Running The Break: The Blazer Backcourt

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Will there be too much on Damian Lillard's plate at All-Star Weekend? Who was the biggest All-Star snub? And who is the best pure scorer in the game? 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. Who was the biggest All-Star snub?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: Kevin Hart being the designated celebrity for All-Star Weekend yet again is a snub to anyone with a sense of humor, so I'll go with that.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: Lance Stephenson. He was robbed. He leads the league in triple-doubles and he’s doing it on the best team in the Eastern Conference. Joe Johnson? Come on.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: I thought the West went exactly as it should have (I even predicted every West pick correctly). The only question is who replaces Kobe Bryant, and the Suns’ Goran Dragic would be the correct pick, in my opinion.

I hate the word “snub” when talking about All-Star picks because you can’t just keep adding players. If you’re going to say a player should be in, you should have to say which guy you would take off the team to make room. That being said, I might’ve taken Lance Stephenson in the East in place of Joe Johnson.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: I don't think you can say anybody from the West because everybody that made it in the West was deserving. So, looking at the East I think it's Kyle Lowry. Lowry has been carrying even more of a burden since the Rudy Gay trade and he's thrived. He's also one of the few point guards in the league who makes an impact on both ends every night.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: It’s safe to say that a lot of players in the Western Conference probably deserved to make the All-Star team, but I kind of think Kyle Lowry might have been the biggest snub of this ASG selection. Maybe because he just came through Portland and had a pretty decent game, or maybe because it’s a bit of a shock that the Raptors are doing as well (relatively) as they are and might deserve a second All-Star, or maybe because I’m kind of tired of seeing Joe Johnson in the All-Star Game, I think Lowry deserved a shot.

I think a case can also be made that Tim Duncan was a pretty serious snub considering how good his team has been and how consistent he continues to be. That being said, outside of LaMarcus Aldridge not starting, I think the West coaches pretty much nailed it.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: It’s got to be one of the bigs in the West, either Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins. Respect to Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki but did we really need to see 4 point guards and 4 familiar power forwards on the left-coast squad? Give a nod to history and credit to elder statesmen for winning ties but give me at least one new breed big man. Both Cousins and Davis have been playing really well.

SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: I'm figuring the popular choice is going to be Anthony Davis or maybe Kyle Lowry but I'm going with Goran Dragic. The experts had even lower expectations for the Suns then they did for the Blazers. Naturally I think LIllard is the better choice but Dragic deserves some recognition for the season he and the Suns are having.

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2. As of this writing (January 31, 2014), the Trail Blazers are just 2-4 in their last six games and Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews have combined to shoot just 39.5 percent (47-119) in the four losses. Is hot shooting from the Blazer backcourt the key to Portland's success? And is there any cause for concern that they're cooling off?

Holdahl: It's not a requirement, but Lillard and Matthews hitting their outside shots is certainly helpful. The Trail Blazers have shown this season that they can overcome poor individual shooting nights, they just can't have everyone slumping at the same time.

It's probably a bit too soon to call it a "cause for concern," but if it keeps up to the All-Star break, then I think it's time to start worrying.

Haynes: Their shooting has been the key reason why they’ve gotten off to such a great start. LaMarcus Aldridge is playing at an MVP level but he’s doing so because you can’t double him with the way Portland strokes the ball. Their defense has been suspect all year, but no one cared because they won ball games. If they cool off for long stretches, they’ll be in trouble. I haven’t noticed teams doing anything differently with their defensive coverage against the Trail Blazers. Portland has just been missing shots. Shooters go through that, but they keep shooting.

Tokito: Players and coaches won’t ever use this as an excuse, but I’d say fatigue. Those six games came over nine days and included four games that were part of back-to-backs. I wouldn’t call backcourt shooting “the key,” but it’s certainly an important part of Portland’s success.

Gundersen: I think that the shooting just proves that this team is capable of going through an extended drought. But over 82 games, it's not that alarming. There were things offensively that weren't very encouraging over that stretch. Many times the ball would stick and players would stand and watch. They continued shooting and even though they suffered some scoring droughts on Saturday, they scored and shot well against a very good defense.

Acker: A hot-shooting backcourt is super important to the success of this Blazer team, but it’s not the key, not by itself. The key to Portland’s success is LaMarcus Aldridge. As Nicolas Batum said after a game recently, when LA has the ball, and is flowing offensively, the guards and wings get their shots, the floor opens up, and everything becomes a whole lot easier. LA requires so much attention from defenders that the guys on the floor with him end up being much more effective. And that’s how the offense was designed. Certainly there is a cause for concern with Dame and Wesley starting to cool off a little, but what the team should be more worried about is figuring out how to stay consistent when LA is off the floor or when he’s having a (rare) off night.

Deckard: Hot shooting is a key but I wouldn’t say the key with LaMarcus Aldridge’s scoring, second-chance points, and foul shots all playing a part. But we have to be careful not to confuse illness and symptoms here. It’s not like Matthews and Lillard just go cold so the Blazers lose, as if it’s their fault. Their low percentage is indicative of the Blazers not running the offense they want. The ball isn’t reversing clean to the weak side to set up Matthews. Screens to free Lillard aren’t effective. Part of that is good, talented defenses catching onto Portland’s strengths. But as the Blazers have gotten pressured in the last few games they’ve devolved into isolation ball…not their strong point. The ball isn’t moving as well as we’re used to seeing nor are players. That’s the root cause of Portland’s offensive struggles, of which poor shooting by the guards is a symptom.

There are three concerns here. You’re going to see more defenses take away Portland’s natural strengths. The Blazers have won by being the team operating closer to optimal level than their opponents on a nightly basis. What happens when opponents take that away? Do the Blazers have another gear? To the extent fatigue contributes to lesser performances, will the Blazers be able to get un-fatigued in the second half of a grueling season? Playoff opponents are going to do anything possible to pressure the Blazers out of their comfort zone. Will the Blazers respond by re-asserting themselves or playing to their weaknesses? How tough is this team mentally and emotionally, especially when games get ugly and opponents rude?

SlyPokerDog: Not really worried at all. Like the Thunder are showing, challenges and adversity are good for a team. Learning to win games when the outside shot isn't falling will only make this team better.

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3. Damian Lillard will be a busy man on All-Star Weekend. Lillard's got the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday, he'll most likely defend his Taco Bells Skills Challenge title on Saturday, and he'll be in uniform for the All-Star Game on Sunday. Now Chris Haynes reports that Lillard could participate in the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. Is this too much for a player who's already averaging 36 minutes a night?

Holdahl: Not really. As the players have pointed out before, it's all of the promotional events at All-Star Weekend that take up the most time and energy, not the games and/or competitions. Once you're scheduled to compete in one event, might as well tack a few more on (though I don't know that the dunk contest makes a whole lot of sense for Lillard).

Haynes: Yes, accepting the Slam Dunk invite would be too much, in my opinion. When you’re a young star on the rise, accepting such invites are usually a must in order to increase your national profile. But being that he’s already in the Skills Challenge, the Rising Stars game and an All-Star reserve, the Dunk Contest should be declined considering the workload he has with the Trail Blazers. He’ll be tired out alone with all the off the court duties he’ll have that weekend. Sometimes you just have to say “no thank you.”

Tokito: Based on the All-Star Games I’ve covered, I’d say the dunk contest is the one event that really takes a toll physically – Terrence Ross was talking about how exhausted he was after he won last year. The other events aren’t all that physically demanding. What wears players out is all the appearances and media demands. I don’t think the number of actual events really matters, just the stuff that surrounds them. Assuming Lillard doesn’t do the dunk contest, he’ll be all right.

Gundersen: I think it would be cool if Damian Lillard was in the dunk contest. If I were Terry Stotts, maybe not. But the dunk contest was cool when it had star power and adding young stars like John Wall and Damian Lillard could add some intrigue to what's become an otherwise boring event.

Acker: No. Lillard is young, he’s in great shape, and he’ll likely be running on adrenalin the whole weekend anyway. In fact, not only do I think that Dame should participate in both the Skills Challenge and the Dunk Contest, I think he should be included in the Three-Point Shootout also. Lillard is on the brink of becoming a huge mega star. He needs to maximize his exposure right now to make sure he gets to that huge mega star level. Turning All-Star Weekend into the Damian Lillard Show is good for him and good for the team. It is unlikely Dame will get hurt shooting around, dribbling, and dunking. The All Star Game isn’t so competitive that he’s going to be wiped out for the days and weeks that follow it. He’s already going to be there, so let him do all of it.

Deckard: To me it is. All-Star weekend is a show but ultimately meaningless. I’d prefer a rested Lillard to an exhausted one.

SlyPokerDog: Too much? Not at all. I actually hope he does participate in every event. While this is his first year as an all-star this will be his second year at all-star weekend. He knows what to expect.

Let's be honest, All-Star Weekend has grown stale. In recent years when one of the biggest stories has been when someone just happens to jump over a Kia during the Kia sponsored dunk contest the whole weekend comes off as forced and commercial.

And think about how much fun it would, the attention for Lillard and the Blazers it would get and the future advertising campaigns it could generate. Kevin Love's new commercials where he sits at a Taco Bell eating a burrito? Boring! I want Damian Lillard running into a Taco Bell and ordering one of everything off the menu. Why? Because just like all-star weekend, Dame does everything! Hell, (wait, can I say hell in this?) I can see "Dame does" being the "Bo knows" campaign of the 2010's.

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4. With Russell Westbrook out, Kevin Durant has elevated his game to another level while leading the Thunder to nine straight wins (as of January 31, 2014), including impressive victories over the Trail Blazers, Rockets, Warriors, Spurs, and Heat. And he's currently scored more than 30 points in 11 consecutive games, raising his points per game average to 31.3 - the highest in the league. Is KD just "in the zone" over these past two weeks or can he sustain this level of play for the remainder of the season?

Holdahl: I think he'll stay at this level until Russell Westbrook comes back. I don't think Durant is on a "hot streak" as much as he's a fantastic player who has carte blanche to take as many shots he wants whenever he wants while his best teammate is sidelined.

Haynes: Players like Kevin Durant stay in the zone. He has taken it up a notch because it’s a must with Russell Westbrook sidelined. The interesting thing about K.D. is that he would rather not look for his shot constantly throughout the game. Like LeBron James, he gets immense pleasure in being considered a team guy. But he also realizes that the ship will sink if he doesn’t take a more aggressive approach and that’s exactly what we’ve been witnessing. As long as Westbrook is out, Durant is more than capable of sustaining this level of play. There are only about four players that can do what he’s doing on a night-to-night basis. And he’s one of them.

Tokito: As great as his scoring was, I’m as impressed that Durant averaged 5.9 assists and shot 54.4 percent during what turned out to be a 12-game 30-point streak. I don’t think that’s a “zone” thing, which suggests a limited hot streak and a guy putting up empty points, but rather a guy playing very well while making his team better.

Gundersen: Few people have ever been in a zone like Durant was in. I don't think he can sustain that level for the whole season, but then again we've never seen anyone like Durant before. However, I feel like the Thunder still need Westbrook to make a deep playoff run.

Acker: Smart money says that Kevin Durant will continue to be amazing. He’s an amazing talent, and he continues to just get better. Who knows what happens when Westbrook returns, if, for example, the need to spread the shots around a little more cuts into his raw scoring totals. However, it’s just as likely that when Russ returns KD’s efficiency will spike, since he’ll probably just get the same number of points in half the shots. The Heat are certainly still the favorite to win the title, since they’ve won the last two and played for the last three, but right now OKC is the team to beat and Kevin Durant is the best player in the league.

Deckard: I’ve learned not to doubt or predict what guys like Durant and LeBron James can do. KD will probably do as much as necessary to keep his team high in the standings until it’s not necessary anymore. He and LeBron are in a world by themselves, neither comparable to other players nor bound by their standards and limitations.

SlyPokerDog: I don't think he can sustain it and after Westbrook comes back I don't think he would want to sustain it. He's going to have to give up some shots to get Russell reintegrated back into the offense.

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5. Carmelo Anthony recently dropped 62 points in The Garden, Kevin Durant, as mentioned above, is on a scoring rampage, and LeBron can take over a game in the bat of an eye. In your opinion, who is the best pure scorer in the entire NBA right now?

Holdahl: Right now, it's Kevin Durant. LeBron is the best overall player of the three, and could probably put up 30 a night if the Heat needed him to, but they don't, so he doesn't. Carmelo is good for a couple 50+ point games a season, but he lacks the consistency and discipline that Durant has offensively.

Haynes: The best pure scorer is Carmelo Anthony because he can do it in a multitude of ways. He can break you down off the dribble, shoot the outside shot and has one of the best back-to-the-basket games in the league. James will overpower you and dominate you one-on-one. Durant will overpower shoot with his shooting and will on occasion take you off the dribble. Anthony can do it in more ways than anybody right now. In my opinion, he’s the best pure scorer.

Tokito: I guess Durant, but the phrase “pure scorer” seems more like an insult since it implies that’s all you do.

Gundersen: Right now it's got to be Durant. Anytime you've got a guy efficiently going for 54 and 46 points against very good NBA defenders like Iguodala and Batum as well as draining game-winning 20-footers with four defenders around him you've got to go with him.

Acker: Kevin Durant is probably the best pure scorer in the game right now. His Player Efficiency Rating is best in the league. His True Shooting Percentage is top five. He leads the league in Offensive Rating and Offensive Win Shares. Those are all the advanced stats that point to KD being the best offensive player in the NBA. More than that, though, he appears to be more consistent than LeBron James (as far as his jump shooting goes at least) and unlike Carmelo Anthony he doesn’t have to take 30 shots to get 30 points.

Deckard: Durant is the best pure scorer, LeBron is the most dominant overall player, and Carmelo Anthony is a waste of column space. Not that I have a bias or anything…

SlyPokerDog: It comes down to Durant or LeBron. That's tough but I have to give to LeBron. He's got that Magic Johnson like quality of where he could almost play all 5 positions on the court.