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Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks in the NBA

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A reader asks how much teammates can be expected to learn from each other. We ruminate.

Portland Trail Blazers v Golden State Warriors - Game Two Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Blazer’s Edge Mailbag tackles a complex question about skills, focus, and mentoring today. If you have a question relating to the Portland Trail Blazers, e-mail it to blazersub@gmail.com!

Dave,

A lot has been made of if Ezeli is a potential center for our future success, if Plumlee is going to stick and be our play making center, is Meyers going to develop into our center, or if we are going to package some players to try to trade for a big name. I'm surprised that we haven't discussed the impact the signing of Ezeli, and to a lesser extent Stiemsma have on Plumlee and/or Leonard, not just the team. Neither Plumlee nor Leonard is a great rim protector, nor are they shot blockers; however what if more than a stop gap at center (Festus) and a big body for training camp (Stiemsma) they are here for Plums or Meyers to get 1st hand experience from players that excel where they lack? By developing a friendship with both men, they then can pick their brains for the forseeable future, not just while they are with the team. You can't teach their instincts but a good post defender can provide insight to small nuances the coaches may not have realized about how the game is played today (the coaches im sure are great but not one of us is perfect) and a great shot blocker can give tips on timing, reading an opponent's body language. I believe these two were signed with a goal of further development to our centers we have relied on more than a goal of a replacement. Even with the worry of Festus' injuries, he can provide a great opportunity for our guys to learn, whether he can play or not. I don't know, maybe its wishful thinking.

A-A Ron

It’s an interesting thought. It probably has more “no” to it than “yes”, but let’s explore both.

A key player or two can definitely alter the focus of a team. The most famous example from Trail Blazers history is Buck Williams. Throughout the 80’s the Blazers were stacked with talented scorers but never put it together on defense. They had lock-down potential with Jerome Kersey but the rest of the team couldn’t keep it together long enough to build identity on that side of the ball. Then Buck came on board. Tenacity and athleticism came to the fore, the defense improved markedly, and the rest is history.

As you note, players learn from each other in practice. That narrative has been chronicled enough to give credence. Mileage may vary depending on team and individual willingness, but it happens. Veterans in particular have plenty of tricks to teach.

The problem is, neither Festus Ezeli nor Greg Stiemsma is a veteran. Mason Plumlee has already played as many seasons as Ezeli, Meyers Leonard as many as Stiemsma. The incumbent pair have seen 8843 combined floor minutes in their careers. The newcomers only total 5442. You might as well say Ezeli will learn passing from Plumlee as Mason learning shot-blocking from Festus.

Lacking experience as a credential, Ezeli and Stiemsma would need overwhelming talent or a demonstrable share of available minutes to cement their positions as leader/teachers. With Ezeli injured, that’s not going to happen. Both Plumlee and Leonard will start the season with a more justifiable claim to minutes. If they’re smart they’ll take tips from any source possible, but there’s no natural guru relationship in the wings.

Remember also that these guys are all independent contractors fighting for the same jobs and rewards. None of them have made their money yet. Chemistry is one thing (and by most accounts the Blazers are flush with camaraderie) but you’d have to like one of your co-workers an awful lot before you’d give him the blueprint to take your spot and the riches that go with it. If I were Ezeli or Stiemsma I’d worry about making myself irreplaceable to the Blazers, sign a monster deal because of it, then look for somebody from the next generation to tutor after I’d pocketed my $100 million.

But let’s erase all of that and assume that everything you posit is true. Is that kind of transformational teaching possible in this context?

We often compare sports learning with things we know like cooking or mathematics: skill- or knowledge-based endeavors where, with enough patience and willingness to learn, most people can replicate a decent result. Sports is far more like the performing arts. The athlete’s body is an instrument and his ability to play it is his talent. Talents can be expanded and shortcomings compensated for, but by the time you get to a professional level you pretty much know which of your skills are at All-World heights and which you’re going to limp by with. Yo Yo Ma could probably play a trombone if he wanted to. He might even have a leg up on most of us because of his background. Is he ever going to ride that potential skill into the philharmonic brass section? Should he?

If you’re a great alto choir soloist doing classical arias, you’re not going to pick up scat just because the chorus signs a phenomenal jazz singer to croon alongside you. Even if you perform next to her a thousand times and study her technique, your voice won’t do what hers does effortlessly because you grew up singing sixteenth-note runs and she goes, “Dwee-dah splurdly-doodle-dah dee wah wah wah.” Sports is closer to that situation than sitting next to your best friend in math class and copying down his superior test answers until you get it.

But hey, there are exceptions to every rule and hope of transformation in every signing. If Ezeli gets healthy, plays well, and squeezes through the magic “good but not so good the Blazers can’t afford him” window, he might be able to shift the focus of the team towards defense, pulling along other centers in his wake. I’d be overjoyed if your scenario came true. The Blazers need it.

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