Running The Break: March 31st, 2014

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What seed will the Trail Blazers end up with? Which team out West will miss the cut? 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. LaMarcus Aldridge is a three-time All-Star, arguably the best Power Forward in the game, and he makes life easier for his teammates. With that said, has his return had an even bigger impact mentally on the Trail Blazers and why?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: I think there's probably a little something to that. I think the players realized that they had gone as far as they could go without their best player, so getting Aldridge back, then winning the subsequent three games, maybe reminded them how good they could be when playing together. I also think the loss to the Magic was a bit of a "We need to get our act together" moment for this team that was equally as motivating as Aldridge's return.

Dan Sheldon (@DanSheldonCSN), CSNNW.com: The question may require psychic powers that I don’t possess but I’ll try anyway. It would certainly seem easier for the rest of the team to come to grips with their struggles when a big piece like Aldridge is missing from the equation. If the team had been beaten by Charlotte and Orlando with LA in the lineup, the questions about the team heading into the playoffs would be far greater. If nothing else, from a circumstantial standpoint, the timing of his absence and subsequent return have managed to allay some fears about how far off this team has fallen from its early season perch.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: No, his impact on the court is the main thing. If it seems the Blazers are playing smarter and with more confidence because they have Aldridge back, that’s just because they’re simply winning again.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: I think because he's come back and they've been winning games, it certainly helps. Winning heals nearly everything and anything that the Blazers were going through mentally, if there was anything at all they were going through, is certainly smoothed out by winning.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: The mental impact of LA’s return is huge, and shouldn’t be discounted. That being said, the tangible, on-court impact is vastly more important. With LaMarcus back in the lineup, the Blazers once again have the centerpiece of their offense. Everything, literally everything, the Blazers do on the offensive side of the ball starts with Aldridge. Portland is a jump-shooting, three-point gunning team, but with LA in the lineup, they are able to get those three-point shots within the flow of the offense. That’s just one small thing the Blazers can do now that LA is back, there are countless other things too. Having LA on the court for the all-important stretch run has to calm everybody’s nerves, there’s no doubt about it. With LA, though, it’s always about what he can actually do on the basketball court that matters the most.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: No mystery here. Confidence and stability both rose with Aldridge’s return. Having another All-Star in the mix will do wonders for the confidence. Getting the strong-side offense more reliable than the catch-as-catch-can style the Blazers had to employ in Aldridge’s absence does wonders for stability. Percentages improve when the shooters know when and where their shots are coming. Not having defenders constantly in their face helps too.

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2. With just eight games to go, the Trail Blazers are 47-27 and hanging onto the No. 5 seed out West. When it’s all said and done, what seed will Portland land?

Holdahl: I think they'll end up right where they are now: in the five spot playing in the first round against the Houston Rockets. After a brutal March, they've got a reasonable schedule to finish out the season and just enough cushion to hold off Golden State. But honestly, they could finish in any spot between four and eight and I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised.

Sheldon: Based on the remaining schedule relative to the teams around them and with the built in advantage of writing this following the victory over Memphis, I believe their most likely resting spot is the 5 seed.

Tokito: I’d guess No. 5, but wouldn’t put money on it.

Gundersen: I think they'll hang right where they are at the 5th spot. They're 2.5 back of Houston for the 4th spot and catching them is more unlikely than getting passed by Golden State. The 5th spot is probably the most desirable position of any of the lower West seeds, unless of course you're the Grizzlies and the most desirable position is whichever one gets them playing the Clippers.

Acker: My guess is they will stay at the five seed. Even if Portland loses a couple of important games (including the game with Memphis that is underway as this is being written) the teams that could jump the Blazers are either too far behind, or have to do something like beat the Thunder, the Spurs, or the Clippers to move up in the standings.

Deckard: I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters with the caliber of opponent at the top of the bracket. Every matchup will start on the road, every matchup will be tough. Establishing a win streak going into the post-season will end up more important than the actual seed the Blazers get because of it.

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3. As of March 29th, 2014, there are five Western Conference teams (Trail Blazers, Warriors, Suns, Grizzlies, Mavericks) fighting for four playoff spots and they are all within three games of one another in the loss column. Which team gets left out and why?

Holdahl: Even though I said months ago that I was over doubting them, I've got to go with the Suns, but only because their remaining schedule is the toughest of the five teams. Home games against the Clippers, Thunder and Grizzlies and road games against the Spurs, Blazers and Mavericks is a tough way to end the season when you've got no margin for error.

Sheldon: My guess is that Phoenix is the odd team out. Their remaining schedule is significantly more difficult than the rest of the group.

Tokito: I think Dallas might be the odd team out. The Mavericks’ April schedule looks tough.

Gundersen: I'm going to say the Warriors just to see the carnage in the Bay if they somehow miss the playoffs after being considered a title contender.

Acker: I’m going to focus on the Suns, Grizzlies, and Mavericks because the Blazers and Warriors have a lot further to fall if they are going to miss the playoffs. All of those three teams have difficult games to finish out their seasons. All three play the Spurs, Memphis plays the Heat (at home though), the Mavs play the Clippers and finish their run with a three-game run against the Suns, Spurs, and Grizzlies, and all three teams play each other once. The games that feature two of those three teams will be super important, considering the count for an entire game in the standings. It very likely will come down to which team can NOT lose to the bad teams they have left on their schedule. Dallas has the fewest bad teams left on their schedule, meaning every single game they is going to be tough. Dallas is an older team; they’re on the outside as of this writing. They’re my pick for the team that gets left out of the playoffs.

Deckard: Likely Phoenix. Tons of road games, tons of tough opponents.

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4. How does Patrick Beverley’s injury (torn meniscus) affect the Houston Rockets and their chances in the Western Conference?

Holdahl: If he's near 100 percent when he returns, as one would assume he must be with news that he's foregoing surgery, then I guess it's not going to hurt their chances much. Who knows what that means for his longterm health, but if he's not experiencing enough pain to go under the knife, the I suppose it won't be much of an issue.

Sheldon: As of this writing, my understanding is that he won’t need surgery and could be back for the playoffs. The question is, how much of his athleticism will be compromised upon return? I think it’s the difference in winning or losing their 1st round series. But, even with a completely healthy Beverley, I don’t think they make it out of the 2nd round.

Tokito: Any team with James Harden and Dwight Howard is going to be tough to deal with, but the Rockets do have a problem. Beverley is a tough defensive point guard in a conference loaded with really good players at the position. They’ve still got Jeremy Lin, but he seems better coming off the bench. Maybe Isaiah Canaan turns out to be better than we can guess. Who even heard of Patrick Beverley before last season?

Gundersen: I definitely think it takes a hit on the perimeter. Jeremy Lin can cause problems for opposing guards with his offense but he's nowhere near the type of defender that Beverley is. Houston being considered a possible Finals team happens with Beverley in the fold and anchoring their perimeter defense. Dwight Howard is still great but far from the one-man destructive force that he was in Orlando and James Harden's inconsistent effort has been an issue. Harden also carries a huge load on offense and Beverley helps him by shutting down primary ball-handlers. Apparently he can heal to full strength as reported today but seeing all the way back is different from hearing he will be.

Acker: I think it might have the biggest impact in their first round series if that first round series ends up being against the Blazers. Beverley has been a headache for Dame this season. Without him out there, the Lillard won’t have to deal with a ball-hawking defender who has really shut him down a couple of times already this season. Also Dame has had a lot more success against Jeremy Lin, so it’s a win-win situation for the Blazers. That being said, the Rockets are going to get most of their scoring from James Harden and most of their defense from Dwight Howard. That’s the bedrock of their team, and that hasn’t changed. What kind of impact will it have on Houston’s championship hopes? If Houston ends up in the Conference Finals (or the Finals after that) it will be on the backs of Howard and Harden. Losing Beverley doesn’t change that.

Deckard: I’m not sure the Rockets ever had a shot to win the conference but this makes their chances at making the Conference Finals slimmer. Jeremy Lin can handle the offense just fine, but defense? Yuck. But they’ve still got Harden and Howard. Those two make up for a multitude of sins. The Rockets aren’t an easy out.

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5. Every year around this time, chatter heightens about removing conferences from the NBA. This year is no different as two teams in the West with winning records could miss the playoffs while two teams out East could make it with losing records. Should the NBA remove the conference infrastructure and allow the best 16 records into the postseason or should they keep everything as is?

Holdahl: Eh, I think getting rid of divisions makes a lot of sense, but the league remaining divided by conference is probably the best way to continue. Teams travel enough as it is, so the idea of adding more games against Eastern Conference opponents, which would probably be necessary if you wanted to get rid of conferences, is untenable for me.

One thing I'm certain of is that I wouldn't make any changes based off of this season.

Sheldon: If they remove the current playoff format and just go to a “top 16” style, they’d also have to better balance the schedule so that teams in the East and West play more than just two games against each other during the regular season. Considering the massive air miles the Blazers already pile up over the course of a season, I don’t think anybody in this part of the country should be clamoring for this. I think the drumbeat would grow louder if most people thought the best two teams in the NBA were playing each other in the Western Conference Finals. Even though there isn’t much depth in the East, the Heat or the Pacers will make a more than worthy foe in the championship round for whichever team comes out of the West.

Tokito: I’d rather we eliminate sportswriters making goofy suggestions like abolishing conferences or some of the silly stuff we see proposed about the draft. Tradition and structure matter.

Gundersen: I'm certainly in favor of making the playoffs more entertaining with such things as Bill Simmons' "Entertaining As Hell" tournament style for the bottom few seeds in the playoffs. The issues with tanking and sub-.500 East teams taking playoff spots from deserving West teams have been well documented. One issue that isn't talked about enough is that while lower Eastern Conference teams get the short-term benefits of making the playoffs like exciting their fan base and getting more revenue, they also miss out on a lottery pick that could help raise their team's ceiling. I don't know if you can ever abolish conferences because I still imagine schedules would be geographically-based. However, I would be in favor of a system that puts the best 16 teams in the playoffs so that good teams don't miss out on the playoffs. Let's see Miami-Toronto in an opening round 5-12 match-up and the winner faces off against the winner of Clippers-Bulls! Sorry Bobcats, you're not making the playoffs even though it's a great story because you're two games back of Kevin Love and the 16th place Wolves who are going to play the Spurs in the first round! If this scenario were real, 7th seeded Portland would play 10th seeded Dallas. Wouldn't that be fun?

Acker: Nope. The conference structure makes a lot of sense. Basketball is a very regional game, and it needs to stay that way. What needs to change is the draft lottery system and incentivized losing. That’s a different discussion, being undertaken ad nauseam by super smart people who are paid a lot of money to come up with super smart solutions to complicated problems. I am not one of those people, so I have no solution. However, I think the conference structure isn’t the problem.

Deckard: Divisions are more problematic than conferences. Six are too many. The redrawn boundaries have created zero new rivalries and have lessened the impact of some old ones.

Some geographic stratification is desirable, though. Even in this internet-connected world sports thrives on regional chauvinism. Plus television broadcasts depend on staggered starts across the country. Both argue for retaining the current system.

We haven’t even addressed the biggest hole in the theory: How do you determine the best teams by record alone when the teams don’t play each other an equal number of times and you’re not factoring in strength of schedule? Eastern teams play the Sixers 3-4 times a year, Western teams only twice. Who has the advantage in building a better overall record and thus making the playoffs? Middling teams in a weak conference could amass better records against miserable conference-mates than middling teams in a stronger conference could keep up with against better overall competition. You end up rewarding the more stratified conference, not necessarily the better one.

If you want to suggest that we abolish conferences in the regular season as well and have all teams play each other an equal number of times, watch the travel miles triple and schedules get crazy. Plus there go the last of your rivalries.

The league would be better served in the short run by adding two Western Conference expansion teams and moving Memphis and New Orleans into the Eastern Conference where they belong. Beyond that, this goes into the category of, “You can’t fix everything.”