Running The Break: Close Calls

December 30, 2013

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Is there a science to the Trail Blazers' late-game success? How does Russell Westbrook's injury shape the landscape of the Western Conference? And are the surprising Suns for real? 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. They say great teams find ways to win close games and Portland is 7-1 in games decided by four points are less. Does the saying hold true for this Trail Blazers team or do you expect the close calls to even out as the year goes along?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: I think it's both. Wins and losses in close games tend to even out as the season goes on, as we saw Saturday night in the loss to the Heat. But being able to pull out close games is also a skill, one that the Blazers have shown on numerous occasions this season.

The bigger issue, one that Terry Stotts addressed after the loss to the Heat, is that the Trail Blazers have not been consistent closing out teams late in games, even if they do eventually come away with the victory. It's great to win close games, but building and sustaining leads late in games would be the preferred method to relying on last-second shots.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: So far it’s holding true. I’m not sure how successful the Blazers will be once postseason play arrives, but as far as this season goes, they’re legit and I expect them to continue coming through in close games. They’ve been in so many of them and have found ways to get it done. It’s not foreign territory anymore. Plus, Terry Stotts has proven to be one of the best coaches in the league in drawing up plays out of timeouts. It’ll continue, barring injury.

Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman), The Oregonian: The Blazers have been remarkably successful in nip-and-tuck games, but we’ve seen this before — when the Blazers surprisingly remained in playoff contention for most of the 2012-13 season, they were equally adept at eking out wins with late-game mojo. But these things have a way of evening themselves out, and I do expect some of these tight games to start going against the Blazers. Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and, of course, Damian Lillard, will continue to produce when games are on the line, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more Monta Ellis and Chris Bosh-like heartbreakers on the horizon.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: The Blazers, who are by no means a great team yet, don’t want to fall into the habit of relying on late-game heroics. They did this successfully for stretches last season, and while it resulted in a lot of fun games, you just can’t count on it over a full season. They need to get better at putting the accelerator down when they get a lead.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: I am inclined to agree with Terry Stotts when he said last week that there is a skill to winning close games. However, the Blazers have continually allowed themselves to be in situations where they have to win late. While the Blazers have performed better in the clutch, especially defensively, they cannot continue to hang their hat on having to make the big play at the end of every game. They execute very well down the stretch, but sometimes the ball won't bounce your way like against Dallas or Saturday night against Miami.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: It’s hard to say definitively. A lot of good teams end up not playing that many close games until the playoffs or at least not playing that many close games that have serious implications until the playoffs. On the other hand, a lottery bound Blazer team last season played a lot of close games, and won a bunch of them, and they weren’t a great team. It’s fantastic that the Blazers have found ways to win games, and certainly a team like this, which is learning on the fly while trying to maintain its outstanding record, is gaining all kinds of important experience by coming through in tight situations. Will it even out after a while, and will Portland start losing the games they’ve been winning in the first few months of the season? Maybe. However, to assume that the Blazers will start losing close games implies that their good fortune in end-game situations is based mostly on luck. I tend to disagree with assessment. These Blazers have shown a tendency to step up their defense in late games (the loss to Chris Bosh’s team notwithstanding), and Terry Stotts has created a ton of big-time game ending set plays. Those things aren’t luck. If Portland continues to execute in late games (again, forget about Miami) I imagine they’ll continue to win close games.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: A little of both. But really, you need three things to prosper in tight-game situations: talent, confidence, and experience. The Blazers have two stars surrounded by enough shooters to take care of the talent part. Damian Lillard has confidence oozing out his pores and nobody else seems afraid of taking a crucial shot. As for experience, you just said they’re 7-1 in close games, right? In this case success may be the best teacher.

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2. It was announced today (December 27th, 2013), that Russell Westbrook will miss time due to recent knee swelling and is expected to return after the All-Star break. The Thunder went just 3-6 in last year's postseason without Westbrook. With that said, will Oklahoma City be able to keep pace with Portland and San Antonio while also fighting off the likes of Houston and Los Angeles for two-plus months? Also, does this now make Damian Lillard a lock for the All-Star team?

Holdahl: Losing Westbrook is obviously a huge blow, but with a more than competent backup in Reggie Jackson and Kevin Durant playing MVP-caliber basketball, the Thunder will be just fine. Ending the regular season in first place in the Western Conference might be out of reach, but I'd be surprised if they didn't end up with home court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.

As for Lillard, his chances of making the Western Conference All-Star team improved with Westbrook's injury, but he is in no way a lock. There's too many great players in the West for a player of Lillard's stature to just breeze onto the team. It also depends on what Portland's record is come mid-February, as his chances of making the team greatly improve, with or without injury to his peers, if the Trail Blazers are still near the top of the NBA standings.

He's is a lock to play in the Rookie/Sophomore game and defend his Skill Challenge title, so he'll be in New Orleans one way or another, but just how busy he'll be is to be determined.

Haynes: I expect OKC to play like they’ve been playing over the handful of years. Russell Westbrook being out definitely hurts, but that dude named Kevin Durant is the truth. Essentially, all you’re asking him to do is carry more of a load and he’s more than capable of doing that. As far as Damian Lillard’s All-Star chances goes, I felt he would slip in prior to Westbrook going down if Portland remained a Top 2 team. I think he’s a virtual lock to make it now if the winning continues.

Freeman: Oklahoma City won its first two games without Westbrook, and one of the victories was a 117-86 drubbing of the Houston Rockets. So, yes, I expect the Thunder to remain in the top half of the Western Conference even though their All-Star point guard will be sidelined until after the All-Star break. Last I checked the Thunder still has the NBA’s best scorer (Kevin Durant) and a stable of solid players. Reggie Jackson is a standout point guard who is capable of filling in for Westbrook, and second-year guard Jeremy Lamb, who put up a career-high 22 points and five rebounds against the Rockets, could be on the verge of a breakout. If anything, Westbrook’s absence will likely open up more shots for Durant, which might be a good thing. As for Lillard’s All-Star candidacy, nothing is a “lock.” But he already was on the All-Star bubble, and while he will have a hard time fending off the likes of Tony Parker, I think Lillard will earn an All-Star bid — as long as the Blazers keep winning.

Tokito: I think the Thunder will struggle to remain an upper-half playoff team in the West. Westbrook is just that good.

Lillard is hardly a lock. I wrote about this last week. There’s just a lot of competition at guard in the West – Stephen Curry, James Harden and Chris Paul are probably shoo-ins, and if Kobe Bryant gets voted in as a starter and is able to play, it could come down to Lillard and Tony Parker for a spot if coaches decide to go with one guard in the two non-position spots on the ballot. Tough call if you’re a coach.

Gundersen: Call me crazy, but I think this Oklahoma City team might be the best one they've ever had because of their depth. Reggie Jackson has been excellent and it appears that some of the Westbrook swagger has rubbed off on him. They may not be able to be at the top of the standings while Westbrook is out, but their team without Westbrook should allow them to be within striking distance once Westbrook gets back.

As far as the All-Star game with Westbrook out, it's gotta be Dame.

Acker: Losing Russell Westbrook is a huge blow to the Thunder, but it’s probably better for them that he sits now and not at the beginning of the post season like last year. I could see OKC falling off a little bit, but I also am willing to bet they were at least a little prepared for Russ to either get hurt again or not be 100% all season. It’s not the best scenario, but there’s at least a slight possibility the Thunder had at least a semblance of a contingency plan for playing without Westbrook. I would be shocked if OKC fell out of the top three in the Western Conference. As far as Lillard making the All-Star team, I would have said he’s not a total lock before Russ goes down but he would have been the biggest Western Conference snub should he not have been included. Now with Westbrook out and Kobe out (two dudes that would have been/will be top vote getters) Dame is almost certainly a lock.

Deckard: It’s hard to compare the playoffs and the regular season. 82 games against 29 teams bring too many variables into play. Even though the Thunder went 3-6 without Westbrook in the post-season they’re already 2-1 without him in the regular season this year. They’ve still got Kevin Durant. They’re still a tough out. And how do we know Portland and San Antonio will continue this pace? I wouldn’t bet my house on the Thunder but I wouldn’t bet against them either.

As for the All-Star lock, I imagine it will happen but you always cross fingers when your guy is third at his position. It looks like Chris Paul will win the popular starting vote at point guard and the coaches have to pick Steph Curry ahead of Lillard. Kobe Bryant is also injured which should push James Harden into the starting 2-guard spot. Lillard would then be the next logical choice, capable of playing both guard roles. But if the coaches start muttering about honoring Tony Parker—especially if Tim Duncan doesn’t make it this year—and they don’t want to carry a fourth point guard…

Given the injuries Lillard really ought to make it though. It’d be something of an injustice if he didn’t.

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3. Your December NBA Player of the Month for both the Eastern and Western Conference is…?

Holdahl: You could make a strong case for LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love for Western Conference Player of the Month, but I think you have to give it to Kevin Durant. The Thunder are 13-2 in December thanks in large part to Durant averaging nearly 29 points a game while shooting 54 percent from the field, 50 percent from three and 88 percent from the free throw line.

As for the Eastern Conference, I'm giving it to LeBron James until he goes through a monumental slump or misses significant time due to injury.

Haynes: Kevin Durant (14-2 Dec. record) in the West and LeBron James (10-4 Dec. record) in the East.

Freeman: With two games left on the December schedule, LaMarcus Aldridge was averaging 24.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists, while shooting 50 percent from the field, in the month. And the Blazers had an 11-3 December record. Enough said. As for the East, Indiana’s Paul George — who is averaging 24.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game in December — has a strong case, but it’s hard to pick against LeBron James. The four-time NBA MVP has led the Miami Heat to a 10-4 December record so far and averaged a ridiculous 24.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game, while shooting 59 percent from the field.

Tokito: Incomplete – most teams have two games left in the month, and that makes a significant difference. I’d say at the moment, Kevin Durant has an edge over LaMarcus Aldridge in the West – close numbers, more efficient and more wins. LeBron James seems a no-brainer in the East.

Gundersen: For the West, I think that Tuesday's game on New Years Eve will decide who gets that honor between Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers are 11-3 so far in December and the Thunder are 12-3. If Durant manages to close out the month with a better record despite losing Westbrook, I'm fairly certain the honor will go to him. For the East, I'll go with LeBron. He might have missed a game and the Heat won without him, but he's averaging over 25 points, nearly 7 rebounds and 6.5 assists. And, he has a real shot at creating his own 60-40-80 club (FG%-3PT%-FT%) which has never been done before.

Acker: That’s a tough question. A lot of guys in the West were great in December. Based on who the Blazers played last month, I would say Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Kevin Love were all great and should be considered for Player of the Month. LaMarcus Aldridge has also been fantastic and deserves consideration. I think Kevin Durant takes the honors since OKC is currently the top team in the league. Chris Paul’s numbers, especially his unbelievable assist numbers, also should grant him consideration. As far as the East, it’s a two-man race between LeBron James and Paul George, as it will be all season. This month, I’ll give it to Bron. Miami wasn’t exactly struggling to start the season, but they’ve been pretty darn good in December, and most of that can be credited to LeBron.

Deckard: It has to be Aldridge in the West. Didn’t he win 5 players of the week in the first four weeks of December? It might be boring, but how can you argue against 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists a night from LeBron James in the East?

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4. While the Trail Blazers are the talk of the NBA, and rightfully so, there's another surprising story down in the Valley of the Sun. As of this writing (December 27th, 2013), the Phoenix Suns are 17-10, have wins over Portland (twice), Denver, Golden State, and Houston, and sit comfortably in the sixth position out West. Do you expect them to drop off later in the season or will they be in the thick of the playoff race all season long?

Holdahl: I don't know that they'll drop off as much as some of the teams below them might catch up. But with relatively good health, I don't see why they can't be a factor late in the season, especially if they end up making a move by the trade deadline, as some have speculated they'll try to do.

Haynes: My feeling all along was that Phoenix would begin to plummet once the emotional high of having a solid, new management and coaching staff in place wore off. It’s a different era over there and the players and fans can feel it. I have to admit I didn’t think their success would last this long into the season, but I still figure the enticement of a wonderful draft class coming up is too much for the Suns to pass up. What I mean by that is I’m still not sold they aren’t in tank mode. Plenty of games left to drop.

Freeman: Minnesota, Denver and New Orleans will all have something to say about how long the Suns remain in playoff contention. The West is stupid deep. But Phoenix plays a fun brand of basketball, is loaded with shooting and skill, and Jeff Hornacek seems to be one heck of a coach. I love the Eric Bledsoe-Goran Dragic backcourt. The Suns will hit a rough patch eventually, but they should remain in the playoff chase.

Tokito: Jeff Hornacek has a done a great job, probably the best among the league’s many new coaches, and he deserves early consideration for Coach of the Year. He’s got a touch of Nate McMillan about him – not so much for style of play, but as a former player who has an even-keel, pro’s-pro demeanor and gets his guys to compete. That being said, I think they end up in a dogfight for the No. 8 spot. The West is just so tough.

Gundersen: At some point, you have to consider what you're seeing isn't a fluke anymore. They've played 30 games and they are 19-11 on the season. It won't make Blazers fans happy to hear this, but they will be in the thick of it all year at the bottom of that West playoff picture which means that the two teams could meet again. Phoenix knows who they are, which is the first step in being a good team at all. They buy in on the defensive end, they buy into Jeff Hornacek's fast-paced three-point shooting style and Dragic and Bledsoe have quickly become one of the NBA's best backcourts. The Suns are here to stay and they are even thinking about parting ways with draft picks in the loaded 2014 draft to help them right away. Signs like that show you that they think they are a real playoff team so why shouldn't we?

Acker: I keep expecting the Suns to hit the skids and go on a lengthy losing streak. It happens with all young teams. That it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t. However, in the three games they’ve played against Portland, they’ve certainly looked like a playoff team. With the West stacked the way it is, though, those last few playoff spots are going to come down to one or two games. Based on the fact that five teams in the West already have exceeded the 20-win mark, I think a team needs to be at or very very close to 50 wins to guarantee a playoff berth, I’m not sure if the Suns are a 50-win team. If they’re not, they better hope to get healthy beating up on Eastern Conference teams late in the season, and they better hope they don’t lose to one of the good Western Conference teams like the Pelicans, Nuggets, or Lakers that will probably miss the post season.

Deckard: So many teams are doing well in the West so far that we could ask this question about any of them. At some point all of these teams are going to play each other on a nightly basis and blood will be drawn.

I suspect the Suns are more prone than most to get hurt in that scrum. Their offense is pretty good but not mind-blowing. Their defense is so-so. They don’t have much room for error.

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5. In what would seem to be an effort to stop teams from tanking, it has been reported by Grantland.com that a "Draft Wheel" concept could replace the current NBA Lottery system. While it would certainly increase competitiveness late in the season, is it the answer? If not, how would you fix the NBA Draft process?

Holdahl: I'm of the opinion that the system currently in place works just fine. The issue this season has been exacerbated this season thanks to the hype of the 2014 draft class, but in general, I think the lottery is about as equitable of a system as you're going to get, especially in a sport where one player, more so than in other sports, can change the course of a franchise.

And while there may be a better system than the lottery, that wheel idea sure isn't it. Completely disassociating draft order from team performance is a cure worse than the disease. I mean, can you imagine the Heat getting the first pick in this year's draft? I'd much rather live with tanking than that alternative.

Tokito: When I first heard about this idea, I thought it must’ve been from The Onion, with a picture of Pat Sajak and Vanna White. A 30-year cycle? C’mon. How many teams will have the same owner 30 years from now? If the league is that concerned about tanking, then investigate and punish the guilty teams.

I think the new CBA is starting to change the way teams are formed, and this is just the first year it’s in full force with the nastier luxury tax. Contracts are shorter, teams will change more often, and the draft won’t be as all-important as it used to be. Let this thing work for a few years before you try anything truly nutty, like this draft wheel.

Gundersen: Bill Simmons of Grantland brought up an idea that I like where rather than have every year be based off that season you have every draft lottery be based of the past three seasons. I'm not really sure what I would do to "fix" the draft process. It's a tough idea and one problem with the "Draft Wheel" idea is that it would take 10 years or so to take effect with many trades involving future draft picks based on the current system. I like Simmons' idea of involving records from the past three seasons because it gives a little bit more hope for the teams that have been bad for multiple seasons.

Acker: To answer the second question first, I don’t have a real problem with the current draft process. Call me naïve, but it’s hard to convince me that tanking is something that teams actually do. First of all, professional athletes hate to lose. Second, losing badly for a whole season can be very bad for the bottom line of a franchise. Trying to lose to have a slightly better chance at a high profile rookie who may or may not blossom into a star, is not the best business decision, and the NBA is all about business. That being said, if the league throws out the lottery system, something like a “Draft Wheel” makes sense. My issue with that kind of system is that it seems arbitrary. Having one team that wins all the time is good for the league since that team is easy to sell to casual fans. The opposite is not true. Having a handful of teams that lose all the time is very very bad. Bad teams need to be given the chance to get better. If a bad team has the first pick in the draft one year and then won’t get it again for 30 years, they could be perennial losers for a very long time.

Deckard: Whether the wheel is the answer depends on the question. It’d stop all tanking. It would also take away the long-standing purpose of the draft: giving hope and aid to teams that need it most. The objection seems to be that some teams suck, perhaps on purpose. That may be true, but even if the “on purpose” goes away some teams are going to suck anyway. Taking away the motivation to tank won’t, in itself, make every franchise good. So what do the not-on-purpose sucking teams do in a Wheel World? What hope do their fans have? What happens if Miami already has LeBron James (or whomever) and the wheel declares them the recipient of the #1 overall pick in a draft like 2014 is projected to be? Do you then cry “bad management” when Milwaukee stinks when they had no chance to land LeBron and no chance to get a high draft pick?

I’ve put plenty of thought and ink into reforming the draft. My basic solution is to keep the current system with the 14 non-playoff teams entering the lottery. But the initial seeding order of those teams would be determined by their cumulative record the last three years instead of on the past season alone. The ping-pong drawing would follow, as usual, determining the top three picks and everybody else would fall in line from 4-14 based on their three-year record.

This would prevent teams from tanking a single season to target a strong draft, as appears to be happening this year. Even if your record was horrible in a single year, you’d probably still be the 12th-14th seed based on a three-year cumulative. If you really wanted to tank, you’d have to commit to 2-3 years of horror. Few GM’s would dare that, lest they be fired. This system would also lessen the chances of fluke injuries from strengthening a playoff team, as happened with San Antonio in the Tim Duncan.