Running The Break: Taking The League By Storm

November 18, 2013

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The Trail Blazers are taking the NBA by surprise, but can they sustain this level of play over the course of an 82-game season? Was Robin Lopez the most under-appreciated offseason signing? And can teams like the Suns and 76ers keep up at their pace? Five local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in the inaugural edition of Running The Break.

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1. As of this writing (November 14, 2013), the Trail Blazers own the third best record in the NBA at 6-2. Are they legit contenders for Home Court Advantage or is their record a product of beating up on teams they should beat?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: While the Trail Blazers should be commended for their impressive start, it's going to be a knock down, drag out fight just to get into the playoffs, let alone secure home court advantage. I'm guessing the list of teams that have gone from missing the playoffs completely to finishing in the Top Four of the conference the next season is rather small. And of the teams that have accomplished that feat (assuming there are any), I would imagine those teams added franchise-changing players in the offseason or had franchise players return from injury. While Robin Lopez, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright were all great pickups, they don't qualify for that distinction.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: I’m not ready to go that far and say they are a legit Top 4 team. I do believe they’re a playoff team. Reason being, all their wins have come against teams that I predict will finish the season .500 or lower, with the exception of San Antonio. They beat the Nuggets, Kings twice, Pistons, Suns, Celtics and Raptors. The schedule has been good to Portland thus far. But hey, you play who’s on the schedule.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: Right now, they are just taking care of the business they need to take care of. Their hot start may be a product of a favorable schedule but last year they played teams they should beat early on in the season and lost a lot of them. Either way, it's a step in the right direction.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: I think it’s really a combination. Portland has beaten at least one very good team (San Antonio) and has beaten up a couple not so good teams. There’s a very good chance that once the Blazers’ schedule gets a little more difficult they will slip in the standings. The Blazers had a super easy first half last season and were at around .500 after 41 games. This season’s Blazer team is in a different league than last season’s Blazer team, though. Portland might not be a top three, top five, or top ten team at the end of the season, but they’re certainly contenders for the Playoffs in the west.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: I’d say neither. The Blazers are shooting a torrid percentage from the three-point arc, a shot that fits their skill set and which Coach Stotts values. The long ball is not as consistent as a paint attack but when you’re firing that well it’s more efficient than almost any two-point look you can get. Despite ranking dead last in points in the paint per game at the time of this writing, they’re third in the league in offensive efficiency. They trail only the Heat and Clippers. That’s impressive.

When the Blazers are draining threes they can play with anybody in the league. If the opponent doesn’t have a great night themselves the Blazers can beat anybody in the league. That’s what we’re seeing early on. Facing Sacramento a couple times hasn’t hurt the record, but it’s hardly the sole cause.

When you’re talking home court advantage in the playoffs, though, you’re talking an entire season of work. Will the threes keep falling? Will Portland’s current problems scoring in and defending the paint—plus their problems scoring and defending transition buckets—erode the advantage at the arc? Will the Blazers’ perimeter-oriented attack continue to deprive them of foul shots? Those are three sources of easy points that Portland cedes on a nightly basis. It hasn’t hurt them over 8 games, but over 82?

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2. Through two weeks, the biggest surprise about the Trail Blazers is … ?

Holdahl: Wesley Matthews' shooting. Wes has always been a weapon from outside, but shooting 51 percent on three-pointers through ten games, which is a full ten percentage points better than his career average, is some next-level stuff.

The Blazers are shooting 42 percent from three as a team, and while you would assume that percentage is going to come down as the season wears on, you have to consider the possibility that having five above average three-point shooters taking all of your three-point shots in a system designed to get good looks from behind the arc is a potentially sustainable approach.

Haynes: The biggest surprise is what Joel Freeland has done. He was an afterthought coming into this season. Who would have imagined that Freeland would work his way into the rotation and on top of that, play at such a high level. He’s finishing around the basket, rebounding and most shockingly, blocking shots. Not just blocking the shots of tiny guards, but big, athletic players. Nobody foresaw this coming.

Gundersen: So far, the biggest surprise is just how good this team is on the offensive glass. After losing JJ Hickson who was one of the best offensive rebounders in the league last year, the Blazers are fifth in the league in offensive rebound rate, as they are grabbing 29.4 of their own misses. Robin Lopez is averaging 3.2 offensive rebounds while Batum and Aldridge are averaging nearly two. Thomas Robinson (1.3 offensive rebounds in 11 minutes per game and Joel Freeland (2.1 offensive rebounds in 14 minutes per game) supply the reinforcements off the bench.

Acker: It’s hard to pick just one, but here’s what I’m going with: Portland’s bench. The second unit is a surprise, not because they’re better than expected but because last season the Blazers literally had no bench. This season Blazer fans can expect that the second unit isn’t only gone to maintain a lead, should the starters get one, but they might even extend it. Through 10 games, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, and Joel Freeland have been more productive than the Blazer bench was all of last season.

Deckard: The relative ease to which the players have acclimated to each other and the chemistry they’re showing. They’ve had ups and downs but so far they’ve looked more poised and consistent than their opponents. It’s a credit to the coaching staff, the game plan, and to the work of guys like Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland who are playing complementary games right now.

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3. Despite allowing opponents to shoot 46% from the field (Ranked 21st out of 30), forcing the least amount of turnovers per game (12), and giving up 195 field goals in the paint (Ranked 25th), the Trail Blazers are still winning. Is this a recipe for long-term success? How are they winning in spite of these defensive numbers? And lastly, are they correctable?

Holdahl: Probably not, but when you've got one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA, you can overcome those kind of defensive deficiencies. Portland's net rating, which is the difference between the number of points they score per 100 possessions and the number of points they allow per 100 possessions, is seventh-best in the league at +4.4. That might not be a recipe for success in the playoffs, but in the regular season, it's fairly manageable.

As for fixes, the Trail Blazers need to find a way to limit the number of points in the paint they're giving up a nightly basis. The issue isn't that other teams' low-post players are scoring a lot of points, it's that Portland's guards are having a hard time keeping opponents in front of them. The Trail Blazers also seem prone to letting teams force tempo early in games, resulting in easy points in the paint attempts. Terry Stotts has switched Nicolas Batum onto opposing guards in the fourth quarter in an effort to lock down in crunch time, and with some success, but it's not a move he can make from the start of the game. It's incumbent on Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams do to help Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge out by slowing down their individual defensive assignments.

Haynes: It’s definitely not a recipe for success. Those are massive weaknesses that require repair. However, the Trail Blazers are stroking the ball extremely well from three-point distance and that has offset those glaring flaws. If Portland can keep up its hot shooting, they’ll continue to be in ball games. One shouldn’t be surprised if the electric shooting is here to stay. They’re one of the best, if not the best, at moving the ball and finding the open man.

Gundersen: Right now they are winning because of their currently third-ranked offense. And yes, the fact that they currently lead the NBA in opponents shots inside the restricted area per NBA.com is not a good sign. The biggest problem so far, aside from the transition defense, has been pure one-on-one defense, as we saw yesterday against the Raptors and I'm not sure how correctable something like that can be. But, it's not all bad news on defense because of how they've defended the three-point line. They allow the fewest corner-3's, which are the highest value threes because they are closer and they've also allowed the seventh-fewest from "above the break" according to NBA.com. Terry Stotts has made a point of mentioning effective field goal percentage a lot this season, a metric that includes the value of three-pointers and can be up to 150%. Last year the Blazers ranked 26th in that category defensively, and also finished 26th in defensive efficiency. They are currently in the top-ten in the league in eFG% with a defense ranked 18th. They'll want to curb the amount of attempts at the rim surely but it seems that their effort to run teams off the three-point line has helped them defensively so far.

Acker: I don’t think Portland can continue to win games if their defense doesn’t improve, especially when the Blazers start to face Playoff teams from last season. Right now, though, the Blazers are able to win games because the offense has been so dynamic. Portland added a bunch of scorers in the off-season. LaMarcus has started hot. Nic and Wesley continue to develop as offensive players. Damian can fill it up every night. Mo Williams has been great. Dorell Wright is a knockdown shooter like Portland hasn’t had in a long time. And even Robin Lopez has been better on offense than anybody probably expected. The defense is an issue, that’s for sure, but I think some of the serious problems will be righted with enough time. Remember, this Blazer team is still very new. So much of the roster just needs time to get used to playing together. Defense in the NBA is about knowing and trusting your teammates, hopefully that will come.

Deckard: Let’s compare winning to getting a hot air balloon aloft. The Blazers are pouring on the flame with their accurate shooting and offensive rebounding. The issues you mention—and you might be underselling because the Blazers are dead last in the league in points in the paint allowed per game—are like a rip in the side of the fabric. Right now we’re getting liftoff but the Blazers have to work extra hard to keep the thing inflated. Again, how long will that last in an 82-game season? How much heat can you generate before you run out of fuel?

One saving grace for the Blazers is that they’re allowing a comparatively modest true shooting percentage…10th in the league in that department. As long as that keeps up, Portland’s own shooting will have a chance to tell.

That achievement is directly related to Portland’s philosophy of contesting every shot even if it means leaving guys in single coverage instead of putting pressure on opposing stars. The only semi-free shot they want to give is the lowest efficiency shot: a mid-range jumper. Right now the Blazers will sacrifice points in the paint with that single coverage rather than give up the open three.

This works because the Blazers are also gang-tackling every rebound and managing not to foul much. Again, as long as this holds true they’ll be in good shape. How long it will continue once opposing teams get a better read remains to be seen.

The good news is that plenty of things are going right for the Blazers right now. That shouldn’t be minimized. They’re playing some really pretty basketball out there and it’s a credit to everyone involved. The bad news is that they’re walking a tightrope needing plenty of things to go right in order to win. If one link in the chain goes I’m not sure they have another gear or a solid back-up plan.

While the issues you mention could be corrected for, the defense would probably incur a corresponding cost. Send guys to double and you risk the open three. Or you risk penetration down the lane forcing Lopez to help out, likely drawing more fouls on him, forcing him to sit, and giving the opponent extra points off of free throws. I assume the Blazers will adjust according to opponent, but for the most part they have to stick to the philosophy their skills dictate and hope the good outweighs the bad.

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4. Robin Lopez recently posted his third-straight double-double. Considering GM Neil Olshey only gave up second round pick, Jeff Withey and cap room, is it safe to say that Lopez was the best value pic-up this offseason?

Holdahl: That would seem to be the case, if for no other reason than starting-caliber centers are rather hard to come by, even when giving up even talent. I bet there are various teams wishing right about now that they would have made an offer (cough, Knicks, cough).

But in general, there is no arguing that Neil Olshey didn't have the best bang-for-the-buck offseason with the trades for Lopez and Thomas Robinson and the very reasonable free agent signings of Mo Williams and Dorell Wright. If the Trail Blazers somehow manage to end up sixth or better in the Western Conference, Olshey has to be a serious contender for Executive of the Year.

Haynes: Without question. It was an under the radar move that many found to be so so, at the time. Giving up virtually nothing in return for a high-quality starting center from Fresno, Calif., was quite frankly a rip-off. LaMarcus Aldridge loves playing with the guy as he allows L.A. the freedom to be more aggressive on the defensive end knowing that Lopez has his back. Lopez wasn’t Neil Olshey’s first option last summer, but he had one heck of a fallback plan.

Gundersen: When looking at the offseason moves, it's hard to put anyone above Lopez. He's been great and looking at his individual numbers don't really do his contributions justice. Last year, Portland's starting five with JJ Hickson was pretty good but at the end of the day they still finished with a negative point differential per 100 possessions. So far though, the starting line-up with Lopez is outscoring their opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com. The starting line-ups rebounding numbers have also been much better than last year's. Last year's starting line-up rebounded at a bottom-ten rate and so far this season they've been rebounding at a top-six rate. Lopez has proven to be an upgrade and at almost no cost, that's value even Macklemore can appreciate.

Acker: Yes and no. Robin was a great value pick-up, but Mo Williams is super cheap for what he can bring to the Blazer team. There’s no reason to think that Jeff Whithey would have turned into anything special, but young big guys with a lot of college experience are hard to come by. With Williams, the Blazers got a savvy veteran who can flat out play and has a ton of Playoff experience. Should Portland get to the postseason, Williams will provide the type of leadership this team needs to have a shot at the second round. Lopez was certainly a fantastic pick-up for very little, and if Neil Olshey hadn’t gotten Williams to come to Portland for cheap, Robin would have been the best value pick-up of the off-season.

Deckard: If you’ll forgive the response, to me “best value pick-up” is an off-season designation. Once the ball tips on that court contracts don’t matter. Opportunity cost doesn’t matter. Draft considerations don’t matter. All that matters is whether that player is providing value for his team in that game. Thus far Lopez has provided plenty of value, which means he’s a good player to have. We can’t answer the other question with 8 games of data. We need at least a season under his belt, a better look at where the team is going, and the same from teams around the league in order to make a fair comparison of value against other possible acquisitions.

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5. Teams such as Philadelphia and Phoenix are surprisingly competitive considering most had this season pegged as a developmental year while playoff staples Memphis, Houston, and Brooklyn are struggling. Why is this happening and will these trends continue?

Holdahl: You get the sense teams like the Sixers and Suns are living out a real life version of the movie "Major League". Professional athletes take a lot of pride in what they do and hate losing more than most people hate anything, so seeing your organization make moves that you know are intended to make the team worse, while you're out there trying to win, makes players in those locker rooms real sore. And if there's one thing I've learned from covering the Trail Blazers for the better part of a decade, it's that anger is a powerful motivator.

I have yet to come across a player who didn't feed of an "us against the world" mentality, and seeing your team trade away your best players for draft picks, draft picks who are going to come in the next season and try to take YOUR job, is a great way to bond a locker room together. It can't sustain you through an entire season, but it'll work for a while, at least until the inevitable sets in. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman said in "Full Metal Jacket" in reference to Joker, the movie's main character "he's silly and he's ignorant, but he's got guts and guts is enough." Some things that work in the Marine Corp work in the NBA.

As for the struggling teams, each has their own set of issues, some fixable, some not.

The Grizzlies are struggling to recapture their "Grit and Grind" mentality after letting Lionel Hollins walk in the offseason despite taking Memphis to the Western Conference Finals. They may find it, but the idea that you can replace a guy like Hollins with a first-year coach and not miss a beat is an insult to the profession.

I don't think it's really categorize the Rockets as a "struggling" team, but it is going to takes some time to work a franchise player like Dwight Howard into the rotation. Reports that Omer Asik isn't taking his demotion so well isn't helping either, though anyone who couldn't see that coming a mile away is delusional.

As for the Nets, they've got an old roster and are breaking in a first-year head coach. I'm often skeptical of great players like Jason Kidd going into coaching, especially without ever being even an assistant, as I don't think they realize how hard the job actually is. The game comes so easily to them as players, but there are few if any inherent talents when it comes to coaching. You have to learn like everyone else, and that takes time.

Haynes: Young teams such as Philly and Phoenix don’t know anything else but to play hard. Plus, Brett Brown and Jeff Hornacek are proving to be some dynamic first-year coaches. They really got the ear of their players. Can their winning trend continue? I think not. The problem with young teams is that they’re slow to adjust. While they may jump on you from the gate, like they’re doing now, veteran teams will start to figure out your weaknesses and tendencies. Plus, this is the wrong season to be trying to win games. Management set both teams up for NBA Draft success. They won’t let trivial wins come between them and a shot at Andrew Wiggins.

As far as Memphis goes, there’s no Lionel Hollins. The Grizzlies went cheap and it’s costing them. No surprise there. Houston just needs a little bit more time to gel. They’ve got some nice pieces and bringing Jeremy Lin off the bench will bolster that second unit. It’s only a matter of time before James Harden and Dwight Howard start to click. Brooklyn? Lol. They hired Jason Kidd to coach a supposedly championship-ready team? George Karl, Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro, Jerry Sloan were/are all out there. There’s also the little fact that the roster is old. A first year coach coaching old players? The writing was on the wall.

Gundersen: I think we are seeing Philadelphia fall by the wayside a little bit but Phoenix continues to be a problem and it looks like they will be all season. They can't really score all that much but they've got a top-five defense and Eric Bledsoe looks poised to sign a max-offer sheet in the summer. As for the other teams, Houston has been the victim of some late-game mishaps (Steve Blake buzzer beaters anyone?) and their positive point differential is an indication that they will bounce back and they're doing pretty well right now. Memphis still can't score, they still have bad spacing and their grit and grind defense hasn't lived up to its name as they're currently 20th in the league in defensive efficiency. Brooklyn and their $85 million luxury tax payments are easily the most disappointing team right now. They looked like a real contender on paper with a team deep enough to let Kevin Garnett take it easy during the regular season and be ready for the playoffs. Garnett played in both games of a back-to-back earlier this month, both games that the Nets lost. They got whooped by 21 points in Sacramento and barely squeaked out a win against Phoenix. Deron Williams hurt his ankle, Andrei Kirilenko hurt his back and pretty much everybody on the Nets sat out the former Celtics reunion against the Clippers. Brook Lopez seems like he's the only person on this team that can score and the team is altogether slow on defense. It certainly looks like the Suns will be in the hunt at least until March with their youth and athleticism and Houston will be just fine. For two rookie head coaches in Brooklyn's Jason Kidd and Memphis' Dave Joerger, it's adjustment time.

Acker: The Suns and the Sixers are playing well mostly because they are teams made up of young players who, for lack of a better word, are excited about the start of the season. Phoenix also has a couple of guys (Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee) who are getting opportunities they didn’t have a season ago. Philly got a couple of big wins early, and that was all that team needed to get motivated. I do think that both of those teams will regress as the season continues. Usually the more veteran teams take at least a few weeks to find their rhythm while younger teams come out of the blocks hard. As far as teams that are struggling. Houston is figuring out how to make Dwight Howard work while also still figuring out how best to maximize both Jeremy Lin and James Harden while also trying to decide what to do with Omer Asik. The Rockets are a work in progress. Brooklyn is a bit of a head scratcher. The Nets should be great with all the talent they have, but possibly all the old guys on the roster have nothing left. On top of that, Brooklyn has a first year coach who hasn’t coached at any level, and it makes sense that they would struggle to start the season. The question is whether or not the Nets can turn it around. It seems possible. Memphis too, is confusing. They haven’t made many personnel changes, but a new coach means a pretty significant change. The Grizzlies have lost to a couple of good teams (the Pacers and the Spurs) and they’re basically the same team that reached the Western Conference Finals last season. I don’t think it’s panic time yet in Memphis.

Deckard: Memphis was going to slip some, it was just a matter of how much. Brooklyn was probably overrated coming into the season. Philly and Phoenix went the opposite way, “tanking” teams that have flourished early. But off-season assessments are neither confirmed nor denied solidly by the season’s start. It’s the NBA. Anything can happen in any given 10-game stretch.

If I had to guess I’d posit that Memphis’ issues are the most systemic and indicative of future performance among the teams you’ve named, but that doesn’t mean they’ll only win 31. Phoenix would be another, though obviously that’s to the good. That doesn’t mean they’ll win 51 either. It’ll normalize. The season’s marathon only allows for so much luck. Eventually the heat and pressure will refine your good points and expose your impurities.