Saturday, April 29, 2006

Does Character Matter?

Only a fool would argue that character matters more than talent in professional sports. You will find no such assertion here. But I would argue that character is becoming more and more critical to winning as the next-generation NBA evolves.

Part of this is due to the nature of the game itself. Of all the major team sports, basketball has the fewest participants on the field and also has the smallest playing area. It is thus more intimate and inherently subject to the influence of single players. It is also the only major team sport in which--in function and goal at least--every player is interchangeable. Any one of the five players can go anywhere on the court, shoot, pass, pick, or defend at any time. This puts a greater responsibility on each player belonging seamlessly to the whole every second they're on the court than exists in other sports. (An offensive lineman blocks but will never be called upon suddenly to pass. As long as he blocks right, he's done his work. For years the Minnesota Vikings played passable offense with Randy Moss taking every second play off even though he was on the field every down. Similarly, goalkeepers in soccer and hockey stand in one area with little chance of being involved in any offensive play.) It's simply more difficult in basketball than in any other major sport to assimilate a talented player who's not dedicated to the team and on the same page as everybody else.

In addition, the 21st-century NBA has experienced the "perfect storm" for highlighting character issues. Players have gotten younger, salaries have gotten bigger, and contracts have gotten longer and completely guaranteed, all at the same time. Both the collective bargaining agreement and current league culture practically mandate overpaying with long-term deals based on potential. What it amounts to is conveying the means to gratify every conceivable selfish desire by the time a player is 22. Money, food, house, car, girlfriends, travel, acclaim, fame, it's all there. This creates a test of character. The inevitable question becomes, "What next?" If the motivation is self-gratification alone, the answer is, "Nothing! Already got it!" Only the players who are motivated by something beyond themselves--to be the best, contributing to the team, championships, or just fulfilling what they promised--will respond.

Finally, our society as a whole has spotlighted the character issue through relentless media scrutiny. Wilt Chamberlain was one of the biggest stars the sport has seen. Yet we never would have known he slept with 20,000 women unless he bragged about it in his book. Times were different then. Nowadays if somebody even remotely famous ties their shoelaces backwards, they make the front page. There are no shortage of folks wanting to brag about their brushes with celebrities. You may expect that if you're at all interesting, your hairdresser, your landscape artist, six quackers from local newspapers and magazines, and your Uncle Jimbo will all eventually be lining up to spill all about your life on the latest edition of "Behind/Between/Underneath the Whatever". And we love it! Building up heroes and then tearing them down is our new national pastime. And the media sells us exactly what we ask for. Character, or better lack thereof, is on display with unprecedented constancy and accessibility.

For all these reasons, character is more a part of the NBA conversation now than ever before.

It's worth noting for Portland fans that both of the latter two issues are exacerbated in small markets. Because of the relative lack of publicity and attendant endorsement deals, small markets are more susceptible to paying through the nose to retain potential talent than are their bigger brethren. When's the last time you heard a superstar say, "I really want to go to Milwaukee?" (No offense Milwaukee...they don't say it about Portland anymore either, and it's a great place to live.) Also the media glare in a smaller town, especially a single-sport one, can be overwhelming. It's not that the road is different in a smaller place, just steeper.

It's no coincidence that it's been notoriously hard for small market teams to win in the huge money, media-hype, David Stern era. Nearly 80% of modern-era championships have been won by the same four big-market teams. Only two small market teams have won since 1980. Who are these exceptions? Boston won three times, San Antonio twice. That those two teams are also known as two of the best character teams in league history is no accident.

We're not talking about needing choirboys here. Whether you like it or not, late-night forays to strip clubs and occasional dalliances with drugs and/or alcohol have always been a part of the professional sports culture. I would wager a year's NBA salary that there were players on the heroic teams of yore (even in Boston and maybe SA) who did/do the exact same thing. I don't believe that's necessarily indicative of poor character. (Some would argue. That's fine.) But character does mean living for something bigger than yourself, working hard at whatever your calling is, and most of all standing tough and responding in the face of adversity instead of quitting, whining, or blaming. That is the kind of character that's intrinsic to sport, the kind sport is supposed to teach you. It's also the kind that's all too often found lacking among professional athletes.

I would argue that character matters very much if you have designs on being anything more than mediocre. Talent might possibly overcome lack of character if you could assemble enough of it, but that's getting harder and harder in today's NBA and is all but impossible for a small-market team. So if you're building one of those teams outside of LA or Chicago, you'd better take a look at a guy's character just as much as his vertical leap. It might not be the top priority, but it needs to be on the list. Now, more than ever, character matters.

--Dave

Friday, April 28, 2006

We Be the GM

I love how the O-Live site has turned our uncertainty into a positive over the last couple of years by running their "You Be the G.M." poll. It wouldn't have worked as well in the championship-run years ("Does Clyde stay or go? You make the call!") but it's a fun feature nowadays. I love any kind of decent Blazer conversation, and this sure seems to generate some. Mostly, though, it reminds me to be grateful that we, as fans, don't actually get our secret wishes to run the franchise. The swing in public opinion from year to year can be shocking. And I don't exclude myself from that. Two years ago I was all for keeping Zach and Darius. (OK...not at that price though. I'll give myself that.) As much as we criticize them sometimes, it's a good thing that the real G.M.'s are there to temper things.

So who do you think gets the highest "keep" percentage this year? I'd guess Martell is the odds-on favorite, with Jack's support being split by all the company he has at his position. Nate might be a darkhorse, as would be Khryapa. On the other hand, I don't even want to see what happens May 9th when Darius comes due. I'm not optimistic about Allen either. They better make that "go" box a little bigger. Either that or create a new category: "I will pack your bags and drive you myself."

--Dave

Position by Position--Shooting Guards

At the beginning of the season shooting guard was our biggest hole on paper. But all things considered, it didn't turn out that bad.

After a brief flirtation with Sergei Monia, Outlaw, and even Miles manning the 2, Juan Dixon got the semi-permanent call. He responded by posting career bests in nearly every significant statistical category, even those (like field goal percentage--43.5%) that don't necessarily depend on time. While he doesn't have a "go to" move, he showed the ability to get a shot in nearly any situation, especially against the clock. Dixon was hands down the best clutch shooter on the team. Also when Darius and Zach went down, Juan picked up the slack, easily moving into the second scorer role. From December through early February he kept us in a lot of games and even won us a couple. Opposing commentators were starting to say what a nice pick-up Portland had made. Had Blake not played such a key role and Webster not become a media darling in the last month of the season, Juan would probably have gotten more kudos.

Dixon's biggest drawback is that he's both short and small for the position. He can get his shot up against all comers, but most nights he can't defend them. Smaller players get by him too much and bigger guards like Jason Richardson...you might as well forget it. Also, despite bagging a couple assists per game, he doesn't make that many plays with the ball in his hands unless he's shooting it. When you're playing two point-guard sized guys in the backcourt, you start thinking motion, passing, and superior ball handling. We didn't see that from Juan much this year. (To be fair, though, his role this year was mostly to shoot. Besides, the choices to pass to were Khryapa or a center, both of whom they look off all the time, or Zach, from whom they never get it back, and there goes the passing game.) Part of the impetus for acquiring Dixon was the possibility of having a long-term combo guard. Jack has clearly usurped that role, leaving Juan out in the cold. Also, Dixon played far better as a starter than off the bench.

Between the improvement of the younger guys and the shaky play off the bench, it's not surprising that we didn't see as much of Juan after February as we had earlier. It was a tough deal, I'm sure, for a guy who played a lot and gave a lot at a time of the season when we were still trying to win games. I heard a fair amount of speculation that Dixon was pouting and had quit on the team. A national columnist even brought it up. Help me out...did I miss something here? The thing that impressed me most about Juan is that even with his reduced role, and likely feeling that he got jobbed, I never, ever heard any Rubenesque complaining in the papers, nor did I see any Darius-like nonchalance on the court. From what I saw and heard, this guy was a complete professional in the middle of a very trying situation. Can anyone else fill me on on where that quitting stuff came from? I believe the crux of the matter for the national columnist was that he was forcing difficult shots. Did this guy see Juan play at all this year? First off, when you're a 6'3" shooting guard, every shot is a difficult shot. Second, those are exactly the shots Dixon was taking and canning through most of the season. I think Juan would argue that playing sporadic minutes makes it more difficult for a rhythm guy like him (with no go-to move to fall back on) to get in the groove, thus more shots missed. But I didn't see him taking different shots late in the year than he did earlier.

Because of the defensive shortcomings and the glut of 6-footers we have, I don't think Dixon is a long-term player on this team. But I still admire and am grateful for the way he handled himself as the season wound down. Far from a quitter, he seemed a breath of fresh air. (Maybe people at practice, in the locker room, or reading some source I didn't see have reason to say different. If there's something I missed here, fill me in below or at blazersub@yahoo.com.)

Martell Webster's star rose even as Juan's was falling. There's a fair amount of speculation whether Martell will turn out to be a shooting guard or small forward (it's a matter of what he can defend) but I really hope he can stay in the backcourt because of the size advantage. He looked quick enough at the 2, but it's hard to tell because his individual defensive form and footwork are still works in progress. He can certainly run the floor, but his lateral quickness will be the question. He wasn't awful for a rookie but he'll need to work on keeping his man in front of him if he wants to see minutes next fall like he did this spring. Martell's calling card is, of course, his wonderful shooting form and his fairly quick release. Nobody shoots as instantly and well as Ray Allen, but Martell has drawn comparisons. He's got legitimate NBA skill in that area, and that will keep him in the league for 10 years plus no matter what. Seeing Wesbter come off a curl screen, get the ball, and release is a thing of beauty. Even his once shaky stand-still three got better as the season progressed. He's not that good at getting his own shot, especially facing up from distance. At the tail end of the season he started using his height to get turn-around shots from the wing at 15 feet or so, and that looked good. He'll probably always be best when somebody sets screens for him, though, and this may affect who we keep if we intend to make him a major cog. The other impressive thing is that he really started hustling as he received more playing time. He worked for rebounds, poked at balls, and even got on the floor once or twice. He also moved without the ball much better on offense. His shortcomings will be mitigated somewhat if he keeps that attitude. Finally, and less tangibly, he showed a little "star power" this year, which frankly the community is starved for. It also might help him draw some fouls if he makes driving a part of his arsenal.

Just as Dixon's contributions to the season were a little underrated, Martell's were probably a little overrated, but there's little doubt that heading into the offseason he's the buzz of the franchise. And hey, there's reason to be excited about a 6'8" guard who can shoot and displays a little athleticism. Those are the kind of players legit teams are made of.

--Dave

Draft Help Responses

Thank you to everyone who e-mailed with draft suggestions. So far folks seem to be split pretty evenly between Lamarcus Aldridge and Andrea Bargnani. Both are nice forwards and would probably fit, although I might tend towards Aldridge because he seems tougher and maybe the better rebounder at this point and I think that's something we need. How do you ignore a guy who's 6'11" with a shot who can play small forward though?

A couple of people are also crossing their fingers that Noah comes out. It appears that the consensus is we need a forward. (By the way, it's really sad that Zach can't play at the 3-spot. He'd be oversized there, he'd pound people on offense, and his flaws wouldn't matter so much. He couldn't even begin to defend the position though.)

One name conspicuously absent from the list was Adam Morrison. I know there's some local sentiment for him, but I actually live a couple hours from Gonzaga, I watched a few of their games, and I've got to tell you that he scares me. He has a lot of offensive talent and intangibles, but his defense... Pew! The right team might be able to cover for him, but we already have a lot of young guys at the small positions with offensive talent who haven't learned to defend yet. At this point putting him, Telfair, and Webster on the floor at the same time would be suicide, especially if Zach's still here. There was a lot of the "we can't play this guy with that guy" thing going on this year. I'd prefer a guy who could play with anybody (and hopefully make them better).

If the Blazers drafted Morrison with a high pick, I'd suspect that they were trying to sell tickets at the expense of winning games, which is a guaranteed recipe for long-term failure for a small-market team.

--Dave

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Position by Position--Point Guard

A basic sports truism: If you're having a quarterback controversy, it means than none of your quarterbacks are that good. Nevertheless, there's reason to hope that between the three young guys at this position, one or two will prove worthy of turning the keys over to in a year or so. It's as much security as the Blazers have right now, so we'll spin it positively by saying that it's not a matter of whether the players are good, rather which style of point guard you prefer.

Steve Blake started most of the year because he's steady...a characteristic which is in low supply on the current team. Going from a half-forgotten trade throw-in to the big bus driver is clearly the biggest developmental leap any of our players made this year. Blake does everything you want for an old-school point guard. He'll run plays. He sees the court and can deliver the ball to people where they need it. He doesn't take a lot of shots, but when he's open he'll hit. His gaudiest stat is his 3.7 assist/turnover ratio, but running a close second is his 40+ shooting percentage from the 3-point arc. I think people made more of his defense this year than was actually warranted. He's better than anyone in our backcourt at keeping his man in front of him, but he's not what you'd call a lock-down defender. Good opposing guards can still get any shot they want against him. He is 6'3" but his frame is slight by NBA standards. He obviously keeps himself in shape but he's never going to be an imposing physical presence. Nevertheless, point guards that play with his style but are still talented enough to play major minutes are in comparatively rare supply in this Wade/Marbury/Davis era.

Jarret Jack looked fantastic for a rookie, although one wonders if some of that is because it's been a while since we've seen a four-year college guy around here. His biggest asset so far is his confidence. He's not afraid to take the shot or make the play, and most of the time he knows how to do it too. After an abysmal shooting start, he raised his percentage to 44% for the season, which is darn good for any guard, let alone a rook. He does not yet have the shooting range of the other two guards. His offense reminds me a little bit of Rip Hamilton's when he first got into the league...a lot of finding the mid-range open spot off the dribble. Late in the season he really began taking it to the hoop more too, which is a bonus. Of the three guards, he is the farthest behind in passing skills, though that's not surprising considering the experience gap. When he sees the floor better he'll pass better, but I don't think this will ever be the strongest part of his game. The thing that sets him most apart from the other two is his size. He's a legit 6'3", with some reports inching him towards 6'4". Plus he's over 200 pounds. As he continues to develop strength he should become a load to handle just from the bumping alone. And at that size, he's not slow. He's at least average on defense (again the learning curve comes into play) and has the most defensive potential of the three. Already Nate loves him and plays him, which speaks volumes.

By the time February rolled around, Sebastian Telfair was on his way to a very disappointing campaign. Largely ineffective during the fall and early winter, he sustained a hand injury and had been replaced by Blake and buried on the bench. Then somehow the stars aligned for him. First his movie came out, resurrecting him somewhat in the public consciousness. Second, Nate started giving him more minutes (because he saw him working harder, because he saw the movie, because he was showcased for trade value, or just because we were out of it by that time, we'll never know). With these minutes came the instruction, "Don't think about what I'm saying so much, just go out and play your game." Blessed with this newfound freedom, Sebastian started stringing some games together. As the season wound down, Zach and Darius started amping up their "Super-Fun Craptastic Show", drawing the public ire, and Bassy was gold.

On the one hand, there's a lot to be tantalized with in late-season Telfair. His shot has improved, especially from distance. Developing left hand moves while his right was injured has made him a legitimately dangerous driver again. He's even starting to move his feet on defense and poke away a steal now and then. And when he has one of his nights, it's immense. He's the one guy in the bunch that you can see singlehandedly altering games. Visions of him someday driving at will and then dishing or scoring make you drool. If the offense is set up to take advantage of his skills, he could be truly great. On the other hand, it's still mostly potential right now. Early-season Telfair was reality too. Despite the improvement, he still shoots sub-40%. He has to have the rock in his hands a lot in order to be effective. If you don't center the offense on him, his contributions are minimal. He's not a great catch-and-shoot guy, nor does he move that well without the ball. Turnovers continued to plague him throughout the early months...the cardinal sin for a point man. Other than the steals, his overall defense is the worst of the three. And after years of Damon, who got burned on defense night after night no matter how fast he moved his feet, we should probably be a little nervous about planning major minutes for a guy listed at 6'0", but who's probably two inches shorter than that. There's no doubt that he improved this year and even showed flashes of greatness, but is it enough to overcome his liabilities?

Three quarterbacks, each with talent, none a sure thing yet. It's a good bet that Jack will be prominent in our future plans (I think we'd be fools to give up on his big body and all-around potential) so it really comes down to whether you like the sure thing in Blake or the wild card in Telfair. You don't want to give up on the Next Big Thing, but on the other hand, neither Jack nor Telfair will want to be a 15-minute-off-the-bench/injury insurance guy, and Blake would fit that role perfectly. If you're playing "31" (the card game, not Bassy) and you have to match suits, it's smarter to keep an ace and a seven that match than it is to keep two different aces. On the other hand, we're not good enough yet to have the luxury of matching bench players...we need raw ability. And would Blake's steadiness be as valuable on a team that wasn't so volatile? This is the stuff that makes the off-season go 'round.

My solution is the one Nate eventually ended up with: unless someone makes you a deal you can't refuse, keep all three for another year. Yes, it will be frustrating to the players, but it will be better for the team to get more solid evaluation. And it's not like a little frustration will submarine an otherwise championship season next year. The beautiful thing about the situation is they're all drawing very modest salaries compared to their talent and potential. It doesn't cost us to keep them and they're tradeable any time. With all the ambiguity, why rush to judgment?

Comments below or to blazersub@yahoo.com

--Dave

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Draft Help

I don't follow the college game much other than to watch the tournament, so I will admit that I am relatively clueless when it comes to the draft. I wondered if someone could help out.

Let's assume that we're not going to have Zach and Darius long-term. Let's also assume that at least one or two of our point guards pan out, that Martell will be a starter at the 2 or 3, and that either Khryapa or Outlaw will prove a serviceable back-up at forward (at minimum). It seems to me our priorities would be:

--A power forward with good size, excellent rebounding, good defense, and the ability to score down low. Offensive range is probably not an issue but it would be nice if he had good hands. Good pick setting would also be wonderful.

--A center. We won't be as demanding because they're more rare, but legitimate height/size and rebounding ability are important. Defense is also key. (We have a lot of leaks among our smaller people. If you think Joel is staying, you can ease up on this requirement a little.) A shot out to 15 feet would be nice, but you could switch this offensive requirement with the power forward above. You just can't get two guys who are limited to the post.

--A 2-3 swing player. Again size is nice. Should be able to score off the drive, handle the ball, pass, hustle, and scrap on defense. We need a real athlete here. (Sounds like Darius. It should have been...)

Being tough, smart, or quick would also be bonuses at any position, as we lack some of those qualities as a team right now.

Now, I'm not expecting anybody to fit all of these characteristics, but with very high picks we should be able to get some players with many of them. Who are they? Those who know about the draft classes for this year and next let me know either in the comment section or by e-mail at blazersub@yahoo.com

--Dave

What I'd Do

As Karven said yesterday in the "Comments" section, two questions remain if you think Zach should go: "First who do you trade Zach for and Second what direction do you go in the draft?" I don't like to make assertions without offering possible solutions, so here you go.

You can never say "never", but I suspect that any trade for an established star is beyond our reach at the moment. I don't think there's any way we get KG. One of the big reasons Minnesota would trade him is his contract. But they'd be paying as much or more to Zach and Darius (or Zach and whoever). For the same money, who would you rather have? I'd wager 30 out of 30 GMs would say KG. Jermaine O'Neal might be a more realistic target, but I'm not sure Indy does that deal either. And even if they did, with his enormous contract we'd have to be content with that being the last move we made for the next six years, at least if we intend to retain any of the current guys. I'm not sure that's good for us, even if Jermaine is completely healthy for the life of the contract. Paul Pierce is the one guy I'd still look at. Even though he's older his contract is shorter too, so we're not committed to him for life. But why would Boston would bite the bullet on Zach with Al Jefferson already on board? And would Pierce come to Portland happily? I'm guessing that in the light of day all of these rumors fall solidly on the "Hakeem's shopping for houses in Lake Oswego" end of the spectrum.

My actual proposal is more modest. And although I've been talking about it privately for a couple of months, the credit for first bringing it up in public goes to OdomZ who broached it a week or so ago in the O-Live Blazers forum. I would like to see us trade Zach and Darius to New York for Jalen Rose, whose contract expires after next season.

First of all, it works...at least according to RealGM. Second, I think it might have a chance of being accepted. Isiah has already gone "all in" with his cap space. Getting Rose off the books is a drop in the bucket. He needs a radical change and more front court support. Both Zach and Darius fit his mold. Plus the statistical imbalance is so great as to make anyone blink. On paper it seems like an offer you can't refuse.

We, on the other hand, get out of salary cap purgatory. I saw a good quote from "Cup" in the forum the other day. It said something along the lines of "We can't keep giving away our best players for nothing." This is true as far as it goes, but there's a corollary to that theorem: we have to stop overpaying our players, even if they are our best ones. We did it all during the Whitsitt era and unfortunately we had one more for the road in the summer of 2005. We are now in the position where even if we don't sign anybody else (even Joel) we will be capped up for the rest of eternity just re-signing the guys we've got. You already know what the situation is for next year. In 2007-08, without Joel, we'd be paying $53 million for the same team we fielded this year. If we didn't re-sign Travis there'd be a brief window the season after when we might be able to grab a decent free agent. After that our young guys' second contracts would start coming like waves on the shore. In other words, if Zach and Darius stay you can pretty much bet that this is the team you'll see for a long time.

This is where Jalen comes in. After that trade we'd be around $31 million in 2007-08. Even adding Joel at $6 million or so, we're still significantly under the cap. There's room to keep the young guys and improve/change. I would argue this is different than dumping Shareef, Damon, and Van Exel's contracts. Because we were still over the cap after those deals, they didn't translate into maneuverability, so you could say we lost them "for nothing". The cash we save trading Zach and Darius would actually allow us to acquire other players in the future, pretty much on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

OdomZ also mentioned the possibility of getting Channing Frye in the deal. Because of Zach's contract status this would only be possible after July (and then I'm only speculating...I'm not a cap lawyer). I haven't seen much of Frye's play, but the buzz is strong around him. I really think we need a traditional defending, rebounding, low-post forward with good size to fit with our younger, smaller guys. What is Frye's game like? If you know, drop me a line. Either way it's probably no harm, no foul, since his contract is small. Another possibility would be to ask for an unrestricted pick a couple years from now, 2008, 2009, or even 2010.

In any case, the important thing is that we don't take on any big contracts for marginal players, which would just put us back in the same kettle. (Just say "No!" to Raef LaFrentz!) A lineup of Theo/Przy, Skinner, contract-year Rose, Webster (if ready), and your favorite point guard wouldn't set the world on fire, but the current team wouldn't either. Does anybody see any difference between winning 24 games and winning 15? Me neither. And at least your drafting priority for the next couple years becomes clear: young big guys. I would bet that between two high draft picks, a couple of free agents, and the ability to pick and choose among the guys we already have, we'd be back in business sooner than we will if we stay married to this lineup.

--Dave
blazersub@yahoo.com

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Some Slack for Darius

Let me preface this by saying I am not a big fan of Darius Miles. In fact I am on record from last October (O-Live Blog archives 10/24/05) saying:

Darius may have talent, but he shows up 1 game in 5 and is a complete waste of space when he's not dominating. I know it's only pre-season but we're talking attitude shift here, not talent development, and he obviously hasn't made it, either because he's too stubborn or too clueless to know it's necessary. Either way, please, save us some headaches...dump him now. Or at least don't play him anymore. Whichever, but get him out of my sight.

And my opinion of his on-court efforts didn't change much even when he was scoring 20 a night. I do still hope they move him. However, I will say this: Part of the reason he's become Public Enemy #1 around here is because the road was so well paved before him. If we hadn't been through a few years with the Riders and Bonzis of the world, the off-court antics for which he's receiving such grief would seem more of a curiosity than a deal-breaker. From a detached point of view, a couple of ill-thought-out comments, a late night at a strip club, and a clothes change at halftime, while admittedly foolish, are really more juvenille than destructive. The clothes incident was the worst, but I also remember Alaa Abdelnaby "forgetting" to put on a jersey under his t-shirt during a game and Rick Adelman getting really cheesed when he called his number. I'd guess none of the rest of it is uncommon in the NBA, just better hidden. There's no excusing it, and I'm not suggesting it be tolerated, I'm just saying that the guy picked the wrong time and the wrong place, and he can say a big "thank you" to the guys who came before for making it that way by rubbing every last nerve around here. That, as much as anything, turned him from a loose cannon into a pariah.

I don't expect this will be popular, but I even understand what he was saying with the whole "bobblehead" thing. On the one hand the coach and management are telling him to be a franchise player. On the other hand they don't trust him enough to feature him, instead promoting guys who get ten minutes a night. To him it was probably a mixed message. Of course the power struggle between the forwards and management/coach became increasingly obvious as the season progressed, and maybe that's part of it. (If you have tapes of the games, watch through a few and see if you don't see an example or two of the old "blue flu" played out on the court.)

When all's said and done, I think Darius could still be an impact player on the right team. That would probably be a big market where the media didn't care. If he had a couple of solid frontcourt players behind him--guys who were good help defenders and rebounders, freeing him to roam the passing lanes and poke away steals--he'd probably score 18 every night and be heralded as a decent defender and a marvelous second or third option in the offense. That isn't here though, and won't be soon.

I wouldn't say I have a ton of sympathy for Miles, but I can see how things got to where they are.

--Dave
blazersub@yahoo.com

About Zach...

No question looms bigger on the horizon, or causes more pasionate debate, than what to do with Z-Bo this summer. Nobody can agree on who he is or what his game should be, let alone his potential value on the court or in a trade.

Clearly Zach is a world class scorer and offensive rebounder. He is able to get his own shot at will from inside or outside and has an amazing, almost instinctive sense for the basket. On nights when he's on, he's nearly undefendable...clearly the only Blazer with that distinction.

Beyond these areas, however, he's no more than ordinary. He's short for his position and far more crafty than athletic. He is no better than an average one-on-one defender, maybe slightly above average because of his upper body strength on nights when he's motivated and the opponent isn't agile. He cannot defend the perimeter, nor does he jump out well defending pick and rolls. He is a horrible help defender and is not a shot blocker. His picks are completely ineffective. He will ruin your transition game because he's taken to playing between the free thrown lines and because he just doesn't get up and down the court quickly (due to surgery or effort, you make the call). He does not have great court vision nor the inclination to pass. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, for a supposedly great rebounder, he's decidedly mediocre on the defensive boards. Twenty-one out of the thirty teams in the league have forwards that grab more defensive boards than Z-Bo. This contributes to our defensive woes and our inability to run more.

I think it's ridiculous to expect Zach to be what he's not. He is not Tim Duncan. He is not KG. He is never going to be. Seldom do NBA players show marked improvement in the areas he's weak. Few guys develop from non-shot blockers to swat monsters. Non-hustle guys almost never get scrappier as they get older. Passive defenders don't morph into lock-down stalwarts. It's reasonable to assume that Zach will average 20 someday. It's reasonable to assume that his outside shot will continue to improve. Other than that, you better be prepared to bite the bullet and cover for his weaknesses.

Many people have offered suggestion on how to do just that, but I have found them questionable. They include:

1. "We need to get a shooter to take the pressure off of him." Yes, this would help some, but mostly on the offensive end, which is already his strong suit. Even then, Zach will hamper the effectiveness of any shooter on the floor with him because he holds the ball for 4-5 seconds every time he touches it, allowing the defense to rotate. He isn't the kind of player who can help the shooter help him. (Martell, for instance, would be far more effective in a two man game with Joel than he is with Zach because Joel sets good picks and moves well without the ball.) What's more, at least half of Zach's points nowadays come from the perimeter, so he is the shooter. You could almost argue we need a post player. Also, with Zach's other shortcomings, that shooter better be a stick defender, tall, and have some rebounding and passing skills too. Now you're talking Michael Jordan, and where are you going to get him?

2. "Zach would be a great second option." If you look at the best second guys in history (like Pippen, Worthy, and McHale), despite being different type of players they all had a few things in common. They were multi-faceted...they all contributed at an all-star level in something else besides scoring, so when they didn't have the ball they were still a big plus for the team. They all had superior court sense and passing ability, so they were just as dangerous setting up plays as they were completing them. They all made their moves quickly, neither needing to touch the ball every possession nor dominating it when they did touch it. None of these things apply to Zach. He is a "tweener" with a first-option skill set and mentality but without the all-around superstar game to carry a team.

3. "If we just get some veteran help the team will fall in line." The problem is, your best player is the guy who sets the tone. You can get all the Wesley Persons and Brian Skinners you want, but unless they're out there getting major minutes, touches, and dollars nobody is going to listen, least of all players like Zach himself. In this way Zach might actually inhibit whatever veteran influence we bring in. Is there any doubt that he's one of the players Joel, Theo, McMillan, and Nash referenced this season when talking about lack of preparation, attitude, and exemplary behavior?

For all these reasons, I fall into the "move Zach" camp. I do not doubt his talent, I just doubt he's right for this team and I think it would be difficult to build around him successfully. Of course I'd have misgivings about trading our best player, but then again, between Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, Elton Brand, Dwight Howard, Shawn Marion, and Chris Bosh, Zach is no better than the ninth best player in the league at his own position (and could be as low as 13th or 14th depending on who you value). I don't see him moving past those players any time soon either. Between that, his contract, and his attitude lately, he becomes easier to part with.

Thoughts can be sent to blazersub@yahoo.com if you're so inclined. I'm always looking for good conversation.

--Dave

Friday, April 21, 2006

Worst Season Ever?

As the year comes to a close many are speculating that this season was the worst in Trailblazer history. Among these stands Trib columnist Dwight Jaynes. Admittedly, designations like "worst ever" are a matter of taste. Which is worse, root canal work or gall bladder surgery? Brussels Sprouts or Lima Beans? Nevertheless, I would argue there have been much worse moments for our favorite team than this. Bill Walton going from championship superhero to lame trade bait in the space of 24 months was pretty devestating. I remember getting a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I heard Clyde all but ask for a trade on a radio program. But even if you consider those "moments" rather than "seasons", I would still argue that the waning years of the Whitsitt era were worse than the current juncture. Whatever you thought of the team's talent base, between Bonzi, Rasheed, Qyntel, DA, Ruben, and even Damon you couldn't swing a cat around the locker room without hitting someone who was publicly embarrasing the squad in one way or another. Fans were seething, not just at a couple of individuals, but at the whole organization. Just the mention of the name "Trailblazers" brought winces and groans from all directions. And between the huge payroll and the number of players involved, there seemed no way out of the quagmire.

Compare that to this year. Are fans still upset? Sure. 21 wins will do that to you. But in contrast to years past, most of the complaining seems to be directed at a couple of players and perhaps the owner. It's localized and specific rather than the generic abandonment typical of 2004. And most of those same people will amend their complaint with a list of the things they like. Between the development of Blake, Jack, Telfair, Webster, and Khryapa, the possibility of keeping our two-headed center, the advent of more new talent through the draft, and the new attitude that McMillan is trying to install in the team, there are reasons to be hopeful. And whatever problems we do wish to divest ourselves of probably amount to making a trade or two and then moving on. None of these things were true a couple of years ago.

At the beginning of the season the two big hopes were that we were finally done with the purging/reconstruction of the team and that the contracts we signed the summer previous were not a mistake. Neither of those things turned out to be true, and that's disappointing. But we're still a lot further along in the process than we were, and you can begin to see light, however dim, at the end of the tunnel. As long as we have the courage to stick with the process--not just of going young, but of rebuilding with the right kind of young players--there's reason for Blazer fans to have their chins up despite the abysmal record. And having your chin up is a lot nicer than having it constantly on the ground in shock.

Tough season? Yup. Bad season? Ok. Worst time in team history? Naw. That's in the rearview mirror.

--Dave