More Mailbag Questions today!
Wow. Arron Affflalo. This is a better player than I thought we'd get and I'm happy. So why am I queasy too? We've sat through lots of trades in this rebuild but this one feels different to me and I don't know why. Do you feel it too? Help me explain this unexplainable nervousness.
First, I've got to say...Afflalo is no Joel Przybilla, but his name is deceptively tricky to get right. I've done the "triple F" thing you just did already and we're less than a week in. Why are two "R's" and two "F's" so hard to get right...not just at risk of falling short of the number but going over? It's one of life's mysteries.
Your feelings are less mysterious. This trade is different than any we've seen in the Neil Olshey era, at least in terms of intent and meaning. As we said in yesterday's Mailbag, this is as many of Olshey's cards as we've seen on the table. Unless he pulls a fast one, he and the Blazers are now committed to a discernible course of action.
Heretofore Portland acquisitions have been typified by two characteristics: young players with upside, small and/or short contract obligations. Every player Olshey has brought in fit one or both of those descriptions. Robin Lopez, Chris Kaman, Steve Blake, Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams, Eric Maynor, and Dorell Wright all provide cases in point.
Afflalo fits neither category. He's 29, considered a good mid-level player. Portland's system might allow him to reach his performance zenith but he's unlikely to find a well of untapped potential here. The Blazers are getting what they paid for. That payment involved a first-round pick...another first (though the potential for such a deal was limited as they owed a pick to Charlotte). Though Afflalo has a player option next season, Olshey has already gone on record saying he plans to retain the current core of the team, which includes his newest shooting guard. The financial outlay will be considerable. Heck, Afflalo's current $7.5 million salary is more than the Blazers have taken on via trade in the Olshey era. This is new territory, like a guy who's been driving Chrysler mini-vans moving up to a Beemer for the first time.
Technically the Blazers could still retain all the flexibility they had before the Denver deal, minus the first-rounder spent. Practically, though, this heralds a sea-change...a longer-term commitment to a particular roster, sacrificing flexibility in the process. The weight of that isn't entirely on Afflalo's shoulders, of course, but he's the current catalyst. It's neither fair nor accurate to ask whether he's the one player worth changing direction for, but in the moment it's hard not to make that connection. Thus the queasiness.
Here are a few consolation points to calm your semi-upset stomach:
1. Afflalo will probably work out well. The Blazers might be overselling his defensive potential a tad but they might be underselling his potential offensive impact. Portland's bench needs scoring. Afflalo scores. Plus he's a smart and willing player. He'll fit into the system. He won't make the Blazers World Champions on his own but he's solidify the platform from which they'll try to reach that goal.
2. The Blazers will have more potential moves in the hopper. They could trade this year's draft pick as long as they do it after their selection is made. The new TV contract will eventually give them wiggle room to make deals (along with everybody else in the league). Afflalo is the bellwether acquisition but it's not the last and only move.
3. Portland had to make this change at some point. Flexibility doesn't play. How many Robin Lopezes (Lopii?) are out there to be had? At some point the Blazers had to make a move for proven veterans to bolster the roster even if it cemented their future.
4. If it's any consolation, Olshey's public remarks about this trade reflect a certain amount of...if not queasiness exactly, at least a different tenor than he's shown in the past. Along with the usual shiny trumpet blowing and praise singing, we've heard him say in various radio interviews that LaMarcus Aldridge wanted a stronger bench and a quicker timetable. He's also said that sometimes the right talent moves aren't the best cap moves. Evidently this deal feels different to Olshey too. He doesn't usually explain this much, certainly not to the point of semi-hedging about a move. My sense is that if he had his druthers, he might have waited a tad longer to see what prospects were available over the summer. The reasons to make the deal evidently outweighed whatever reticence he felt, meaning there's nothing wrong with the move per se. But even the GM understands the team is hanging in the wind a bit more than they were two weeks ago. If he perceives such, your concern is validated.
One more question about Larry Sanders and waivers. I'm an old-timer. Back in my day only minor players seemed to get waived. You'd barely notice it. Not guys like Sanders and Stoudamire, at least not that I recall. Why are more prominent players getting let loose now? It doesn't seem to make sense.
I share that perception but I'm too lazy to go back and check which players got waived in which years. I don't know if it's accurate or just misty memory. I do know that prominent players seemed to crop up in old expansion drafts, but those were less voluntary so the comparison isn't exact. For now let's just say waiver wire pickups do seem to involve bigger names now and run with it.
No matter what era you're in, waiving a player makes the same statement: the value of keeping that player is less than the value of releasing him. That basic truth hasn't changed but the definition of "value" has.
"Back in the day" the league didn't have a cap and/or the cap wasn't dissected as thoroughly as it is today. For the most part you'd see players waived for one of three reasons: they stunk, they were injured, or they were such big pains in the butt that their current team couldn't stand to have them around one second more.
CBA provisions now add a fourth criterion. Teams are sometimes able to open up possibilities later by biting the bullet on a player's contract now. They're not happy about waiving a guy. It still indicates a mistake was made somewhere along the line. But they can pay less for that mistake than they would if they retained that player. The GM might be castigated in the short term but when that new wiggle room opens up he has another chance to earn praise by making good use of it. This is true even if the waived player still has the potential to contribute somewhere else.
Advances in statistical analysis and widespread dissemination of same might also play a role. It's possible now to gauge "value" with a high degree of granularity, not just general value but value to specific teams in specific ways. Serious devotees don't ask if a player is good, but if he fulfills targeted metrics at a pace commensurate to salary.
The gap between "stinks" and "doesn't stink" has been refined and quantified to the point that we're working with official "Value Over Replacement Player" stats. Paying lots of money for a negative VORP can make people itchy even when the player in question has talent. Waiving Stoudamire two decades ago would have meant losing 12 points and 8 rebounds per game on 55% shooting from a former superstar player whose name everybody knows. Waiving him now means losing a player with a flat-lined VORP and a negative plus-minus compared to league average. Such is the world we live in.
(It also means losing a player with a great PER and True Shooting Percentage. Such is the world we live in. You can find 6 reasons to justify or criticize any move, which is part of the point.)
The GM isn't the only person making these assessments either. Fans talk about it, media folks analyze it, owners know too. This puts pressure on GM's to get the best out of their roster slots. It also makes waiving players easier to justify sometimes. (See parenthetical note just above.)
Being more informed about players also means you recognize more names than you used to. This may contribute to the perception of more familiar players getting waived today than in the past.
In any case, waiver season does seem to include more prominent names that it used to. Perhaps GM's have been reading Shakespeare along with their advanced stats and saying, "What's in a name?" This just makes it more exciting for the rest of us. As Jamal Crawford tweeted recently, one man's trash is another man's treasure. More waiving just means more opportunity for your favorite team to collect on potential loot.
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