they see deeper playoff runs.  Plus they're not getting the experience they need if they get bounced in six games every year.  This year is the last we'll be satisfied with just making the playoffs.  After this it's win or bust.

Why do the Blazers struggle to score against the zone?

There are a few common ways to attack a zone.  The specifics vary depending upon which kind of zone you're talking about but the general idea is the same:  zone defense leaves seams and you want to attack through them.  For simplicity's sake let's assume a standard 2-3 zone is being employed.

The most often mentioned zone-buster is shooting your way out of it.  Zone defense leaves fairly wide gaps on the perimeter as those two top guys have to cover a bunch of court.  The most obvious seams are diagonal from the basket to the right and left and sometimes right above the top of the key, smack dab in the hole between any two defenders.  There's a general problem with this approach, however.  Any defense, particularly any NBA defense, is going to be thrilled to have you launching deep.  They'll consider that a job well done even if you hit a few.  Opponents would be ecstatic about the Blazers in particular taking this approach.  The majority of Portland's shots are going to come from the guards.  Brandon Roy shoots 34% from distance.  That's not horrible but it's not among the league elite either.  Plus when he's shooting out there he's not hurting you with his best weapon, the drive.  Also that 34% tends to come from a bunch of streaky, amazing games instead of consistent distance prowess.  If he's off, you win with him shooting out there.  I'm not even going to print Andre Miller's three-point percentage because this is a family-friendly site.  You could make an argument that Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez could bust zones this way but Rudy doesn't get consistent minutes and Nic doesn't get consistent shots.  They'd be better candidates than the guards but it's likely your opponent would live with either one of them being Portland's offensive focus as well.  Plus if you look at the threes Portland's offense promotes they're usually not from those diagonal angles unless coming off of a secondary break.  The Blazers prefer the coffin corner near the baseline, one of the easiest threes to guard with the zone. 

Fortunately there are better attack options than the deep ball.  The most obvious is to get the ball in the center of the lane, usually around the free throw line.  This causes three defenders--the two top guys and the one camped in the middle--to have to make decisions about who will actually defend the ball.  Often they're slow making that decision and executing it.  Sometimes too many guys come.  Sometimes none do.  Any of those eventualities lead to scoring opportunities directly or via one simple cut and pass.  But think again of Portland's offense.  How much of it happens at that free-throw line area?  Almost none.  We don't have a high post player.  When the guards pull up they're not in that spot.  Unless their last name is Bayless they don't usually drive down the middle for layups either.  The only guy who's spent any time in that area at all is Marcus Camby and that's mostly been for other teams.  I can imagine opposing defenses being happy with Marcus Camby trying to initiate the offense, especially with his jumper in its current state. 

There's another seam to be exploited.  That's the one diagonal from the basket about 12 feet out in the space between three defenders (the center and two sides).  Unlike the other two approaches, this one is right in Portland's wheelhouse.  This is exactly where LaMarcus Aldridge begins most of his offense.  Miller, Roy, Batum...all of them drive through and/or pull up in this territory.  So why isn't this the answer?  Because all of the players I just mentioned outside of Batum take a long time to set up their shots.  By the time LaMarcus catches, thinks, dribbles, turns, and shoots the gap isn't a gap anymore.  Roy also sets up his moves deliberately.  Batum is a quick hitter but he doesn't catch the ball in this gap and he's not yet comfortable enough with the pull-up game needed to exploit it fully on his own off the dribble.

A deep, low-post player who can also pass can do wonders against a zone.  Portland doesn't have that right now either.

The shortcomings in the Blazers' approach in any of these instances could be overcome by sharp cutting and alert passing once the scorers have caught the ball in the right area.  In fact they could put enormous pressure on the opponent with multiple threats that involve multiple defenders in that zone set.  But notice also when other teams are throwing the zone.  It's either a surprise for a couple minutes or it's late in the game.  In the first case the team takes a while to adjust, giving the opponent at least a couple minutes of effectiveness after which they simply switch defenses.  In the second case they're catching the Blazers at their most fatigued, when cuts are not as likely to be sharp and coordination not as likely to be crisp.  Also in the fourth quarter Portland's scorers are thinking more about scoring than passing.  They're less likely to give the ball up which makes their teammates less likely to cut with alacrity.

None of this is the way it should be.  It could change and probably will.  But you can understand why the Blazers don't just adjust automatically every time they see a zone.

Click through for questions about Martell Webster's shots, Rudy at point, KP's biggest mistake, Portland's Dream Coach, tracking playoff standings, an Oden-free ceiling, and much more...


Why doesn't anybody pass to Martell Webster anymore?

I feel sad every time I see Martell nowadays.  It's not like this is the first time he's started a season well and faded into obscurity by the end but this year, given the injuries, it's seemed particularly pronounced.  The reality is that he is a small forward and the Blazers need to get minutes out of Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez ahead of him.

When Martell does hit the court nowadays he's getting scraps of minutes.  It's always hard for guys to get in the scoring flow with that kind of time.  You're coming off the bench cold, for one thing.  If you're playing with the starters you're the odd guy in the lineup and don't get shots.  If you're playing with the reserves you face an "everybody for themselves" mentality with other guys getting scraps of minutes wanting to make their mark too.  Martell needs teammates to set up his offense and frankly they're not always in the mood during the few minutes he happens to get.

Martell's confidence also looks to be flagging a bit.  That's natural given his situation.  Mine would be too.  But there's a general rule in the NBA that if guys don't have confidence in you they're not going to pass the ball to you.  If you don't look like you have confidence in yourself (and sometimes like you can fight to prove that confidence in yourself) your teammates aren't going to bother digging for it to see if it's there.  They're just going to take the shot themselves or give it to someone more prominent.  This quickly becomes a Catch-22.  You need shots in order to build your confidence but you can't get shots until your confidence is displayed.  Basically the only way out of that hole is to get enough minutes that the situation normalizes and you become part of the offense by default if nothing else.  Then you hit a couple shots and become a bigger part of the offense.  But until Martell gets a steadier diet with a more regular group I don't see the situation changing.

In your article about Blazer blunders you said firing Tom Penn in the summer would have been better than now.  What's the difference?

Well, not much for Penn.  The difference is specifically related to the level of scrutiny involved.  Granted the summer leaves more free time for speculation.  But it's also a more normal time to part company with team members and therefore the dismissal would have been less jarring.  I compare it to firing a teacher.  If you let a teacher go in the summer people are likely to assume it had to do with general job performance.  Maybe it was several small issues over time.  Maybe the teacher just didn't mesh with the rest of the staff or the school's direction.  Most people will easily accept an explanation of "philosophical differences" as an umbrella description for all of that and move on.  But if you fire a teacher midway through the fourth quarter of the school year with classes ongoing everybody is going to want to know why.  In this case they'll assume it's not a general job-performance issue but something drastic that required immediate action.  Everybody's going to want to know what happened, particularly those with kids in the class.  If you come out with "philosophical differences" they're going to say, "What kind of nuclear-level philosophical differences would cause you to terminate them so abruptly?"  Or more likely they're going to call B.S. on the explanation and want to know what really went on. 

What has KP's biggest mistake been?

Yeesh.  I'm hesitant to point out specifics, partially because I'd like to avoid this becoming yet another "Oden vs. Durant" thread and partially because it seems cheap to use hindsight to evaluate decisions that the pros have to make in real time.  I guess I'd point to a philosophical outlook.  Kevin has often described the maneuverings of the NBA in terms of chess.  From the beginning I've argued that this is the wrong game.  KP would do better with a poker mindset.

What's the difference?  Chess is a logical, somewhat impersonal game.  Understanding your opponent helps but it's a cold, deliberate knowledge, expressed by the moves of pieces on the board.  If you're much better than your opponent you don't have to understand him at all.  If you know the game well enough, hold the right pieces, are able to make the right decisions you can steamroll over any number of opponents without even knowing their names.

In poker knowing your opponent is everything.  You can have the right cards and make the right decisions but if you aren't able to work the relationships involved you can't maximize your profit and you'll often lose outright.  It's a people game as much as a logic game.

Navigating the NBA is a lot more poker than chess.  Having the upper hand, greater knowledge, better pieces to play...those are only half the battle.  As a GM it's not about victory or defeat as much as maximizing your profits.  You don't want to steamroll opponents.  Instead you want to hearken to the old poker adage: you can shear a sheep many times but you can only skin him once.

Having tracked Kevin's moves and most of his public words since he's assumed office I do think the chess outlook has been reflective of his approach and his public demeanor.  We know he has the right information.  We know he's a good tactician.  But maybe he's leaned too heavily on that and missed out on the more subtle aspects of the game?

I don't know.  I hesitate to even answer this question because it makes me feel like "Who am I to judge?"  But that's my best shot.  

Can Rudy Fernandez really ever become a point guard?

Maybe the better question is whether the Trail Blazers can become the kind of team that can absorb the kind of point guard that Rudy would be.  Rudy himself would need to develop better off-hand handles, a reliable drive, and probably improve the individual defense.  Even then he'll not be your traditional PG.  But as I've mentioned before, maybe you do run that Rudy-Roy-Nic lineup with Rudy among the ball-handlers, tempo-pushers, and halfcourt passers.  If Portland's frontcourt can get extra-solid defensively it could happen.

Assuming Greg Oden never comes back or never becomes more than we see now, how high can the Blazers climb?

Oden is the defensive key to this team's future.  Without him anchoring the middle LaMarcus Aldridge and the backcourt get exposed on defense.  This is particularly critical when you consider the back-up centers we rely on now for defense won't be around forever.  Oden's defense and rebounding are potential keys to Portland's offense opening up as he could free teammates to aggressively pursue turnovers and/or run out on the break. 

I think the Blazers could easily make the second round without Oden.  Maybe they could make the Conference Finals.  But talk of the NBA Finals or a title revolves around Greg...not because he's the best player on the team but because he fills so many key holes for this team.

If you could have any coach for the Blazers besides Nate who would you choose?  Van Gundy?  Adelman?

Any coach?  I'm going to go off the board and get Mike Krzyewski.  The problem is that I have to get him soon (he's 63) and I'd have to spend an exorbitant amount of Paul Allen's money to make it happen.  I'd surround him with at least one grizzled NBA veteran assistant (maybe Del Harris or bring P.J. Carlesimo back) and a couple of really hungry, motivated, young assistants who wanted to learn the ropes.  I got talked into this over lunch with a friend one day and I think it's a good idea.

When you talk about playoff races you always talk about the loss column.  Isn't the record the record?

Not precisely.  The advantage of citing the loss column is it tells you which team has its own destiny in its hands.  You can make up wins but you can never erase a loss. 

Let's say one team is 52-17 and another is 48-16.  The 52-17 team is technically ahead by percentage points.  But if both teams win out the rest of the way the 48-16 team will finish ahead because it will have only 16 losses to the other team's 17.  In other words the 48 win team can get to 52 by winning its next four games.  But the 17 loss team can never get back to 16 losses again.

This turns out to be pretty valuable in determining who's really ahead in a bunched up race.  If two teams are tied for losses all the trailing team needs to do is win to catch up.  But if the trailing team has more losses it not only needs to win, it needs the other team to lose some games as well.  Even if the Games Behind and percentage numbers are close (which often happens because the teams have played an unequal number of games) the latter is a much higher bar than the former.

What are your favorite sports teams in any sport besides the Blazers?

I used to be more of a sports junkie but I don't follow other sports as intently anymore.  Time is one issue.  But I've found as I've become more conversant with the Blazers and the NBA that you lose something by delving too deeply.  You can't view games the same way.  So I find it refreshing to sit down in front of a TV and be utterly clueless about all but the most obvious aspects of the game, just hoping for some entertainment and a close score.  That kind of precludes me picking and following another team, at least religiously.  I do tend to like it when teams where I used to live do well, as I know many of their fans and am happy for them.  That would include the Packers, Vikings, the various Iowa schools, the Oregon colleges, the Seahawks, the Twins and Mariners, Boise State, and so on.  But I don't follow them unless I happen to catch them on TV or they're in an important game.

Why don't you use initials on the questions anymore?  --A.H.

I never wanted to use full names so as to keep questions free and anonymous.  Besides some people e-mail under their actual names and I'm not sure that it's cool to use them.  That's where the initials first came in.  But then some people use both their real and screen names.  Other people use just screen names.  Other people use some kind of funky e-mail address.  How do you turn skizzle78wp4kt into initials?  I was spending an inordinate about of time agonizing over this, so I just quit.

Thanks for the questions!  You can always send new ones in to