Running The Break: March 3rd, 2014

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Was LaMarcus Aldridge's injury a blessing in disguise? Have the Trail Blazers changed their defensive philosophy? And has Will Barton earned himself a permanent spot in the rotation? 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. Over his past four games (Utah, Minnesota, Denver, Brooklyn), Will Barton is averaging 8.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, and countless highlights in his 17 minutes of action. Has "The Thrill" earned himself a permanent spot in the rotation even when the Trail Blazers return to full health?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com:I believe he has. At this point, I would give Barton whatever minutes were going to Dorell Wright, who has also played well during the recent spate of injuries, and/or C.J. McCollum. Barton isn't the shooter that either Wright or McCollum is, but he's a much better at playmaking and putting the ball on the floor than his competition on the bench. He's also got that contagious energy that seems to be missing from the second unit from time to time, so I think you go with "The Thrill" until further notice.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: Permanent? No. Will Barton’s role along with CJ McCollum is very fluid. It depends on who’s playing well at the time. While Barton’s games as of late have been sensational, but in all likelihood, he’s one bad performance away from being the 1tth man again. If he can keep up this level of play, yes, he will remain in the rotation. However, whenever McCollum gets another shot and he has some success, he’ll remain in the rotation as long as he plays well, too.

Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman), The Oregonian: Will Barton was perhaps the Blazers’ biggest bright spot as they excelled through a slew of injuries over the last couple of weeks. It looks like coach Terry Stotts will continue to play him limited minutes at backup shooting guard as long as he continues to produce.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: No question he has earned a role, although I would not say permanent. There might be times when Terry Stotts goes back to CJ McCollum in that role, when he needs more shooting, but for now, Barton’s energy and athleticism have been a significant addition, especially in home games.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: In the short term, Stotts has indicated that he is for right now. He's got to stay consistent to keep that fourth backcourt spot but I wouldn't be surprised to see that one flip back and forth until the playoffs when they can shorten their rotation.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: Writing this after the Blazers beat the Nuggets and Will Barton clocked about 13 minutes of court time, I would say that “The Thrill” has earned himself at least an extended look with the Blazers’ regulars. My guess is coach Terry Stotts is looking into a deeper rotation for the stretch run. Due to some excellent play when Portland was short-handed, Barton is on the short list to be the Blazers’ new second guard off the bench. I doubt, though, that Barton’s minutes will carry over into the final few weeks of the season, when Portland is really jockeying for playoff seeding, and then into the playoffs. Barton has been fantastic with the Blazers short-handed, and there’s a chance that he’ll be inserted in a big game (even a playoff game) should there be an emergency, but it’s unlikely his spot in the regular rotation is permanent.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: t’ll be hard for Barton to take time from Mo Williams during a stretch run against tough competition, let alone in the playoffs. He’s probably competing against C.J. McCollum for a few reserve minutes per game. Both are young and will fluctuate. C.J. started up and has trended downward the last couple weeks. Barton started down and has emerged. Likely neither one will get off the roller coaster this year. But both show promise for next season and beyond. More minutes will open up for them if they can play consistently enough to take them.

SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: Barton brings energy on offense and length on defense so yes he has earned more minutes. We'll see him play more but not every game once everyone is healthy. I think Stotts is still only going to go 10 deep in games so will see him based on that night's matchups.

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2. When the team looks back on this season, will they view this time without Aldridge as a blessing in disguise and why?

Holdahl: Since they went 5-1 with Aldridge out, I'd say it was a blessing out in the open, if for no other reason than Aldridge got to rest up for six games while the Trail Blazers actually made ground in the standings. But beyond that, I don't think there's really much to take from it, as they'd still be in deep trouble if Aldridge went down for an extended period of time or missed time during the playoffs.

Haynes: It truly was. Stotts wasn’t going to play Barton or Victor Claver at all if guys didn’t go down. The injuries allowed guys to step up and play in meaningful games in which they produced and improved. That only bodes well for Portland down the road if others fall to injury. Now you got the young players filled with confidence, something that probably wasn’t high prior to LaMarcus, Joel and Meyers going down.

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 don’t even think it’s in disguise – that was a blessing, period, to go 4-1 without Aldridge. The run that Barton and Victor Claver got was nice, but ultimately the wins and the fact that the Blazers got back into the No. 3 spot in the West while Aldridge was out was a huge blessing.

Gundersen: I think they already have. Stotts has been pretty vocal about how guys that stood out wouldn't have gotten to play if Aldridge and the rest of the bigs hadn't gotten hurt. So, whenever you can have inexperienced guys gain confidence and win games in the process it's a good thing.

Acker: Losing Aldridge for a while certainly seems like a blessing in disguise. It gave Portland a chance to get a look at some of the players who hadn’t been involved a whole lot so far this season, it gave them confidence that they could win without their best player, and it gave LA a chance to sort of catch his breath and prepare for what is going to be a pretty intense month and a half. The only downside to this stretch of play without LaMarcus is that Stotts now has almost too many guys to choose from. CJ McCullom has dropped out of the rotation to make room for Barton. Victor Claver has showed that he can rebound, defend a couple positions, and play smart, well contained basketball. The Blazers need to develop guys like McCullom and Claver. And to get that development, Victor and CJ need to play. Sadly, there just aren’t going to be enough minutes for everybody when the team is back to full strength.

Deckard: More like a dodged bullet. This shows you how this wacky, wonderful year has gone for the Blazers. They enjoy perfect health for most of the season, then decimating injuries come during a stretch against weak opponents (Denver, Utah, Brooklyn) and teams missing key players as well (San Antonio, Minnesota, Denver, Brooklyn).

Nevertheless, going 4-1 with Aldridge and company missing is a major achievement. The Blazers may have solidified their mid-bracket playoff position with these wins. The starters flexed muscles they don’t usually get to use and a couple bench players have posted their season-best games, but all of that combined isn’t as important as the .800 winning clip.

SlyPokerDog: Anytime you can win the majority of games while trying out different lineups you have to consider it a blessing. The injuries forced Stotts to go deeper into the bench and the bench responded. This will give Stotts more options and more confidence in those options as the season races towards the playoffs.

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3. To date (February 27th, 2014) the Trail Blazers allow 103 points per game. But over their last four games, no team has been able to crack the century mark against their defense. In fact, Portland is giving up a stingy 91.5 points during that span and doing so with the services of only one true center. What changes have you seen from the Blazer defense that are leading to these results? Or has it been a product of a slightly easier schedule?

Holdahl: I'd attribute most of it to the schedule. Now if they're able to continue that trend on the upcoming road trip that features stops in Dallas, Houston, Memphis, San Antonio and New Orleans, then I'll be the first to chalk that up to improved play. But until they show it against team that are actually trying to win games, I'm reluctant to trumpet any improvement defensively.

Haynes: The fact that Portland had to play a small lineup changed their defensive philosophy. With their speed and quickness, they’re able to trap on pick-and-rolls, shoot out in the passing lanes, and trap more effectively. Basically, they can be more aggressive because they have the athletes to recover if a gamble comes up short. This approach is totally different from the conservative defensive approach Stotts has been using for most of the season.

Freeman: During their five-game winning streak, the Blazers have played teams with a combined 129-162 record. Brooklyn was embarrassing. Utah and Denver are horrible. Minnesota is the only opponent the Blazers faced that didn’t have a winning record, and the Timberwolves are 29-29. Enough said.

Tokito: The Blazers are showing more energy on defense, challenging shots, getting their hands on more balls, that sort of thing. But they played Denver and Minnesota when they were missing key players, Utah is not a very good offensive team and Brooklyn plays very slow. So it was a combination.

Gundersen: The schedule has been slightly easier but this is definitely a step in the right direction. They played a bunch of weak East teams at home in January and allowed a bunch of them to score a lot of points. Even during their 11-game winning streak, the defense hasn't been as stingy as it has been the last few games. The Brooklyn game probably also skews those numbers a little bit all of the other team's they played are still NBA teams and the Timberwolves, who they shut down, are a top-ten offensive team even though they haven't been able to string together a lot of wins. The extra double teams and a little bit more aggression on the defensive end has been the key. They aren't going away from their conservative pick and roll defensive strategy but they've been mixing in more full court press and double-teams on post-ups. They were playing NBA teams. It still counts.

Acker: The best answer is that it’s a combination of a couple of games against sub .500 teams and some changes made on the defensive end. Those changes can be primarily categorized in the hustle department. Over the course of the last few games, the Blazers have made a concerted effort to be more aggressive on defense. They’re working harder to force turnovers, they’re crashing the defensive boards (especially in their home win over Denver), and they’re limiting their opponents to either bad shots or shots that come late in the 24-second clock. The real test will be if they can carry over that type of aggressive defense into these upcoming road trips.

Deckard: Caliber of opponent has something to do with it. More specifically the lack of outside shooting from those four teams has made defending easier for the Blazers. Only Utah shot a decent percentage from distance against Portland and the Jazz don’t attempt that many long-range shots. This allowed the Blazers to concentrate on drives and the paint.

During this period Robin Lopez hasn’t just been “one true center” but THE One True Center, stepping up to defend the lane like cavalry riding over the hill. He’s been magnificent. Portland’s perimeter defenders have done a good job channeling drivers into Lopez and he’s erased them, along with most post players.

Denver, Brooklyn, and even Minnesota tried to attack the Blazers through methodical matchup advantages. If you move slowly and predictably Portland’s defense is more than capable. Teams that force the Blazers to move feet, rotate, and make decisions give Portland problems. You can understand Kevin Love thinking he could go right at Thomas Robinson but whoever designed and encouraged the offensive scheme of the Nets and Nuggets ought to have their heads examined.

SlyPokerDog: Both Barton and Claver give us a stronger defensive presence and should be used more depending on matchups but I think the lower scoring average is because of the lack of quality opponent.

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4. It is being reported that Danny Granger will sign with the Clippers and Caron Butler will ink with the Thunder. Should players who have their contracts bought out be after the trade deadline be eligible for the postseason? Also, will any of these post-deadline signings make a difference down the home stretch?

Holdahl: Yes and yes, though I do think there should be a steeper cost for teams adding waived players to their rosters, as it strikes me as a bit unfair that top teams get to add quality players to buttress their playoff hopes with almost no negative repercussions.

Haynes: I absolutely have no issue with the way the buyout system is currently constructed. And yes to both. Danny Granger going to L.A. and Caron Butler signing with OKC are game-changers. In my opinion, it propels them to the two best teams in the West. Both fill a desperate need and both have playoff experience. It’s a win-win for both franchises.

Freeman: It has been proven that last-season additions like these have little-to-no impact. Granger could help the Clippers win a game or two, but neither of these signings are earth-shattering.

Tokito: I don’t there’s any point in debating the issue since those kinds of things are governed by the CBA, and that’s not changing until at least 2017. I think Granger and Glen Davis could help the Clippers because they fill specific needs.

Gundersen: Maybe Granger. He only has to be better than Hedo Turkoglu if the Clippers want to use him as a stretch-four with some second units.

Acker: If it were up to me, I would try to develop a rule that at the very least made it more difficult for bought out players to be added to whatever team the wanted to join. I don’t have a template for something like that already created, but I do feel like the way the rule stands today, it seems a little unfair. However, since the rule is the way it is now, I think it’s unfair to exclude a bought out player from the playoffs. Luckily, with the state of the rotations of both OKC and the Clippers, I doubt either Danny Granger or Caron Butler will have much of an impact on their respective teams. Granger might be more of a game changer than Butler, but the Clippers are going to continue to lean heavily on the game management (and all the other things he does) of Chris Paul and the dunks of Blake Griffin. If you want to look for a bought out player who might have an immediate impact on his new squad, I would point you toward Jimmer Fredette with Bulls. He’s a young player on a team that is looking for young talent to make the future a little brighter. The Bulls are also not a legitimate contender in the East, so they might have more room for roster variations down the stretch.

Deckard: Of course! I don’t see why they wouldn’t be eligible. If a team doesn’t want you—two teams, really…one that traded you away and another that bought you out—why shouldn’t you be able to play for a team that does?

Granger has been playing poorly this season compared to his pre-injury norm. Butler could be interesting in OKC but how many small forward minutes do they have to give? Glen Davis might make more of an impact with the Clippers or even Beno Udrih with the Grizzlies.

Historically these waiver pickups haven’t made a big difference. Playoff series can sometimes tip on small moments, though. You can see why these teams might pick up a guy on the cheap just in case.

SlyPokerDog: Yes, players who have their contracts bought out should be eligible for the postseason. The rule should be tweaked slightly so players like Ben Gordon can sign with a team but that's only a minor problem.

On paper it would look like the Clippers helped themselves the most. Granger, Davis and Turkoglu would seem to be improvements but this is not fantasy basketball. It's up to Doc Rivers to incorporate them into the rotation.

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5. As of this writing (February 27th, 2014), the Oklahoma City Thunder have lost three straight home games (Miami, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland) for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Coincidentally enough, the losing skid started as soon as Russell Westbrook return to the lineup. Is this a case of OKC getting used to playing with their All-Star point guard again? Or are they genuinely a better team without Westbrook?

Holdahl: I've long thought the Thunder would have been better off keeping James Harden and trading Russell Westbrook, rather than the other way around, so there's a temptation to pat myself on the back here. But at this point, I don't think you chalk it up to anything but a team working out the kinks before a playoff run (not to mention that they've won their last two games).

Haynes: It’s going to be an adjustment while Westbrooks works his way back into All-Star form. They have gotten accustomed to playing without him so it will take some time to get everybody back on the same page. But make no mistake about it; they are a better team with Westbrook in the lineup. They have no shot of advancing past the conference finals without their point guard. Even though Durant has carried this team with Westbrook out and has solidified himself as the MVP favorite, the regular season is one thing but the postseason is another beast. They need Westbrook.

Freeman: Russell Westbrook is one of the best players in the NBA. To suggest that Oklahoma City is better without him is ridiculous.

Tokito: Have to admit, I actually laughed out loud at that one. Noooooo, the Thunder are not better without Westbrook. He might be shoot too much at times and has some of the worst body language of any top player, but last season’s playoffs showed that the Thunder are not going far without him.

Gundersen: They will not win a championship if Russell Westbrook isn't on their team. When a guy misses two months, there is bound to be a little bit of an adjustment process. The young guys for OKC have been playing well but as we've come to learn recently, with Dallas and the 04 Pistons being outliers, you need at least a couple of players capable of playing at a superstar level to win it all. KD is amazing, but he can't do it by himself.

Acker: Are the Thunder better without Westbrook is the million dollar question. Anybody will tell you that a team with two All-Stars is better than a team with one All-Star. I don’t disagree with that in the least, and that’s basically all I’m going to say on that subject. Certainly, whenever a major piece of a roster comes back from a prolonged hiatus, there is a getting used to time period. If OKC wins their next three, or five of their next seven or something like that, likely that’s all this three-game dip was about. If not… Again, you always take the team with two All-Stars over the team with only one. Even if that All-Star is Kevin Durant.

Deckard: Saying they’re a better team without Westbrook is going too far. Saying they have some things to work out is more accurate. But to be fair, the entire starting lineup suffered in the Heat and Clippers matchups. Westbrook shot poorly in both those games but his teammates did as well against Miami. Defense was a critical, lineup-wide issue against the Clippers. The Cleveland game they probably shouldn’t have lost but that was also Westbrook’s best outing of the three.

If the Blazers and Thunder were to meet in the playoffs the Blazers would certainly feel better about their chances with Westbrook out than with him playing. Chemistry and criticism aside, he still creates plenty of trouble for opponents.

SlyPokerDog: While Westbrook is a very good player he's not on the same level as Durant. The problem is he doesn't see it this way. Instead of looking to get Durant involved Westbrook looks for his shot first. As constructed the Thunder appear to be a more complete team with Reggie Jackson running the offense. The Thunder are still a damn good team with Westbrook but he takes the ball out of Durant's hands and that only benefits the rest of the Western Conference.