The Last of the LaMarcus Critics

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Last week, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski navigated the presumably terrifying dreamscape of Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert to extract the nugget that the Cavs have been privately fantasizing about trading for LaMarcus Aldridge. Of course, a trade seems unlikely in reality because, as Wojnarowski put it, “Cleveland is far higher on its two top-five picks, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, than the rest of the NBA”. Normally, this would be the point when I would drop a quick “O RLY?” owl in Woj’s comments section before scrolling back up to the speculation on Mrs. Battier’s feelings about Anchorage and the emotional scars between Gilbert and his rehired coach, Mike Brown. But I have been hoping for an escape from the LaMarcus Aldridge experience ever since Argentine forward and rugged gaucho Luis Scola played a superior payada in the first round of the 2009 playoffs. An inefficient wing scorer, a younger, worse version of Aldridge, and a possible top-3 draft pick (Otto Porter?), might represent my only chance at freedom from a nightmarish future filled only with the relentless onslaught of elbow jumpers.

The ranks of LaMarcus detractors have thinned with each passing year. Our criticisms continue to become obsolete as the former Texas Longhorn improves his game each season. We used to be able to call him raw until he developed and refined his offensive skills. We used to be able to call him soft until his midrange game became so devastatingly consistent that it may supercede his mediocre rebounding rate and aversion to interior scoring – I’ll leave that verdict to the mathematicians with advanced degrees and big chalkboards. Even one of our favorite weapons of criticism, Aldridge’s interior defense, was revealed to be actually very good in Michigan State University assistant geography professor Kirk Goldsberry’s research paper, The Dwight Effect: A New Ensemble of Defense Analytics for the NBA. Et tu, Goldsberry?

What few of us that remain are now holed up deep in Forest Park, subsisting on rainwater and errant joggers, clinging to what few arguments remain. The argument of cost value of Aldridge compared to the availability of cheaper but effective power forward options (I see you Hickson!) is a fairly compelling one, but like my main man Sir William of Ockham says, the simplest solution is best (It’s safe to assume that in the Ockham City League, Sir William wasn’t throwing a lot of 360 windmills in transition). At the most simple level, I watch basketball because I enjoy it as entertainment. Regular statistics, advanced metrics, research papers presented at the Sloan Conference, and the ghost players employed by the Toronto Raptors and their SportsVU cameras all help me to understand what is happening on that 94-foot stretch of finished maple, but it doesn’t significantly add to my enjoyment. Rather, my enjoyment is defined almost entirely by the level of style and creativity displayed by a team on the pursuit to that golden Larry O’Brien Trophy, and the contributions of the players as characters in the overall drama of the Association.

I don’t enjoy LaMarcus Aldridge because his game is bland like dry white toast with a side of packing peanuts. Has anyone ever looked up an Aldridge highlight on YouTube? Has a drop of Ninkasi ever been spilled on the floor of the Cheerful Tortoise in excitement over Aldridge’s perfect spacing on the pick-and-pop? Watching Aldridge can 18-footers over and over is like watching someone play Pop-A-Shot or like the trick shot toddler on YouTube who borrowed Rasheed Wallace’s stroke from ’02. Speaking of Sheed, he was another reluctant power forward who did more damage with his jumper than on the block, but at least he had the good sense to spice it up by coining rebellious catchphrases, setting technical foul records, rocking patent leather Air Force I hi-tops, stepping to refs on the loading dock postgame, and being spotted at the Washington Square location of Barnes & Noble in a Cat in the Hat hat (Sheed needed that Chicken Soup for the Misunderstood Forward Soul). Apart from an appearance with Penny Marshall on Portlandia – which may turn out to be our Bhagavad-Gita when it’s all said and done – I’m not sure if Aldridge even exists outside of the left elbow, at least in that weird philosophical sense of existence. Of course, Tim Duncan made a career out of being an unemotional robot, but he has that Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue kind of style, a perfect machine designed to counter any type of defense. LaMarcus, meanwhile, is a toaster.

The only possibility that could change my feeling towards LaMarcus is if his blandness has been carefully and knowingly cultivated, like some sort of Andy Kaufman performance art or how I hope that Inspectah Deck intended his solo work. Inside though, I fear that a purpose behind Aldridge’s act would indicate a larger evil genius bent on conquest. I worry his entire career might be part of a great campaign to rid professional basketball of all joy and excitement, in the name of consistency and production, while brainwashing converts in the process. Even the stubborn likes of Bill Simmons and Dwight Jaynes seem to have already fallen under his spell. It’s only a matter of time until Zach Lowe pens a 1,000 word analysis of how Aldridge and his stretch-4 apostles open up movement in NBA offenses. The end is near, my friends. In 20 years, when our city is a wasteland of electro-zydeco indie bands riding around on penny-farthing bicycles and Aldridge is still silently filling it up from 18 feet, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Not even Dion Waiters can save us then.

The Good, The Bad, and The What?

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There will be plenty of places for Blazers’ fans to turn for season retrospectives. They will no doubt be well thought out and written. In order not to pile on, I’ve decided to take a different approach to looking back at the 2012-2013 year. I compiled a few quick hits about things that were good this season, things that were bad, and things that just made me turn my head.

The Good: J.J. Hickson’s Mid-Range Game

This was a very pleasant development for the Blazers. Normally a guy who did most of his damage on put-backs or feeds close to the rim, Hickson showed he was able to step away and make a defense remain honest. Hickson hit 47.3 percent of his shots from outside of the paint while launching 146 attempts. Often Stotts would call a down screen for J.J. as an opening game play. Again, this is a radical improvement after Hickson shot no better than 30.5 percent from this range in the previous 3 years. In fact, he shot an abysmal 30 percent on 305 outside-the-paint shots in the 2010-2011 season with Cleveland. 

Going forward this might not mean much if the Blazers don’t bring Hickson back, but it was nice to see during the season.

The Bad: Jared Jeffries, Net Rating King

Who had the best net rating of all Blazers’ players? None other than Jared Jeffries.

Unfortunately, this warns us of the perils of this stat in individual funky samples because Jeffries was not actually good. He shot 29.6 percent from the floor and only converted 3 shots outside of the paint. He averaged 5 points per 40 minutes and was not very good on defense, getting torched by opposing bigs. Despite this he somehow was plus-2.8 in net rating. 

The What?: Luke Babbitt’s 6th Man Vote

I know that all the possible jokes have been made about this, but it still is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. A team that had one of the worst benches in recent memory somehow garnered a 6th Man vote. And it wasn’t even one of the arguably decent players.

Babbitt is a specialist to end all specialists. He shot 76 percent of his attempts from 3-point land and only converted at a 34.8 percent clip. This is below the league average (36 percent). Per 40 minutes he jacked 9.8 three pointers, second only to Carlos Delfino of players that played 60 games. 

Even if he had played well, he saw under 12 minutes of action per game and missed 20 games due to Coach’s Decision. I mean, Babbitt took 13 free throws for the entire year! Go home, 6th Man voter, you’re drunk.

The Good: The Playmakers

Going forward it’s good to know that Portland has 3 legitimate sources of offense. LaMarcus Aldridge is a rock and will always be able to loft jumpers over even the lankiest of opponents. Damian Lillard has shown incredible poise and scoring ability for a rookie. 

The encouraging development is Nic Batum, who has set himself apart as a great shooter and shot creator for others. His assist rate was 24.1 this year, almost double the average for forwards in the league and a huge improvement from previous seasons. Combine this ability with his 37.2 percent mark from 3 where he is good off the catch and in handoff situations and he has made himself into a dangerous wing option. For a guy who gets heralded for defensive potential, he will have a prominent role in the creation of offense for the Blazers in the future

The Bad: April Sours

It was a bad last month for the Blazers. They dropped their final 13 games and often didn’t look competitive. On the bright side, there was plenty of time for the young guys to get minutes, which is important on a team that is begging for depth. However, the defense gave up 113.3 points per 100 possessions, which is disastrous. 

The What?: On the Shoulders’ of Starters

Three teams had a lineup that played over 1,000 minutes this year. It comes as o surprise that the Blazers were one of them.

The question I have is whether this is a good thing or not. Lillard led the league in minutes and, along with Aldridge and Batum, was in the top 10 in minutes per game. These guys will have some rest over the summer, but I wonder if the heavy use will have any effects on this group next season, especially the rookie Lillard. 

The other concern is that, while relative to the other Portland lineups this group looked good, it didn’t perform well overall. The other 1,000 minute lineups (the starters for the Thunder and Pacers) were standout groups and warranted such heavy playing time. The Blazers’ starters, in contrast, had a minus-2.0 net rating and had particular trouble rebounding. 

The good news is that it was a pretty decent offensive group and the extended minutes together might mean better chemistry next season when most of these guys return.

 

Thoughts On Stotts

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This year’s Coach of the Year award voting will be crowded with deserving candidates. Time tested veterans like Gregg Popovich and George Karl will be joined by the up-and-coming likes of Mark Jackson and Frank Vogel on a ballot that has already generated lots of discussion.

This award, in my opinion, is the hardest to parse. For player awards, there are plenty of statistics to help voters and other opinion-havers bolster their arguments. For coaches, we don’t have as much concrete evidence. Even with measures such as win-loss record it is hard to determine just how much this is affected by the coach. With this in mind, I decided to try to look at how Terry Stotts has done in his first year with Portland.

Record

As I mentioned before, it is quite the travail to assess what part of a team’s record falls on the coach, but this is the down and dirty measure for coaches. The Blazers finished 33-49 and lost their last 13 games. Obviously that record isn’t good and it’s discouraging that Portland wasn’t able to win for almost an entire month. But we have to temper our expectations for a first year coach who had five rookies, one of which was his starting point guard, and a bench that didn’t appear NBA-worthy. Also, the Blazers dealt with injury trouble down the stretch, which hasn’t helped in terms of the losing streak.

Offense and Defense

Stotts came up under offensively talented coaches such as George Karl and Rick Carlisle. It’s no surprise then that the Blazers offense performed pretty well this year. In overall efficiency they were ranked 12th and the starting line-up, which played 1,104 minutes, was even a little bit better. Stotts put in place the “flow” offense that had worked so well with Dirk Nowitzki and allowed his new sweet shooting big man LaMarcus Aldridge to have yet another good year.

Defensively, it was brutal. Portland ended the season 24th in defensive efficiency and did not seem to improve. They struggled with pick-and-rolls and didn’t offer much protection at the rim. Again, Stotts was working with an undersized center who doesn’t have great defensive instincts in J.J. Hickson, but some improvement over the course of the year would have been nice. I see this as the most important area for improvement for coach Stotts.

In-Game Coaching

I generally liked the way Stotts called plays during games. Check out our own Sunny Ahluwalia’s “Plays of the Week” segments if you’d like to see some specific examples. He certainly seems prepared as far as X’s and O’s go. There were times he seemed a little trigger happy with timeouts, but with a young team that is perhaps necessary.

Player Development

That Lillard pick helps. Obviously Lillard came into the league pretty ready to take over, but Stotts has to be given some credit for handing over a large portion of the offense to a rookie and having it pan out. He played Lillard a lot of minutes, but when Ronnie Price is your backup for most of the year that becomes understandable.

I’m encouraged by some of the other young guys’ development, too. Meyers Leonard played pretty productive minutes in the absences of J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge. Specifically, he seemed confident in shooting some mid-range jumpers towards the end of the season, perhaps because of good coaching. Will Barton flashed impressive athleticism with his dunk show against the Thunder recently. He’s raw, but even over the course of this year has matured. This category is largely unresolved, but with another summer and training camp, Stotts may be able to start to get even more productive minutes out of some of these guys and it would certainly be a testament to his ability.

For the season I liked how Stotts performed and I think he has a chance to stick in Portland. He’s a talented offensive tactician and if he can find a way to cobble together a coherent defense, the Blazers can move back towards competing for the playoffs. Plus, the biggest weakness this year doesn’t fall squarely on him. He can only cook the meal with the ingredients he’s given and it will be more elucidating as to his true quality when he has a better overall roster. 

Warriors 99—Blazers 88: “I have a lot of fondness for this season”

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How do you orchestrate a franchise-record losing streak without anybody caring? Tack it on to the end of a season that feels like a new beginning despite a lower winning percentage than the year previous. Throw in a presumptive Rookie of the Year winner, four other rookies in various stages of development, and a coach and GM at the end of their first year with the team, and you have the recipe for willful optimism.

The Blazers’ final game of the season, a 99-88 loss to the playoff-bound Golden State Warriors, was less a microcosm of their season than of the past dozen or so games. The game was mostly close, but the Blazers were content to let a five rookie lineup finish a game that a few months ago they may have pushed to win. That’s how this ends. No Nic Batum, no Wes Matthews, and none of the manic stubbornness that allowed the team to steal December games from playoff caliber opponents. And that’s more or less how it should be.

After this game, the mood in the locker room was mostly valedictory. Despite the 13 game skid, Terry Stotts and players were content with a season that in rebuilding seemed to presage a stable future. Said Stotts: “I have a lot of fondness for this season….This losing streak at the end—you can’t wipe that off the record. That’s obviously part of it, but I’ll remember more about the first two thirds of the season than the last 13 games.”

That mood held. More games than they should have won, with moments of real competition: this is what the players are storing away from this season. Which is fitting—this team has at times been a bit drudging in their focus and stoicism, but they’re not a unit to dwell on negatives. This team has felt emotionally stable all season, and the modest confidence they’re taking away is to be expected.

The game itself taught fans almost nothing new. Will Barton played a full 48 minutes, capping his strong end-of-season run with a minutes load reflecting his progress. 14 weeks ago, Barton was shuttling back and forth from Portland to Boise for stints in the D-League; though his game has a few obvious gaps, his close to the season has made him a centerpiece in fans’—and presumably franchise—hopes and plans.

I’d like it to have ended differently. I’d have liked the Blazers to come out and once more defy reason to steal a victory from a team that had every reason to want it more. The loss and the streak it bookends are perhaps the lone blemish on a perfect losing season. The team was competitive without jeopardizing its ability to draft, they tested the limits of their core players without neglecting the developmental projects, and they brought a new playing style to a city that craved it. For now, that has to be enough.

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Programming note: I’ll be headed to exit interviews tomorrow, and I’ll have extended season thoughts and other year-end essays throughout this week and into next. It’s been a pleasure covering the home games, and I hope you’ll join me for reflection on my first season covering a team.  

Time to reopen ROY debate?

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Friend of the blog and crusader for truth and justice Ethan Sherwood Strauss has an article on ESPN Insider currently detailing his belief that Anthony Davis—and not Damian Lillard—deserves to be named Rookie of the Year. The article isn’t trolling; it’s smart, well-supported by numbers, and fun. Here’s a pull:

By averaging 19.1 ppg and 6.5 apg, Lillard has compiled some superficially superior numbers. In fact, those two numbers might be enough by themselves to secure the trophy.

But we know these days that a player’s true ability and performance is best measured by efficiency stats, not by counting stats.

If Davis and Lillard were similar on a per-minute, per-possession basis, then Lillard would clearly deserve the hardware. That’s not the case, though. The statistical evidence speaks loudly on this: Davis has been much more effective while on the floor.

The two main advanced statistics, Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Win Shares, both dramatically prefer Davis on a possession-to-possession basis. Based on PER, Davis is leading Lillard 21.8 to 16.6, an enormous advantage. In Win Share average, Davis nearly doubles Lillard .159 to .091.

Ethan also writes that while most Lillard supporters point out that Davis has missed a ton of games, he’s still played 60, which is more than the argument seems to account for. Let’s take this in for a second, and take a deep breath.

Where the numbers are concerned, Ethan’s case is airtight: Davis has been more efficient on both ends, and grades out higher. There’s no way to declare your belief in analytics while ignoring that most second-level evidence reveals Davis to be stronger on a per-minute basis. That doesn’t mean he should be Rookie of the Year; in fact, in spite of Ethan’s argument, I would cast my vote for Lillard.

While Lillard has been demonstrably less efficient than Davis, I’d argue that he’s nonetheless been the far more effective this year. He was not his team’s best player, but its catalyst; if his scoring could have been more efficient, he nonetheless shouldered a huge load and delivered consistently in a way that his team was able to rely on him as a primary option. As the season progressed, he began to figure out how to penetrate and get decent looks at the rim. His distributive abilities grew over time, and he has in stretches been the best player on the floor.

Ethan points out that Davis’ defensive ability has not been as advertised due to understandable rookie struggles; Damian’s defense has at times been woeful. And the team offenses are closer than you’d think: New Orleans is tied for 15th in offensive efficiency, while Portland has slid to a tie for 13th. So we’re left to judge two primarily offensive players with drastically different styles and roles.

I’m picking Lillard, and I feel good about it. To my mind, he’s filled the bigger role and played a larger hand in his team’s success. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that fans so long ago decided this discussion was over, because Davis vs. Lillard is an illuminating study in player value. On the one hand, a player capable of shouldering an offense inefficiencies and all, on the other a hyper effective bucket-getter and shot bloclker who costs his team very few opportunities. It’s a good discussion, and a fun one, and one I wish we had more of. 

Blazers’ Plays of the Week

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Welcome to Plays of the Week, where we take a look at Blazers’ sets from the past 7 days that caught our eye. If you see a play call or a trend that intrigues you, hit us up on twitter or leave a message in the comments section below.

The No Dribble Offense

While the majority of the Blazers offense is created through pick and roll action and post ups, some of the best looks that the team generates come when all five players are moving and screening for each other.

Here’s a play from early in the Rockets game that features a ton movement, multiple screens, and results in a number of good shooting options. 

The play really starts when Will Barton finds Wes Matthews coming off a JJ Hickson down screen. Barton immediately flares off a LaMarcus Aldridge screen as Hickson sets another down screen, this time for Damian Lillard (whose path is shown in grey). 

As Lillard hits the screen, Matthews has Aldridge open at the top of the key, and has a slightly less favorable pass to Will Barton, either at the rim or in the corner. Matthews opts to find Lillard and it results in a good look at a three. 

It’s a nice wrinkle on the standard horns set, and the Blazers managed to generate open looks with just ball and player movement.  

Welcome Back LaMarcus Aldridge

One of the reasons the first play that we looked at worked so well, is that the Blazers often use the same action to isolate Aldridge on the left block.

Instead of using an Aldridge screen, the strong side wing player (Victor Claver in this case) sets a back screen for Aldridge allowing him to establish decent post position.

We all know LaMarcus prefers to turn over his right shoulder to shoot when posted up on the left block, but Asik does a good job of overplaying that, so Aldridge drives to the middle and converts a tough shot while getting fouled. 

This clip shows the same action — with Wes Matthews setting the back screen this time — and Aldridge facing up Asik and driving baseline for fadeaway jumper. 

The final clip has elements of everything we’ve looked at so far – namely ball and player movement from the horns set – and ends in a favorable matchup with LA isolated against Dirk Nowitzki. 

Eric Maynor Lobs

As Eric Maynor gets comfortable with his teammates, these alley-oop plays – both in transition and in the half court – are becoming more common.

Maynor’s ball handling has obviously allowed Damian Lillard to play off the ball in the half court, but’s it’s also allowed him the opportunity to run the wings in transition. 

In the second clip, Maynor turns the corner after using a very high screen and finds a cutting Will Barton with a perfectly timed lob for an easy finish.  If the Blazers are unable to re-sign Maynor this summer, here’s hoping they are able to find someone that combines steady play with a flair for the dramatic. 

 

A Final Call to Arms

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In one week, the Trail Blazers 2012-2013 campaign will be over – if it isn’t already. Portland fans once again will be free for the summer to scrutinize scouting reports on Draft Express, debate the long-term merits of J.J. Hickson, pore over the geography of basketball as presented by Kirk Goldsberry, hunt for Kelvin Cato replica jerseys on Ebay, reacquaint themselves with local used book stores, home brew kombucha, wander through farmers markets while wondering about the comparative quality of life of kale versus quinoa, or whatever else it is that we do when separated from our routine congregations at One Center Court. With the Blazers’ season finally having devolved into a bench-clearing stagger towards the draft lottery, fans would be forgiven for looking towards their summer plans. But please, Portland, I implore you, don’t start your journey into the online archives of Alan Lomax just yet. Tonight, those purple and gold land o’lakes castoffs invade our fair city with their barbarous media horde and cash-soaked idea of destiny. Tonight, the duty as fans goes beyond the fate of a dwindling season. With the purpose of the common good for the greater human family, Portland must summon all of its remaining reserve to make another valiant stand against the scourge of the Western Conference. 

Do not be fooled by the fact that these Los Angeles Lakers enter the contest holding a only half a game lead in the race for the final playoff spot, or that Steve Nash and Metta World Peace have been hobbled by injury, or that former Portland fan favorite Steve Blake likely will be handling the point guard duties in Nash’s absence, or that they have a player named Metta World Peace. Instead, remember that Nash left noted Portlandiaphile Channing Frye to rot in Phoenix with Goran Dragic before being sidelined indefinitely with a heart issue. Remember that Blake’s inability to navigate around a ball screen left Greg Oden isolated on the perimeter to pick up quick fouls and limit the fans’ potential enjoyment of an already limited career. Remember that Metta World Peace is not a Unitarian co-op off of Northeast Alberta Street but a classless goon who once beat up on innocent members of an already depressed Detroit community simply because one poor guy lost the grip on his beverage. The Lakers deserve no sympathy and no quarter, especially in Portland.

The relationship between the two teams is less of a rivalry and more that of a fiercely defiant territory refusing to surrender to an oppressive empire. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Lakers sent the monstrous Shaquille O’Neal with his sheer brutality masquerading as a post game to bludgeon Sabonis, Brian Grant, and the rest of our noble frontcourt into submission. The Blazers responded with the invention of “Hack-a-Shaq” in an ill-fated attempt to stave off destruction. After the repressed memory of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, Kobe, Shaq, and Rick Fox’s campaign of total war set Portland down a path that nearly led to its complete basketball ruin. It required the ascension of Brandon Roy to resurrect the city from the very literal ghost of Darius Miles, the battle of red seats versus black seats, and reel off nine straight victories in Portland over the Lakers from 2005-2010. The Rose Garden haunted the Angelinos like the Russian winter haunted so many would-be conquerors. Even the great Zen Master himself resorted to Trevor Ariza’s cheap assassination attempt on the dashing Rudy Fernandez, almost starting a riot before Ariza’s ejection, while the Blazers ran out to a 111-94 victory. Before its end in 2010, the period of Rose City rebellion also saw Batum over Gasol: Parts I and II.

Now, both teams find themselves in relative mediocrity and therefore, the game tonight may lack the pretense of years past. The Lakers may be an injury-riddled chemistry experiment clinging to the bottom rung of the playoffs and the Blazers may start Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver, and Will Barton. But nonetheless, it always matters when the Lakers come to town. Kobe Bean Bryant will still be on the other side, and their treacherous bandwagon-jumping insurgency will be in full attendance. So please, Portlandians, don’t detach from this season yet. Make the Rose Garden the site of the final destruction of the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers, for the Western Conference, for Sabonis, for Brandon Roy, for Channing Frye, and for Unitarian co-ops everywhere. May Will Barton have no mercy on their souls. Summer will come soon enough.

Beat L.A.

Baseless conjecture: Centers in free agency

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Neil Olshey, J.J Hickson, and Hickson’s agent left very little to mystery in yesterday’s Jason Quick column, in which they all basically say that Hickson is done for in his present role with the Blazers. There is a litany of reasons why this is best—Hickson’s porous defense, his lack of real size for the role the Blazers need him to fill, his proclivity toward breezy misogyny, the fact that none of these problems will prevent him from getting overpaid—but that’s not what we’re here to discuss. My policy has been to wait until the offseason to discuss the offseason here on the blog, but since Olshey is doing it so publicly, let’s dive in on what this means for next season, shall we?

The Blazers need a center. Even supposing the heavens conspire to make Meyers Leonard a starter in his second year, the Blazers still need a center. And since it would pretty much take a conspiracy of the heavens to make him not just a starter but so reliable the team could plan around him, they need a center who can be a frequent starter.

As Quick points out, Portland will have 11.8 million dollars to spend. I’ll assume that a center is a higher priority than retaining Eric Maynor—though I have no direct evidence the team’s thinking that way, it seems a potential starter is a bigger and more expensive piece than a back-up point guard who is not ideally suited to a long stretches as a featured scorer. Still, the Blazers have likely holes at four spots in a nine man rotation, so a center can’t come too expensive. It seems a quandary.

Checking the list of free agents this summer, there are a few candidates here, assuming the Blazers pursue free agency rather than a trade. None are marquee players, and precisely zero are a perfect fit. Ideally, the Blazers pursue a youngish player who doesn’t need the ball much on offense to be content; the scoring punch the other four starters are packing is enough that Portland needs mostly to concern itself with a smart defensive rotator and capable rebounder. For this reason, I think the idea of throwing a lot of money at Nikola Pekovic, as has long been dreamed of by fans, is a bit misguided: he’s good, but the things that make him so good (read: expensive) may not be worth the price on a team that can lean on other scorers. I’m not saying that a low-post scorer would make the team worse, just that with limited resources, the team is better served paying for a less expensive player type.

I’m gonna talk specific players now, which, as always means we’re entering the realm of pure conjecture, wishin’, and foolishness. My money is on nothing in this post coming true, but it’s fun to think about certain players’ attributes as reflections on the team’s state. That said, a few names stick out here as potential affordable players who could fill a starter/third big role with some proficiency while primarily focusing on defense and rebounding.

Perhaps the biggest gamble among these is Brandan Wright. A below-average rebounder by rebound rate, Wright is nonetheless a 25 year old unearthing and identity as a back-line eraser and finisher par excellence; he may not bring the heft on the boards the Blazers are after, but the Dallas environment in which he’s starting to thrive is not a far cry from Stottsketball. It could be that Wright becomes more of a rebounder when asked to do more, or perhaps he’s enough of a help defender to mitigate that weakness. But I doubt he’s expensive, he’s young, he’s growing, and he went to Carolina, so basically I am starting a whitehouse.gov petition to get this started.

A player who is almost certainly a better fit, but for a few reasons maybe even less likely, is Tiago Splitter. A smart defender, a deft cutter in small movements around the hoop, and an average rebounder, Splitter could be a perfect fit next to LaMarcus Aldridge. Of course, nobody ever leaves the Spurs, and they’re in a position to hold on to what talent they have while they prop their window open through whatever means necessary. A team likely has to overpay to pry Splitter from the Spurs’ grasp, and overpaying is counterproductive for a team with as many needs as Portland.

Which brings me to an idea that sort of makes me hate myself. There is one free agent on the list with an above average rebound rate, playing more than 20 minutes a night, under thirty, with a defensive reputation. You know who I mean: Zaza. That’s right, the earth-bound Georgian and purveyor of perhaps the league’s least aesthetically pleasing game may just be the kind of ugly this otherwise over-pretty team could put to work. Currently, Pachulia makes $4.75m and probably hasn’t played his way to much more. He’s a yeoman with, to my knowledge, no baggage about playing that role. Listen, I’m with you. The first time I even thought this, I though “ye gods, is it as bad as Zaza?” But I can think of worse things than placeholder bigs who thrive as agitator bench defenders.

Of course, there are more options than these three. I’ve selected three to play around with because they’re sort of representative of the directions the team might move. They could invest in another pseudo-project, like Wright, in the hopes they secure a longer-term contributor and athlete. They could pay for a more proven commodity, like Splitter, and run the risk of over-investing in a single role. Or they could gird their loins take on an unglamorous veteran who embraces the team deficiencies.

Whatever they do, I’m certain that I’ll be wrong about it. There are always trades and unforeseen eventualities that shape a roster, but idle conjecture is one of the best and least harmful aspects of fandom.  As more concrete possibilities materialize, we’ll be all over it. For now, let the imagination run wild.  

 

 

Doing Meyers Things

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Following the progress of rookies in the NBA can be tantalizing, promising and horrifying all at the same time. Coaches tolerate youthful mistakes in the hope that a second round gem will develop into a role player, or a lottery pick will realize his potential with increased minutes on the floor. Rarely, however, does a team feature five rookies on its roster, as the Trail Blazers have done this season. Damian Lillard has exceeded all expectations, Victor Claver has proven valuable in spot minutes off the bench, Will Barton has intrigued with remarkable athleticism, and Joel Freeland has largely been a disappointment, however no rookie has had a more interesting year for the Blazers than Meyers Leonard.

He debuted in a season opening win against the Lakers that saw him collect as many personal fouls as rebounds. Minutes through out the start of the season were sporadic and unpredictable as Meyers flashed glimpses of the potential that led Portland to spend a lottery pick, but the two-handed, rim-rocking dunks were accompanied by ugly defensive sequences on the other end. All too often Leonard found himself in the middle of the lane, halfway between a driving guard and his man behind him. Granted, the often porous perimeter defense the Blazers displayed this season put the rookie big man at a disadvantage; still, his defensive lapses have been too numerous to discount as a product of team defense.

His propensity to go from a mind numbing defensive mistake to a roaring dunk on the other end led me to coin the phrase “Meyers things” to describe his style of play. For example, quite a few times this year Meyers has unleashed a spinning jump hook in the lane that seems to always catch defenders by surprise. His catch and shoot motion, all while facing away from the basket looks more like a 6th grader too eager to shoot than a professional basketball player, yet the shot seems to find the basket more often than not.  The same feathery touch has been on display as Leonard drains 18 footers, reminiscent of a young LaMarcus Aldridge. Now, I’m not saying Meyers is a comparable shooter to Aldridge, but if the Blazers can play two big men at the same time, both with the threat to hit from the outside, driving lanes will open up for Blazer wings to penetrate and finish at the rim.  

With all that said, the game appears to be slowing down for Meyers as the season draws to a close. He looks more confident with the ball in his hands at the offensive end, and spends less time in no-man’s-land on the defensive side of the ball. However, if he wants to become a legitimate starting center, he still has quite a bit of work to do. The remaining weaknesses in his post defense have been exploited by the likes of Al Jefferson and Marc Gasol in recent games, and he must also learn how to use his fouls more wisely. All too often you see Meyers go for a hard foul instead of rising up to contest a layup. Hard fouls underneath can be an excellent tool for guards overmatched by post players, but Meyers can’t give up silly fouls in the same situation against the likes of Mike Conely and Jeff Teague.

I’ve enjoyed watching Meyers Leonard on the Blazers since the day he was drafted. I admittedly shed a tear watching the heart-warming reunion video with his brother, and I’ve celebrated his successes along with all the other Blazer fans in the city. With the playoffs officially out of the question and the roster thinned due to injuries, Meyers will get his chance to play significant minutes against top competition over the remaining five games. Hopefully Meyers will continue to improve and impress and Blazer fans will get to watch him do “Meyers things” for many years to come.  

Let’s Argue

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This is what we do, right? The Worldwide Leader puts out a list, however arbitrary, and us members of the basketball internet debate its results. We grimace and guffaw and condescend and clamor, in the end generating plenty of sound (and surely some fury) that ultimately signifies nothing.

I’m not implying that this is necessarily a total waste of time or an ultimately pointless exercise. Discourse is good, especially if it can lead to a more thorough and refined understanding of the subject. But sometimes a list is just a list and we shouldn’t get overly sentimental with the results.

That being said, I was curious how these 111 contributors would treat the Trail Blazers. It can be argued that Portland lacks a true “star” in the sense that nobody on the team carries the national marketing weight of a LeBron or Durant. However, it does have an anchor in two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, a player whose on-court production cannot be trifled with, even if his methods almost always will be.

Aldridge is currently the only Portland player ranked in this top 30 (he’s 25th) and barring a sudden and overwhelming outpouring of love for Wes Matthews, he will remain Portland’s sole representative. This seems fair. While Nic Batum and the aforementioned Matthews are solid contributors, they are still young and any argument saying they are top-30 players would be a hard one to make. 

Perhaps the only arguments one could make are: 1. Aldridge is too low and therefore underrated and 2. He should not have dropped 5 spots since the last iteration of the list. Without going into an in-depth comparison with every player on the list, let’s look at the players who immediately bookend Aldridge. One spot lower is Brook Lopez, an offense first (and maybe only) center who has become a focal point for a slow, but albeit effective offense. One spot higher is Tyson Chandler, reigning Defensive Player of the Year who basically only shoots when immediately next to the basket. 

Aldridge in a way is a medium between these two poles. He is able to create shots and score in more ways than just receiving lobs, while also being a pretty good defender who is mobile and can challenge shots with excellent length. Aldridge has been less efficient than Lopez on offense and isn’t a Chandler-like game-changer defensively. But there is merit to moderation and LaMarcus provides that. Unfortunately, being stuck in the middle isn’t an enviable position and thus is the nature of how Aldridge goes along underrated. 

Arguing that LaMarcus should not have slid in rank at all since last season is perhaps a little more tenuous. Some of Aldridge’s numbers are down this year, most notably true shooting percentage, which is set to be his lowest in 5 years. This is an important stat for a player who does create a lot of his offense from jump shooting. It also does not help that he isn’t getting to the line as much. However, he has become a better defensive rebounder, is assisting at a career high rate, and still doesn’t turn the ball over very much for a high-usage player. Overall, his PER has dropped more than 2 full points from last year, but remains at an impressive 20.3. 

So it seems the fall of LaMarcus, while not precipitous, might be somewhat deserved. However, his overall rating does not appear to do him justice, as the perception of his style continues to outweigh his actual production. It appears Aldridge will remain Portland’s semaphore, tall and distinct, projecting a message that many find too distant to truly understand.