Instead of doing a full mailbag slate, today I'm going to tackle the two questions I receive (in one form or another) ad nauseum. I'm going to paraphrase the e-mails down into short, direct questions:
1. Why is Jerryd Bayless so polarizing? Is he that good or bad?
Note: This includes all variations of: Isn't Jerryd great? Why doesn't Nate give Jerryd more time? Doesn't Jerryd suck as a point (or off-) guard? Why is Nate wasting time with Jerryd? What do you think about people who are so blindly in love with Jerryd? What do you think of people who are so blind they can't see Jerryd's True Greatness?
For anyone who missed it, here is the season review for Bayless. It says exactly what I thought of his season. It was generally positive while acknowledging that he's neither a complete nor entirely reliable player yet, which is pretty much what you'd expect from a second-year guy. He made wonderful progress but the leopard did not change his spots, so to speak. In my opinion that's exactly where the discussion should be left, as there's not much more to say about where he is. The problem is that people don't want to talk about where he is, they want to place bets on where he's going to be. This is what makes him so polarizing, as he has one of the broadest potential ranges of any Blazer player. Could he be an explosive, punchy, high-scoring combo guard? I can see it. Could he be a fixture in Portland's rotation, maybe even the piece that puts them over the top? I can see it. Could he prove an ill-fit for the Blazers and only prosper on another team with more minutes and shots to give? I can see it. Could he fall prey to stereotypical tweener-itis and have his career limited to a few brilliant outbursts surrounded by mediocrity? I can see it. Could he be a point guard? Yep. Could he fail at point guard? Yep. Could he become totally unguardable? Sure. Could he be one of the easiest covers in the league once you understand his game? Uh huh. For all of the good reasons people really, really, really like the guy. Other people think the people who really like the guy are being a little silly, or at least premature. You can make an argument for either side. Thus the polarization.
While everybody is busy figuring all this out, here are a few more truths to chew on:
- Bayless is potentially a nice piece but at least from what we've seen so far he's not anywhere near the most important player on this team. He's not likely to crack the top four or five anytime soon. If you want to stress about the team's future you'd be better served stressing about the health of Oden and Roy, the defensive development of LaMarcus Aldridge, and the passion of Nicolas Batum to impact every single game he plays in. Give me those things and I'd trade Bayless or most anyone else on this team for a cheese stick because I can find a back-up player to hold the fort while that starting lineup rests from their domination.
- Those who claim that Bayless hasn't seen enough court time to judge his future fairly are correct. He made strides this year in the meta-game, fitting in and contributing in far more than the single-minded ways he evidenced last season. He saw his teammates better, found them more often, became part of the whole. These attributes speak to his potential as a point guard. Since he developed in that area, keeping the door open to the possibility of him becoming one is appropriate. There's reason to remain high on this kid...reasons beyond the big scoring nights.
- That said, that same limited time that makes judgment premature also makes the statistical analysis that many are trying to employ to support him problematic, especially since most attempts involve shaving off or narrowing down the overall view. Doing that is fairly worthless. Plenty of players could be stars in this league based on targeted stats or three week stretches.
- So, too, goes the argument, "If he was just given more time and/or used properly...". Hundreds of guys outside of the league use that same argument to justify why they should have made it. Part of playing in the NBA is being able to make an impact no matter what your circumstances, as you play against opponents who try their hardest to make your life less than ideal every time you see the court. If you can't beat out guys on your own team and/or impress your coach enough to have him put you on the floor you're going to have a hard time beating and impressing your opponent. It's also worth noting that these exact same arguments could be used in favor of Rudy Fernandez, a guy on whom most fans are down right now (probably more so than he merits). In many ways Jerryd and Rudy are competing for minutes. If the situation remains the same the guy most likely to win that battle will be the one who shrugs off this mindset and its inherent excuses and just plays.
- It's usually a bad sign when people have to make narrow statistical arguments about a player or target the way he's being used. The more of those assertions required to justify a guy's tenure the less impact and reliability the tenure is having. You didn't hear these things said about Brandon Roy. You'll know Jerryd has made it the day you have to stop convincing people so hard that he's made it.
Long story short: Jerryd's present looks just fine. He's on track. As for his future, we can guess but we don't know. He's not an obvious keeper nor is he an obvious longshot. We're going to need to see more before we're able to make a firm judgment and I haven't seen anything presented that convinces me to the contrary.
2. Why aren't you reviewing Coach Nate?
Note: This includes all variations of: Nate sucks. Fire Nate. Our offensive system sucks. Why can't Player X get more playing time? Why hasn't Player Y developed faster? Why doesn't Nate play Player Z more? Why doesn't Nate play Player H more? Why doesn't Nate play Player C more? Why does Nate play Player Q so much? Why do people think Nate is so bad?
The complaints about Nate come in two basic varieties.
The first is complaints about methodology: critiques of pace, substitution patterns, defense, and the like. These are interesting in isolation. I actually enjoy them as academic exercises. But when you start talking about relating a coach's performance to his methodology you have to take them out of isolation and look at the bigger picture. No matter what methods and schemes a coach employs they are all for the purpose of winning. It's fascinating to speculate what this or that change would bring about but in the end if the answer isn't a definitive "MORE WINS!" then the speculation must remain academic. The salient question for any coach isn't what methods he employs but whether those methods are leading to victories. In Nate's case the answer is yes. That being the case, he enjoys some latitude that he would not had the team won, say, 35 this year. As long as he keeps winning at a reasonable level his methods have to be considered effective in the ultimate sense.
Critiques of Nate's methods also have to bow before circumstance. One of the prolific complaints is that the offense isn't running right. People repeatedly suggest philosophical changes. The questions become "How?" and "With what?" The Blazers were a shell of a team for much of the season. Any evolution on the drawing board during training camp got sidetracked by the injuries and new player transitions. Later when half the team went down the operation fell apart wholly. Joel Przybilla is not Greg Oden and Juwan Howard is not Joel Przybilla. Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless are not Brandon Roy. When the Titanic hits the iceberg it's time to put away the map of the Guggenheim and start bailing. Listening to many of the critiques is like watching a NASCAR driver lose two wheels and then hearing people say he was a little off line in his turns as he went around the track so he needs to go back to driving school. Really? You're going to judge his overall plan by what he does with half the tires missing?
Another way to put this: it's not fair to give a guy a palette with turquoise, periwinkle, and aquamarine on it and then accuse him of only being able to paint in blue.
The only way you could make a serious methodological argument is if you first believe the Blazers really were the Blazers this year and second believe that they should have won significantly more than 50. I can't imagine that being the case. Perhaps you could talk about playoff victories but you're on weak ground there as well. You'd have a hard time finding a credible expert that would argue for more victories in the regular or post-season than Portland has achieved this year or last year. Until Nate's methods are showed to be counter-productive to that bottom line, the criticism is mostly wind.
The second broad strain of complaint is hypothetical...that some good things haven't happened that would have if Nate weren't the coach or some bad things have happened that wouldn't have under another guy. This ground is even shakier than the first because there's no way to turn back time to see alternate realities. It's easy to say that the team should be developing quicker but by what measure can one judge that, especially with a team that until this year was historically young for the level of success they were achieving? It's easy to say that Nate is keeping a certain young player down but how do you know what level the player should or could be at? And what about the young players that have prospered under Nate's tenure? It's easy to say that things would be different if this team were run like someone else's but it's hard to show that different would equal better. It's also worth noting that other teams also have successful and less successful elements the same way the Blazers do. In the end this becomes completely wind as there's no way to prove or disprove any of the assertions.
So, then, what can you say in a review? The Blazers won 50 this year after winning 54 the year before. In doing so they made it through an astonishingly tough year with confidence, pride, and hope mostly intact. The team has things to sort out and evolutions to make but the nature of the season makes it all but impossible to know if any lack of evolution (or lack of patching weaknesses) is intentional or a by-product of just having to survive...falling back into the most basic mode when other things aren't working or aren't possible. Most outside observers respect Nate. Most credit him with a job well done. His assistant coaches are starting to interview for head-coaching jobs, a sure sign of that respect.
For now the obvious course is to ride out another season and see if the team can achieve its next goals. As soon as that doesn't happen you start looking at everything, including coaching. Until then there's not that much to squawk about...at least nothing that's going to stick. Therefore I'm on board with the theoretical discussion of systems but I hop off the train when it comes to calls for Nate's head or accusations that he's doing something obviously backwards.
As for the future, I believe Nate will attempt to evolve this team's style and performance. The Blazers haven't hit their prime yet. Each year is still a teaching year. Each will bring new wrinkles. If the team stops evolving and falls short of its goals I am more than happy to consider a coaching change...to call it necessary and good even. I'm certainly not married to Nate or any coach for all time. I mean, come on...this team dumped Jack Ramsay and Rick Adelman once upon a time. But until that backsliding happens, why would you fire the guy? As I've said a couple times now, there's potential for making the wrong change, for really sending this team off track and bruising its confidence. Even if you think that risk is low (and I believe it's significant because you have to commit to a new coach for years, as in plural) it's not worth taking until you know you need to.
As with the Bayless question, I find plenty of things more critical to this team than anything Nate does or doesn't do...many being the same as listed in that section. If those things go well Nate is probably going to look like a fine coach. If they don't he's not. Other than that, how much can he really cost them? Having lost the season past as far as continuity and development the Blazers can't realistically be expected to contend for a championship in the coming year. What's the worst that's going to happen? They'll get plenty of education in the basics, the things that are going well now will still go well and (in the worst-case scenario) the things that aren't going well won't, they'll have the chance to play and grow a little more, and we'll see if it ends up being enough. He'll not ruin them for all time. If it's shown that he can't bring the team farther there's still plenty of time and room for another coach and fresh ideas next year. That timing would be infinitely preferable to the shock and cage-rattling that would accompany Nate's firing now.
Last point to ponder: there's a logical discontinuity to some of these arguments when you put them all together. Most people believe that the Blazers need to stay the course for at least a season longer. Although anyone would consider an obvious player upgrade and the team probably needs to sort out a couple of mid-level-player situations, few would advocate major moves. That's probably wise because we don't really know how everything works together yet, as we haven't seen. That major move could just as well be the wrong one. You'd need convincing, tangible evidence to make it.
The coach is part of the team as well. Whether he's a huge, important part or a minor part is a matter of debate. Oddly enough, those who consider coaching incredibly important/influential also seem to be the ones advocating a change most strongly. If it is that crucial then you're ripping out one of the key members of an organism that's still in transition without having seen that organism's final form. The tangible, convincing evidence that this would be an improvement (i.e. more wins) is scarce or missing altogether. But if you go the other way and say coaching is a relatively minor part of the whole, by definition there's not much advantage in making a change.
If there's one thing transitions in this league have taught us it's that you don't make moves just to make them. You don't move laterally, let alone risk moving downward, because every change has a cost that needs to be exceeded by its gain. You make changes that are necessary and advantageous. No matter what you think of Nate's performance, you'll have a hard time showing those criteria are met at this time.