Running The Break: Leaving A Legacy
Is LaMarcus the most dominant Trail Blazer in over 20 years? Which team does Portland not want to see come playoff time? And what are the chances that both Aldridge and Lillard make Team USA? Seven local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.
1. Is LaMarcus Aldridge is the most dominant Trail Blazer since Clyde Drexler?
Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: The way he's playing this season? Yes. But I think it's going to take one more year playing at this level to say he's "more dominant" than guys like Brandon Roy and Rasheed Wallace, though I certainly wouldn't argue with anyone who thinks Aldridge has already surpassed those two in dominance.
Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: Brandon Roy had a nice run there for a minute. But yes, LaMarcus Aldridge is the most dominant Blazers since Clyde Drexler. Being that his team has been fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference all season long and he is being recognized nationally as a legitimate MVP candidate, in my opinion, validates my claim. Even Roy at his best wasn’t garnering this much praise and hype.
Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman), The Oregonian: I don’t know. Probably. But Brandon Roy, who won an NBA Rookie of the Year award and three All-Star Game nominations, was pretty darn good. Let’s wait until Aldridge’s career is over before we start this kind of historical debate.
Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: Not yet. I think we should let this season, plus playoffs, play out before we make that sweeping a judgment. Aldridge has been terrific, but you still have to lead your team to postseason success if you’re going to put the label “dominant” on a guy. I mean, Zach Randolph had one of the better individual seasons in Portland history in 2006-07, and no one called him “dominant” then.
Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: Yes #NoDisrespectToBrandonRoy.
Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: LaMarcus Aldridge is incredibly dominant, more dominant now than he’s ever been in his career. He has yet to achieve some of the heights of Clyde Drexler, so it’s hard to say that LA is the most dominant Blazer since the Glide. LA is going to have a chance this season to become something special in the post-season. If he can have the kind of dominating performances in the playoffs, and if his big games can get Portland into the Conference Finals and beyond, then we can start to talk about LA being just as dominant as Drexler. However, as a sub-answer to a question that was un-asked, Aldridge’s 2013-14 season is probably the most dominant season for a single Blazer player since Brandon Roy lit up the Association over the course of 2008-09.
Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: In that time frame you look at Rasheed Wallace and Brandon Roy. Wallace was a two-way, multi-tool player and led his teams to plenty of wins but he never produced the stats Aldridge is producing this year. Roy was more of a clutch guy, the superstar assassin, resembling Damian Lillard’s style more than Aldridge’s. This year LaMarcus is bumping up against Brandon’s peak production levels, exceeding them in some categories…no small feat. I’d say Aldridge’s last couple months have been as dominant as we’ve seen since the Drexler era but I’d need to see that performance sustained through the season and the playoffs before putting him head and shoulders above everyone else. He’s definitely on a level with those other two right now though.
2. On Thursday, it was announced that both LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard were selected to the 2014-16 USA Men's National Team. Should fans expect both players to make the final 12-man roster?
Holdahl: For the Olympics in 2016, no. For the FIBA World Championships … maybe. I think LaMarcus Aldridge is a lock if he wants to play this summer in Spain. Damian Lillard has a very good shot of making the team as well, but I'd be reluctant at pencil him in at this point. But his outside shooting, ability to play both guard positions and his performance at the Team USA minicamp last summer certainly puts him in good position to get an invite.
Haynes: I expect them both to make the roster for the World Cup in Spain this summer. Making the roster for the Olympics in 2016 will be tough, as some of the greats in the game will likely participate in that event. Aldridge has the best shot at making both rosters. The point guard competition is going to be absolutely brutal.
Freeman: I think it would be foolish to “expect,” both players to make the team. But each has a very good chance. Aldridge is probably a lock and Lillard has better-than 50-50 odds.
Tokito: Aldridge should be a lock. He’s the kind of player – has an outside shot, can run the floor – who fits into the international style. He’ll probably have to play center, but I’m sure he’ll be OK with that.
Lillard might not be a lock, but I suspect he’ll make it. In the USA Basketball practices I watched last summer, he looked really good in that elite group of players, and he’s certainly one of the two best shooters among the point guards in the pool.
Gundersen: Probably not both unfortunately. Aldridge will probably make it but I'm not sure Lillard will be able to pass the other guards but with injuries, age and a good camp you never know.
Acker: The short answer is no. I think it’s unlikely that both LA and Damian will make the 12-man roster. It’s not that don’t deserve to be included, because they do, it’s because of the guys who are already on the roster. The point guard position is pretty crowded. Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Deron Williams are legacy guys. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are hurt right now, but one would assume if they want to play with the U.S. National Team they will get to. Damian’s had a fantastic career so far, he’s going to be a perennial All-Star (maybe someday even a starter), and when it’s all said and done, he’ll probably be a Hall-of-Famer. Right now, though, he’ll get passed over for all those other talented point guards in the player pool. Aldridge is a different story. His game will probably translate well to the European style of play, he’s not a ball-dominant scorer like a lot of the guys on the U.S. roster, so he won’t take touches away from LeBron James, and he’s really improved his physical play, which is something Team USA needs in international tournaments. Lillard is a long shot to make the 12-man team. Aldridge, though not a lock by any stretch of the imagination, is a real possibility. That’s the long answer.
Deckard: It depends on who is healthy and who’s willing to make the multi-year commitment. Aldridge should be a no-brainer considering his range on the court and on his shot. He should be plenty comfortable in the international game. Lillard may get crowded out by bigger names but his ability to play on or off the ball and score reliably from distance make him enticing as well. They’d both be great for the team…better than some other guys who have made it on star power more than targeted, team-oriented skill.
3. The Trail Blazers are the only team in the NBA to use the same Starting Lineup so far this season *knock on wood* and their 32-11 record at the time of this writing (January 24th, 2014) speaks volumes about such continuity. With that all said, does Portland have the best Starting Five in the league? If not, where do they rank?
Holdahl: No, they do not. I'd give that distinction to the Indiana Pacers. And if we're assuming good health, I'd also put the Heat, Spurs, Thunder and Rockets and maybe even the Warriors above Portland's starting five.
Haynes: I think from top to bottom, Portland does possess the best starting five in the entire association. Golden State could make a case, too. Most teams have a Big 3 or Big 2, and maybe their roster is more balanced than Portland’s. But strictly talking about the starting group, Portland has the best, in my humble opinion.
Freeman: The health of a team and the quality of its starting five are separate issues. Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Golden State — to name a few — all would have a thing or two to say about the answer to this question, assuming they were healthy. I’ll just say that the Blazers have one of the best starting lineups in the NBA and leave it at that.
Tokito: I’d say the Blazers’ five is up there, but Indiana and Oklahoma City (when/if Westbrook is healthy) have better records this season and more of a track record in the playoffs. Hard to discount Miami, too, even if guys play out of position in its starting unit.
Gundersen: I'll say this about Portland's starting five: I don't think any other five depends collectively on each other as much as the Blazers. Indiana's starting five is pretty darn good, Golden State's #FullSquad starting five has been better statistically but Portland is probably second or third.
Acker: I would say the Blazers’ five-man unit is tops in the league. There are better two-man and three-man units in starting fives that are probably better than Portland, but the Thunder start Kendrick Perkins, and the Heat can kind of throw anybody onto the court with the Big Three and be successful. The two teams that are right with the Blazers, or maybe just a bit ahead of the Blazers, are the Spurs and the Pacers. But if the Spurs and the Pacers have been switching up their first fives and the Blazers haven’t, Portland gets the edge.
Deckard: In practice they have been. Everybody else has dealt with injuries. But if you assume a theoretical matchup where all lineups are healthy you have to look at Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, and the Clippers as at least being close to Portland’s level. The Blazers are good but they’re not unique. They’re defined by style of play as much as talent level.
4. If the postseason started today, which Western Conference team would be the best matchup for the Trail Blazers in the First Round? Which squad would be the worst matchup?
Holdahl: Of the teams currently in the Top 8, I'd go with the Clippers, Warriors and Mavericks being Portland's most advantageous matchups. I think Houston is probably their worst matchup, though considering previous results, you'd also have to put the Suns in that conversation as well.
Haynes: Well, if the postseason started today, Portland would match up against the Warriors. And that would not be good. In fact, that would be the worst matchup for them in the first round. Regardless if Portland does finish ahead of Golden State in the standings, I still would think the Warriors would be the favorites if they were to face the Trail Blazers. They have that postseason experience and they’ve brought in Andre Iguodala to get them further. It would be an entertaining series to watch, but one I think they should avoid at all cost.
Freeman: There is no “best matchup.” The Western Conference is loaded with elite teams, so any first-round playoff matchup will be flip-a-coin-close for the Blazers. The worst matchup? That has to be the Rockets, whose long-range shooting, inside-out scoring balance and roster makeup give the Blazers fits.
Tokito: I’m pretty sure the Blazers could take Utah and the Lakers. But if you’re talking about the teams that are in the range of a 3-6 matchup, I would think the Suns, even though they’ve beaten Portland twice, would be the one you want.
Gundersen: Houston. I've said this since the beat down Houston put on Portland at home in November. Some might say Phoenix but I have faith that in a series Portland's overall talent would beat the Suns. Houston's formula of shots at the rim, free-throws and their two superstars would be the toughest out for Portland. In a series, I would probably take the Rox.
Acker: Second question first: the Rockets would be the worst matchup for the Blazers. Houston has beaten Portland twice, so there’s that. Also, the matchup is just bad. Dwight Howard gets a lot of favorable foul calls (even if he isn’t an All-Star starter this season), and when Robin Lopez is in early foul trouble, the Blazers tend to struggle. Beyond Howard, the Rockets are a volume shooting type of team, just like Portland. Sometimes playing a team that has a very similar style isn’t the best way to go.
As for which team is the best matchup, I would say the Dallas Mavericks because the Blazers blew them out in their building, and that kind of thing sometimes carries over to the post season. And, although it might sound counterintuitive since Portland is 1-2 against them, the Phoenix Suns could be a good matchup based solely on the fact that if Phoenix makes the Playoffs they’ll probably be the least experienced team to make the post season. The Blazers don’t have a ton of playoff experience, especially not this specific roster, so getting a team with less experience could be key to winning a first round series.
Deckard: Of the current playoff teams San Antonio seems to be the most vulnerable to Portland’s combination of talent, skill, and youth. Houston would be a nightmare over 7 games. They hit the Blazers’ weak spots and have the capacity to draw fouls against big men the Blazers can’t afford to lose.
5. The Grizzlies are quietly 7-3 over their last 10 games and 3-1 since Marc Gasol returned to their lineup. Are they going to round into their Western Conference Final form of a year ago and become a team nobody wants to see in the playoffs? Or are they just not as feared without Lionel Hollins?
Holdahl: They're certainly a better team with Gasol back in the lineup, but they just don't seem to have the edge they had under Hollins, not mention that Tayshaun Prince seemed to go from serviceable starting small forward to a liability in less than a season.
Haynes: The Grizzlies are going to make their way back into the playoff picture. They have too many rugged veterans that won’t allow such a collapse. Injuries have plagued them thus far and the absence of Lionel Hollins shows tremendously. But as long as they can remain healthy for the second part of this season, I believe they will overtake Phoenix for a playoff spot. Are they still that feared team no one wants to face? No. But they’re still a playoff team.
Freeman: The return of one of the game’s best centers will no doubt help the Grizzlies climb back into the playoff hunt. They’re not as good as they were last season, or even the last few seasons, but they still have a lot of talent and I expect them to be in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase when it’s all said and done.
Tokito: They’ve played six games in a row where neither team scored 100 points. That’s actually a good sign for the Grizzlies, who seem to be getting back to the slow, grinding style that works for them, despite what their management seems to want. I don’t know if they can get back to last season’s form, though. They were really, really good last season.
Gundersen: By "Western Conference Final form" I think we should say "fortunate for Russell Westbrook's injury". Gasol is a big deal and they can sneak into the playoffs. That would be a tough match for any high seed but I don't see this team making it past the first round this year even though their young players, waiver signing of James Johnson and the shooting of Courtney Lee have helped them. Outside of Lee and the oft-injured Mike Miller, I don't think they have the perimeter shooting to make it far again. They were fortunate last season with match-ups. They are in the Clippers' head and OKC didn't have Westbrook. Once they got to the conference finals they were shut down completely on offense when San Antonio realized Tony Allen couldn't shoot and the only player who could make any shots was Quincy Pondexter.
Acker: Are the Grizzlies a threat to make the Playoffs? Certainly. Are they going to be a threat in the Playoffs? Right now, I’m thinking not likely. I feel like the window might have closed on the Grizzlies, at least for this season. Losing Marc Gasol didn’t help this Memphis team, but they struggled a little bit before their center went down. My feeling with the Grizz is that they’ll be more like the Memphis teams of the past, a strong team that’s tough to beat on nightly basis, but probably not quite good enough to make a deep Playoff run. However, a good matchup for Memphis could earn them an upset. If the Grizzlies meet the Rockets in round one, a team Memphis beat two nights in a row recently, they might have a shot of getting out of the first round.
Deckard: Both. Hollins gave them an identity not easily replaced but it’s not fair to judge the New Grizzlies when Gasol has been out of the lineup. They won’t abandon everything that made them decent just because the coach changed. I don’t see Memphis making the conference finals again but they’re not going to be an easy out. They’d be on the short list of teams I don’t want the Blazers to face in the playoffs. The Blazers might well get past that road but it wouldn’t be a smooth ride.