Running The Break: Mid-Season Awards

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Are Aldridge and Lillard the best duo in the entire NBA? Who is the MVP at the halfway mark of the season? And what has been the Trail Blazers' "X-Factor" so far this year? 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. NBA.com released their "Race to the MVP Ladder" rankings today (Friday, January 17th, 2014) and, once again, the Trail Blazers were the only team with two players on the list (Aldridge 3rd, Lillard 7th). With that said, is the duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard the best tandem in the NBA? If not, how close are they to being No. 1?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: To quote Robert Pinsky, impossible to tell. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are having spectacular seasons and form a formidable twosome, but you've got LeBron James of Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Roy Hibbert, James Harden and Dwight Howard and probably a few others that I'm forgetting to consider as well.

And I realize it's only an exercise, but focusing on Aldridge and Lillard as a duo feels particularly unfair to Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, all of whom have played vitals roles in Portland's successes this season.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: Whoa, let’s slow down a bit. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are pretty good. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have proven to be formidable together. Let us not disrespect Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. There’s also Roy Hibbert and Paul George in Indy. With that being said, I would Portland’s duo third behind the first two tandems mentioned. Going forward, however, I think they have a great shot at overtaking Miami for second. Can’t see anyone dethroning OKC’s duo being that they’re both players are young and you could make the case that they haven’t reached their peak yet, which is scary.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: I just don’t think of Aldridge and Lillard as a “tandem” in the way you would think of, say, John Stockton and Karl Malone, who played so much off each other. Teams need more than two great players these day, so I’ll duo rankings for Hall and Oats.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: 1. They are right there. As far as guard-big tandems I would say they are the best. As an overall duo, I can't put them at number one just yet. The Durant-Westbrook and LeBron-Wade tandems are still better overall duos. With that said, it seems like Portland's are closing that gap every day.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: There are a lot of good tandems in the NBA, and I think that Damian and LA are certainly at the top of the list. Right now, I would have to say that based on past performance, you’d have to go with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James since they’ve won back-to-back titles. I think Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant might also be higher on the list than Dame and LaMarcus. However, Wade and Bron basically play the same position and KD and Russ often play a lot of isolation ball with their teammates doing nothing but playing defense and crashing the boards. I think it would be hard to find a better combination of players that play as well together and complement each other as well as LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: If you’re looking to build a team around someone the best tandem in the NBA is still LeBron James and anybody else. But combining stats and team victories you certainly place Aldridge and Lillard up there with duos like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, James Harden and Dwight Howard. It’s hard to say which pair is better in isolation because the Blazers function so well as a team, allowing Aldridge and Lillard to prosper in their roles even though neither may be as individually dominant as those more flashy players. For the Blazers you couldn’t find two better guys (outside of James), that’s for sure.

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2. Many NBA teams will hit the halfway mark of the season over the weekend and after nearly three months of watching hoops, it's time to hand out some mid-season awards. Give your picks for MVP, Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Most Improved Player, and Rookie of the Year.

Holdahl: MVP goes to LeBron James. He's the best player in the game and I don't knock him off that pedestal just because the Heat are coasting through the regular season.

After watching his third quarter performance in person last Friday in San Antonio, I'll got with Manu Ginobilli of Sixth Man. Sorry, JR Smith.

I'll go with Indiana's Roy Hibbert for Defensive Player of the Year. With a defensive rating of 91.5, he's the best defender on the best defensive team in the NBA.

I don't believe in the theory that Coach of the Year should go to the coach whose team outperforms expectations, which seems to be how many people vote for the award. Nevertheless, I'm still voting for Terry Stotts for COY, but I'm not doing it because the "experts" picked the Trail Blazers to be a fringe playoff team in 2013-14.

I'll stay local again for my Most Improved pick and go with Wesley Matthews, who has gone from being the guy who everyone asks "Can you win with him in your starting lineup?" to one of the best two-guards in the NBA this season.

And no one wins Rookie of the Year this season. Rather, they should just hand out two ROY awards next year.

Haynes: MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge. Sixth Man of the Year: Isaiah Thomas. Defensive Player of the Year: Roy Hibbert. Coach of the Year: Terry Stotts. Most Improved Player: Isaiah Thomas. Rookie of the Year: Michael Carter-Williams.

Tokito: MVP: Kevin Durant. Sixth man: Manu Ginobili. Defensive: Roy Hibbert. Coach of the Year: Terry Stotts. Most Improved: DeMarcus Cousins. Rookie: Michael Carter-Williams.

Gundersen: MVP: I have to go with Kevin Durant here. The Thunder are only one game out of first place, Durant and he's averaging over 30 points, nearly eight rebounds and five assists per game. He's also an underrated and integral part of the NBA's 3rd best defense. Sixth man: honestly, who has been better and more important to his team's success than Mo Williams? Defensive Player of the Year: Roy Hibbert of Entertainment 720. Coach of the Year: Terry Stotts. Most Improved: DeMarcus Cousins. Rookie Of The Year: Michael Carter-Williams

Acker: I’ll give Paul George my first MVP award for the first half of the season since he’s the best player on the team with the best record in the league. Sixth Man of the Year is a toss up for me right now. Manu Ginobili is always great and he’s been great this season once again. Mo Williams has also been pretty fantastic, and of course Portland has an outstanding record. Defensive Player of the Year I can see going to Roy Hibbert because he anchors an incredible defensive unit in Indiana. Coach of the Year for me goes to Terry Stotts since he’s going to finish the first half of his second season winning nearly the same number of games he won over the course of his entire first season. Most Improved Player for me is Lance Stephenson. Although I’d love to give this award to Joel Freeland since I think it could be given to a guy who had one foot out of the league as a rookie and as a second-year player is an integral part of the best team in the West, but the league likes to give it to a player who has made the jump from good to great or great to superstar. Stephenson fits that profile. And Rookie of the Year is going to be a tie between Michael Carter-Williams of the 76ers and Victor Oladipo of the Magic. They both had triple-doubles in the same game, they deserve to share Rookie of the Year honors, at least for the first half of the season.

Deckard: MVP is Durant so far. 6th Man isn’t really clear yet but let’s go with Ginobili. Defensive player is close too but let’s honor Paul George. Coach is Terry Stotts. Most Improved don’t know yet. Michael Carter-Williams for Rookie of the Year.

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3. The Trail Blazers are 14-0 when holding opponents under 100 points. They are also 14-1 when Mo Williams scores in double figures. In your opinion, what has been and what will be the X-Factor for this Portland squad?

Holdahl: I think the change in LaMarcus Aldridge's demeanor and leadership have been the "X Factor" this season. I'm not entirely sure if that counts as an "X-Factor," but it's such a nebulous term that there's no way you can tell me I'm wrong.

Haynes: The X-factor has and will be Mo Williams, in my humble opinion. That’s a telling stat when he scores in the double digits. Portland relies heavily on its starting unit that it puts a lot of pressure on Williams to score when inserted. With CJ McCollum coming into form, some of that pressure will be lifted off of Williams to where he won’t have to score 10 or more points to put Portland in a position to win the game.

Tokito: Two words: Staying healthy.

Gundersen: If both was an answer I would take it but since we have to chose, it's got to be defense. The Blazers have to be at least average defensively to win against the best teams in the West. Williams' scoring is important, but you saw what happened on Saturday night when Portland really turns up the defense.

Acker: That 14-1 record when Mo Williams scores at least 10 is pretty nice, but it’s a bit dubious to me. Portland has lost so few games that it’s hard for me to say that Mo getting to 10 points is the difference between a win and a loss. However, defense is a very different story. When the Blazers play defense, they win games. And it’s not just a game-to-game thing. On a play-to-play basis, the Blazers dominate when the focus on defense. Take the last string of come from behind wins against sub-.500 teams at home as an example. Portland won those games because they stepped up their defensive intensity when they needed it. To compete with the top tier of Western Conference teams when it comes to the Conference Finals or to compete with the Heat in the NBA Finals, the Blazers will have to play full games with defensive intensity. Going forward, it’s going to be a commitment to defense by every player that will put this team onto the Championship (Conference or League) level.

Deckard: The Blazers don’t really have a “who” as an X-factor. They operate as reasonably high efficiency and as a team. They do a great job of covering for each other’s mistakes most nights. The idea of the game hanging on a single guy is anathema to their style.

They do have a couple of “what” X-factors making wins easier. The more heralded is second-chance points. When opponents keep the Blazers away from the offensive glass or “D” up well following rebounds Portland struggles. The other is foul shots. The Blazers shoot them well and are one of a small handful of teams whose lack of paint scoring doesn’t submarine their free throw attempts.

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4. Earlier in the week, sources told Chris Sheridan that Damian Lillard will make Team USA. Would making the United States team cement Lillard's status as an NBA Superstar or does he still have a ways to go (ex: Deep playoff run, multiple All-Star appearances, etc)?

Holdahl: No, it does not, at least not in regards to making the team for the World Championships, rather than the Olympics (I don't care what the Europeans say, the Olympics are more important). And even then, I think NBA superstardom is tied to playoff victories. Lillard is well on his way, but he's not there yet.

Haynes: Damian Lillard will be selected to be one of the 30 or so players invited to compete for a chance to play for his country this summer and beyond. Him making the team or not doesn’t place him in superstar status, though. He’s a rising star and ultimately, his name will reach those heights once he has postseason success. Now, if all the top players were playing for Team USA and Lillard were to make the squad, then yes, he would be considered a superstar right off the bat.

Tokito: Are Eric Gordon, Rudy Gay and Danny Granger “superstars”? Probably not, but they all played on the Team USA team at the last World Championships. Lillard’s terrific, and he gets great respect around the league, but he’s still a second-year guy. Let his career play out.

Gundersen: Being on Team USA would certainly go a long way but I think the success of the Blazers will be more important.

Acker: I don’t think Team USA cements Damian Lillard as an NBA superstar because I think being a unanimous Rookie of the Year, one of four in the history of the league, made him an NBA superstar. The national media has already ordained Lillard as one of the best point guards in the league. He’ll be an All-Star this year (and if he isn’t they should cancel the All-Star Game). He’s one of the leaders of an outstanding team. He’s shown tremendous poise under pressure. And he can flat out play. The next step is reaching the top tier of NBA superstardom, the level that includes maybe four or five players on the planet. We’ll know Dame has reached that status when he starts getting some foul calls.

Deckard: Superstar is too strong right now. For me that designation is reserved for a handful of high-production, high-win players. LaMarcus Aldridge has just entered the discussion this year. Lillard needs more than a 20-point season under his belt to make that category. Not being able to discuss the best players at his position without mentioning his name in the first sentence would help. If he keeps scoring, the Blazers keep winning, and he continues to put his team over the top with amazing last-second shots he’ll get there soon. He’s a star now, trending upwards.

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5. Two massive meltdowns occurred this week in the NBA. On Wednesday, Dallas led Los Angeles by 17 points with under five minutes to play before allowing the Clippers to close on a 23-4 run, giving L.A. the 129-127 win. One day later, Houston poured in 73 first-half points against Oklahoma City and followed that up by scoring a minuscule 19 points in the third and fourth quarters combined. Not only was the -54 point differential an NBA record for largest scoring differential between two halves, but the Rockets would also lose to the Thunder, 104-92. The question is, how does this happen at the highest level of basketball? And can momentum really change in the bat of an eye?

Holdahl: Because of pride and immense talent. As we saw in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's win in Dallas, every NBA team has enough talent to make a comeback given the right combination of time and want to.

Haynes: That type of stuff happens in the NBA all the time because it’s the best players in the world. There’s really no lead that’s safe unless there’s not a reasonable enough time left on the clock. Momentum is a strong energy source especially when the team is at home. Once a group of extremely talented players come together and lock in, that momentum swing occurs rapidly. But there’s no way in the world the Rockets should have lost that game.

Tokito: If you look at the big quarters in those two games, much of the damage was done by three-pointers. More and more teams, like the Blazers, are recognizing just how valuable three-point shooting is, and you can see the fallout in more than half the teams averaging over 100 points. Those kinds of swings will happen more and more, I would guess.

Gundersen: NBA games are long and basketball is a game of runs, from youth leagues all the way up to the pros. That's why coaches always say that every play matters because all of a sudden you can find yourself back in the game. The Blazers had themselves a mini-meltdown when the starters had to come back in during the 4th quarter on Saturday. Nobody is immune to losing a little focus or having a team all of a sudden get hot.

Acker: The NBA is super unpredictable; I think that’s how these kinds of swings happen. Portland had one of the most amazing comebacks of all time against the Mavericks in game four of the first round of the playoffs in 2011. Many factors lead to that comeback. First of all, the Blazers, who weren’t that much worse than the Mavericks really, played god-awful for three quarters. If Portland had kept it close, that comeback never would have happened. Second, Brandon Roy caught fire. He’s a special player, and special players do special things. Third, Dallas fell apart. They were on the road, they had a history (up to that point) of falling on their faces in the Playoffs, and they’d probably turned off the juice a little bit since going into the fourth quarter they would need a historic collapse not to win. And fourth, Portland got lucky. If you remember, in the midst of that comeback, the Blazers were the beneficiaries of an overturned out-of-bounds call. It wasn’t a game changer like Brandon’s four-point play, but when you’re trying to come back from down 20 in 12 minutes, even something like one lost possession can turn a winner into a loser. Also, speaking of lucky, one of the best shooters in the league, Jason Terry, missed a wide-open three at the buzzer that would have given game four to Dallas.

I know that breakdown of Portland’s historic comeback doesn’t answer the question. It’s just a really long way of saying, I have no idea how teams blow enormous leads in seconds or if momentum is something that can be quantified and/or explained.

Deckard: High level or low, basketball is a game of rhythm, confidence, and teamwork. Sometimes losing those things gets contagious. We’ve seen that happen to Portland opponents this year and even a couple times to the Blazers themselves. Houston just took it to an extreme.

The other thing to remember is that you can’t rely on your press clippings in this league. Carrying a shiny record into a game or having one great half doesn’t guarantee anything. Your opponent has the potential to play basketball really, really well. They’re professionals. If you don’t bring it you’re going to end up on the wrong side of that lesson. It can happen to anyone.