Today we have a Mailbag question from our old friend and Mailbag stalwart Jerry...
A discussion comment stated that point guard is the NBA's most easily filled position. If Mo opts out and Blazers will have to choose where to spend their limited dollars for bench players next year. How do you rank the relative importance of point, wing, and post (big) positions on the bench. For instance, should the Blazers concentrate on an expensive player at the center position to spell Lopez and/or Aldridge? Or, alternatively, do you take the draft approach and simply acquire the best players you can get (regardless of position and style of play) and let the coach figure out how to use them?
This is another one of those questions with 52 different access points. Let's address a few!
Whether Point Guard is the NBA's most easily-filled position:
I suppose that depends on what you mean by "filled". Back-up point guards are a dime a dozen. But the bar for back-up point guard is fairly low right now precisely because there are so many good front-line point guards. Teams usually don't look for players to platoon at that position. Instead they block out 38 minutes for their star and hope to hold the fort and/or get a young guy experience with the other 10.
Teams that don't have a star at that position quickly find themselves scraping for solutions, though. Once you get past the Westbrooks, Currys, Lillards, and Pauls of the world you see a lot of names like Devin Harris, D.J. Augustin, Jose Calderon, and Jeremy Lin. Those aren't bad players but they're hardly a permanent answer. The top ten point guards in the league are mostly great. After that there's plenty of filling to be done.
If your back-up point guard help wanted ad reads "medium minutes, don't suck" you can find 30-odd players who fit the bill. If it reads, "small minutes, just don't turn over the ball or flat-out kill us" you can pick up the next 20-30 under that. I'm not sure that holds true of centers or forwards, as demands and minutes tend to be higher among those positions.
Since the Blazers tend towards the latter end of the need scale, you can safely say that reserve point will be among their easier positions to fill. If they were starting Calderon the story would be different.
Whether Mo Williams opting out changes the picture.
I don't believe it does much. The Blazers might well view him as a free signing, with Bird Rights allowing them to ink him without affecting their numbers much. But that doesn't mean they should continue to rely on him, particularly as a point guard. They can keep Mo on for insurance and still pursue a promising reserve point that they see more long-term prospects for or who at least brings a different skill set to the table.
Whether you can treat free agency like the draft and go for the Best Player Available and/or whether the Blazers should just be accumulating talent regardless of position.
Maybe? It depends on the situation.
A team in rebuilding mode needs to accumulate talent, period. They're probably not married to their starting lineup. Planning around a unit that's going to change soon would be foolish. Plus those teams value future contributions as much as present. Trade assets and young guys with flowering potential are as valuable as the perfect veteran complement...more valuable in many cases. Ending up with 6 power forwards isn't a fatal flaw as long as a few of them turn out well.
No team can ignore talent, but franchises closing in on an apex run can't afford to indulge in talent grabs like rebuilding franchises can. Unlike the draft, where each player costs the same (1 pick), superior talent on the free agent market generally carries superior costs. A low-cap team with multiple open positions and three years to spend planning can take more chances than a team at the cap threshold who might be able to sign only one significant player, period. (And that player better cost less than the Mid-Level Exception...) Apex teams don't have time or money to waste. They have defined needs and a defined window. They have to fill the former before the latter closes.
The Blazers are beginning this generation's apex run, at least if you consider the generation to be defined by LaMarcus Aldridge. (Shift him out of the picture and the window extends considerably.) Their starting lineup may not be set in stone but it's fairly well gelled. The strengths and weaknesses of that lineup are well-defined, thus the criteria for supporting players are clear.
But the gulf between starting lineup and bench is so vast that you could almost consider the reserve unit being in rebuild mode. The Blazers could use almost any contribution off the pines. Assuming Aldridge remains with the team long-term, power forward is about the only immovable position. A super-skilled point guard might move Damian Lillard off the ball for half the game. Superior talent at any other position would be welcomed with open arms.
Because this year's success was so new, catching even the front office unawares, you can't paint the Blazers as a fully-realized apex team. They've got serious building to do. But their success was significant enough to merit a shift from raw talent accumulation to a roster-honing series of moves. They're a hybrid at this point. They have to consider position and fit when adding players but they're neither deep nor experienced enough to specialize entirely. Best Player Available won't serve, but given their limited resources and their manifold needs they have to hit hard with each signing, wringing the most out of every player they get. They cannot afford to miss even once if they hope to advance on their current position.
If you asked me to choose between the two sides--raw talent and apt fit--I'd say the Blazers still need to err on the side of talent. The fact that they could use almost anything off the bench trumps the need to address the holes in the roster. You'll never patch all the weak spots in a single off-season. The best hope is to get enough talent that the remaining deficits get outweighed by the new benefits.
Which positions the Blazers should prioritize.
The Blazers need any kind of raw production off the bench. Even so, some positions require more help than others.
The Blazers need another big man to spell Robin Lopez and to provide a different look to the defense. They could squeak by at every other position but they won't succeed long-term without filling that void. Point guard would be the second priority. Wings rank last because the Blazers already have a half-dozen shooting guards and small forwards vying for attention. (That's not to say they're good, but at least they're there.) A high-scoring reserve wing with dribble moves might crowd his way to the front of the line, but grabbing one for the MLE seems doubtful. They hardly exist anymore anyway. With a couple notable exceptions, any shooting guard or small forward who can score is already a starter.
Technically the Blazers could split their exception among more than one player, but you have to consider the difference between a minimum-level player and a guy willing to sign for $2 million per year. In most cases it's not that great. Provided a good player was available, one significant signing would address the talent and skill set issues better than a couple of middling acquisitions. The Blazers could pin their hopes on a full-MLE-type--perhaps a veteran coming off of the zenith of his career, willing to sign for less money--and offer young players in trade for targeted help at other positions and/or simply get by with what they have or a minimum-contract replacement.
If this all seems a little nebulous and theoretical, well...that's appropriate. The Blazers are still in a bit of a nebulous and theoretical situation. They'll answer plenty of tough questions in the next 12-15 months. The immediate one: how to fill all their needs using fewer resources than most of their competitors can employ. They may find that their desired off-season game plan exceeds their capacity to execute it, leaving them to choose between lesser options or assume greater risks. That's part of the reason why this summer, though placid-looking on the surface, holds the potential for serious undercurrents that could pull the team in unexpected directions.
We know what this team needs to do. We don't know what they can do, nor what they're willing to sacrifice in order to make change happen. I'm not sure if we can expect interesting moves in the Summer of 2014, but the Blazers are sure to be confronted with interesting decisions nearly every step of the way.
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--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard