Running The Break: To Trade Or Not To Trade
Do the Trail Blazers need to make a trade at the deadline? Which reserve will step up in light of the recent injuries? And how much better will CJ McCollum get 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.
1. Should the Trail Blazers make a move at the February 20th trade deadline? And does the recent injury to Joel Freeland increase or decrease the likelihood Portland completes a deal?
Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: No and no. If there's a trade that makes the Trail Blazers better this season without jeopardizing their long term flexibility, then sure, make a deal. But I think it probably makes the most sense to ride out this season as-is, then look for upgrades in the offseason. That seemed to work last year. I don't think Neil OIshey is going to jeopardize the plan he's got in place just because Joel Freeland is out the next month or so, even with the bench getting even lighter with injuries to LaMarcus Aldridge and Meyers Leonard.
Dan Sheldon (@DanSheldonCSN), CSNNW.com: If their goal is to make a meaningful playoff run, I believe they should. Even before the Joel Freeland injury, the team was in dire need of frontcourt depth that could reasonably approximate the low post defense Robin Lopez has been providing this season.
Without going into the nitty gritty, their best combination of most valuable/least disruptive trade asset is Mo Williams as long as he sticks to his vow to opt out after the season and as long as you believe CJ McCollum is ready to step in as your 6th man.
Those are a couple of decent sized if's, but worthy of exploration in the small window remaining.
Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: I would be surprised if they make a trade, even with this flurry of injuries.
The assets other teams want are just not there, especially since the earliest first-round pick they can trade is 2018’s. But Neil Olshey is about as stealth a GM as there is, so who knows?
Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: Losing Joel Freeland for a while is not great. With LA and Meyers Leonard also going down, Portland’s bench is really going to be exposed over the next week or so. That being said, I really don’t think that now is the best time for the Blazers to try and make a deal. First off, there isn’t a whole lot that the Blazers have to offer. Second, the core of this team is being built to be competitive for more than just this season; breaking up that core for the possibility of winning a few more playoff games this season doesn’t make any sense. And, lets be honest, if the Blazers want to make a splash at the trade deadline, they would have to put a piece of their core unit on the trading block. There’s almost no way that happens.
Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: I don’t think they will. I think they should consider it if the deadline turns out to be a buyer’s market due to underperforming teams. The guys on the floor have played well enough to merit a stronger bench and a more secure run this year. Another 25-28 year old performer off the pines wouldn’t hurt.
I don’t think Freeland’s injury increases the likelihood of a trade. Even though the Blazers have stayed healthy all year injury was always a possibility. Their lack of proven depth isn’t exactly news and they haven’t moved to address it before this. Besides, injuries are temporary. Trades last longer and cost resources. You don’t usually invoke a long-term solution to fix a short-term problem.
SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: It would be nice to make a move for a big man or a slasher but the Blazers really don't have the pieces to do that. I see Olshey bringing in a player or two from the NBDL on 10 day contracts.
2. Speaking of Joel Freeland, which member of the Blazer bench will emerge in his absence? Could this be Victor Claver's chance to crack the rotation?
Holdahl: Well, coupled with the loss of Aldridge (though hopefully for not much longer than a week) and Leonard, you'd have to go with Thomas Robinson, who likely goes from playing spot minutes to starting at power forward. Victor Claver will also get time, but the fact that he was out of the rotation completely makes me reluctant to say he'll have more of a chance than Robinson, or even Dorell Wright.
Sheldon: The case of Victor Claver's disappearance this season is the 2nd most puzzling next to Dorell Wright's. But with the recent rash of injury news, we're very likely to see bigger doses of both of them.
Assuming that Terry Stotts plugs Thomas Robinson into the starting lineup, it's Robinson who has his greatest chance to convince the Blazers of his long term worth.
Tokito: Before Tuesday, I would’ve said Meyers Leonard, but since he’s out, Thomas Robinson will have to be big. I feel as if Terry Stotts will go small, with Dorell Wright and Nicolas Batum playing some stretch 4, before he turns to Claver. But knowing Stotts, he’ll probably switch things up game-to-game, even half-by-half.
Acker: There’s a good chance that Victor Claver has an impact. He’s been saying and doing all the right things this season as he’s been languishing on the inactive list. Now will be the time for him to prove that he’s actually ready to contribute when called upon and not just saying that he’s ready to contribute. With an extra-depleted front line, Thomas Robinson is going to have to prove he can be solid in more than 15 minutes a night. The guy that I like, though, is Allen Crabbe. Assuming that he’s activated and actually gets into games, I can see Crabbe having an impact. He’s a big guy who can play a little defense, and he shoots a lot better than Victor. My dream scenario over the course of this next week and beyond, is to see Crabbe get some run in sets that have Nicolas Batum at the four position and T Rob at the five. With either Mo or Dame running the point and CJ or Wes at the two, that’s a unit that will really get out and push the pace.
Deckard: Plenty of players have emerged off of Portland’s bench this year. Like groundhogs sensing six more weeks of winter, they’ve all had to retreat again. Each can play well at times. None has shown consistency. My guess is that Meyers Leonard will get Freeland’s minutes first (*Answer submitted before news of Meyers Leonard's injury*), the next try belonging to Thomas Robinson, each supplemented by Coach Stotts trying to milk more minutes out of Aldridge and Lopez on nights when the two young guys don’t have it.
SlyPokerDog: With the current injury situation we will really get to see what Thomas Robinson can do with long and consistent minutes. Claver is going to get minutes but he's going to be playing out of position so I'm not sure how that is going to help him crack the rotation once everyone gets healthy.
3. After defeating the Clippers in overtime the day after Christmas, the Trail Blazers were 24-5. But Portland is just 12-12 over their last 24 games and seven weeks later stand at a respectable 36-17 in the tough Western Conference. How much longer should this be considered a "rough patch" before .500 basketball becomes the norm?
Holdahl: Hard to tell now that so many players are going to miss at least the next three games with injury. But the real point is that it doesn't much matter what constitutes a "rough patch" and what's just plain old 2013-14 Trail Blazers Basketball. It's a whole season and your record at the end of 82 games is the only thing that factors into playoff seeding, not just what you did between February and April.
Sheldon: 24 games is plenty of time to call .500 basketball the new norm. A tougher schedule coupled with a continued heavy reliance on starters should leave no one surprised at what's been happening. Aside from a trade, the biggest factor will have been the all-star break. Will a week of rest have allowed these guys enough time to re-energize their jump shooting legs? We'll find out soon enough.
Tokito: I don’t believe in “norm” in the NBA, only stages where a team plays a certain way for a while, then after it evolves and opponents adjust, plays a different way. This rash of injuries, though, could lead to a bad run.
Acker: This is the real question for the stretch run, how good are the Blazers really, and was their hot start a little bit of luck and a little bit of fool’s gold? For me, Portland’s recent struggles are in part due to a tough schedule, in part due to some bad luck and missed opportunities, and in part due to the best (and worst) teams in the league getting wise to the Blazers and stepping up to the challenge when they face them. I firmly believe, recent injuries notwithstanding, that the Blazers will finish the season in a similar fashion to the way they started it. This is a good team, a team that is good enough to challenge the rest of the best teams in the Western Conference. The West is as tough as it’s ever been. Also, if you look at a couple of recent Blazer losses, OT at Indiana, on the final possession against the Thunder, and by less than five at the Clippers, not a single one of those is a bad loss. A couple better decisions in LA, a couple better breaks in Indy, and a couple of made baskets against Kevin Durant, and this topic of conversation wouldn’t even exist.
Deckard: It’s easier to look at slightly above .500 ball being the norm all along and the Blazers admirably exceeding that rate in the opening months of the season. Due credit and applause should be the fruits of their labor even if schedule, fatigue, and predictability eventually conspire to keep the Blazers from sustaining those results in the latter half of the season.
SlyPokerDog: The goal should be to stay 20 games over .500 and get into the playoffs healthy. And while we might have hit a rough patch we've shown we can beat any team on any night. Before the season started the goal was just to make the playoffs, because of the team's hot start that goal has shifted to making it out of the first round. In the battlefield that is the Western Conference getting out of the first round will be more dependent on health than seeding.
4. During Portland's last three losses (all by five points or less) to Indiana, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles, the Trail Blazers' offense has dried up in the fourth quarter. In each of those games, Portland averaged 28 points per quarter through the first three quarters only to see that number drop to 21 in the final frame. For a team that won seven of their first eight games decided by five points or less, it's odd to see the pendulum swing the other way. What's causing these late-game struggles? Will Rip City regain their fourth quarter magic before the season's over?
Holdahl: I suppose it's just proof of what a lot of the more stat-focus analysts will tell you: that winning close games is basically a coin flip. The coin landed in Portland's favor earlier in the season, now it's going the other direction. Recently, it does seem like they're a bit quick to lose faith in ball movement late in games, but not sure it's anything more than the averages catching up.
Sheldon: I don't think it's odd, I think it's the law of averages when playing a lot of close games. The 4th quarter swoons can be traced back to the fatigue issues referenced above. The encouraging part is that they still look like they belong with those upper echelon teams even if they've been on the wrong end of the results recently.
Tokito: Well, the Pacers, Thunder and Clippers are very good defensive teams, so it isn’t that odd. If there’s a single answer to this, Stotts would have implemented it. But I do believe, health willing, the Blazers will win more close games as they have a slew of good shooters.
Acker: First off, see my last answer (I should really read all of these before I start answering). And second, I think it’s common for teams to go through trends. At the beginning of the season, the trend was for the Blazers to win the close games; now the trend has changed. That doesn’t mean the trend can’t change back. And I do believe the trend of strong fourth quarters, and late-game victories will come back. As for the reason Portland’s offense has gone away as of late, I think a lot of credit can be given to the defense played by their opponents. The Blazers have become a team to beat in this NBA season. There is a lot of pride on the line for the best teams in the league when the face Portland. And teams like Indiana and Oklahoma City (also sometimes the Clippers) can win games with their defense.
Deckard: The fourth-quarter drop-off is an extension of the other things troubling this team. The ball and players aren’t moving enough on offense, making Portland’s attack easier to anticipate. Defenses have caught up. The alternative attacks for Portland don’t yield easy looks, but contested jumpers. This intensifies when the game’s on the line and defenders have a clear, vested interest in making Portland miss.
As far as close games, you don’t want to play too many of those. The law of averages will catch up to you sooner or later no matter who you are. The best fourth quarter magic for the Blazers would be putting teams away in the third quarter and never letting them back in. They probably need a better bench to make that happen.
SlyPokerDog: In some ways this is where the injury to LaMarcus might help the team. The Blazers were great at making that extra pass to find the open man during our hot start. Now late in games the team seems a bit more rushed and the players looking to throw up a shot instead of looking for the open man. This next run of games can go one of two ways, either the team is going to go back to playing a Ralph Miller-esque style of 3 good passes can break down any defense type of game or they're going to just sit back and see if Lillard can win the game for them. Lillard is pretty damn good at taking the game over but to get the magic back the team needs to go back to good ball movement on offense.
5. Since a DNP in New York, CJ McCollum has been his playing time and production increase. He's averaged 13.5 points, on 54.3 percent shooting, connected on 10 of his 17 3-pointers, and turned the ball over just 10 times in 81 total minutes of action. What about CJ's game has stood out most to you? And how much better will he get this year?
Holdahl: Having seen not a second of McCollum at Lehigh, I'm still surprised by his shot-making ability. I knew he could shoot, but it seems like everything he's put up over the last few games has gone in. I have no idea how much better he'll get this season, though he'll have more opportunity to play with with Aldridge/Freeland/Leonard out. Not that he'll be picking up any minutes at power forward or center, but when Stotts inevitably goes small, McCollum will almost certainly be involved.
Sheldon: My favorite part of CJ's game is his ability to convert inside the paint with a unique variety of shot angles and release points. That particular attribute is reminiscent of Manu Ginobili. I also have a far greater expectation for his long term development as a ball handler and distributor than some other people might. He's shown glimpses of it already. His defense, of course, needs plenty of work but it's safe to say that the 10th pick in the draft yielded the Blazers a high functioning NBA player.
Tokito: I’ve been most impressed by his decision making and the fact that he is not timid about taking shots. I think if we see any big leap this season, it would be on the defensive end.
Acker: The most impressive thing for me about CJ is his confidence. If we hadn’t just gone through a season with one of the most confident rookies in league history (Damian Lillard in case you were wondering) I would be even more impressed with how CJ has carried himself on the court. Not very many rookies would be able to sit out the bulk of their first year and then believe they could have an immediate impact the first time they stepped on the court. CJ is that kind of player. He’s made a lot or mistakes in his first few games, but every time he does something indicative of his limited time in the NBA, he comes back and hits a big shot. That’s a sign of a supremely confident basketball player, and that’s something the Blazers should (and certainly do) love. As for how good he could get, I wouldn’t be surprised to see CJ make an All-Rookie team by the end of this season. It also wouldn’t surprise me if CJ hit a game-winner one of these nights that LaMarcus Aldridge is out.
Deckard: CJ’s confidence is huge. He carries himself like a veteran already, shooting like he knows he’s going to make it. When some of Portland’s younger players check in the game, you think, “Uh oh. What’s going to happen here?” CJ responds, “I got this.” And mostly he does.
McCollum’s court vision and sense of spacing on the offensive end are impressive too. Many young scorers think that if they can get a shot up they should. McCollum doesn’t take many bad shots. He knows where to find the open spot, getting clean looks. That’s a huge contributing factor to his offensive success. Credit the system for creating those seams and C.J. for having the wisdom to earn his paycheck there.
SlyPokerDog: I decided to reach out to someone on RipCityTwo who has been following CJ's play and development a little more closely than I have.
BlazerCaravan: I love CJ's midrange game; he has a great dribble and teardrop move that seems to go in every time. This really bodes well as he plays with Lillard more; the two of them can effectively cover the entire court. The way he moves with the ball is pretty impressive, too. He has a really low dribble that will keep the ball in his hands (and not an opponent's) more than most SGs who tend to dribble a little higher. Given 18-24 minutes a game, he is a threat to score 20. It'll be interesting to see how defenses scout him, because he's showed us half a dozen different offensive moves in just a few games. I hope he has more up his sleeve! I am really optimistic about his future with the team, and expect him to be a solid sixth man next season.