Thursday, October 23, 2008

Learning from the Experience of Others

A guest post from Blazer's Edge

Earlier this week I sent out a question to Dave at Blazer's Edge asking him what the Grizzlies have in store since Portland had recently undergone a youth movement of their own which turned out pretty well. I intended to quote him in a blog of my own on what to expect this season. However his response was so perfect by itself that I decided to run the reply as a blog in itself. So without further ado here is Dave's response.

Memphis is going to experience the joys and trials of youth, that’s for sure. Speaking from some experience with the Blazers, it’s a roller coaster.

The joys are great. There’s nothing quite like seeing a guy develop young and knowing he’s yours. Some of these guys could become your next franchise players. Swiping someone else’s free agent just doesn’t inspire passion in the same way. Also young athletes like Gay and Mayo are exciting to watch. There will be plenty of gaffes, but on the nights when everything comes together Grizzlies fans will be buzzing and out of their seats.

The trials of youth are long, however. The first truth Grizzlies fans need to come to grips with is that not all of these players are going to make it. Some will play elsewhere, some won’t play well at all. There are few heartaches like having the guy you pinned your future hopes on not pan out. Every young player is a crap shoot no matter how talented he is. Every night, every season, is like rolling the dice. Teams that roll the dice in the NBA don’t win consistently either. Opposing teams aren’t interested in rolling against you. They just take your dice, pop you in the nose, and tell you to come back when you’re better. Young teams, even young talented teams, lose. Memphis’ veterans right now are Warrick, Milicic, Ross, and Jaric. Are these guys going to be your team leaders? Are they going to impart winning wisdom to the youngsters? Somehow I doubt it. That’s a problem.

Portland has been through all of this. We’ve had our prospective stars who didn’t work out (Sebastian Telfair, for instance). We’ve had our stars who did work out but weren’t winners or right for our team (Zach Randolph). We’ve had veterans who weren’t interested in making the team better (Ruben Patterson). We’ve had youngsters with talent who still haven’t learned how to play winning basketball (Travis Outlaw). We’ve had a lot of losses and a lot of failed dreams. It’s been a long road.

The end of that road back to respectability only came when we made a few commitments:

1. Every draft pick counts. Use them wisely.

2. “Wisely” means on players who are smart and team-oriented as well as talented. Sacrifice a few headlines, maybe even a few extra wins, now in order to build the right way.

3. Acquire veterans who know how to play and are willing to guide the team either from in front or in the locker room. Do not overspend for quick fixes!

4. Getting fortunate with a Greg Oden-like pick in the lottery doesn’t hurt, but honestly the Blazers would probably still be a playoff team in 2-3 more years without him with the likes of Brandon Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Fernandez.

5. Don’t hesitate to get rid of players who don’t fit even if they rack up stats.

Also here are some helpful lessons I’ve learned as a fan of a young team:

1. Anybody can score 20 on a given night. Consistency is the only thing that really matters. 25 on Wednesday and 3 on Thursday is losing basketball. Until it’s 18.5 every night don’t think you have a player.

2. Wins are not always the best barometer of success when you’re young. The team better not be going for anything but wins, mind you, but fans can judge teams incrementally instead of taking a “win or nothing” attitude. Look for improvement in players month to month and year to year.

3. Summer League and Pre-Season are interesting, but ultimately mean little. Even with young guys it only counts when it counts. If you’re going to judge off-season play, you have to compare apples to apples (last Summer League to this, or last Pre-Season to this, for instance) in order to accurately gauge progress.

4. Offense without defense from a player or two can be an effective situational dagger. Offense without defense from a team is losing basketball.

5. Non-scoring aspects of a player’s game are more valuable than you think. Young players who already know what to do when they don’t have the ball or the camera on them are gold.

6. You are not getting better as soon as you think, so chill out with the highs and lows. Over-hyping a player or your team will only lead people to complain about them more when they can’t live up to expectations.

7. It’s not the coach’s fault as much as you think.

Here are some signs that your team might be getting good again:

1. You have a set rotation that nobody is arguing about…you just take it for granted.

2. You’re talking about what players have brought and definitely will bring again, not what they might or could bring.

3. You’re not depending on your latest draft pick or 10th player to come through and set the world on fire. You start thinking about your 10th man like San Antonio thinks about theirs.

4. The off-season starts getting boring to you instead of being your greatest hope.

5. The national media remembers your name every once in a while. They don’t know your team nearly as well as you do but they do tend to notice broad trends and are more objective about them.

6. You have a star who is the first “him” instead of the “Next Somebody Else”.

7. Your team ranks in the middle of the league or higher in most, if not all statistical categories instead of having a couple highs and a couple disasters. A positive PPG Differential is the best single statistical indicator of winning basketball. After that Field Goal Percentage Allowed, Defensive Rebounding, and Turnover Differential are usually good indicators. If you stink in one or more of these four big categories, be careful.

As far as Memphis goes, I think a lot depends on Gay and Mayo right now. Are they the “first thems” that will form the heart of your team? Are their games complete enough? Can they take games over and wring the life out of them, bending them to their will? Can they do all this while playing as a part of a cohesive whole, making their teammates better as well?

Those are the first questions to ask. Assuming an affirmative, then you have to ask who else on the team fits with them. I’m not convinced all of those supporting players do. In fact I’m not sure anybody knows yet what the supporting cast will turn out like…a pitfall of having an all-youngster team. Once the team has talent established and direction, acquiring a couple key veterans will be important. After that, it’s acquiring more talent to fill in the cracks and developing an identity. It’s a multi-season, multi-step process and the Grizzlies are still only halfway through Step 1.

Portland is transitioning through the final, identity step after five years of struggling and we still haven’t made it through. In short, prepare for the long haul, appreciate the small victories while you wait for the large ones, and hope your team commits to doing things the right way instead of just selling more tickets or making headlines.

hype it up!

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