Running The Break: All-Star Weekend

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Do the Trail Blazers need to gamble more on defense? Which Dunk Contest was most memorable? And how many wins will Portland end with? Seven local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.

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1. Name your winners in the following All-Star Saturday Night events: Dunk Contest, 3-PT Shootout, Skills Challenge

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: I got Paul George winning the Dunk Contest while Damian Lillard takes home the Three-Point title and repeats at as Skills Challenge champ.

Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman), The Oregonian: Always looking for predictions … I’m going to need to buy a crystal ball if this continues. Since you’re making me … I’ll pick Damian Lillard in the Three-Point Contest, Paul George in the Slam Dunk Contest and Goran Dragic in the Skills Challenge.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: Dunk: Ben McLemore. Three-point: Stephen Curry. Skills: … ummm, I guess it’s a team format, so I’ll go Damian Lillard and Trey Burke.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: In my best Dylan voice from the Chapelle's Show: Damian, Damian, Damian.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: I really want to say that Damian is going to win all three. I think he certainly has the talent and the incentive (you know, being the first guy to win all three of the individual events would be a pretty cool thing to add to his resume). It’s pretty unlikely, though, that Dame will go three for three. I’ll give him one, and I think it’s probably going to be the three-point shootout. I’ll take one of the rookies for the Skills Challenge, Victor Oladipo. The Dunk Contest is probably going to come down to Paul George and Terrance Ross, but Ben McLemore is my wild card, so I’ll pick him as my dark horse.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: Damian Lillard, Damian Lillard, and Damian Lillard. Is anybody else competing? Seriously, it’s an exhibition. Who knows? But the new rules in the dunk contest should favor Lillard more than the old ones would have. Steph Curry is going to be hard to beat in the 3-point contest though.

SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: Thanks to Damian Lillard the winners of the All-Star events this year are the fans, Blazer fans in particular. Like I said last week, All-Star weekend has become stale. The NBA sees this but unfortunately their answer has been to tweak the events here and there including the odd change to the Dunk contest by breaking up the players into East West Conference teams. Fortunately Lillard deciding to participate in every event takes the focus away from that and puts it where it belongs, the players.

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2. The best Dunk Contest performance in All-Star Saturday Night history belongs to … ?

Haynes: Vince Carter. In Oakland. It’s not even close. No explanation needed.

Freeman: It’s hard to go against Michel Jordan’s impressive take-down of Dominique Wilkins in 1988. But, for my money, Vince Carter’s endless barrage of epic dunks in his runaway 2000 championship is the best.

Tokito: I’ve covered three of them, and I can’t remember that much about them, to be honest. I do remember Michael Jordan’s two wins, so I guess those.

Gundersen: Vince Carter 2000 for me. I wasn't around to be able to judge the merits of the Jordan vs. Dominique battles in the 80's when the Dunk Contest was at its peak. The 2000 contest with VC, Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis was spectacular.

Acker: Everybody’s going to say Vince Carter from 2000, and they won’t be wrong. Just to be different, I’ll give you a few guys that I think deserve to be recognized as top All-Star dunkers of all time: Desmond Mason had a great dunk contest in 2001, Jason Richardson back-to-back in 2002 and 2003, Harold Miner deserves some (kind of) old school love. My personal favorite, however, has to be Brent Barry in 1996. Go Beavers!

Deckard: Jordan or Wilkins in ’88. Pick one. ‘Nique had the fancier dunks but I popped for Jordan actually taking off from the foul line and making it look easy when earlier “foul line” dunks actually required a foot or two of real estate in the paint to complete.

SlyPokerDog: It always has been and always will be Michael Jordan and the 1988 Dunk Contest. No props, no cars, no capes. Just players like Drexler, Kersey, Wilkins and Jordan in the dunktastic and dunktacular event of the ages.

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3. Friday's game in Indiana marks the 50th game of the season for the Trail Blazers. As of this writing (February 7th, 2014), Portland has accumulated 35 wins. How many wins do they finish with when it's all said and done?

Haynes: I think I had them winning 39 games or so before the season tipped off. Obviously, I have to modify that a bit. I’ll go with 53-29. I figure that will put them around the No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, which isn’t anything to sneeze about.

Freeman: See … another request for a prediction. Killing me. I don’t know … let’s say 54 or 55.

Tokito: Their schedule in March looks tough because it involves two five-game trips, but in terms of opponents, it’s manageable. If they go through March 10-7, they’ll have a shot at 54 wins.

Gundersen: I'll give them 55 wins.

Acker: So at the time of this writing, the Blazers have 36 wins after 51 games. There are some very difficult games left on the schedule, including two more brutal road trips in March. The Blazers continue to play well, and they continue to bounce back with big wins whenever there’s a little bump in the road. Giving them 20 more wins over their final 31 games is pretty generous, but I do think they can close out the season playing .500 basketball. My prediction is they close out the 13-14 winning one more game than they lose, so that would put that 52 wins for the season. I’ll hedge a little by saying that only 16 more wins feels like a bit of a low-ball, but I’m hesitant to give the Blazers more than the mid 50s. (Also, I hope my math is correct, and I apologize if it isn’t.)

Deckard: I hate predictions. I guessed the Blazers would win 38-42 for the season which probably shows less about me than about how hard NBA games are to call in advance. The road will be harder from now on. If the Blazers went .500 the rest of the way they’d end up at 51, so let’s say 51 give or take 16 either way.

SlyPokerDog: Over on RipCity2 this weekend PapaG did a great job of breaking down the home stands and road trips for the rest of the season. Reaching 60 wins is going to be tough but 55 wins is a realistic goal.

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4. In Zach Lowe's latest article, he stated the Trail Blazers have forced turnovers on just 11 percent of opponent possessions - the third-lowest turnover rate in the history of the NBA. Portland's conservative defensive strategy is also allowing 103.1 points per game - fifth most in the league. With all that said, do the Blazers need to gamble more on D (traps, double-teams, play the passing lanes) or should they stay true to their scheme and see where it takes them the rest of the way?

Haynes: That’s a good question. Terry Stotts said prior to the season that they would take a more conservative approach on defense this year. Of course a little bit more gambling and pressurized defense couldn’t hurt, but it’s hard to pile on his scheme when they’re 36-15. They’re doing something right. I expect subtle adjustments to be made on the defensive end and we have seen it with Nicolas Batum switching over on point guards. Stotts has to be careful not to drastically alter his plan since, you know, they are winning games.

Freeman: No … the Blazers do not need to gamble more on defense. That’s not going to help them become a better defensive team.

Tokito: I don’t think Portland’s roster is built to force a lot of turnovers. It’s certainly not time to make drastic changes, although Terry Stotts using Nicolas Batum to guard top point guard from the tip is pretty drastic.

Gundersen: When I spoke to ESPN's Doris Burke last week, she made the point that the Blazers are just at the beginning of their scheme and for that scheme to work long term they have to trust it. I don't think the Blazers can just start changing their defense by doing lots of stuff that they haven't been doing. That's what they did last season, changing their principals nearly every game and it led to the 26th ranked defense. The answer for me would be to trust the system, but just get better at executing it, developing good habits in practice. They are currently 22nd in defensive efficiency according to NBA.com, which still isn't good. It's not the answer everybody wants to hear but they can't rush the process after being being so bad last year and not having any real defensive principles whatsoever.

Acker: More turnovers would be great, but I think the Blazers need to focus more on team defense than on doing anything like gambling for more steals. I don’t have as much of a problem with Portland’s defense than some other people out there (basically everybody who is putting the Blazers in the second tier of title contenders is doing so because of some defensive statistic). In my opinion, they’ve been getting the stops they need when they need them, and most of their major losses have less to do with getting beat on the defensive end than they do with breakdowns on the offensive end. The Blazers are going to have to get more consistent with their defense when the final stretch of the regular season and the Playoffs roll around, but I don’t think trapping and trying to turn their opponents over more often is what they need to focus on right now. That being said, if the Blazers get more consistent on the team defensive end, turnovers should come.

Deckard: The turnovers themselves aren’t an issue. The Spurs and Pacers don’t depend too much on forcing them. (They force more than the Blazers, but still.) The combination of no forced turnovers and no consistent stops is an issue. You can get away with one or the other but not both. If you can’t take away the ball you have to keep them from putting it in.

I don’t think trying for turnovers will serve the Blazers well. That entails more gambling, leaving the middle further open, putting Robin Lopez at risk. He’ll end up moving more, fouling more, probably tiring quicker. That would be bad news for the Blazers. Instead they should take a long, hard look at how they deal with screens. They’re practically negligent there, especially from the guard positions. Not getting out of position, making correct decisions in pursuit around picks, putting a tad more effort into it, maybe letting non-Lopez bigs hedge a little…these would go farther in improving Portland’s defense than trying for more turnovers.

SlyPokerDog: While more steals would be nice this is who we are. Unless a personnel change happens before the trade deadline we're just not going to be a team that gets many steals.

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5. A month ago we asked if any team would sign Andrew Bynum and on February 1st, the Indiana Pacers did just that. Will the Andrew Bynum experiment work in Indianapolis? And what does Bynum have to provide for this to become a successful signing?

Haynes: I think Andrew Bynum in Indiana is a perfect match. They have a unit that is established and he recognizes that he can be a part of something special while not actually being the piece that makes them special. As long as he is on the up and up, he can be nothing but a positive addition. If not, Indiana has the luxury of shipping his butt out without hesitation. But I think all in all, he’ll make them a more powerful force to be reckoned with in the East. They’re my favorite to come out of the East with that signing.

Freeman: It depends on Bynum’s health and attitude. And I don’t know him or the situation well enough to make an informed prediction on either. If I had to guess, I’d say no, it’s not going to work out.

Tokito: They reportedly got him for $1 million, which keeps them under the luxury tax threshold while giving them an emergency center if one of their centers goes down. I think it’s a good move. The Pacers’ culture seems very strong and should be able to handle Bynum. It’s not as if they signed him to start or even play 20 minutes.

Gundersen: He needs to be able to give them 15-20 minutes and be able to take up space and make easy baskets. This move is made for when Indiana plays Miami. Even with a revamped bench, the Pacers still can't afford the complete lack of offense that they had last year with their second units. Often in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers starters would build a lead only to see the bench unit let the lead slip. Roy Hibbert scored like he hadn't really before in his NBA career against Miami because they don't have the size to really stop him but Greg Oden has emerged as an athletic big man that can clog things up for the champs. However, Bynum is a much more skilled offensive player than Hibbert and far more effective than Ian Mahinmi and they are going to need him to score some buckets in his time on the floor as well as take up space defensively. Even in this state, Bynum has one of the better low-post games in the league and for it to be a success, he needs to be able to be counted on for 15-20 minutes a night. It's odd to talk about a 26 year-old in such a context but the reality of Bynum's knees is he can't be counted on to carry a big load for a good team.

Acker: I doubt that Bynum will play much in Indiana. The Pacers have a tight rotation, and they do not lack for big guys. I can’t imagine whose minutes get cut to make room for Bynum. I think the signing can deemed successful if Bynum doesn’t destroy the chemistry the Pacers have in spades. And that seems just as unlikely as Bynum playing his way into the rotation. In my opinion, Bynum isn’t going to make a ripple with the Pacers this season, unless Roy Hibbert breaks his leg.

Deckard: Define “working”. They don’t need him to do that much. Success would be playing 8-10 minutes per game and not screwing it up. 12-15 would be a major coup. Holding serve in the middle during bench rotations would give the Pacers more cushion, especially on nights when their offense proves anemic. The tricky part for Bynum, of course, is the “don’t screw it up” part. But the Pacers are already used to center foibles with Hibbert. Roy hasn’t been the most consistent guy in the world. Likely they’ll be able to absorb Bynum just fine even if he doesn’t work out ideally.

SlyPokerDog: I think this is more about Kevin Pritchard trying to prove that he can win a championship with a center with bad knees. In all honesty this is a fairly low risk gamble that even a mediocre return can have a huge impact in the quest to get past Miami. The Pacers have kept other teams from signing him and hopefully being on a championship contending team is enough to get Mr Bynum to maybe like playing basketball again.