Running The Break: March 10th, 2014

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Has Robin Lopez been the NBA's Most Improved Player? Who's got the best dance moves on the squad? And should the NBA ditch the sleeved jerseys? Eight 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. Earlier this week, The Oregonian’s Joe Freeman wrote about Robin Lopez’s case for Most Improved Player. Whether it’s the career-high 23 double-doubles (as of March 7th, 2014) or the career-marks currently being set in rebounds (8.7), blocks (1.7), and free-throw percentage (.813), Lopez’s most impressive statistic could be the Trail Blazers’ record this season with the seven-footer in the lineup. With that all said, does RoLo have your vote for M.I.P.? If not, is he at least in the conversation?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: RoLo should, at the very least, be in the conversation for most improved player this season, though I don't know that I've heard his name floated for the award outside of Portland. The Trail Blazers could very well be the worst defensive team in the league this year without Lopez, and his play is easily the biggest difference between finishing in the lottery last year and (likely) making the playoffs this season. Outside of Phoenix's Goran Dragic, I don't know that any player has a more legitimate claim to most improved that Lopez, which is why I find it strange that he's barely even an afterthought for the award.

Dan Sheldon (@DanSheldonCSN), CSNNW.com: From a Blazer perspective, Robin Lopez is one of the biggest upgrades at his position across the league, but calling him the NBA's Most Improved Player is almost an entirely different discussion. Lopez is having the best season of his career. The case for that is easy. To say that he has made the biggest personal jump, year over year, in the NBA is a lot tougher and marginalizes some of the gains he made in New Orleans last season.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: Lopez has been terrific, but I don’t think he’ll be in the conversation for this award for one reason: He was already good. He had a very good season with New Orleans last season. The buzz around the Pelicans is that they really miss him, especially Anthony Davis, who is forced to play a lot of center. There are just too many other players who have made much more obvious leaps this season.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: Robin Lopez has a very good case and as far as value is concerned, it would be hard to find a center producing better at his current contract. However, I think that Goran Dragic and two guys on the Clippers have very presentable cases as well. Blake Griffin carried the Clippers while Chris Paul was out and is matching volume with efficiency better than he has at any point in his career. DeAndre Jordan has gone from averaging 7 rebounds per game to almost 14 and does so for a defense that's in the league's top-ten. He, like Lopez has made a major jump in his defensive rebounding. Doc Rivers' coaching might have something to do with it but the improvement in both has gone a long way in legitimizing the Clippers as a West contender. Then there is Dragic who has been the driving force behind the league's Cinderella story in Phoenix. Right now my pick would Dragic even though Griffin, Jordan and Lopez have made significant improvements.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: Most Improved Player is the award that’s the most difficult to handicap in my opinion. Lots of players improve on a year-to-year basis, and it’s hard to classify where one guy’s improvement is better than some other guy’s. Lopez has been pivotal to the Blazers’ success throughout the course of the season, and keeping him around for a while might help Portland turn one good comeback season into a nice stretch of being competitive. For my money, though, Robin’s improvement seems to be pretty specific to his situation with the Blazers. He doesn’t appear to be the kind of player who made the jump from middle of the pack to All-Star. Those players are usually the ones who get the MIP. Lopez might get a vote or two, but my guess is the award eventually goes to somebody like Goran Dragic.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: Yes, he’s more than in the conversation. The Blazers have set up space for him to work and he’s worked his butt off. It’s been a great match. Credit to Lopez for being one of the most consistent performers on the team, especially during the stretch in which his frontcourt teammates were injured. Credit Coach Stotts for helping Lopez look great as well, depending on him for the things he does best.

SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: The great Denny Crane from RipCityTwo has asked to take this questions:

Robin Lopez deserves a lot of credit for the team’s success, but most improved player? I don’t think he’s most improved player on the Blazers, let alone in the league. Damian Lillard has seen a huge improvement over last season, from a 16 PER to a 19 PER. If he makes a similar jump next season, he’ll be talked about as one of the elite point guards in the league, even in the conversation for MVP. LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 3 rebounds per game over his career average, and deserves a lot of credit for the team’s success this season. 

There are guys on other teams who seem to be more likely to win MIP. Stephenson and George on Indy, Gibson and Noah on Chicago… Davis and Cousins are big guys who’ve turned into dominant big men. Dragic is scoring near double his career average, one of less than twenty players averaging over 20 points per game this season (the Blazers have two in Aldridge and Lillard).



My best guess would be Stephenson

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2. With Thomas Robinson returning to the lineup tonight (March 7th, 2014), that means the Trail Blazers are a Joel Freeland away from being completely healthy (*knock on wood*). Lately, Coach Stotts has been extending his rotation - playing as many as 10 guys in the first half. Should the fans expect Coach Stotts to tighten the rotation up before the postseason or will he continue to play as many players as it takes to find a rhythm on a game-by-game basis, playoffs included?

Holdahl: Rotations invariably tighten up in the playoffs, if for no other reason than there's more time to rest between games. And since it's win or go home, there's no need to conserve energy for a later date.

So while the rotation has been extended recently, and rightfully so, I would still expect Stotts to rely heavily on his starters plus Mo Williams once the playoffs arrive.

Sheldon: We saw a return to the 9 man rotation against Houston. It appears to be the head coach’s preferred approach with this group. I would foresee players at the end of the rotation being shuffled in and out but, barring more injuries, nine men are about as far as I’d expect him to go on most nights.

Freeman: The Blazers went 4-1 without LaMarcus Aldridge in large part because their young, unheralded players excelled. As a byproduct, players such as Will Barton, Victor Claver and Thomas Robinson were infused with a jolt of confidence and the Blazers’ coaching staff gained insight about how best to use these players in a pinch. I don’t know if it’s a “blessing in disguise,” but it can only be a positive in the long-term.

Tokito: I think he goes back to nine deep until the schedule lightens up. The stretch where he was able to go deeper into the bench was against some subpar teams, but when you get into games where there are seeding stakes, I’d guess he’d keep things tight.

Gundersen: I certainly think the rotation is going to get down to about 8 guys in the postseason. It's always good to have depth but I think Stotts will save playing certain wildcards unless he is searching for a spark. However, Portland's smaller, higher-energy line-ups have been important defensively for the Blazers as of late and it wouldn't surprise me to see it for short stretches.

Acker: I think for right now coach Stotts is going to go with whichever group of guys is most likely to get him a win. That, and probably stay with one or two non-regular rotation guys that are having a positive impact on the game at hand. Once the playoffs roll around, my guys is the rotation probably gets locked it at eight, maybe nine. That means Mo Williams for sure, and a combination of Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland. If Freeland or Robinson don’t see the court, or are struggling, my guess is some minutes go to CJ McCullom. These stretch-run games are good for getting those deeper rotation guys comfortable with taking big shots and making big plays, but I doubt Stotts is going to lean on them too hard on his eight, nine, and ten guys in the post season.

Deckard: It depends. Are the Blazers winning? Are those lower-rotation players performing well? Then expect to see them play. Those two things haven’t happened at the same time with consistency this season. If one or the other fails to materialize, expect Stotts to tighten the rotation.

That may seem like a cop-out, but remember how young and/or inexperienced those bench players are. With two rookies and five sophomores fighting for time, unpredictability is assumed.

SlyPokerDog: Barring injury I think Stotts is going to play 10 players and 10 players only for the rest of the season. McCollum is really going to have to show something between now and when Freeland gets back or else he's going back to the bench with Barton and Leonard once Joel gets healthy.

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3. Robin Lopez’s sideline celebrations have been the talk of Rip City, but who gets the nod for best dancer on the team? Here are some examples from RoLo, RoLo again, Dame, Dorell, and CJ.

Holdahl: I'll go with Lillard for contemporary dance and Lopez for experimental dance, though none of us are qualified to judge such things.

Sheldon: Lillard’s “Dougie" from his rookie year probably showed the most style of this group but, if you’re looking for the most practical application, there isn’t a wall or locked door on the planet that could sustain the damage caused by Robin Lopez.

Tokito: There’s just too great a risk that someone will revoke my sportswriting credential if I answer this question.

Gundersen: From a purely skill stand point, I've got to go with Dame.

Acker: I’m going with Robin. He’s the sentimental favorite, and really throws himself into his dancing.

Deckard: I’m not sure how anybody sharing a building with Blazers.com writer Casey Holdahl could possibly make a claim to being the best dancer in the house. Casey got mad skillz.

SlyPokerDog: No words needed.



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4. This week the Toronto Raptors announced they will be wearing their “Dino” throwbacks in honor of their 20th anniversary season next year. What other retro jerseys would you like to see make a cameo in the future?

Holdahl: Memphis should have to wear their old Vancouver jerseys and the Thunder should have to wear the Sonics Space Needle jerseys. Man. trading two great cities like Vancouver, BC and Seattle for Oklahoma City and Memphis is just criminal. Maybe the NBA could move one of the two teams in New York to Bismark, North Dakota for the trifecta of horrible NBA city trades (ed note: I've never been to Bismark).

Sheldon: The question presumes that I’d like to see the “Dino” throwbacks. I would not like to see the “Dino” throwbacks. But credit the Raptors for understanding that the “Dino” was so atrocious that they’ll actually make a bunch of money by bringing it back. In the spirit of “ugly is adorable,” I don’t know where we can go from there. Considering the Christmas Day Catastrophe that was the sleeved “big logo” jerseys, I clearly don’t possess the proper fashion compass and recuse myself from any further discussion on the matter.

Tokito: A uniform from 1994 is “retro” now? Geez. That said, I would love to see Memphis bring out those old Vancouver Grizzlies uniforms with the “West Coast trim,” or even better, have the Thunder bring out an old Sonics jersey – right after they move back to Seattle.

Gundersen: The late 90's Hawks jerseys with the big Hawk across the chest is a classic. I'm very excited about the Charlotte Hornets coming back so that will add some good jerseys to the mix. I'd love to see the Rockets play a game in those navy blue and red angry Rocket with the teeth jerseys from the Pippen and Barkley days.

Acker: All the jerseys from the middle 1990s need to make a comeback. The Magic jersey with a star in place of the “A”, the teal Grant Hill-era Pistons’ jersey, the teal or purple Charlotte Hornets’ jersey, the Steve Smith Hawks’ jersey, the Rockets’ jersey with a rocket on it, the brown Nuggets jersey that Mutombo wore. I would love to see teams wear any one of those jerseys. In fact, I think Adam Silver, as his first major act as new commissioner, should have a league-wide 90s night, or 90s week, where every team wears their early to mid 90s jersey. OKC included, make them wear Sonics’ jerseys from the Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp-Nate McMillan-NBA Finals era.

Deckard: I’m not a huge fan of the multiple-uniform thing but I’ll go with the old Nuggets rainbow skyline and, of course, anything retro Sonics.

SlyPokerDog: There are only a couple of throwbacks I care to see, the first two being a couple of favorite old school Blazer jerseys.

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And I'd love to see this one because it would mean Seattle has a basketball team again and the rivalry is reborn.

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5. After shooting 6-for-18 in a sleeved jersey, LeBron James was openly critical of the threads saying, “Every time I shoot it feels like it's just pulling right up underneath my arm. I already don't have much room for error on my jump shot. It's definitely not a good thing." While the sleeved jerseys are reportedly selling well and have more space for potential advertising, do these type of negative comments, especially from the NBA’s biggest star, have any impact on the future usage of these uniforms?

Holdahl: Not really, especially with LeBron's comments drawing criticism, albeit of the lighthearted variety, even from people who hate sleeved jerseys. And I doubt adidas gives a crap what LeBron, the face of Nike Basketball, has to say about their products. Unlike the synthetic basketball, sleeved jerseys are here to stay.

Sheldon: I don’t mind the sleeved jersey in general, the big logos on Christmas just looked like a blatant play for the infant to toddler market. As far as the effect on LeBron’s jumper, I’ll take his word for it. Performance should always trump style. Sleeves are a good idea in the league's attempt to bridge the merchandise gap with the NFL, but I’d make sure you satisfy the needs of your stars before you make them the NBA’s primary look.

Tokito: Nike guy. Adidas uniform. So no, James’ post-game thing won’t have any impact.

Gundersen: I think it might. When you've got LeBron and the most visible face of All-Star weekend, Damian Lillard, coming out and saying they don't like them it might cause the league to keep the sleeves as an occasional thing. They sell well and they are a pretty good look for fans but I think keeping it as a rare thing and/or All-Star jersey might be their destiny if players, especially the great ones, don't want to deal with it. But the next time they have to wear sleeves, get LeBron one that's a size or two bigger.

Acker: I’ll point you towards the hubbub over the new balls the NBA tried to use awhile back, except that this situation will end differently. The players complained about the new balls because they said they couldn’t get a grip on them like they could with the old ones. The truth is, NBA players hate it when they have to adjust to anything new. The difference between the situation with the new balls (the NBA eventually went back to the ball they had previously been using) and the jerseys is that the NBA can sell the new sleeved jerseys. They couldn’t sell the new balls because nobody buys the actual game balls, they’re too expensive for the average gym or driveway basketball player, but with the sleeved jerseys, there is a whole new set of things to sell on the consumer market and at a variety of price points. And that doesn’t even include the additional jersey space that will someday be used for advertisements. The sleeved jerseys are horrendously ugly, they may actually be not functional, but even a couple of complaints from LeBron James aren’t going to make them go away.

Deckard: Those things are uglier than a Ricky Rubio three-pointer. They should be stuffed down a garbage disposal and never see the light of day again. What’s wrong with seeing the trapezius muscle and a few tattoos? But if the league makes more money with ads and jersey sales, nobody’s going to be able to stop them.

SlyPokerDog: The league went with the sleeved jersey without getting any input from the players and complaints from them won't change that. What will determine whether this will be a permanent addition to what jerseys players wear or just a fad will be fan sales. I personally think they're ugly but if fans buy them unfortunately they'll be around for a while.