Running The Break: M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P

December 9, 2013

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Is LaMarcus Aldridge a legitimate MVP candidate? Are the Trail Blazers one piece away from winning it all? And has Paul George surpassed Kevin Durant as the second-best player in the NBA? Six 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. On Friday, NBA.com moved LaMarcus Aldridge up to No. 6 on their Race to the MVP list (up four spots from last week). If you had to turn in your ballot, today, where would LA rank? And do you envision him becoming the first legitimate MVP candidate the Trail Blazers have had since Clyde Drexler in 1992 (placed second behind Michael Jordan)?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: Somewhere in the Top 5 feels about right. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are untouchable, then there's Chris Paul and Paul George. After that, I think Aldridge is playing as well as anyone in the league and there's little doubt the Trail Blazers would take a nosedive if he were to miss any extended amount of time.

Second part of the question is a little more difficult to answer. One one hand, you could argue Brandon Roy was a legitimate MVP candidate during his pre-injury heyday and I think you could make a case for either Rasheed Wallace or Scottie Pippen during the 1999-00 season.

But I'm one of those guys who thinks there isn't an argument when it comes to MVP this season. There is no team in the league that wouldn't trade their best player for LeBron James, period. You could parse whether there's a distinction between "most valuable" and "best" but there isn't to me.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: LaMarcus Aldridge’s MVP chances rely solely on the success of the team. If there is anyway the Trail Blazers can keep up this absurd winning ratio, he will be a serious MVP candidate. Right now, I’ll have to put L.A. at No. 3 behind LeBron James and Paul George.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: Since the ballot requires you to vote for five players, that’s a tough call. I might vote Aldridge No. 5, but it’s so early, that can change almost game-to-game.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant and then I'd put Aldridge at number four. Aldridge has been so impressive I'd have to put him in my top-four at this point in the season. Aldridge carries a big responsibility defensively and he is one of two players in the NBA that is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game along with Kevin Love of Minnesota. Aldridge has been the rock for this team and is shooting the ball 20 times a night. His team is the best in the West right now and I don't see anybody else that you could put in the number four spot ahead of him.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: I fully believe that LaMarcus is a legitimate candidate for the MVP. He’s at least 75% responsible for putting the Blazers in the position they are currently in. But there’s a significant difference between being a candidate for MVP and being the winner of the award. At this point, there really isn’t a good case that can be made for anybody but LeBron James. Bron is the best player on a team that hasn’t finished worse than the NBA Finals in three straight seasons. He’s going to be a tough incumbent MVP to un-seat. If Aldridge stays hot and the Blazers keep winning, he very much deserves to be mentioned in the race for MVP. But to reach as high as number two on the list, Portland is probably going to have to finish at or near the top of the Western Conference ladder. For right now, No. 6 on the list of best players in the NBA is probably right where he belongs.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: It’s too early for me to sort them out, but I will say this…whatever you give to Paul George in Indiana you should also be giving to Aldridge. They’re both having the best seasons of their career and are leading their teams to an obnoxious number of victories. Wherever one is the other should be.

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2. On ESPN's First Take, Stephen A. Smith stated the Trail Blazers are "a piece away" from winning it all. Do you believe that statement to be true? If so, would you go into 'Win Now' mode or just ride it out with the 15 guys currently on the roster? Lastly, could CJ McCollum be that missing piece once he returns from injury?

Holdahl: The number of "Why are you linking to something Stephen A. Smith said?" comments I got for that blog post from my colleagues was in the high single digits, so I'm sure this question is going over well with the panel.

As for the question, I have a hard time believing Portland is "a piece away" only because they haven't even won a playoff series since 2000-01. I think the talent is there, but the playoff experience isn't. And for the sake of the question, I'm considering "a piece" to be a player who could be reasonably be acquired. I mean, yes, if the Trail Blazers added a perennial all-star in his prime to their team, I could see them winning the whole thing, but those players don't get traded for a reason.

Haynes: When Stephen A. Smith made that statement, I took it to mean the Trail Blazers are one “major” piece away from serious contention. It would be unfair to think a rookie in CJ McCollum, who has yet to play a NBA game, could fill that void. Although I believe that once he’s healthy, he’ll provide another element off the bench that Portland currently does not have. With the jumpstart we’ve seen thus far from this team, the retooled process is being accelerated. In my opinion, it would be wise to ride this unit out to allow them to progress further and then next year or the year after, add that piece that’s going to put them over the top.

Tokito: To me, that’s a moot point as there is a salary cap and luxury tax, meaning you can’t just get an impact player without giving up something. There’s just no magic piece you can add to win a title, unless, say, Miami trades LeBron James to the Blazers for a second-round draft pick. I know Neil Olshey picked up some really good players without giving up a lot, but even he can’t pull that one off. Ride it out.

Gundersen: I'm not sure what that missing piece would be and while they've been great so far, I can't buy them as a title contender just yet. Robin Lopez's fit in the starting line-up has been like a glove and his energy buoys this team when they seem like they don't have it as he has been an unsung hero for this team. McCollum could help the offense but as they already have the most efficient offense in the league, it doesn't look like they need much help on that end. More than anything, this team needs some more time together so they can tighten things up on the defensive end. McCollum's defense is still an unproven commodity at this point but if he shows he is ready on that end, that will certainly help. They still have troubles with quick backcourts, as we saw against Dallas and have seen a few times already this year with Phoenix.

Acker: I don’t know if Portland is “one piece away,” but I do think they’re on the short list of teams that, should everything go well (no injuries *knock on wood*) will probably end up in the running for at least the Conference Finals. As for being in “Win Now” mode, I think the mentality should be win now, and I think the Blazers’ mentality is win now. Does that mean I think they should make a move? Not necessarily. First off, the Blazers don’t have much to offer that won’t seriously disrupt what they’ve got working right now. Second, with almost all of the older guys on short term deals and all of the younger guys being on rookie-scale deals, Portland is set up for a bright future. Don’t leverage the future for a short-term gain in the present, should be one of Neil Olshey’s mantras, even if that short-term gain is one further step into the postseason. As for C.J. McCollum, he’s an x-factor, and is part of the reason the Blazers can be in “Win Now” mode and be a serious contender without making any changes. He could bring a lot to this team. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Deckard: You could name about a dozen pieces who would push the Blazers over the top but they’re all untouchable. Even so, your top 6-7 guys just showed you that they’re willing and able to play with the conference and league elite. Don’t you have to honor that by looking to get them as much help as possible?

The Blazers have shown themselves to be vulnerable on nights when Robin Lopez gets into foul trouble or just isn’t effective. The Blazers are also an injury away from disaster at power forward and center. They can’t get the guaranteed-over-the-top superstar but they might be able to buy insurance against fatigue, fouls, or fractures. I’d be on the phone with Utah, with Milwaukee, with any team that’s underperforming, looking to rebuild, and has a surfeit of bigs. I don’t need their prize starter but I might try to talk them out of a serviceable center or tall power forward in exchange for a youngster or two. If I can get their starter for a package of 2-3 young guys without touching my starting lineup, that’s even better!

I don’t see McCollum being a championship-level difference-maker. He’s too young and he plays a position the Blazers have well-covered right now.

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3. After the Indiana win, Thomas Robinson said the team refers to the bench as one All-Star player. So far, the four in the rotation (Williams, Wright, Robinson, Freeland) have all had their moments. Which member of the bench do you think has had the biggest impact?

Holdahl: It's a tossup between Williams and Freeland, and since he plays more, I'm going to go with Mo. He's the one guy coming off the bench who is expected on a nightly basis to do more than just hold tight until the player he's replacing gets enough of a rest to come back in the game.

Haynes: They’ve all had their moments at different times and they’ve all been spotty at different times. Mo Williams would probably be the most coherent pick being that he’s the leading scorer off the bench with 8.9 points per game. But from a consistency standpoint, I’m going with Joel Freeland. In this league, if you have a pretty good center, the backup tends to be a tremendous drop-off. I’m not saying Freeland is on par with Robin Lopez, but when Freeland enters the game, he’s not hurting you. He plays his position. Meaning, he does him. You’re not going to find him taking uncharacteristic shots, being a ball-stopper or getting lost on defense. His game is fundamentally sound. And somehow at the age of 26, he has transformed himself into a bona fide NBA-level shot blocker. Again, all four of Portland’s reserves have had their moments. I just believe Freeland has been in his moment more on the regular.

Tokito: It’s tempting to say Joel Freeland, because he’s given the Blazers an effective backup center for the first time in years. But the obvious answer is Mo Williams. His acquisition dramatically changed the Blazers’ outlook.

Gundersen: It's hard not to say Mo Williams just because of the simple fact that he plays the most. I wrote last week in the Columbian about how he pushes the pace when he is on the court as the lone ball-handler. Something else about those high-pace line-ups with Williams is that they've defended better than any of Portland's other line-ups so far this year. The juiciest bench line-up so far has been: Mo Williams, Wesley Matthews, Joel Freeland, Nicolas Batum and Aldridge as they've been allowing only 91.8 points per 100 possessions while also scoring at a rate that would be by far the most efficient in the league per NBA.com.

Acker: One of the best things about Portland’s bench is that they spread it around a bit as to who is the guy to have the biggest impact. But if I were being forced to choose which guy has been the best, I would vote for Mo Williams, with Joel Freeland coming in at a close second. Williams gets the nod because he can score and he’s had a couple of big moments in big games against good opponents. Williams had an off night in the loss at home to Dallas, but so did everybody else, so even if some of his shots weren’t the best, it was far from his fault that the Blazers weren’t hitting their open looks. Williams can also run the offense, and so far he hasn’t made a peep about being a former All-Star and playing the fewest minutes per game of his career since his rookie season in a sixth man role. Mo’s game, and his steady presence off the bench make him the most valuable in Portland’s second unit, but the fact that Freeland, who looked lost (at best) in most of his appearances as a rookie, is even in the rotation and actually contributing is pretty impressive and deserves a mention.

Deckard: Williams, and it’s not close. Mo flat-out won a couple games for the Blazers during the streak. His willingness to shoot no matter what the circumstance has been 95% positive for the Blazers so far. They need a guy who just doesn’t care, who’s just going to fire even if everybody around him is nervous or off. Mo can go 1-5 in the first half but it doesn’t matter if he hits a couple key shots in the early fourth to spur a run. When your weak points get turned to assets you know your team has chemistry.

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4. As of this writing (December 6, 2013), Paul George is averaging 24.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.4 assists to go along with a 24.2 PER. He's lead the Pacers to an NBA-best 17-2 record and dropped 43 points in the Moda Center this past Monday. With all that said, is he now the second-best player in the NBA behind LeBron James?

Holdahl: I still give the nod to Kevin Durant, but it's close. George has a much better supporting cast than Durant and the Pacers know he's their best player, while KD is in many ways at the mercy of Russell Westbrook and is still able to perform. And Durant has his own signature shoe, which is what is REALLY important.

Haynes: Can we please show Kevin Durant some respect? Please? Can we please show Chris Paul some respect? Please? I absolutely love Paul George. For goodness sakes he went to The Fresno State. If we’re (Antonio Harvey) going to continue disrespecting some of the greatest talent that has ever steeped foot on an NBA court to elevate a player who is just now coming into his own, I for one will not stand for it. Until George proves that this is sustainable stardom, I, at the current time, will hold off on anointing him the second best player in the game.

Tokito: I like Paul George a lot, but goodness, have we already forgotten how great Kevin Durant is? I don’t think George’s body of work is anywhere big enough to displace Durant.

Gundersen: Paul George may be the most complete two-way player behind LeBron James. Kevin Durant is still miles better than George on the offensive end as George still can't really do anything when he puts the ball on the floor quite like KD. It's a tough call, but so far this season, George has been the best player in the NBA not-named LeBron James. There is lots of season left, however, for Durant to reclaim that position.

Acker: I haven’t watched enough Pacers games to really be able to make that kind of declaration. I will say that Paul George is not only a legit All-Star and superstar; he’s also certainly a First Team All-NBA type talent. He’s going to be one of the young stars in the league to watch closely. With the Eastern Conference being as weak as it is, Miami and Indiana are unlikely to meet in the playoffs before the Conference Finals. That’s going to be a series to watch, for sure. And the match-up between LeBron and George is going to be the major selling point.

Deckard: Chris Paul and Kevin Durant might have something to say about that, but George is right up there in terms of impact. It’s not just stats, it’s that his team is excelling because of him. Since by my earlier argument George being #2 would put Aldridge at #2a, I’ll say yes.

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5. The Heat are 14-5 on the season and losers of two straight after getting blown out in Chicago on Thursday. But the main concern is Dwyane Wade's health. Wade has only played in 14 of Miami's 19 games and the Heat are just 2-3 without Wade's services. Is this a cause for concern for the defending champs or something that will work its way out over the course of an 82-game season?

Holdahl: Assuming LeBron James is healthy, there's no chance the Heat won't end up with the first or second seed in the East, so no, Dwyane Wade skipping games is of no concern whatsoever. As long as he can play in the playoffs, they'll be fine. If Miami played in the West, maybe it's an issue, but with thee East being as bad as as it is this year, the Heat don't need to be at their best in the regular season.

Haynes: No, not really. The Heat aren’t built for an 82-game season anymore. They’ve been there, done that. A couple of their main objectives are to go into the postseason relatively healthy and earn Top-2 seed, a goal that the horrible Eastern Conference will make sure they’ll obtain. Once the playoffs hit, this team has the ability to turn it on like that. There’s absolutely no regular season concern on my part. Now the playoffs? That Indiana team? That’ll be cause for concern.

Tokito: This seems to come up every season, and Wade usually makes an impact in the playoffs and Finals. But of course it’s a concern. If Wade breaks down to the point where he can’t play in the playoffs, the Heat would be in big trouble.

Gundersen: The Champs shouldn't be worried. Sure, the Heat have struggled without Wade in the line-up and they've gone 2-3 without him. But it's going to be hard for the Heat to catch the Pacers for the number one seed and it seems clear that with their resting of Wade they are conceding the home court advantage. They need Wade for May and June, not December.

Acker: I wouldn’t call it a cause for concern, but mostly because the regular season this season is basically a formality for the Heat. I’m neither a knee specialist nor an expert on the Miami Heat, but I seriously doubt Wade has 82 games plus the 16 wins it will take for the Heat to repeat (again) as NBA champions. Miami is going to make the playoffs, so just getting into the postseason is not an issue. Once the second season starts, Miami might not even need Wade to blow through the first two rounds. The key for the Heat is making sure Wade is at his absolute best in the Conference Finals and then in the Finals (should they get there). Because of that, it makes perfect sense that they’re holding him out. It doesn’t really matter that Miami is losing games without Wade, because at this point, five teams in the Eastern Conference with records below .500 will make the playoffs. Wade might not have another 100-game season in his knees, but there’s no way he sits out even a quarter of Miami’s games. In short, the Heat will be fine.

Deckard: Back in the Drexler years we learned that true championship contenders aren’t overly concerned about anything that happens before the playoffs begin. If Wade has to sit and the Heat have to eat a 3rd seed in the East because of it, they’ll probably take it as long as he’s healthy for the playoff run. If he can’t go in the post-season then yeah, that’s a big concern. Then this becomes more of a LeBron-in-Cleveland situation than LeBron-in-Miami. If that happens the eyes of a bunch of Western Conference contenders are going to light up.