Everybody knows the Portland Trail Blazers need to improve on their 41-41 record from the 2016-17 NBA season. Most will admit that Portland’s current 4-3 record could use a little spiffing up too. The key question is, how? The devil’s always in the details, as we find in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
There's been a lot of talk about the lacking quality in both forward spots. Some of that talk has used language like, "Portland doesn't have an NBA caliber starter at wing" or "The Blazers don't have a starting 5 that can play at the basis of competition given where the league's at."
Is there a provable science behind defining "NBA-starter quality"? And if so, what is it? What makes a starting quality NBA player - is it basic stats that tell you "starter/not starter"? Is it advanced stats? Does it depend on team composition? Like, could Aminu be a "non-starting caliber player" for Portland but be categorized as a valid starter elsewhere? Just wondering because it will help me be able to contribute more to the discussion of how to keep building this team.
Imprecision in language is rampant throughout the sports world. It’s part of the frustration of analyzing teams, but also part of the fun of the discussion. Certainty A and Certainty B may be obvious, but they’re awfully boring to talk about. The wiggle room is full of all kinds of bouncy balls to play with. Thus the blessed proliferation of terms like, “NBA Starter Quality”.
No agreed-upon standard exists to define an NBA starter. A couple statistical formulas have tried to measure players holistic performance. Among those VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) probably comes closest to defining starters. Last year Damian Lillard posted a 4.3 to lead the Blazers, good for 19th in the league. Russell Westbrook ranked tops with a 12.4, James Harden second with a 9.0. CJ McCollum (2.1), Mason Plumlee (2.0), and Maurice Harkless (1.5) followed Lillard for the Blazers.
No doubt you can already see the issue. Nobody would argue that Lillard and McCollum fit the starter designation, but were Plumlee and Harkless clearly the best of the rest? If so, does that automatically make them starters? For that matter, would Kyle Lowry or Isaiah Thomas start over Lillard since they outranked him in VORP? We have another piece of data to chew on; it doesn’t provide an inarguable answer.
There’s no way out of this web, but for purposes of our argument here let’s assume three categories to slide players into.
Obvious Starters— These players would start on pretty much any team by dint of their talent or accomplishments. They’re the type of player teams trade for without reservation. You already know the role they’re going to fill before they hit training camp.
Situational Starters— These players have the ability to start if called upon, but they can’t lay claim to a first-team spot independent of environment. If they’re starting, it’s either because their particular skill set matches a need in the lineup or because they’re the best player the team fields at that position.
Non-Starters— These players lack sufficient talent, all-around skills, or experience to start. If they’re pressed into the starting lineup, it’s a depth issue. (Note this does not mean a player is bad or valueless. Young, future starters and incredible single-skill specialists would both fit into this category, as would many fine NBA players.)
Looking at the Trail Blazers, McCollum and Lillard fit firmly into the “Obvious Starter” category. Jusuf Nurkic would start for most any team, except several teams possess centers better or more promising than he. (Think Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins, and Nikola Jokic.) That doesn’t automatically oust him from the sure-starter category, but it places him nearer the edge.
That we have to stop after three players (maybe 2.5) clarifies part of the “Portland needs NBA-Starter-Quality players” argument. People aren’t saying the Blazers lack starters. Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, and Harkless could all hear their name announced without blushing. Instead the Blazers lack universally acclaimed starters. Aminu is valuable to Portland because of his defense, Harkless and Turner because of their all-around skills. They’d be less valuable to teams who needed three-point shooting. They start because they fit and because the Blazers don’t have better options. In that sense, the “need more starters” claim is valid.
Notice, though, that team success factors into the argument as much as the individual players involved. When we hear, “The Blazers need NBA-Quality Starters”, we jump immediately to “NBA-Quality Starters”. To complete the inference, we have to spend time with, “The Blazers need...”
Consider the 1977 World Champion Trail Blazers. How many players on that roster were universal starters? Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, probably Lionel Hollins, and nobody else. Everyone else was a situational starter or a non-starter, yet the team won the title and zero people claimed they needed a better lineup. Fast forward to today’s team, fielding the same 2.5 or 3 definite starters but winning only 41 games, and everyone thinks the lineup needs an overhaul.
The early 2000’s Blazers exemplify the inverse argument. Portland picked up Dale Davis, Shawn Kemp, Bonzi Wells, Derek Anderson, and Zach Randolph within the space of two years, and their lineup was already packed. All of those players either started previously or developed starting potential soon after they were drafted. This didn’t result in more wins, but disaster. Just getting guaranteed starters doesn’t make things better.
That’s why we have to be careful of simplistic claims, even when truth lies behind them. Saying Portland needs more quality players—probably starting forwards—is accurate. (Hat tip to Aminu for his fantastic early start to the season, though.) But the near-generic designation “starter” is far too broad to serve as a milepost for the way forward. It’s the equivalent of knowing you need to get to a city, then saying, “Drive thataway”.
You’ve already taken the first step in contributing to the discussion surrounding the Blazers by bothering to ask a question instead of just settling for a truism as the answer. You’d be surprised how many arguments stall at the, “The Blazers need more talent!” / “Nuh-uh, they don’t!” phase. Camp Hot Takes versus Club Team Loyalty generates plenty of noise, but few real conclusions. The answers from each are pre-determined before the argument ever ensues. You can’t assert your way out of that trap. The only way to find traction is to ask questions just like you are.
Specificity is the next step in the process. Unfortunately the, “What’s an NBA Starter” question doesn’t have a specific answer. “What kind of starter would benefit the Blazers most at the forward spots” gets more granular. Obviously everyone wants LeBron James or some kind of superstar, but let’s assume that’s off the table. What specific skills and attributes would solidify the lineup most, and what things would be optional or wasted? Having answered those questions, you can then survey the league to see if a match might be available. Who knows? You may even find that the best candidate already wears Portland’s uniform. Maybe you’ll discover that no player outside of a superstar could fill all Portland’s needs, in which case it’s time to question the construction of the roster around the forward positions. No matter what conclusions you arrive at, you’re going to come up with far more interesting discussion points.
Thanks so much for the question, Tony! Anyone who wants to send one in can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (“Mailbag” in the subject line makes it easier) or by asking @davedeckard.