Running The Break: Analyzing The Rotation

January 13th, 2014

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What is CJ McCollum's role with the Trail Blazers going forward? Who should be starting for the Eastern and Western Conference in the All-Star game? And will any team roll the dice on Andrew Bynum? 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. After falling out of Coach Stotts' rotation on December 18th (Timberwolves), Thomas Robinson reemerged Wednesday night against the Magic in the fourth quarter, sparking a furious Trail Blazers run. Was his performance enough to get him back into the rotation or do you see he and Meyers Leonard both splitting those backup minutes on a game-by-game basis?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: I think Thomas Robinson currently has the leg up after quality performances against the Magic and Celtics, but I still don't think either player has done enough to "claim" that spot. So until either player makes a strong case that they should be the second big off the bench after Joel Freeland, I think Terry Stotts is going to dole out minutes by matchup.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: Well, according to Stotts, it’ll depend on the matchups. But I do think Thomas Robinson is back in the fold over Meyers Leonard. When you look at their bench, Robinson is the only player capable of providing that buzz from one of his “no he didn’t ” moments. His energy, when on his game, is unmatched by anyone else that bench. It’s something that advance stats can’t quantify.

Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman), The Oregonian: I expect Terry Stotts to continue to tinker with his rotation for the foreseeable future, particularly when it comes to Leonard and Robinson. I wrote about it last week. He’ll base his rotation on matchups, who has the hot hand, who is playing well and, more than anything, on what combinations will help the Blazers win that particular night.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: Even though Robinson played and Leonard didn’t against Boston on Saturday, I would guess Stotts would remain flexible. He seemed to pave the way for that with his recent comments about how Rick Carlisle would play anybody at any time with Dallas. That flexibility is probably better for the team, actually.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: For right now, Terry Stotts has said a few times that he is going to determine who gets those minutes on a game-by-game basis. Thomas Robinson's energy and athleticism is a weapon and one that has been important in a few wins this season (against Phoenix in November, Jan. 8 against the Magic).

Whether he stays in the rotation will be determined by how he plays going forward, but I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see a lot of T-Rob against big front lines. Robinson played against Sacramento, Boston and Orlando and all three teams don't have any type of rim protection. Robinson's size is an issue when it comes to trying to finish in the paint and he is much more effective against teams that don't present that problem for him.

And, if you're looking to blame Meyers Leonard for the team coming back to earth slightly while he was in the rotation you're probably looking in the wrong place. The most used five-man line-ups featuring Leonard, both of which logged 23 minutes over six games, were an overall +17. So, I doubt you've seen the last of Meyers Leonard because he's got his coach and numbers backing up his contributions.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: Certainly Thomas Robinson deserves at least one more look following his pretty impressive contribution to what turned out to be a really important game for the Blazers. It’s hard to know what criteria coach Stotts uses to determine who is in or out of the rotation. Meyers Leonard has had some decent moments and so has Robinson, making a definitive statement that one is better than the other or that one should play and the other shouldn’t is difficult for me. Portland’s bench has been a lot of mix and match lately, I don’t imagine that one solid shift from T Rob is enough to change that entirely. I do think Robinson will get some minutes though. If he can bring solid energy every night, he could certainly be back in the rotation.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: I’d argue that Portland’s definition of “rotation” ends with the 6th man this year. Mo Williams is the last guy on the roster you’ll see for semi-significant minutes every night. Joel Freeland and Dorell Wright provide the pivot point. They’ll play but how long depends on matchups and effectiveness. (And even Wright has seen DNP’s lately.) Anyone below them in minutes played was probably never in the rotation to begin with…at least not the rotation that matters.

Robinson and Leonard have had great nights occasionally. They’re also inconsistent and sport Crater-Lake-sized holes in their games. That’s not an insult. I imagine each knows he needs to contribute consistently and play more effectively on defense (Leonard) or under control on offense (Robinson) to gain minutes. Until that happens they’re not fighting anyone above them in the rotation for court time as much as they’re fighting each other for scraps. Emergency duty and/or nights when one or the other has a natural matchup advantage provide relief, but as a general rule nobody stakes a solid claim to 9 minutes of playing time in this league. Like the fourth guest on the Tonight Show they’ll be scheduled but subject to getting bumped for any decent reason.

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2. The Trail Blazers have arguably their most daunting road trip of the season coming up this week as they embark on a four games in five nights rendezvous that will take them through the Texas Triangle (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio) before ending in Oklahoma City. How many wins do you see Portland racking up on this trip and against whom?

Holdahl: I'll go with a 2-2 record with bookend wins versus the Spurs and Thunder. Having said that, I wouldn't be surprised if they won all four, lost all four or finished anywhere in between.

Haynes: That’s going to be a tough one. In all seriousness, I got them exiting that trip 1-3. The win I give them is against Dallas. Those other three games, I suspect, are going to be brutal.

Freeman: I hate predicting outcomes of NBA games, so I’m not going to break down the trip game-by-game. But since you’re making me guess, I’ll say the Blazers will split the trip and go 2-2. And considering how challenging it is, 2-2 would be pretty solid.

Tokito: The one thing that helps the Blazers is that Dallas, which is the second opponent of the first back-to-back, plays the night before in Phoenix. So there’s that. I’d guess 2-2, but I have no idea.

Gundersen: I'll say they will split this one. I think they are going to have trouble against Houston because I don't really like how they match-up against them. Dwight can cover Aldridge somewhat without doubling, if Houston commits to it, even though Aldridge had probably his best game of the year against Dwight the last time out. The Blazers have done well against San Antonio in the past and Oklahoma City. Splitting might be understating their chances a little bit because none of these teams are invincible, especially with Houston being so inconsistent and Oklahoma City lacking consistency without Westbrook.

Acker: I’d wager that Portland will get at least one win. A split would be fantastic. It doesn’t really matter which teams they beat, in my opinion. Of course beating San Antonio and Oklahoma City would be great, but if Portland drops both of those games but beats Dallas and Houston, I’m not complaining. However, if you’re asking me which game would be the best to win, I would say a win in San Antonio would really be something special since the Blazers have already won once in OKC. Although, a second win in Oklahoma would give Portland the season series, which would be a good thing.

Deckard: It’s getting harder to predict whether the Blazers will win quarters anymore, let alone games. They’ve been up and down multiple times in any given 12-minute stretch and as I’m writing, sport a 5-5 record since their last winning streak.

Those Texas teams are tough, but LaMarcus Aldridge always plays his best in his home state. Portland has had San Antonio’s number lately and they owe Dallas a defeat but Houston can be like Kryptonite to Portland’s less-than-super defense. The Blazers don’t like to lose—especially to good teams--and definitely carry themselves like a legit contender but the weaknesses are starting to show as well.

All of that adds up to the usual pile of, “???” Let’s say wins against Dallas and San Antonio, losses against Houston and OKC but that means less than nothing. I don’t have a clue what will happen. Neither 3-1 nor 1-3 would surprise me.

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3. CJ McCollum was a DNP-Coaches Decision Tuesday night in Sacramento and then saw nearly 15 minutes of action the following night against Orlando. How do you envision CJ's role with the team evolving as the season moves along?

Holdahl: I think CJ's role will be similar to what we saw in Saturday night's victory against the Celtics: playing 10 to 18 minutes at shooting guard alongside Mo Williams. He might eventually play alongside Damian Lillard and maybe he eats a little into Wesley Matthews' minutes to get to somewhere around 20 minutes per game as the season progresses, but that's really anyone's guess.

Haynes: I think CJ will grow to be a vital part of their rotation this season like I’ve thought all along. Barring any setbacks, Mo Williams and McCollum have the potential to be one of the most dynamic reserve backcourts in this league.

Freeman: In the aforementioned article I wrote about the Blazers’ rotation, I ended with a quote from Terry Stotts that said: “We’re not even halfway through the season. Things can change very quickly.” That pretty much sums it up. I’m surprised McCollum’s been given a chance to earn a rotation spot this soon, to be honest, so it’s difficult to predict what his role will be in April. That said, I was very impressed with what I saw from him during the Blazers’ 112-104 victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday night. After playing a big passive and tentative in his NBA debut one game earlier, McCollum was aggressive, played with poised and provided a much-needed scoring spark off the bench. As long as he continues to reveal that level of moxie and skill, he will play.

Tokito: Obviously, he’ll be the backup shooting guard as long as he’s effective. As he showed against the Celtics, he brings something to the table. We’ll see soon enough if teams try to attack him and test his defense.

Gundersen: The Blazers bench, while improved, still has lacked scoring for much of the year. The Blazers bench scores the second-lowest amount of points per game in the league just ahead of the Warriors. McCollum could help them a lot in that area. Sure, they don't have a ton of trouble scoring the ball but having someone who can consistently make open shots is something the Blazers bench just hasn't had the last two seasons. Mo Williams is an excellent creator for himself and others but the Blazers bench hasn't had a guy that they can swing the ball to, to make shots consistently. Dorell Wright was brought in to be that but his consistency hasn't been there so far. From talking with Stotts and other players, the one thing we know about McCollum is that he can make shots. The Blazers defense hasn't been great and fans shouldn't expect a rookie guard to make an immediate impact on that end this season. He can, however, help them avoid the precipitous scoring drops they've had with their second units.

Acker: That’s a tough call. The feeling right now is that there are minutes available for bench guys; it’s their job to claim them. CJ wasn’t really a liability during his debut performance, which means he showed up ready to play. He needs minutes to get comfortable with the speed of play and with the various ins and outs of the Blazers’ offense, but this isn’t really a team that can spare a lot of games breaking in a rookie. Like T Rob, if CJ can have a consistent positive impact, there’s no reason to think he won’t get minutes. If Portland brass is thinking long term, which they should be, McCollum’s growth is pretty important.

Deckard: I thought McCollum played well within himself in his first taste of NBA action. That’s no small feat for a high-scoring lottery pick who’s waited this long to take the floor. His shot attempts were measured, he paid attention defensively, he didn’t seek out the ball or attention. It seemed like he was trying to fit in, not to break the system…a prudent sign of respect when playing with veterans who’ve accumulated a 75% victory rate in your absence.

That said, McCollum is going to have to get more aggressive and open up the throttle before we see how the car will handle. As long as the Blazers keep winning and fighting for high playoff seeding Mo Williams will have an advantage over CJ due to experience. CJ’s job is to show enough potential to make the coaches (and eventually the front office) think he could eat into Mo’s minutes and fill Mo’s scoring role. Then he needs to show enough control and court-savvy to make them actually pull the trigger. Odds are that won’t happen this year but McCollum should be able to generate momentum in that direction.

The more point guard skills McCollum can demonstrate the easier it’s going to be to get him on the floor. You can make a more compelling case for him to play alongside and in place of Damian Lillard than you can for him to play alongside or in place of Williams right now, if nothing else because Lillard plays better off-ball than Williams does. Either that or McCollum will need to keep demonstrating the ability to flourish without dribbling as he showed against Boston.

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4. All-Star voting ends January 20th. If it were up to you, who would be your Eastern and Western Conference All-Star starters?

Holdahl: I'll go with Kyrie Irving, Paul George (I don't care that he's listed as a frontcourt player), Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Roy Hibbert in the East. As for the West, I'll say Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard.

Haynes: With Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook out with injuries, my Western Conference lineup would look something like this: Tony Parker, James Harden, Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard.

Eastern Conference: Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Roy Hibbert.

Tokito: In the West, I’d go Stephen Curry, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. In the East, I’d pick LeBron James and Paul George. That’s it. That conference does not deserve more players than that.

Gundersen: For the purposes of this, I'm going to pretend we live in a world where the fan voting doesn't exist.

Eastern Conference: LeBron James, Paul George, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and John Wall (no disrespect to Kyrie Irving, but his team being atrocious hasn't really helped his case and John Wall plays defense)

Western Conference: Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard (really wanted to put DeMarcus Cousins here but couldn't just yet), James Harden, Steph Curry.

Acker: Not really sure I can answer this question since I spend most of my time watching the Blazers at the expense of watching almost any other team. In the East, you have to go with LeBron James and Paul George at the forward positions and Roy Hibbert at the third forward/center position. I’ll also take Kyrie Irving at one guard and just for arguments sake Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played between December 2nd and December 8th Jordan Crawford at the other guard position.

In the West, my frontcourt would be LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, and Kevin Durant. My guards would be (because of various other All-Stars being out with injuries) Steph Curry and Tony Parker (with Damian Lillard coming in a close third).

Deckard: I’m a bad person to ask this because to me All-Star Weekend is pretty gimmicky.

Taking injuries into account in the West I’d go with Steph Curry and James Harden in the backcourt, DeMarcus Cousins at center, and Kevin Durant at forward. The soul-wrenching choice comes between LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love. Aldridge is the more valuable of the two players but Love has the flashier stats. Since it’s a show I suppose we should go with Love but you said it was my choice so I’m honoring Aldridge’s leadership of the Blazers so far and picking him.

In the East you have LeBron James and Paul George as the forwards. Carmelo Anthony pushes George aside in key statistical categories just like Love pushes aside Aldridge but ‘Melo is one-dimensional, a team-killer, and who really wants to see him play more than he does already? The backcourt in the East starts with Kyrie Irving. Shooting guard is a quandary. I suppose I should choose Dwyane Wade here but if you’ll let me sneak Carmelo into the backcourt I could live with that too. You could name a couple center candidates but I’m going with Anthony Davis since he’s the best combination of production and breakout talent.

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5. Andrew Bynum was traded earlier this week from the Cavaliers to the Bulls in a package around Luol Deng, then he was immediately waived by Chicago. Do you see any teams out there willing to roll the dice on Bynum?

Holdahl: I think it depends on how much that roll costs. I'm sure he'll end up on a team this season, but for how long and how much are the real questions. Between inability to get healthy and the questions about whether he's all that motivated to return to the court, I have no idea how one goes about setting that market.

Haynes: At this point, the only teams I can see giving him a shot are the Clippers or the Pacers. This last episode he pulled in Cleveland isn’t helping his cause to latch on with another team. He’s still easily one of the top bigs on the planet, but character issues and work ethic has forced teams to shy away.

Freeman: Andrew Bynum is 7-feet tall and has a solid skill-set. When healthy, focused and in the right situation, he’s one of the game’s best big men. So, despite his checkered injury history — and off-the-court trouble — some team will give him a chance. Greg Oden got another shot … why wouldn’t Bynum?

Tokito: C’mon, is that even in doubt? Of course Bynum will find a new team. A skilled 7-footer will always get a contract in the NBA, no matter how big a meathead he is.

Gundersen: I get that he's a seven-foot talent, but from what I saw, he can't play in the second half of games. He also just doesn't appear to enjoy the game of basketball that he has so much talent for. This is in no way an indictment of his character or to say he is a bad person but if I were a team the fact that he doesn't like to play would deter me from signing him.

Who in contention really needs or would want to sign him? The Thunder found a quality big in the draft in Steven Adams, the Heat have already taken a flier on Greg Oden, maybe Brooklyn could use him with Brook Lopez out for an extended period but does that really make them a contender? The Spurs have been known to roll the dice on wild cards but Bynum just doesn't seem a like a move for them.

The Bynum question is tough because he's such a great talent. The only team I could see taking a chance on Bynum is the Clippers because they legitimately have nobody else behind DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens just don't seem like championship-level rotation players to me. Bynum was successful in Los Angeles with the Lakers and perhaps a move back to Hollywood under the sun with a city where he can indulge any interest he has may be the answer.

Acker: Yes and no. Yes, I think there is a team that will take a flier on Bynum. Why not? His value is in the basement, which means anything you could get from him would be gravy. But also no, I don’t think a team should try to pick up Bynum. A guy really only deserves a half dozen second chances, Bynum might have run out of his.

Deckard: This is similar to the Greg Oden situation, albeit for different reasons. Bynum would fare best on a team that could use him without depending on him. Aside from a couple brief spurts he’s been playing horribly this season. Ongoing injury and bad attitude are icing on the cake. You have to make him your third-string center and hope he plays his way upward from there. Either that or you just can’t care, figuring Bynum as a gamble in a season that’s already plateaued.

Miami has the ability to insulate Bynum the way they have Oden, taking a chance on him without suffering for failure if it doesn’t work out. The Lakers could trade on past success and their “beyond caring” status at this point. Dallas is in the tweener zone. They could really use a center but it’s not like Bynum failing would cost them a title. Then again they’ve been burned by volatile personalities in recent years. He’d probably seem like a better idea to the Mavs than he’d actually end up being. The Nets are another logical choice, although why would they want to upset the cart when they’ve just started playing well?

Some of the other places Bynum has been mentioned nationally—Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans, New York—would be a disaster. He’d mess up chemistry on the court in the first three places with not nearly enough reward coming back. The Knicks already sport Anthony and J.R. Smith. I can’t even imagine the level of clueless ball-hoggery that would ensue adding Bynum to that mix, let alone the locker-room follies. The Warriors, Blazers, and Clippers wouldn’t suffer as badly but they’re already prospering and don’t need to disrupt their nascent success with a desperation move like this.