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Do the Trail Blazers Have a Confidence Issue?

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Portland’s role players struggle. Might their state of mind be at the root of it?

Portland Trail Blazers v New York Knicks Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

A trio of role-players dominate today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. What, if anything, is ailing Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, and Allen Crabbe? Could their struggles be as simple as a confidence issue?

If you have questions for the Mailbag, we’re happy to take them at blazersub@gmail.com or via Twitter at @DaveDeckard.

Hi Dave - appreciate the article on Meyers' disappointing season. There was no shortage of times when I thought to myself, "If only Meyers was good. Or at least, better. Reliably better, than he is now. Things would be different for us."

But then I found myself realizing I wondered about that for Meyers, Allen, and Mo throughout pretty much the entire season, but especially during the frightful displays of December and January.

All 3, age-wise, should be in or rapidly approaching their prime. But none have demonstrated an ability to get and stay productive for more than long spurts at a time in their 4+ years in the league. And Olshey's remarks about the "daily struggle" of keeping Meyers' motivated has me thinking: Is part of the Blazers' disappointing performance this year chalkable to the unfortunate schism between youth and confidence? Crabbe seemed thrilled by the prospect of playing 30+ mins on a team where he'd be given the keys more frequently (even though that team is one of the worst in the league). Meanwhile, continuing to come off the bench to play 3rd chair for Portland's beloved scoring duo probably took the wind out of his hopeful sails. And Mo's spell of consistency seemed jarred by Stotts' decision to switch things up approaching mid-season, in addition to the fact that he gets ~0 plays called for him on a regular basis.

Can you talk a bit about the relationship between youth and confidence? And if the fact is that the only cure is time in the league, then perhaps we should be demanding to send off our struggling twenty-somethings for veterans with less upside but oodles of self-awareness and reliability. Especially as we peer at the prospect of drafting as many as 3 (!) late-90's babies who may only add to the youthful angst that already plagues us.

Thanks!

Tony from Eugene (but in Boston right now)

This is a thorny question. Confidence (or lack thereof) is a determining factor in an NBA player’s success but it’s not, in itself, sufficient. Talent trumps everything, followed by the opportunity to play. Only when both of those are present in sufficient quantity does confidence loom large. Absent ability and a spot in the rotation, all the confidence in the world won’t matter.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were confident the minute they stepped on the floor, completely untested. Their talent was unquestioned and the path in front of them was cleared specifically to give them minutes. The chemistry between the three factors has combined to create All-Star-level players. On the other hand high-school phenom Travis Outlaw appeared in 377 games for the Blazers and never really found his stride. Fellow high-school phenom Jermaine O’Neal tore apart the league but not until he got to Indiana; he couldn’t get minutes in Portland. Neither could Drazen Petrovic, who was well aware that he was the best international player in the world when he suited up for the Blazers at the age of 25 but had Clyde Drexler ahead of him in the rotation. On the other hand Armon Johnson had confidence to burn at exactly the moment the Blazers needed a point guard but he didn’t make the grade.

All of these players were relatively young, controverting the assertion that youth and confidence don’t mix. Lack of confidence can hobble a career (Outlaw), but being sure of yourself isn’t enough to create one (Johnson). Somewhere in the middle lie all the players who get the chance to demonstrate their ability, get positive feedback for doing so, then become fixtures in the league. We don’t question how or why this happens; we just do post mortems when it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s easier to attribute disappointment to an internal quality like self-doubt or a coaching decision (because coaches can be replaced easily) than it is to admit the team made a mistake acquiring a player who couldn’t actually play or didn’t fit a need.

Lack of confidence, lack of talent, and lack of appropriate opportunity can all mask each other...or worse, turn into a death spiral. Is a player tentative on the floor because he isn’t sure or because he doesn’t belong there? Does a player’s performance decrease because he’s getting fewer minutes or is he getting fewer minutes because his performance is decreasing? Or is he actually succeeding, just not in the way the team needs right now? We don’t really know the answers to these questions. We just know that where one difficultly looms, others are likely to follow. We can’t be sure that lack of confidence really is an issue, but we can be sure that if we’re asking the question, something is going wrong.

You’re correct that Leonard, Harkless, and Crabbe are all in their early primes. You’re also correct that more was hoped for each than they were able to show this year. None of them strike me as tentative players. Leonard has battled injuries and has played a couple of different styles trying to find one that fits. He always seems like he should be a better player than he actually is but this year was tough for sure. Crabbe and Harkless feel like odd fits. They’re good enough to help but not good enough to transform a team that lies mostly void beyond its stars. They’re also at crossroads in their development. They’ve proved they belong on the court but they’re ill-defined...like misfit toys. Crabbe has serious offensive potential but lacks the dribble drive to free up shots he could otherwise hit. He’s too talented to remain a spot-up shooter, not strong enough to carry an offense. Harkless is a Jack-of-All-Trades without a single, definitive skill that keeps him on the floor above all challengers. Players like this provide surprising bonuses as 7th-9th men; as 4th-6th men their flaws show as much as their promise. But neither is at the stage of his career to settle for being a role player. Drive and mentality won’t allow it.

These issues don’t resolve simply. Giving Meyers Leonard more minutes won’t make him less injured or less Meyers-Leonard-ish. Solidifying Harkless’ role won’t help if he doesn’t bring what the Blazers need. All of Crabbe’s potential glory won’t matter if he never has room to show it. Then again, maybe he doesn’t have it in the first place. We’ll know all these things in another 3-4 years, but that doesn’t help right now.

None of this answers the question of whether the team should keep these players or look to move them, but hopefully it answers your question whether confidence lies at the root of the issue. This isn’t just about mental state...though negative feedback loops can affect mental state if they go on too long. It’s more likely about tweener talent and indeterminate fit. The Blazers aren’t putting square pegs in round holes as much as they’re putting modest-sized pegs in holes the size of a trash can lid. How do you even know what the right fit is under those conditions?

Hopefully some of these issues will resolve with the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic, who brings talent and a defined style of play to the frontcourt. We’ve seen Noah Vonleh’s utility rise now that the space around him has solidified. Perhaps that will work for the above-mentioned trio as well. Or if the Blazers no longer need their services, at least it’ll be clear why and what kind of players they’ll seek to replace them. Until some of that definition happens, it’ll be hard to have confidence in anyone...individuals or the team as a whole.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard