Blazers in the Olympics

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Kurt Helin over at ProBasketballTalk has a list of all of the NBA players taking part in the London games.

Blazers (past and present) of note:

  • Nicolas Batum (France)
  • Joel Freeland (Great Britain) — Joining Portland this fall
  • Victor Claver (Spain) — Joining Portland this fall
  • Rudy Fernandez (Spain)
  • Patrick Mills (Australia) 

 Set your Tivo for Sunday at 6:30am for USA / France to catch Batum, and stick around for Spain / China to see Claver. Games are on NBC.

Talking to Will Barton After His Summer League Breakout Game

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When the Blazers selected Memphis guard Will Barton with the 40th pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, analysts lined up to declare him one of the great draft-day steals, a first-round talent that slipped to the second round for reasons unknown. Neil Olshey seemed to confirm this at Barton’s introductory press conference, when he revealed that Paul Allen had urged the front office to trade into the 20s to draft him and was overjoyed when he slipped to Portland in the second round.

Barton’s showing at Summer League in Las Vegas has been the definition of a player who improves with each game. At the beginning of the week, the rail-thin was relentlessly energetic on both ends of the floor, but incredibly raw as a player. Every now and then, there would be traces of an ability to attack the rim, a tenacious defensive sensibility, and an above-average rebounding nose for someone of his size and position. But these always seemed more like abstract ideas than tangible skills. Barton put it all together in the Blazers’ fourth Summer League game, a 95-82 victory over the Nuggets. He finished with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, done through a diverse array of dunks, midrange floaters, and outside shooting. He also had an impressive nine defensive boards. I was able to ask him a few questions after the game:

Earlier in the week, I’d often see you running over to the bench to talk to Wesley Matthews during free throws and other dead balls. What kind of pointers was giving you?

He was giving me a lot of pointers, just telling me to keep my head up when things aren’t going good. Be aggressive and try to play my game, and not think too much out there, and just try to perform good for the team and just go out there and do my best. It’s just going to come to me and I’ve got to get my feel for the game, my first NBA games. He was telling me that he knew I had the talent and I’m going to be fine, just let it come to you.

What sort of feedback have you received from Kaleb Canales this week?

That I’m really talented, stay aggressive, and I’m going to be real good if I just keep working hard and getting better every day.

Not a lot of second-round picks get guaranteed contracts right after the draft. Has the organization given you any sense of your role this season?

Not really. I just want to come in and compete for a spot in the rotation. That’s all I want to do.

Batum Officially Signs, Our Blog Header is Safe

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We’ll have a more detailed responses to Batum’s contract coming soon (for real) plus some coverage from Vegas, but for now here are a couple of takes on the Batum signing:

For me, the only thing worse than tanking is ambiguity. Neil Olshey had made it clear his plan was to keep Nicolas Batum in Portland, but after Indiana matched the Roy Hibbert offer last week it felt like Portland had returned to NBA limbo. Fans started to fidget, talking themselves into nonexistent sign-and-trade agreements that left Luke Babbitt as the Blazers starter on the wing. Felton’s officially gone, Batum’s locked up, and Lillard’s play this week has been stellar. Things are finally starting to take shape for the Blazers.

With Batum’s signing, eighty percent of the starting five is set for the Blazers. Lillard is a virtual lock at point and Matthews, Batum, and Aldridge remain the starters. It might not be the most polished group of starters but it’s going to be a fun and intriguing one.

As for the starting center, more likely than finding a player via free agency or trades this summer, Portland’s new coach will decide from the guys already on the roster. With the athleticism of Lillard, Aldridge, and Batum, the smaller JJ Hickson is a real possibility to start in the middle–one I like. Going small might not put the Blazers in playoff contention, but it could certainly be a fun bunch to watch. I’m assuming of course they figure out how to run a fast break, a fundamental that escaped them last season.

Solidifying Batum as part of the starting five isn’t a game-changer to compete with the West’s elite this season, but the core is young and talented enough to grow together as the organization strengthens the supporting cast. I like the move; signing Batum is a decision fans are much less likely to regret than letting him go.

Coming off of a season where we saw a tenured coach fired, the city and media turn on the starting point guard (and he back on them), and the franchise centerpiece medically retire at 27-years old (only to sign with another team seven months later), securing the team’s young and talented second-leading scorer is the right move for the direction of the franchise. While there is still a lot up in the air in terms of what this team can do together, the future is looking a lot less like purgatory and closer to a thoughtfully retooled roster full of young, promising players.

Danny’s counterpoint:

Look, at least it’s over now. The Batum saga seemed of a piece with the leaguewide inability to gracefully manage a restricted free agency in the new labor environment. Now that the dust is settled, though, the process pretty much worked how it was supposed to, and Neil Olshey kept his man.

Which is not to say I’m in favor of this move. Of course the figures of the contract matter a great deal, and so far we don’t really know what Nic is getting. There have been ambiguously sourced reports ranging from 8.75 million in the first year to 11 million, and Olshey has disputed the widely reported 4 years/ $46.5 million cap figures.

At pretty much any of the reported numbers, though, Batum is overpaid. I certainly see the appeal of locking in a young swingman with a versatile skillset, but I think that Batum is closer to his ceiling than the focus on his youth suggests. Batum manages to be pretty efficient while logging consistent minutes, but he doesn’t match that efficiency with raw production. I think that means a player whose skill set is nearly maxed out.
I’d argue that Batum is good for exploiting holes in a defense and little else. He was assisted on a massive 77.2% of his buckets, more than 10 percentage points higher than the league average for small forwards. He is most effective as a cutter and a shooter—great qualities, to be sure, but when you consider how available these skills are in the talent market, why pay Batum for them?

I actually think Batum’s value has been paradoxically inflated by the success of frugal teams and their acquisitions. The “D & 3” archetype is everybody’s favorite boilerplate roster filler, and we just saw Miami, San Antonio and other elite teams prove their value. If Danny Green can be a plus player, then God knows Nic Batum can do all the same things better, right?

But that thinking misses the point. Those defense and corner 3 guys are used by frugal teams precisely because their talents are some of the easiest to find; they’re used because they’re cheap, and they’re cheap for a reason. Further, Batum’s defense is vastly overrated. He’s a great shotblocker for his position, but his rebounding has never been even league average for small forwards and he’s nobody’s idea of a lockdown on-ball guy. He’s the Serge Ibaka of wing players: a prototypical physique with the knack for big defensive plays who isn’t actually that useful for team defense.

Do I think this signing is a catastrophe? Hardly. The Blazers still have cap space, and now they have a young gazelle of a wing player in their employ for the next several seasons. And I could be wrong about his potential to improve—it could be that Batum continues to grow as the faithful hope and he earns every penny. But if he’s paid near reported salaries and he never makes a big leap, Batum’s contract is an example of a team investing in an image of a player rather than the reality.

Sean’s take:

I’m fine with the decision to match Batum’s offer sheet, at least when considering the few viable alternatives Neil Olshey had. Depending on whom you choose to believe about his negotiations with David Kahn, Derrick Williams may or may not have been on the table for a sign-and-trade. That would have been the move, but all indications are that Paul Allen is still bitter about the circumstances surrounding the Martell Webster trade from 2010 (which is a pretty ridiculous thing on its face to hold a grudge over, given that it’s Martell Webster and not, you know, a player the Blazers have actually suffered from losing). This isn’t the place to have the discussion on whether it’s smart to run a team based on the personal whims of Paul Allen, but accepting that as the reality, Olshey’s options were limited.

The contract Batum got was an overpay for what he has accomplished as a player, but it’s hardly a crippling deal for Portland. They still have some cap space, and they won’t even come close to approaching the luxury tax next offseason, meaning they’ll have a full mid-level exception to work with. Also, overlarge contracts are sort of par for the course with restricted free agency. Teams are forced to pay around 20 percent more for players than they’d like, in hopes that it will be too much for their old teams to handle. The Blazers have played this game twice in the past several years with another division rival, the Jazz. The Paul Millsap contract that Utah chose to match in 2009 has actually turned out to be a pretty fair value for his production, and the hope is that Batum will have a similar evolution. The hole Batum would have left in the roster had he been allowed to walk would have had far worse repercussions for the Blazers than paying him the money on Minnesota’s offer sheet will—how does “Luke Babbitt, starting NBA small forward” sound to you?

Quick Link and Rookie Tweets

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We won’t sully Erik’s work last season by calling this a Pick & Scroll, but just a few notes before the rookie press conference this afternoon.

Zach Harper (no relation that we know of) over at A Wolf Among Wolves has a great look at whether or not Batum is worth the reported $12.5 million a year. Of course, whether a player is worth the money to the Blazers might be a different answer than whether he is worth it to the Wolves. It’s a lengthy post with a ton of fun stats and charts and analysis. You should really read the whole thing, but in terms of comparable player salaries, this is the key:

Getting back to the list of 11 players who seemed to match Batum’s PER-WS/48-3FG% criteria, let’s talk about where their contracts currently are.

Based off the contracts we know from these guys (Anderson, Ilyasova, Nash, Manu, Iggy), they’re averaging $11.76 million per season for their current deals. If you factor in the rough estimates of what Irving, Curry and Harden will make in the first year of their next deal (let’s just say $14 million per), then the average raises up to $12.6 million per season.

Granted, this isn’t a completely scientific way to measure what a guy should or shouldn’t be paid, but it seems like Nicolas Batum’s production has the correct market value for what he’s being offered by the Timberwolves right now. It doesn’t mean he is or isn’t worth that much money necessarily, but it seems to be the fair market price for what a guy like Batum does on the basketball court. Now we just have to wait until July 11th to see if Portland will allow him to join the Wolves or whether the Wolves will be sent searching for a good wing player once again.

The Portland reactions to the contract have ranged from “Match anything anyone offers” to “Eh, more than $10 million doesn’t seem worth it.” Of course, what a player is offered is what he’s worth to that team.

Batum’s agent made more noise over the weekend, but it doesn’t seem that any amount of whining is going to convince Paul Allen and Neil Olshey to let Batum walk. Though, if Kevin Love is unhappy in Minnesota I’m sure the Blazers and a third team can work something out.

Speaking of Blazers in Wolves clothing, welcome back Brandon Roy.

Many Blazers fans will be pleased with the high caliber Tweets of the rookies and their family members. If you’re not following Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard yet, get on that. Leonard is also on Instagram. Damian’s brother Houston is a professional athlete and good follow, too.


The rookie introduction is today at 1pm.

You can, of course, follow the endlessly charming and witty PRS crew: Rob @futurehorse, Sean @shighkinNBA, Erik @ErikCAnderson, Maddison @maddisonbond, Scott @scottleedy, Danny Nowell @dmnowell and myself @pdxlex. The venerable Andrew Tonry’s thoughts cannot be limited to a paltry 140 characters, so he abstains.

Making You a Belillever

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JENNIFER POTTHEISER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESOpening day in baseball is a cesspool for every hack sports writer to scribe the same, trite expression:
“Hope springs eternal for…” blah blah blah.

Alexander Pope doesn’t deserve the disservice baseball has done to his poetic muse, but the saying’s prominence coupled with the meager and uninventive usage of its prose resonates for basketball fans — most notably, the maniacs of Portland.

Despite all the hardships, Blazers fans are still, in fact, Blazers fans — no matter how many reminders of the Blazers futility in selecting Bowie over Jordan or Oden over Durant they receive. Furthermore, despite the organization’s imposing number of knee injuries(how is this figure not featured on the “Welcome to Portland” sign yet?) faith is renewed every draft and consequent free agent period.

But rather than feed into an already overused cliché, perhaps Portland pundits should get with the times and embrace a new mantra:

It takes a “minor setback for a major comeback.”

These were the words of the franchise’s newly dubbed savior, Damian Lillard and were an eerily parallel of what has become of the Blazers organization over the past several years.

Lillard, by no means, is a flawless player. But let’s gush for a moment, shall we? He reeled off 24.5 points per game as a junior playing in the Big East Sky Conference… Oh right, you haven’t heard of the conference and if Dick Vitale isn’t shrieking with an awkward, unfortunately placed “baby,” at the end of a conference’s name, then that conference must not be noteworthy, right? Fine. You win. As everyone knows, when it comes to objective journalism, and in the game of “rock, Vitale, scissors,” Vitale covers everything.

Lillard finished his 2011-12 campaign averaging a hyper-efficient 24.5 points while attempting 15.5 shots per game. For comparison’s and timeliness’ sake, Stephen Curry, who also forfeited his senior year of college at mid-major Davidson, averaged 28.6 points on 20.2 attempts per game. Even in his sophomore campaign, when his scoring average drifted closer to Lillard’s at 25.9, his scoring output came on 18.2 attempts. Lillard reigns supreme as the champion of efficiency.

Not to offend the entire populus of Portland, but the only more relevant and efficient measure of late was the shooting guard who is still going hard in the paint of my heart, Brandon Roy. Roy averaged 20.2 points on 13.6 shot attempts his senior year at UW — capping off a remarkable career that culminated in a Sweet Sixteen appearance.

The similarities between Roy and Lillard don’t end there. Lillard’s quiet demeanor, knack for scoring in crucial situations, and genuine infatuation with the game are what elevates Lillard into (perhaps unearned) Roy-like territory. Yes, Roy’s accolades came fast and furious, with a NBA Rookie of the Year award followed by three All-Star campaigns and an All-NBA Second Team and Third Team appearance.

Such gaudy accomplishments — along with public pressure and Paul Allen looking over his shoulder — forced Kevin Pritchard to give Roy a max-level contract when he knew Roy had knee issues. Remember, Roy admitted his left knee bothered him throughout his entire career.

This is where you exhale a deep breath of Northwestern relief; Lillard isn’t checking into PDX with injury baggage. Lillard suffered a stress fracture in his right foot after his sophomore season, a season that saw him collect the Big Sky’s MVP award after averaging 19.9 points on 43.3% shooting, including 39.3% from the 3-point line. So what did he do after that? Recorded these diaries, rehabbed, came back better, and won another MVP award after a medical redshirt season.

It’s early and Lillard has not used a LaMarcus Alridge screen and come off a pick-and-roll attacking the hoop with  much more athletic NBA specimen defending the paint. But in our short glimpses of his pre-draft workouts it’s clear: Lillard is the future.

With that said, is Damian Lillard the next Brandon Roy?

No.

But big things are coming, and I wouldn’t call it a comeback.

Lillard would. 

On Chauncey Billups and the Value of Mentorship

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Since the start of free agency on Sunday, the focus in Portland has been largely on two names: Roy Hibbert and Nicolas Batum. Hibbert has reportedly agreed to a four-year, $58 million offer sheet from the Blazers that Indiana will very likely match … (although they might not) … (but they probably will) … while Batum has been linked to Minnesota with a pretty lofty offer of his own that, should he sign it, Portland will very likely match … (although maybe they shouldn’t) … (but they probably will). Our own Alexis Harper posted her take on these rumors and the first week of the Neil Olshey era earlier, and it’s well worth reading.

However, one rumor slipped relatively under the radar Monday afternoon, and it’s an intriguing one. According to Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com, the Blazers have contacted Chauncey Billups. It’s a mildly surprising move—thus far, Olshey has distanced himself from the veteran point-guard market, passing on the opportunity to pursue Steve Nash, Andre Miller, or Jason Kidd. Portland did, after all, just draft Damian Lillard sixth overall, and it wouldn’t make sense to pay big bucks to someone at the tail end of their career who would presumably start over him. This is why the Blazers’ reported interest in Billups comes somewhat out of left field, but the move could make sense for Portland on several levels.

Billups likely wouldn’t cost much: he’s a) 35 years old, and b) coming off a season in which he played in just 20 games before suffering a torn Achilles. He’ll have several offers, and his own reasons to pick between them. But from the Blazers’ standpoint, signing Billups is a low-risk, high-reward proposition. Olshey has expressed supreme confidence in Lillard since drafting him (and even before), but he’s a rookie, unproven against NBA-caliber players, from a college environment where he didn’t have to play against many of them. The only other point guard currently on the roster is Nolan Smith, who played against much tougher competition at Duke but was mostly unspectacular in his rookie season with the Blazers. As much potential as both of these players have, a point guard rotation with one combined year of NBA experience is a gamble for a team that wants to jump back into the playoff mix this quickly. Billups has been in the league for 15 seasons, played in 140 playoff games, made two All-Defense second teams, and won a Finals MVP. There are worse people to have around if you’re trying to grow two young point guards from prospects to contributors.

One of the most overused notions in today’s NBA is the idea of mentorship. The justification for using a roster spot on an aging veteran without much to contribute on the court is, more often than not, some variation of “He can mentor the young guys.” It’s why Derek Fisher got significant minutes in the Finals for Oklahoma City despite being fundamentally useless as a basketball player at this point in his career. The Blazers even dabbled in this sort of signing in 2009 with Juwan Howard, brought in as a glorified assistant coach but forced by circumstance to start a significant part of the season at center. Presuming he’s healthy, however, Billups does not deserve to be grouped with those players. He’s bounced around the league the last several seasons, but not by any fault of his own. He was traded from Denver to New York in 2011 simply to make the money work in the Carmelo Anthony trade, and amnestied by the Knicks in December solely to clear cap space to sign Tyson Chandler. When he finally surfaced on the Clippers, he was plenty productive for his age and role. His per-game averages dropped slightly, more a product of the presence of Chris Paul than his own declining abilities. He still posted averages of 17.7 points and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes and solid PER of 16. 1.

The Clippers’ acquisition of Paul forced Billups to play largely as an off-guard, with some minutes running the point with the second unit. The unit that featured Billups at shooting guard and Paul at point guard alongside Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, played 271 minutes together before Billups’ injury forced Randy Foye to replace him in the starting lineup. According to 82games.com, the version of the Clippers’ starting five with Billips bettered that featuring Foye in five-man +/- (+86 to +82), offensive efficiency (1.15 points per possession to 1.12), defensive efficiency (0.98 ppp allowed to 1.05), and effective field-goal percentage (49.0% to 47.9%). The unit featuring Billups at point guard with Foye, Butler, Griffin, and Jordan was also superior defensively, in five-man +/-, and in eFG% to the unit with Paul and Mo Williams in the backcourt that played identical minutes.

Adding Billups would not only give Portland a steady veteran presence to guide Lillard and Smith in their development, but also provide a solid option at shooting guard, where the Blazers’ current depth chart consists of Wesley Matthews (coming off a monumentally underwhelming season), Elliot Williams (who still hasn’t played much more than garbage minutes and is currently recovering from shoulder surgery), and second-round pick Will Barton, who has been called a draft-day steal by many analysts but who is completely untested at the pro level.

A lot rests on the progress of Billups’ rehab. It would be a waste of a roster spot to sign him if he wasn’t able to contribute. But he has, by all accounts, a good relationship with Olshey, who sold him on staying in Los Angeles after Billups threatened retirement upon being claimed off amnesty waivers. If he isn’t looking for a huge deal (which it would be hard to imagine he is, given his injury and age) and could be fit under the salary cap with a potential Hibbert deal or via Portland’s $2.5 million room exception, it would be a win for the Blazers. Not only is he still a very good player, but he would be an ideal mentor for Lillard and Smith. If the opportunity is there to add one of the most highly-regarded locker-room guys in the league who is still capable of playing at a high level, Portland would be hard-pressed not to do it.

On Hibbert and the start of the Olshey Era

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I love the Hibbert offer. Not necessarily because I’m enamored with him as a player–though I could be–or the contract, but because of everything else it says about the direction Neil Olshey wants to take this team.

Not minutes after free agency had begun did Portland put in an aggressive offer on one of the league’s top young talents. This news itself is hopeful. The Blazers aren’t looking to get a deal on a serviceable frontcourt mate for LaMarcus Aldridge, they are going on all-in on an All-Star center. This move, paired with Olshey’s draft night debut have helped to answer some of the questions about the direction the team is headed.

With the GM position a veritable revolving door over the past few seasons it has been refreshing to watch Olshey work. Without even examining the picks, Thursday’s draft made one thing clear: there’s a plan.

Sure, Lillard by all accounts impressed the Blazers during his workout, but with Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond on the board for the sixth pick things could have gone very differently for Portland. Portland stuck to their guns in the midst of what was turning into a wonky draft and executed the plan they walked into the war room with. Drafting Lillard set the stage for the Hibbert offer, which also makes clear where the Blazers see Meyers Leonard fitting in the frontcourt rotation—not near the top. As Danny pointed out last week, Drummond with the sixth pick could have helped fill the hole at center, but Portland’s eye has been on a long-term solution at point guard for the past couple of seasons and draft nights. It looks like they finally picked one up they are excited about.

While Drummond might turn into one of the league’s premier big men, Portland isn’t looking for a project in the middle to pair with 27-year old (in a few weeks) Aldridge. Hibbert is a proven player who has improved each of his four years in the league, demonstrated by his All-Star nod this past season. The offer indicates that the Blazers are looking to win now around Aldridge entering his prime.

Going into the off-season the questions we knew needed to be answered were regarding the point guard and center positions for the team. The one we hoped would be answered quickly was Nic Batum’s status with the Blazers. The Timberwolves (Khaaaaan!) have made a reported offer of four years and $50 million to Portland’s restricted free agent. A hefty contract to be sure, but a young scorer and strong defensive presence could be worth $12.5 million to Portland. A core of Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, and Hibbert could be potent both offensively and on defense for years to come.

Indiana could of course match the Hibbert offer, but Olshey’s move is solid nonetheless. Aggressively pursuing young, but proven, talent is exactly the direction the Blazers should be headed with their All-Star entering his prime. Portland has no control over what Indiana chooses to do regarding Hibbert’s offer.

One question that does need to be answered, and where the Blazers do have control, is who will coach the new direction Blazers? Danny has his eye on Stan Van Gundy. Others have dreamed of Jerry Sloan coaching Lillard and Aldridge in the pick and roll. It’s early, but I like Brian Shaw coming in to help the young point guard get comfortable in the league and helping get the ball moving.

For now, the focus is on getting the right players around Aldridge. It’s a plan worth sticking to.