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Could Trail Blazers Veterans be Stunting Franchise Growth?

A couple of old heads weigh heavily on Portland’s roster. Is it a problem?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are considered a young team by NBA standards, yet two of their top four scorers hover around 30 years of age. Jerami Grant and Malcolm Brogdon score the second- and fourth-most points of anybody on the team. They take a corresponding number of field goal attempts and have the Usage Rate to prove it.

Though it looks fine on paper, this phenomenon is bothering one Blazer’s Edge Reader. That’s the subject of today’s mailbag.

Hi Dave,

I’m a bit baffled by what our franchise plan is at this stage. We’re a legit bottom-five team built around young guys with upside and no experience, but veterans Grant and Brogdon combine to take 27% of our field goal attempts and are scoring a combined 29% of all our points. This seems detrimental on two fronts:

First, our only plan is to develop young guys. There’s no cavalry coming to save us, our only hope is that the youth get a lot of run and grow from the experience. That is hard to do when your vets are taking a lot of the minutes and shots.

Second, given the aforementioned suckitude of our roster, winning the draft is our best shot at one day winning on the court. Having our vets shoot their way to a handful of wins only hurts our draft standing without providing any real upside. Sure, the #1 pick isn’t a guarantee of success, just look at Detroit, but our odds are a lot better in the top 3 of the draft.

Grant and Brogdon appear to be carrying us to the worst possible destination: NBA Purgatory. Not nearly enough wins to compete for the playoffs but far too many wins to have a serious chance at a top 3 draft pick.

Do you see this situation differently? Or has the plan all along been to trade them at the deadline, lose the rest of our games post-trade, and hope the ping pong balls bounce in our favor regardless of how many meaningless wins we racked up in the early part of the season?

-J

Thanks for your question! I took the rare step of leaving it whole just to cover the breadth of arguments on this topic. You’re not the only one to broach it. This is just the most complete submission.

Unfortunately, I could not disagree with you more strongly.

I would affirm that Grant and Brogdon are two of the most likely candidates for trade on the roster. Through February, over the summer and into next year’s trade deadline, the Blazers will likely come to a reckoning. That will likely include trading their older roster members, or at least considering it.

Until then, though, both are valuable members of the squad in a way that your analysis misses. To my mind it suffers from a slight flaw. There’s a subtle presumption there that both offense and experience are abstract qualities, automatically generated, and the critical question is how to distribute them. You’re suggesting that Grant and Brogdon be moved aside so all that goodness can go to players with longer-term growth potential.

That’s not exactly true, though. Yes, NBA teams will generate offense no matter what, but amount and quality vary widely depending on personnel and scheme. The Indiana Pacers lead the league in points per game with 126.1. The Memphis Grizzlies trail at 107.2. That’s almost a 19-point difference. The Trail Blazers currently stand 29th, with 109.4.

Take away a couple of Indiana’s main scorers and I guarantee they’re going to drop to average. They’re not set at 126 by divine right. The same is true of the teams at the lower end. Taking away shots, and points, from Grant and Brogdon doesn’t guarantee that the Blazers will still score 109 with other players in their place. They may end up at 105 or 102.

We’ve seen this happen over the last two seasons as Portland slipped into tank mode. First it was Anfernee Simons taking 100 shots as the only scorer. Then Simons sat at the remaining players didn’t generate any offense of significance. Nor much defense, for that matter. They just went out there and pretty much ran around until they lost.

This isn’t just about volume of shots and points. Quality of offense matters, reading the floor, getting in the right position and making the right play. In order for experience to take hold, that stuff has to be demonstrable, repeatable, and transferable. If the Blazers today don’t play anything like they would in three years—when they’re supposedly going to be better—then what, exactly, are they learning today that matters?

That’s the exact purpose of veterans like Grant and Brogdon. They, themselves, may not be here in 3-4 years, but a power forward in Portland’s uniform is still going need to be set up for shots. Portland’s young players are learning how to play alongside Jerami so they can play alongside the power forward of the future as well. They’re watching Malcolm set up successful plays and shots so that they understand what that looks like and how to do it themselves.

Experience points don’t automatically accrue, to be guided towards the players you want to level up most. As with offense, it’s perfectly possible for fewer xp—or no useful experience at all—to accumulate. At that point Portland’s young players are stuck learning in Year Four what they should have picked up their rookie seasons, but couldn’t, because it was the blind leading the blind.

I would argue that both the LaMarcus Aldridge-Brandon Roy-Greg Oden trio and (to a lesser extent) the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum partnership spent a lot of time fishing around precisely because they didn’t have embedded veterans alongside them. Roy and company came after a hard franchise reboot. Lillard had the benefit of Aldridge and some other veterans, but that got cut short in 2015.

All teams, even young ones, have shelf lives. Even one or two seasons spent figuring it out costs the team opportunities that won’t return. Given the makeup of the current Blazers, the inexperience of their coaching staff, and their reliance on building through future drafts, coming to full form could take seven seasons, not two. They can’t afford to waste years along the way. Progress during these nascent, formative years is important.

Veterans are key to that progress, both in an individual sense and for the team as a whole. The current Blazers aren’t getting many wins, or much positive feedback, as it is. Removing the rest of it would be harsh on the psyches of the players and the franchise. Ask the Detroit Pistons how they’re feeling nowadays if you want an example. They’re going to spend years digging out of their current infamy. They see it in each other’s eyes every time they step into that locker room and pull on the uniform right now. Their coaches and stars are going to be defined by it until they succeed on a big enough level to eclipse it. That’s not helping anyone involved. It’s hurting.

The Blazers currently stand at 9-22. They don’t have many wins to begin with. How many more do you want to take away by nerfing, or trading, Grant and Brogdon? What would you be communicating to the team and its young players as you did so?

The odds for the NBA Draft Lottery have been flattened out, in part because of this exact scenario. The bottom three teams in the standings each receive an identical 14.0% chance at the first overall pick. The fourth team gets 12.5%, the fifth 10.5%. The Blazers currently hold the fifth-worst record in the league. And that’s playing their hardest.

If necessary, Portland can probably juggle a couple of late-season lineups to try and pick up a position. Doing it in December, to try to earn a 3.5% better chance at a pick just to share those odds with two other teams, seems like overkill. As does the fear that this version of the Blazers is somehow going to ascend to mediocrity this season. If they’ve got that in them, they sure haven’t shown it yet.

Long story short, I don’t see any reason—individual or team—to reduce the role of either Grant or Brogdon until the young players behind them have proven they can earn it by overtaking the veterans organically. The old heads are tent poles, holding up the canvas so everyone else can play and grow beneath it. Taking them out isn’t going to lift anybody higher. It’s just going to confuse the roster as the whole system comes falling down on their heads.

Thanks for the question! You all can submit yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll answer as many as possible!