Running The Break: March 17th, 2014
Does Batum have to play with a more aggressive mindset with Aldridge out for the Trail Blazers to have success? Can Phil Jackson turn the Knicks around? And are the Spurs on a collision course for another Finals run? Seven local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.
1. It wasn’t the prettiest of wins, but the Trail Blazers finally ended their season-long losing streak by defeating the Pelicans 111-103. Although New Orleans is lottery bound and Portland got little bench production (eight points), does this win get them off the schneid? Will it loosen them up now that the pressure of a losing streak is a thing of the past?
Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: I think the losing streak was the product of playing tougher competition a few breaks not going their way. So while I think they were certainly happy to end the losing streak, I'm not sure it'll have any lasting effect. The real test is whether they can start being some of the Western Conference playoff teams here before the end of the season, as they haven't had much luck beating the better teams in the past two months.
Dwight Jaynes (@dwightjaynes), CSNNW.com: It helped a lot i think. They played well Sunday night and lost a game they easily could have, and probably should have, won. I think they will be back playing pretty well again soon.
Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: The Blazers will be under pressure the rest of the season and postseason. That’s the whole point, to get yourself into position to test yourself and your team in situations with big stakes. Ending a losing streak is really a small part of the overall picture.
Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: I think the win certainly helped and they were outplaying the Warriors for much of Sunday's game before Steph Curry got going. The Blazers, beneficiaries of missed shots by other teams earlier in the season, don't seem to be so lucky as of late.
Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: It’s very true that it wasn’t the prettiest win, and it’s probably a little hyperbolic to say it was one of the most important wins of the season, but given the circumstances and what’s at stake in the months of March and April, it’s safe to say that getting that win in New Orleans was about as big as it gets. Will it get the Blazers back into a winning rhythm? Only time will tell. What matters is that they got a win. Playoff seeding is going to come down to one or two wins. Every win, regardless of how it comes, when it comes, or who it comes against, is important at this point.
Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: 8 points of bench production isn’t surprising with injuries to LaMarcus Aldridge and Mo Williams. Williams out, Dorell Wright promoted to starter…you have about 8 points left in reserve.
Portland’s easier home schedule this week will have more of an effect than any losing streak psychology. They won’t have another brutal road stretch like that this year. Another extended losing streak isn’t the real danger for this team. They have to avoid the “1-win, 1-loss” mediocrity mindset. .500 ball, or even something close, will get them into the playoffs easily but they need to start establishing what they can do once they get there. Positive momentum will be the name of the game. Just “off the schneid” won’t be good enough if they want to advance.
SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: I do think the win against the Pelicans was important and much needed to take a little of the bitterness away from a difficult and disappointing road trip. Any looseness the Blazers may have gained from that win was left on the court during the 4th quarter of the game against the Warriors. And like the confetti that rains down on the court after wins hopefully that looseness will be swept up and given back to the team to use for the rest of this current home stand.
2. Against the Pelicans, Nicolas Batum looked like a man possessed. The Frenchman tallied 22 points and a tied a career-high with 18 rebounds. For the Trail Blazers to have continued success without LaMarcus Aldridge (5-1 as of March 15th, 2014), does Batum have to be the Robin to Damian Lillard’s Batman?
Holdahl: Sure, or even vice versa. Against weaker competition, the Blazers can probably manage with no player having a stellar individual performance. But against even the decent teams, it'll have to be some combination of two players having good nights for the Trail Blazers to have a chance, whether that's Batum and Lillard, Batum and Matthews, Lillard and Matthews or any combination of the three with Robin Lopez.
Jaynes: Batum has to be more consistent at the offensive end. Has to be a guy they can depend on to score on a lot of nights. So far, he's fallen short in that area.
Tokito: I thought Batum was supposed to be Batman to Lopez’s Robin. Man, this is confusing. But superhero labels aside, an aggressive Batum is a good thing, and I think it’s amazing that he is averaging more rebounds now than LeBron James.
Gundersen: I would say yes. We saw him start to pick up his rebounding when Aldirdge was out in February and he's been the Blazers best finisher at the basket all season long. They'll need him to keep being aggressive. Batum usually does what the game commands him to do as he plays off his teammates and right now they need buckets and boards and he's bringing a lot of both.
Acker: Absolutely. The Blazers are always better when Nicolas Batum is playing well and being aggressive. They need that from him when the team is at full health, and they need it even more when the anchor of their offense is sidelined. It’s hard to ask Batum to do more, but if he can find a way to be even more of a facilitator while LA recovers, it might take some of the offensive burden off Damian. Currently, Dame is responsible for initiating the offense and doing most of the scoring. Having Nic bring the ball up the court and work as a high post distributor frees Lillard up to do some scoring off the ball.
Deckard: He needs to be Robin, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman…anything he can provide he has to give. Ability has never been an issue with Batum. Focus, timing, and aggressiveness are the question marks. The starting lineup has been built well enough to absorb Batum’s off nights but once that lineup gets changed the burden falls upon him to not have them as much. Whatever he’s got, now is the time. Maybe a teammate or two should approach him like Tony Parker did in last summer’s Eurobasket, making it clear that the team is depending on him and asking him to step up? He responded pretty well to Parker’s request.
SlyPokerDog: Batum has to be aggressive, engaged and looking to score throughout the entire game. But these are things that we need from him consistently even when Aldridge isn't hurt. I'm not sure if the Blazers need to label him a Robin or the Swiss Army Knife of basketball or whatever people want to call him. We just need him to be more aggressive and look to score. Also being a little more aware of how much time is left at the end of a 1pt game against the Warriors... Alight, I've put that loss behind me and hopefully so have the Blazers.
3. If LaMarcus Aldridge is out for more than two games, can Damian Lillard put the Trail Blazers on his back like Kevin Durant did when Russell Westbrook was injured?
Holdahl: Probably not. Lillard can win a game almost by himself, but he's not on the Durant's level on a night in, night out basis. And while Durant certainly did most of the heavy lifting, his supporting cast did a nice job holding their own. Blazers will need the same thing to happen if Aldridge is out for an extended period.
Jaynes: Depends on who they are playing. Against Milwaukee, yes. Against OKC, San Antonio, Clippers -- he needs help.
Tokito: Durant is a seven-year veteran who has been first-team all-NBA four consecutive seasons and is one of the most gifted players to ever play in the NBA. Lillard is an outstanding player, and his scoring in games Aldridge has missed is up, but this is not a fair question. Other than LeBron James, no other player in the NBA could have done what Durant did when Westbrook was.
Gundersen: He's stepped up his game in games without Aldridge and has been finishing at the basket more efficiently than he had been earlier. But Kevin Durant was scoring 40 without breaking a sweat and is a top-two MVP candidate. I'm gonna hold off on the comparisons to him for right now.
Acker: I think Damian is fully capable of stepping up his level, that being said, as good as Lillard is, he’s not exactly Kevin Durant. Dame is going to have to continue to be great if the Blazers are going to consistently win games without LaMarcus, but it’s going to take more than just Dame. I’ll refer you to my last answer about Nic, but it’s going to take more than just Nicolas Batum too. Every Blazer who plays while LaMarcus is out is going to have to contribute. Luckily for the Blazers, they’ve shown that they can win games without LA, and they’ve shown that their deep bench guys know how to contribute when called upon. It’s not great to lose LA this late in the season, when games matter a great deal, but my guess is this Blazer team is going to be OK.
Deckard: Nobody does anything like Kevin Durant right now. Lillard can play his version. The Blazers won’t turn down a few extra points. But in the end this team succeeds together or falls together. Lillard’s success impacts how open Wesley Matthews gets at the arc. Matthews’ three-point percentage impacts how the lane gets spaced for Lillard’s drives. Batum’s passing, Robin Lopez’s offensive rebounding attempts…it’s all connected. To a certain extent this is true of all teams but more so of Portland. This offense isn’t designed for isolation sets. They attack in a few, defined ways and they need all those attacks to tell in order to win. Hero ball won’t help them in the long run if it narrows the offense, taking away from everybody else’s contributions.
SlyPokerDog: No, Lillard can not put his team on his back like Durant has. Durant is a very rare and special player, not saying that Lillard isn't special but he's just not at that level. Now that doesn't mean I don't want Lillard to try. Trying and the failures and successes that come with that is how Lillard will develop and grow as a player. I think he has the potential and with Aldridge out someone needs to step up. Lillard is the only choice for that role on this team. He has that gunslinger swagger and not many players much less second year players ever get. So while he may not have the ability to put the team on his back as consistently and successfully as Durant I want him to try and in years to come the Blazers will be a better team for it.
4. Since Kawhi Leonard returned on February 26, San Antonio has reeled off nine-straight wins by an average margin of 15 points and now holds the league’s best record (49-16). Are the Spurs peaking too early? Or are they just rounding into the same team that took the Heat to seven games in the Finals?
Holdahl: I think they're just gearing up. They're just demolishing good teams right now, and as far as I'm concerned, there's never a bad time to be playing good basketball.
Jaynes: Batum is often working very hard at the defensive end, which limits his energy on offense. At the same time, when he scores it takes a lot of pressure off Lillard and Aldridge. I think Batum SHOULD look to score more but by now, we may have to accept the possibility that it's just not in his nature to do that.
Tokito: If you look at the Spurs’ streak, only two of the wins came against West playoff teams, and another came against Miami during a time the Heat were struggling. They’re playing great, but I don’t think they’ve peaked yet, but are just doing what they should.
Gundersen: They look like the class of the Western Conference right now along with the Clippers. I wouldn't be surprised to see Heat-Spurs II. They've been injured for most of the season and are just starting to get fully healthy again. Their bench is better this season with the addition of Marco Belinelli and the development of Patty Mills as a guy who can win you games in place of Gary Neal and Cory Joseph. They've also got those other three guys in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili that just recently moved in to second-place all time in wins by a trio in NBA history.
Acker: You count the Spurs out of the playoffs at your own risk. They might not be the most talented or deepest team in the league, but they’re one of the most talented teams and certainly deep enough. I don’t think the Spurs are peaking too early, and I do think if the playoffs started right now they’d be the favorite to come out of the West. It’s going to come down to match-ups though. If San Antonio finishes first and Memphis finishes eighth, we could be in for a really good first round series. Those two teams have a long history. The Spurs swept the Grizz in the Conference Finals last season; Memphis will be looking for some payback this season should they get the chance.
Deckard: Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line and never bet against the Spurs in the playoffs no matter what you think.
SlyPokerDog: Popovich is the best coach in the NBA. Season after season we keep hearing that the Spurs are old, how this is their last hurrah and season after season Popovich has his team near or at the top in the standings and considered one of the teams to beat in the playoffs. I wouldn't second guess anything he does. But more importantly as this current season has shown you take your wins when you can get them in the NBA. Turning to the Blazers, their hot start has given them some obviously much needed breathing room now that they are playing .500 basketball and struggling to get wins against quality opponents. Any win streak at any time during the NBA regular season is a good thing and you happily take it and hope to get to the playoffs healthy.
5. The Knicks are currently 14 games under .500 (26-40) in the Eastern Conference, have over $91 million in payroll on the books for the 2014-15 season, and do not own their 2014 1st Round Pick. We’ve seen Phil Jackson take the Bulls and Lakers to championship levels, but will he be able to do the same with Knicks and do so in a different position within the franchise?
Holdahl: He's been successful at just about everything he's done in his career, so I'm reluctant to pick against him. But with so many impediments in place, I'm not sure how even an experienced executive gets the Knicks going in the right direction, let alone a first-timer like Jackson. I'm not sure one can zen master their way to an understanding of the intricacies of the collective bargaining agreement.
Jaynes: I think Miami has not taken the regular season as seriously as it has in the past. This happens with teams that win multiple or consecutive titles. Those teams know they will not be judged by their regular season and that it's all about the postseason. At the same time, they also have the confidence to know that seeding doesn't matter so much for them -- again, decreasing the importance of regular season games.
The Heat can turn it up a notch when they want -- and proved it that night in OKC. They aren't worried about much besides the postseason and want to be rested and ready when that time comes.
Tokito: Well, the Knicks aren’t going to have a $90 million-plus payroll next season if Carmelo Anthony opts out, as expected, and they will have an opportunity to start over after the 2014-15 season, once they shed the salaries of Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani.
I think the big question is if Jackson can function in this luxury tax era. If he can somehow talk Anthony into taking less money to stay, maybe with a shorter contract, that would really help. And 2015 could have a dynamite free agent class, with Kevin Love, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, among others. The other big thing is if Jackson an hire a strong enough coach that we won’t hear constant calls for him to come downstairs to take over, as we did with Pat Riley in 2005-06 with Miami.
Gundersen: If he's allowed to make decisions independently, then yes. But knowing the Knicks, that's a big if. If anybody can do it, it's the Zen Master. But as you said they have some major asset issues that need to be resolved and he doesn't have as much experience dealing in player personnel as opposed to trying to get the best out of the personnel already there. They have a first round pick in 2015 and 2017 but don't have a second round pick after the 2014 draft until 2018. Second rounders can be used as key trade chips. The Blazers themselves recently used second-rounders in deals this past summer for Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson. It's going to be very hard for the Phil Jackson to pull this off, but he's being well compensated for his efforts.
Acker: The Knicks are spending a lot of money to get P Jax and his 11 rings into the room with as many high profile free agents as they can. Does that get them LeBron? Probably not. It might get them somebody else, though. And if that guy, or group of guys, help to turn the Knicks around, maybe its $12 million a year well spent. Does putting the Zen Master in the front office make the Knicks a contender? No. Put Jackson back on his ergonomic coaching throne, and it might be an entirely different conversation.
Deckard: As you mention, head coaching and some kind of nebulous front-office position on a bloated staff serving under James Dolan are two different endeavors. We don’t even know what power Jackson will have over personnel decisions, let alone how well he’ll serve in that capacity (never having done the job before). The sports landscape is littered with ex-coaches and ex-players who thought their insight would serve them well as front office execs. It’s a different animal, particularly when you come in without prior experience.
Phil Jackson is a really famous, really-well-paid question mark right now. He doesn’t have first-round picks. He doesn’t have cap space. The road is hard. Chances are the Knicks could have saved themselves $10 million by hiring a rookie executive to fail instead.
But this hiring fits their M.O., right? Got a problem? Throw money at a big name. It feels like a guy remodeling his home bathroom who knows he did a bad job on the foundation but won’t admit it, instead piling more stuff on top to hide it. The tub is sinking at a 45-degree angle, the linoleum has divots, the pipe under the sink won’t connect. Hey! Let’s install an Italian marbled, gold-plated toilet! That’ll balance out the structural issues!
There are no quick fixes in New York anymore. Even if he’s given free rein, all of Phil’s horses and all of Phil’s men are going to have trouble putting that Humpty of a franchise together again. Let’s see how long it takes them to realize that.
SlyPokerDog: I'll let all of you in on a little secret, Denny Crane, the Grand Poobah over on RipCityTwo.com is a closet Bulls fan. It might have something to do with growing up in Chicago but I figured he would be the best choice to comment on Phil Jackson. - Sly
Denny Crane: This will be the first time Phil has had this sort of role in an organization. His ability to motivate players and win championships as a coach is unquestioned. Management requires a vision of the team makeup and getting a coach and the players to agree on how it all works together. Additionally, there's the issue of dealing with the CBA and the sorts of things in the question: payroll, draft picks, trades, and so on. Those were things he didn't deal with on a day-to-day basis and have responsibility for as coach.
They're still talking playoffs in New York, which may be a bit of a pipe dream. Looking forward, Phil will have Amare's big expiring contract next season, the issue of re-signing Carmelo Anthony over the summer, and then after next season he'll have draft picks and quite a bit of cap space (only $13M committed plus Anthony's new deal). I see no reason why Anthony won't be one of the league's best players for another 5 years.
The guy simply knows basketball better than anyone else. I believe it will translate to the front office. I don't expect miracles for next season, but that we'll see what he can do starting after next season.