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Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Brooklyn Money, Frontcourt Tandems, Teaching and Winning

Dave Deckard from answers reader questions surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers. Today's topics include the Nets renovation, pairing big men, teaching and learning in the NBA, and the importance of winning.

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Mailbag Week continues!


This quote comes from the NYTimes: "Mikhail D. Prokhorov is showing his determination to win at any cost: a high-profile trade helped raise the Nets' payroll to $101 million, triggering a luxury tax bill of about $82 million." As the only other NBA owner in a similar wealth bracket, will Paul Allen be laughing, crying, or green with envy? How do you think he'll react if the Nets reach the title game?


The process will look familiar to Allen, I'm sure. No doubt he's watching with interest. I don't know for sure, of course, but I imagine he's thinking that it's a big swing financially for a team that probably won't make the Finals and has a short window of opportunity. But it's not like those contracts will run forever. The Nets will be mostly clear of cap encumbrance by 2016. If you're going to swing like that, big is the only way to go.

Driving up salary comps around the league would be the biggest concern with this approach. So far Prokhorov has limited himself to trades for Hall-of-Fame level veterans. Deron Williams was his big signing but it can be argued that he's an upper crust point guard and was worth the money. As long as the players involved are unique (and/or have been given their contracts by others instead of being signed outright by the Nets) it's no harm, no foul. Prokhorov is simply lining the coffers of non-luxury-tax teams with his spending spree. At the point he starts creating new contracts at inflated prices for common-level players other owners will no doubt start grumbling.

Beyond that, there's a world of difference between Portland and Brooklyn right now, so I wouldn't think the two situations are comparable in Allen's mind or anywhere else. The Nets are riding franchise inflation moving from New Jersey to New York. The Blazers don't have that kind of windfall to hedge against. Nor does Portland have the potential of a near-unlimited revenue stream if they make good. Prokhorov is borrowing against what the move has already brought him to invest in what he perceives as an even brighter future. The Blazers making the same kind of move would require Allen to spend out of his own he'd never get back. For these reasons, and because of the relative talent levels involved, Portland has made the decision to go young and cheap, trying for a window farther down the road instead of making a stab at instant success. Given that, it's hard to imagine Allen looking at Prokhorov with envy.


It seems like the Blazers have a number of young big men who have a lot to learn about the game. Do they have someone up to the task of teaching them? Do you think it makes a difference to devote someone just to teaching big man skills?


Teams do have this. Assistant coaches work with players before and after practice, in the middle of the night, whenever and however the player is ready to learn. These are some of the brightest minds in the business. Professional players don't want for lack of teaching resources.

Sooner or later every teacher comes up against the hard reality that the limitation on their success isn't just teaching ability, but what the student can absorb. Sadly the NBA environment provides plenty of barriers to learning.

Schedule and fatigue head the list of disincentives. You also have to factor in willingness to learn and natural ability (or lack thereof). But even with sufficient time, energy, and will, the constant demand for professional-level performances saps the ability to develop new skills. Learning how to defend in a given scheme is one thing. Taking a skill from rudimentary to professional level quite another.

Most of us have had the experience of learning a musical instrument. In the course of that journey you develop certain techniques, stuff that fits you, things that are natural for you. Even so, it takes hours of practice in private to develop enough mastery to get comfortable playing in public. Now pretend you got good enough to form a band, you had a couple smash hits, and you're getting paid millions to tour. You're not a guitar wizard or anything, but you're plenty good at your own licks which you play to cheers every night.

Now you decide to branch out and learn a new technique for your newest song. Unlike the others, this one isn't natural to you. It's hard. You bring in a coach to teach you the technique, but because of the touring schedule there's only one place you can practice it: onstage in front of 20,000 fans every night. So you bust out this new song and, predictably, you're horrible at the technique at first. The audience starts scratching their heads. Some folks are booing. Are you going to stick with that riff long enough to master it? How long before you just slide back into your #1 hit and go with what got you there?

That's roughly analogous to the NBA except you also have to add a defender running on stage trying to bat away your hands from the guitar neck as you practice your new technique. And you have to add the stage manager who's going to pull you from the show and replace you with another guitarist if your performances suffer for too long. And you have an inescapable review after each show rating your evening in cold, hard numbers, most of which probably give incentive to your old habits and don't register your new technique at all if it's subtle. Everybody notices your old stuff. Only a select handful notice any progress in the new.

This environment is not conducive to learning.

The final factor is that human beings learn by repetition, starting slowly and working their way up to full speed. That blazing guitar solo started out with 13-year-old you in a room somewhere going, ", wait...finger goes there...Bum, Bum, Whumpf...oops! Bump, Bum...clank. Arrgh! This is so hard!" You start slow, get good, then go fast and clean.

The NBA runs at professional speed all the time. Anything slow--pass, shot release, rebound, defensive shuffle--gets pwned before it even starts. Everything you do has to come naturally, quickly, from muscle memory and instinct. If you have to think long enough to make a decision you're already too late. While you're figuring it out the other guy has already acted. That nascent move that you're trotting out there is going to get snuffed, and snuffed, and snuffed before it ever gets good.

I don't want to imply that learning is impossible in the NBA. Everybody who sticks in the league develops their game beyond what they came with. But most of that is guys refining the things they were already pretty good at and had an inclination for. Everything else you try to hide, minimize, or just live with. It's rare to see a player with limited ability in a given area develop into a remarkable professional in that same area. Mostly they learn enough tricks to not embarrass themselves and just trade on their better qualities.

In any case, this is not attributable to a lack of teaching, nor even to a lack of desire/ability to learn (though that comes into play sometimes). It's just the reality of the professional life and the professional game.


LaMarcus could be the offensive yin to Lopez's defensive yang. Do their respective strengths and weaknesses will allow them to really gel as a starting big pair?

Coming off the bench, Leonard could become LA's backup as he appears to be developing a similar offense-oriented game. And if defense-minded Robinson comes in for Robin, can this backup tandem be expected to complement each other in a similar way against second-line opponents?


We have to see Lopez' yang first before we can speculate on that. He's a decent shot blocker. Other than that, his defensive pedigree has not been established anywhere he's been. Turning around Portland's defense will be a big job. Folks are putting a lot of stuff on Robin's shoulders that so far they haven't been able to support.

I anticipate that the reserve big man situation will be fluid, as you describe. Position may not matter as much as skill. The big issue for Robinson and Leonard right now is that neither one knows what they're doing. Putting them in there together is going to lead to plenty of confusion. I suspect you'll see Portland's young reserves nursed along, getting minutes with solid starters around them rather than being inserted en masse to play with each other.


Should we be rooting for the Blazers to make the playoffs this season? What do you see as the best outcome for the Blazers future?


I'm of the opinion you should always root for your team to make the playoffs until it becomes mathematically impossible. Only then do you start worrying about lottery order. No matter what the big picture, the goal each night is winning. As soon as that goal shifts your team, and by extension your franchise, starts to fall apart.

It's fine to game out possibilities and philosophies on paper. They make for great discussion. But basketball is a real athletic endeavor played out in real life by real people. Every night those people face multiple incentives to fail. They're tired, the other team is committed and maybe more talented...they're getting paid anyway, it's just a job, they've already "made it" by putting on the uniform...the refs suck, the league favors bigger markets, nobody can stop LeBron, even if they win ESPN will barely notice. Failure is easy. Success is hard. It's like walking up the down escalator. You don't have to actively choose to go backwards. All you have to do is stop going forwards and you're already on your way down. Put out less than your best and you're done.

Once a team starts planning to fail--even if it's for a tangible reward--they usually find that getting out of that mode is harder than they think. The Los Angeles Clippers found that out for a few decades. You want your team to make the best possible moves and your players to make their best possible effort every night. That way when the right cards do come along, you know how to play them.

Losing can teach you valuable lessons but there's no better growth accelerator than a taste of success.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to the e-mail address below with "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (