Banking on the Off-Season

The Trail Blazers just added Andre Miller to their roster. But can they keep up with his fast-paced skills?

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Spending money just because you have some to spend is very, very rarely a solid fiscal strategy. But no one seemed to tell that to Portland Trail Blazers’ general manager Kevin Pritchard. All month, he has been eager to throw money after one free agent or another. And finally, late last week, he got his man by inking former Philadelphia 76er point guard Andre Miller to a three-year, 21-million-dollar deal. It marks a curious case of two smartly run teams combining on one dumb move.

The contract itself isn’t horrible. Although Miller is 33, he is—as any 76er fan should attest—still a quality player, and only 2 of the 3 years on his new deal are guaranteed. It’s just that he’s an exceptionally poor fit for his new team. In addition, after three years of team building that belongs in some sports management textbook, Pritchard fell into one of the most nefarious traps of personnel management: using up cap room because it was there.

Fans of the Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs won’t agree, but there’s a strong argument to be made that the Trail Blazers are the second-best team in the Western Conference. The Blazers won 54 games last season, and though little of it made the highlight reels, they had the best offense in the NBA. It misses the conventional coverage as the Blazers play at a very slow tempo, 86.6 possessions per game, a stark contrast to the Phoenix Suns, who often average almost 100 possessions per contest. So while other teams make the highlights with fast-break dunks, the Blazers walk up court, pass the ball to the post and spread the court. The ball might rotate inside and outside three times over 20 seconds before someone, usually guard Brandon Roy, drives the lane and either hits a lay up, gets fouled or passes to an open teammate for an easy basket. It ain’t sexy, but it’s effective. The Blazers scored 113.9 points per 100 possessions, a measure that levels the hardwood between fast- and slow-paced teams; the league average is 108.3.

The Blazers slow tempo masks problems on the defensive end. Portland gave up only 94 points per game, fourth in the league, but per 100 possessions, they allowed 107.8, which is only 13th in the league. These numbers might seem arcane, but they shouldn’t be to Pritchard. He came up through the San Antonio front office, which has made abundant use of advance metrics in their player evaluations. (It’s how they struck gold on under-the-radar European League hoopsters like Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker; look for pivotman Tiago Splitter to make the same impact in south Texas in a couple of seasons.)

There’s one other aspect about the Blazers that should make them very attractive for fans who want to get on a bandwagon early. Portland is an extraordinarily young team. The players on the current roster are an average of 23.8 years old. Yet the Blazers are experienced, of the players in Coach Nate McMillan’s rotation, only center Greg Oden has less than two full seasons under his belt.

Thus, the Blazers are a slow team with a great offense, an average defense and a boatload of youth. They had some cap room this off-season, but they won’t in future off-seasons after the lucrative extensions that Roy and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge will likely sign in coming summers. So Pritchard was faced with a lean market and the opportunity to add a player, and he went after everyone aggressively. Initially, he nearly signed Orlando forward Hedo Turkoglu, but the former Magic man opted for a deal with the Toronto Raptors at the last minute. Then Pritchard inked Utah power forward Paul Millsap to a long-term deal only to have the Jazz exercise their right to match the offer.

Finally, he pursued Miller and landed him. The problem is that Miller isn’t a great defensive player, and he excels in an up-tempo offense, dramatically different from that of the Trail Blazers. (In fact, well before signing Miller, Portland traded Sergio Rodriguez, a guard who excelled in up-tempo play to the Sacramento Kings, which suggests that they are committed to their slow pace.)

The best thing the Blazers could have done is nothing. Most NBA players improve until they are 27 years old, plateau and then gently decline thereafter. (Players who can shoot well age very slowly in NBA years.) Just on the upswing of their current talent, Portland figures to be better next season. The Blazers would have done well to hold onto their cap room in the hopes of obtaining a defensive stalwart, the sort of player who can make Kobe Bryant work for his points in a possible playoff series.

Miller has skills, he leads the fast break as well as anyone and throws a mean lob pass. But his addition doesn’t figure to make the Blazers dramatically better.

Meanwhile, Sixers fans need to wonder about their general manager Ed Stefanski. He let his starting point guard leave for a salary that the team could have easily afforded. Miller’s signing doesn’t move the Blazers to the next rung, but his departure from Philadelphia takes the Sixers down more than one notch in the Eastern Conference.