Breaking Down the Trade for Eric Maynor

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Leading up to the trade deadline, the Blazers were relatively quiet among the rumored moves, with the possibility of moving J.J. Hickson for a draft pick the only serious option. However, minutes before the deadline, Neil Olshey completed an unexpected move, acquiring Eric Maynor from the Thunder in exchange for a trade exception and the rights to Giorgio Printezis. It’s a smart move involving virtually zero risk, which gives the Blazers more options both throughout the remainder of the 2012-13 season and this summer.

It’s no secret that the backup point-guard position has been the biggest flaw on a Blazers roster that is full of them. Ronnie Price and Nolan Smith have formed a tandem of uselessness that has not only rendered the team utterly unwatchable when Damian Lillard was off the floor, but forced Lillard to play close to the most minutes in the league as a rookie. Price was waived to make room on the roster for Maynor, and I’m hard-pressed to find anything I’ll miss about him.

Maynor has been pretty awful this season as well, falling out of the Thunder’s rotation completely and losing minutes backing up Russell Westbrook to Reggie Jackson. But Maynor is coming off a torn ACL that sidelined him most of last season, which largely explains his dropoff in production. Unlike Smith, he’s proven in the past that he’s at least capable of playing a solid backup point. In his last full season with the Thunder in 2010-11, he appeared in all 82 games and averaged 10.4 points and 7.1 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 38.5 percent from three-point range.

What Maynor gives the Blazers this season is irrelevant. As the clock ticks on the season and their currently losing streak continues, they’re likely out of the playoff hunt at this point, and Maynor won’t change that. Dumping Hickson for a pick would have gone further in positioning Portland for the draft lottery, but since that deal apparently wasn’t there to be made, they’re essentially staying the course with a slight short-term upgrade at their weakest position, albeit one that won’t make a big enough difference to impact their record in any meaningful way.

The significance of the Maynor acquisition is the options he gives the Blazers this summer. Assuming they extend him the $3.4 million qualifying offer, he will be a restricted free agent. Given how he’s underperformed this year the correlating vanishing of his minutes in Oklahoma City, it’s doubtful he’ll get any sort of offer on the market that the Blazers wouldn’t be comfortable matching. If Maynor takes the qualifying offer, the Blazers will have a cheap, serviceable backup point guard locked up for next season. It’s also possible that Olshey could negotiate a multi-year deal for Maynor at a lower per-year figure. And in the unlikely event that Maynor gets an offer from another team that Portland doesn’t want to match, owning his Bird rights and the right to match any offer gives them leverage to collect future assets or picks in a sign-and-trade deal. It’s certainly more realistic to picture someone giving up a second-round pick in a sign-and-trade for Maynor than it is for Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt, or any of the other free agents-to-be on Portland’s roster.

Outside of trading Hickson, this was essentially the best-case scenario for what Olshey could have reasonably hoped to pull off at the deadline. Maynor cost next to nothing to acquire, gives Portland a controllable asset to either keep or use in a future move, and is in all likelihood significantly better than either of the team’s other current options to back up Lillard. There is absolutely no downside to making this move from the Blazers’ perspective, and Olshey took advantage of the opportunity for no-risk improvement when it presented itself to him.

Suns 102-Blazers 98: “Nothing is Slipping Away”

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After dropping their sixth straight loss, this one at home to the worst team in the Western conference, the Blazers are uncharacteristically out of lockstep.  “We’re running out of time,” said Damian Lillard after the game. “Nothing is slipping away,” Terry Stotts told reporters.

It’s dangerous to read too much into canned post-loss quotes, but these Blazers have built their season on a foundation of charismatic, willful ignorance. They have long been swimming against the tide of perception and metric analysis to churn out the sort of improbable win they couldn’t quite come up with Tuesday night. A huge part of this has been the team’s insistence on irrational confidence, an unearned equipoise that has allowed the team to take for granted what nobody else even thought possible. As the realities of their season start to take mathematical form, however, that sense of unity may be threatened.

Tonight’s game was the sort of effort that has served as the anchor on any expectations for the season. The Blazers ran up a twelve point deficit in the game’s opening minutes and let the Suns shoot better than 60% from the field in the first half.  Goran Dragic had ten of his career-high eighteen assists in the first quarter, and it’s possible that a Phoenix big man was not boxed out until sometime early in the third quarter. This felt like a few other Blazers losses that have served as inflection points, except with the added grimness of looming schedule inevitability.

Before the game, the mood was predictably rested and energetic in the arena. Nic Batum showed off a Cancun sunburn, and Terry Stotts and I talked about the difference in physicality between different eras in the league. After the game, the mood was as subdued as it has been all season. It was as pronounced an emotional whiplash as I’ve experienced, and Stotts’ postgame presser was telling. As usual, the coach was professionally euphemistic and diplomatic in his responses, but his tone and face belied the text of his remarks. He seemed unusually worn out, even paused for a moment to lightly admonish a reporter for a phone noise during the conference. There was a sense of fraying and weariness, but even still, he stuck to the script that has served the team so well.

Nicolas Batum, typically one of the more candid and secure post-game interviews gave a stone-faced “no” when asked if the playoffs were slipping away. Unexplained, monosyllabic answers aren’t the norm for Nic, and it was clear that he was protesting too much, treating the very idea as a transgression even as the Blazers fell four games below .500 and another game behind Houston for the 8 seed.

Lillard alone among those I listened to acknowledged the reality: “We need to be going uphill, and right now we’re falling more games below .500. With 25 wins, we need to start winning some games now.” I don’t put too much stock in the difference between this response and Batum’s or Stotts’, except to say that the Blazers risk a fractious lame-duck portion of the season as the losses pile up.

Perhaps the greatest thing the Blazers’ wins have afforded them is protection. Protection from a media that presses a little harder on individual players when the losses blend together. Protection from acknowledging the serious talent deficiencies of the roster. I’m not being glib; I really believe that for a young team in the early stages of an organizational cycle, there is an incalculable value to the security that comes from winning. You feel capable, and your faith in your ability to prepare is strengthened with every win.  But if the Blazers can’t right themselves quickly, the question of a playoff chase will quickly become moot as they struggle to keep the team from fissuring in the absence of belief. Because whether the Blazers’ hopes this season have been rational or not, they have been hopes, and they’re in danger of being rudely dashed. 

 

 

 

The Pick or the Playoffs? Thoughts for the Stretch Run

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The Blazers have spent their season resisting definition. Oscillating between stretches of shocking competitiveness and desultory losses, this team has refused to declare its true nature or intentions.  But it’s February 19, and that means they don’t have much choice any longer. Whether by decisive action or relative stasis, the Blazers have eight weeks to cement the descriptors by which they’ll be remembered.

The two biggest issues are the playoffs and the pick. Really, they’re two sides of the same question. The Blazers sit three games out of 8th place in the West today, having lost five straight before the All-Star break blessedly helped them pump the brakes.  It’s an uphill climb into playoff contention—Hollinger’s Playoff Odds have the Blazers at less than 8%, behind both the Lakers and the Mavericks—and for some fans, even attempting to make that climb seems like a bad idea.

The reason is this year’s playoff pick, which the Blazers owe to the Bobcats if they end up with a pick lower than 12th. My sense is that most fans would be comfortable punting on the pick if it were a guarantee that the Blazers would make the playoffs, but the chance of the team finishing just short of the 8 seed and still losing the draft pick is too much to swallow. I understand this thinking, but my strong sense is that the organization disagrees with it; barring a surprising J.J. Hickson trade within the next few days, I think the Blazers believe it’s in their best interest to keep trying to win as much as possible.

Often lost in this discussion is the fact that, should the Blazers retain their first-round pick this year, they would owe it to Charlotte next year. So the question is not, then, whether the Blazers are best served by falling just short of the playoffs—it’s whether a pick in the 12-14 range this year is more valuable than one, presumably, in next year’s 10-20 range. Discussing draft scenarios in the future, I am begging for complicating factors to make me look like a fool, but at present it seems the Blazers have their choice of picks with roughly equal value, and they have to give up one. So then the question becomes: is there any reason it’s better to have a first-round pick this year and not next?

I say no, for a few reasons. First, of course, there is the fact that this year’s talent pool is apparently shallower than usual. Even setting that aside though, I’d argue that the Blazers may be at a better point to add a mid-round talent next offseason than this.

The Blazers’ biggest needs are back-court scorers and centers. In both cases, one of each may be on today’s roster in nascent form; Meyers Leonard and Will Barton have not been best-case scenarios, but neither has done enough to dissuade the organization that they could be important rotation contributors in a few seasons. With cap space for this offseason and several potential fits at the Blazers’ areas of need, the Blazers may well be improving regardless of how they draft.

Further, whether they draft this year or next, it is unlikely they’ll be finding an instant contributor. If this proves to be the case, I say it’s preferable to be nurturing talent along on a team a year further along in the winning process. The Blazers have every reason to believe they’ll be making a run at the playoffs next year, and raw talent on a steep development curve has a little more value to a team that doesn’t so desperately need an infusion of production. Put it this way: if the Blazers were starting a Kosta Koufos-type player this year, how much more secure would you feel about Meyers Leonard’s presence? I feel most confident about a mid-round talent on a team with a more stable culture and roster, so I don’t see any reason this year’s pick is preferable to next.

All of which is a long way of saying that I think we’re in for eight more weeks of ambush wins and tightly contested games. I just can’t really see a reason why the Blazers don’t keep exerting maximum organizational effort. The myth of tanking’s magic has taken on water in the past few seasons, but even so we exist in a climate where blowing a team up is the preferred hypothetical to unspectacular results. But the Blazers have proven themselves closer to health than many would have predicted,  and it may be that there is no dramatic reveal of the team’s true character in store. In fact, given the way the season has played out to this point, staying the course may well prove the most exciting possible conclusion to this year.     

Terry Stotts and the End of Dogma

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I was preparing a mild-mannered little game and stretch-run preview this morning when I read an article by Jordan Brenner of ESPN the Magazine that brought my writing to a needle-on-vinyl halt. It’s an in-depth profile of the Blazers’ newly beefed-up analytics operations, and Terry Stotts’ role in them. It has been widely known, or at least widely whispered, that Stotts is at the cutting edge of pro hoops in his adoption of advanced metrics, but Brenner’s article articulates exactly how uncommon that is, and how uniquely the Blazers translate data to the hardwood. 

Brenner’s piece is online in full for Insiders, but there is one passage that stuck out to me in particular. The Blazers’ basketball analytics manager Ben Falk is discussing how to create a game plan against the ferocious defense of the Pacers, when the Blazers find an unlikely source of points:

“Normally the midrange two-pointer is one of the least efficient shots in basketball. An analytically proficient offense would instead generate attempts at the rim and open corner three-pointers (the corner three is a 39 percent shot over the past five seasons; other threes are just 35 percent). But the Pacers are the best defensive team in the league, particularly in the metrics that matter. They rank first in effective field goal percentage, allow the second-fewest shots at the rim and give up the second-fewest corner threes. Falk knows that basketball is a game of constantly shifting probabilities, so tonight the Blazers go against the stats. “Baseline percentages are only broad summaries,” he says. “They may not always apply for a lot of reasons, including the other team’s scheme and personnel. Against a team like Indiana, getting open shots for the right shooters, even if they are in midrange, can be a better-percentage play than forcing a tough shot at the rim.”

Stotts goes on from this realization to develop a practice around big men taking mid-range jumpshots off the “half-roll” rather than going hard at the rim—a seamless translation of data to actual practice. But the real reason I’m so drawn to this anecdote is that it shows a total, heartening disregard for dogma on the part of organization. In the constant climate of disagreement that forms online, stats loyalists and more metric-skeptical observers rarely move outside their trenches and beyond their strawmen to discuss the pragmatism of analysis. Lionel Hollins and Doug Collins are taken to the shed on Twitter for their stubbornness about analytics, while the other party crows about the deficiencies of catch-all metrics. Brenner’s article is a reminder of how pointless that debate is. 

The Blazers don’t look like the face of analytics, unless you want to say that Terry Stotts looks like a tall CPA, in which case I agree with you. They have “retreads” on the bench and a GM who does not carry the sexy MBA outsider shininess of the Cult of Morey. They are, in fact, built around a player in LaMarcus Aldridge whose mid-range proficiency seems to make him a kind of analytic Kryptonite. But as the article shows, the proper use of analysis is intellectual flexibility, not rigidity. It’s not as if the slide-ruler half of the organization is crowing at the personnel half to bench the guys with lower WARP; this is an entire organization dedicated to augmenting its talent with analysis. Yes, you want shots at the rim or from beyond the arc, but nimble minds use what they have at their disposal to find the shots that are actually available on the court, and sometimes those are seventeen footers.  

It’s almost comical how refreshing I find this article and its lessons. But it also goes some distance toward demystifying the Blazers’ performance this year. Analytics devotees and their detractors alike have conistently marveled at Portland’s over-performance this season, but the fluidity with which the team approaches knowledge explains why the organization isn’t so surprised. Most coaches, players, and fans are ideologues of one sort or another, but the Blazers know better, and they’re the only ones who saw this season coming. 

Join the Society

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Before I moved to Portland, I had never lived in an NBA market. In fact, the first NBA game I ever attended was a Blazers game last season, about a year ago today, while I visited my then-fiancee and contemplated a cross-country move from North Carolina. Since then, the team has entered a new era and set a new course. It’s time for PRS to do the same.

Lots of NBA teams boast a rich history, but for a variety of reasons, the Blazers and Portland are uniquely interwoven. As Portland grew into a city of artists, craftsmen, and transients, the Blazers have remained, and the resulting relationship defies simple labels. This is fertile ground, is what I’m saying, and an exciting time for the team. I’m betting that there are a lot of voices with new things to say about it.

So join us. Maybe you’re an NBA newshound, and you flip for every #wojbomb. Maybe your talent lies in video production, or advanced stat wonkery. Perhaps you have a yen for puns, or play diagramming. If you’re passionate about the Blazers, and communicate that passion with sturdy, accessible writing, we want your perspective. You don’t need two thousand Twitter followers, and you don’t need to have published on other hoops blogs (or anywhere else, for that matter). You just need to write well, in your own voice, and be excited about the Trail Blazers.

Send us an email introducing yourself in 2-3 paragraphs. Attach a few writing samples, if you have them. If not, here are a few questions to get you started. Answer as many or as few as you like, in 250 words or less each:

  • What was your favorite in-game Blazers moment so far this season?
  • What are your impressions of Terry Stotts’ coaching style?
  • Who is your all-time favorite Trail Blazer, and why?
  • What are your favorite books, movies, travel destinations, artists, or non-hoops web sites?

Email your materials to portlandroundballsociety [at] gmail [dot] com. I look forward to hearing from you.