Running The Break: The Missing Piece

December 16, 2013

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Is the acquisition of Robin Lopez comparable to Buck Williams' back in the Summer of '89? What was the defining moment of this season so far? And is there a right way to defend this Trail Blazers offense? Seven 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. Through 23 games, Robin Lopez has already recorded 10 double-doubles; he had nine all of last year. He's making life easier for LaMarcus Aldridge. The team is leading the West. And his personality fits this town and team to a tee. At what point does the addition of Robin Lopez begin to look like the addition of Buck Williams in the Summer of 1989?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: Well, I was a nine year-old living in a suburb of Sacramento and had not yet gotten the prescription lenses I needed, so I'm not sure I'm the right guy to ask about the "look" of anything back then.

But at least initially, the addition of Lopez to the roster has provided the same toughness and rebounding without the need for offensive touches that adding Buck Williams accomplished. But for as good as Lopez has been, Buck was the Rookie of the Year and a three-time all-star by time Portland traded for him, so I don't know that the two acquisitions are exactly parallels.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: Robin Lopez’s contribution is similar to Buck Williams as far as impact goes, but the difference is Buck was a proven All-Star when Portland traded for him. He was viewed as the missing piece to a championship puzzle. And they ended up making it to the 1990 NBA Finals. Nobody expected Robin to have such a huge impact on this team. You knew the center position would be an upgrade over last year, but you weren’t sure how much of an upgrade.

Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman), The Oregonian: I was 12 in 1989 and living in Tallahassee, Fla., so I’m not going to compare Robin Lopez’ addition to that of Buck Williams’. But I will say that — so far — Lopez has been the perfect fit for the Blazers. His unselfish, team-first approach to playing defense, rebounding and clogging the paint has been as good as advertised — and exactly what this team needed. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that LaMarcus Aldridge is playing the best basketball of his career while playing alongside Lopez.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: Well, the Blazers went to the Finals in Williams' first season, so a little later than December. You have to remember, Williams was a three-time All-Star and probably the greatest player in Nets history (at least their NBA years) when he arrived in Portland. Then he willingly took a complementary role with the Blazers, which, as LaMarcus Aldridge would say, was big for them.

Don't get me wrong. Lopez has been great, and his arrival has been a win-win -- great for the Blazers, but also a huge opportunity for him to raise his profile in the league. He's done all the garbage duty, but he's also become a legitimate scorer.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: I wasn't alive in the summer of 1989 so for me to compare it to that addition is impossible for me to do. Coach Stotts has been hesitant, and for good reason, to compare these Trail Blazers to the 2011 Mavs. But if you remember, there was lots of press coming out of Dallas the year they won the title with Dirk Nowitzki praising the acquisition of Tyson Chandler. Now, nobody is calling Robin Lopez Kevin Garnett or Tyson Chandler, but if you listen to what guys like Aldridge and Batum are saying about him, you see he's had a similar effect. Lopez has made a huge difference in the numbers, too. The Blazers are realistically looking at having home court advantage, at least in the first round, and Lopez has been a big part of that. They all play off of him and he does the work that nobody on the roster was willing to do last year. Lopez is doing the little things and he's young. Lopez can still get better and his career year this season shows that we haven't seen all that he can do yet. Both teams relied on jump shooters and a jump-shooting four man, but that's where the comparison's end. Guys on that Dallas team had been through the playoff fire many times and Nowitzki and Terry had been to the Finals. This Blazers team is much younger and less experienced in the playoffs than the 2011 Dallas group that won it all.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: There have been and there are going to continue to be a lot of comparisons between this current Blazer team and the great Blazer teams of the early 1990s. Comparing the addition of Buck to the addition of Robin makes a lot of sense. The Blazers of the late 80s needed something to get them over the top, and that was Buck. The Blazers of 2013-14 needed something to take them from a four-man team to a team that could actually compete, and Robin has been part of the group that has done that. The real test of how important Robin Lopez is, and whether or not he’s had an impact similar to Buck’s is how far the Blazers make it in the post season. If Portland is going to beat a couple good Western Conference teams in the playoffs, they are going to need some strong performances from their awesome new center.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: I get the comparison in terms of effect but we’re treading on sacred ground here. Williams took his team from defensive mediocrity to one of the elite defenses in the league. The Blazers were already a good offensive rebounding team before Buck arrived but he spearheaded a similar transformation in defensive rebounding. So far Lopez has helped the Blazers vault into great rebounding position but the defense remains bottom-third of the league. We need to see more individually and in overall effect before we start calling him the next Buck. A trip to the Finals wouldn’t hurt.

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2. Your thoughts on Fan Voting for All-Star Games. What would you do differently to allow the fans to see their favorite players but make the honor more merit-based than a popularity contest?

Holdahl: I limit myself to one complaint per year about fan voting for the All-Star Game and I've already used that up, so I'm not going to get too bent out of shape about it here. Fans getting to pick less than half of the rosters, however bad their picks might be, is hard to get too upset about. These days, I'm trying to keep my powder dry for the important arguments.

I do think adding a games played requirement would be a wise tweak that would improve the system while still allowing fans to have their rightful say. After all, they don't do paper ballots anymore, so why not change the rules so you can't acquire votes until a player plays, say, at least ten games? That would take most of the ridiculousness out of the equation.

Haynes: I would allow the fans to keep their All-Star starter votes. However, my wrinkle would be including the coaches in a weighted system. Say LaMarcus Aldridge finishes fourth in frontcourt fan voting. Then the coaches would take a vote. If Aldridge somehow has the second most frontcourt coaches’ votes, from there you take four (4th place fan vote) and add it to two (coaches’ 2nd place vote) and divide it by two (fans and coaches), which would give you three. Aldridge, the third frontcourt player voted in by coaches and fans, goes into the All-Star game as a starter. And if there’s a tie after the coaches make their selections, just put the player in who had the most fan votes. The reserves would continue to be selected by coaches. If you see a hole in this system, keep in mind that I absolutely hate math.

Freeman: Two things about All-Star Games: They’re a joke and they’re for the fans. I don’t see any problem with fans picking the starters in an exhibition game that’s designed for their enjoyment. And while there is usually a snub or two, coaches typically round out the rosters with the most deserving players. The system is fine. Again, who cares? It’s an All-Star Game.

Tokito: I don't have a huge problem with fans voting. What the league should do is institute a minimum of games or minutes played to allow a player to be on the ballot. Just use the same minimums the league uses for its official stat leaders.

Gundersen: I don't think it really matters all that much. Yes, Aldridge being 8th in the front court voting in the West isn't where he belongs but he's just not a guy that's going to get voted in, unless the Blazers are playing late into the playoffs so people can watch them for the next few years. I think the coaches picking the rest of the team makes up for whatever things happen in the fan voting. Some might suggest journalists who cover the game voting on the All-Star game but as we've seen with season awards, nobody will ever be happy. Someone gave Luke Babbitt a vote for Sixth Man of the Year, LET'S WRITE ABOUT WHAT THAT MEANS. Nobody will ever be happy and the All-Star game is for the fans. All-Star games matter when it comes to contract incentives and such, but the whole event is done to celebrate the game of basketball and for the entertainment of the NBA's fans. I'd love to try and make it more merit-based but I also think it's much ado about nothing in the long run because somebody always feels left out. With so many good players in the league these days, somebody is always going to be a snub, especially in the Western Conference. I love the All-Star game, but it's not perfect, much like the NBA itself.

Acker: I have mixed feelings about the Fan Voting for the All-Star Game. The NBA is a league built on stars, first and foremost. Those stars sell the product of professional basketball to fans across the country and around the world, not just to fans living in the cities that have NBA teams. Without the fans who buy cable packages to watch their favorite team or buy jerseys or any of the other products the NBA sells, there is no league. Without stars that appeal to a wide range of people, there are no fans. Because of all that, Fan Voting is not only necessary, it’s the right thing to do. However, being one of the lucky few who lives in an NBA city and gets to watch the same NBA team over and over, I would love to see a system that awards All-Star Game roster spots based on merit. It’s not going to happen, though, so I think we (as Blazer fans) should all just be happy that sometimes Portland players play so well that the fact that the Blazers are not on national TV all that much doesn’t keep them from participating in the All-Star Game.

Deckard: What are they voting for? It’s not a terribly serious event. It’s a showcase precisely for the sake of popularity and buzz. Let the folks have their fun voting in the big names and getting their fantasy matchups. The coaches make up for it a little bit by selecting the reserves on merit. Besides, whining about a player not getting respect is at least half the fun of this kind of exercise.

Playoff positions are usually decided on merit and championships always are. Worry about those and the rest will come. When the Blazers went to the Finals in the Drexler years they had three All-Stars: Clyde, Terry Porter, and Kevin Duckworth. Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and Lionel Hollins all made it during the championship years. If the Blazers get that far again then LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are shoo-ins for the All-Star game the following year.

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3. Damian Lillard recently stated on the Dan Le Batard show that he believed it was the comeback win in Oakland against the Warriors that made him a believer in this special season. What was that moment for you? Or do you think that moment has yet to occur?

Holdahl: I don't think it's occurred yet. In my opinion, their response to real and sustained adversity, which they have not yet endured this season, will be the true test. I know this team is good; I just want to see how they react when they lose three-straight.

Haynes: It was definitely that moment. I remember them taking the life out of that building despite the absence of Mo Williams and Wesley Matthews down the stretch due to ejections. The way they stuck together and fought back in a place they haven’t had success at, spoke volumes. LaMarcus Aldridge was so proud to be a part of that, stating he hadn’t felt that kind of team camaraderie in a long time. That was when the team truly started to believe they could beat anybody. And it has proven correct, thus far.

Freeman: The comeback wins against the Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls were defining moments for the Blazers. But I learned the most about this team when they punked two of the NBA’s best in consecutive games the first week of December. Beating the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder — two vastly different teams with different styles and strengths — in the span of three days legitimized the Blazers’ hot start and proved to me they were as good as their record indicated.

Tokito: The win over Oklahoma City, which came after the victory over Indiana, really sold me. That’s two elite teams who play very different styles.

Gundersen: I'm not going to argue with the guy that sees the team on a daily basis and is one of their leaders. I wasn't in Oakland but you could see and read about how that game changed things. The Warriors were the darlings of the league in the playoffs and they've had a little toughness about them but Portland showed they won't back down and that they fought for each other. When you've got a 6-foot-2 Mo Williams going right up into 7-foot Andrew Bogut's grill to stand up for his team, how does that not rally your team? Aldridge played inspired the rest of the way with one of his many MVP performances and they lost Wesley Matthews and went with Earl Watson in the fourth quarter. And, the fact that they were able to pull off the comeback in one of the hardest places in the league to play just adds to the magnitude of that moment. However, if the team is going to do big things in the postseason, I'm sure they hope that their biggest moments have yet to come.

Acker: I know this question was posed before the start of this most recent road trip, but Portland’s come from behind overtime victory I think might just be that moment, although back-to-back wins over Oklahoma City and Indiana were also pretty great. The thing about the win over Detroit, though, is that the Blazers played poorly most of the way, got out-worked inside most of the night, and still found the right combination of defense, offense, and luck to pull out a big win. The list of things the Blazers don’t do well is getting shorter, but they are going to continue to receive criticism for being primarily a jump shooting team. Although it sounds kind of counter-intuitive, the more games Portland wins while shooting in the high 30s from three and from the field the better the long-term outlook is for this team.

Deckard: I agree that the Golden State tussle was a defining moment. A few ages have passed since we’ve seen Blazers go to war for each other on the court. In recent years they didn’t precisely back down but they weren’t that quick to step up when conflict arose. Mostly it’d be Joel Przybilla turning Tyson Chandler into a whining, emotional pretzel and everybody else kind of looking at the ground. When Andrew Bogut and Joel Freeland got into it everybody stepped in but nobody really lost their cool. It wasn’t an emotional overreaction. It was a “Thou shalt not mess with us” statement. The Blazers will need to keep making that statement if they stay among the league leaders because every opponent will put a target on their back and plenty of those opponents will try and knock them around to take them out of their groove.

“Special Season” is overreaching at this point, though. They’ve had a special start for sure. Plenty of work remains to translate that momentum into a full campaign.

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4. If you're an opposing coach tasked with the responsibility of defending the Trail Blazers, what's your strategy? Do you double-team LaMarcus Aldridge and leave an array of lethal three-point shooters? Or do you defend the arc at all costs, leaving just one defender alone on Aldridge down low?

Holdahl: I think the Pistons, despite eventually losing the game, took the right approach of single covering LaMarcus Aldridge in order to make sure Portland's shooters don't get clean looks from three. Aldridge seems to make strides every year dealing with double teams, so I'd just live with trying to cover him one-on-one and hope he has an off night. But the truth is, there is no good options, as I'm sure some of Portland's opponents this season would tell you.

Haynes: I’d have to take my chances one-on-one with LaMarcus Aldridge. I rather give up two than three. The key is working for position early in possessions to force Aldridge to catch the ball further out on the perimeter. Then every now and then in the second half I’ll send a hard double coming from his blind side just to throw him off. The way Portland moves that ball and shoots the three, I’m more inclined to take my chances with L.A.

Freeman: There’s no magic formula for defending this team and I don’t think featuring just one strategy will slow them down. If I were an opposing coach, I’d mix up my schemes routinely during the game — doubling Aldridge sometimes, covering him straight up others — and I’d defend the heck out of the three-point line. On offense, I’d run, run, run — and run some more — to try to get easy transition points, and I’d attack the paint to try to score easy buckets get Lopez in foul trouble.

Tokito: You can tell scouting reports are focusing on shutting off the Blazers’ threes, which for some reason Philadelphia opted not to do. You just can’t consistently double-team a player and expect not to get burned. I would go with different coverages, mixing them frequently, and try to force the Blazers to adjust on the fly.

Gundersen: It just depends on the personnel you have. If you're the Rockets, you try and stick Dwight on him to stop him. But even Dwight couldn't do that last Thursday. Lopez is huge when he is on the court because if team's are sticking centers on Aldridge, Lopez can make baskets around the rim against smaller power forwards. Ideally, you put somebody on him one-on-one just so he has to work hard the whole game and help as little as possible. It almost worked for Houston on Thursday night but Aldridge was just too good that night. A guy like Anthony Davis might be the best type of guy to put on Aldridge one-on-one. Indiana made Aldridge work really hard and they stick to single coverage. Portland had to win that game with defense and at the free-throw line. But for most teams, they don't have guys like that or team defense's that disciplined, and they have no choice but to double and hope Portland goes cold.

Acker: I think it all depends on personnel. Houston, Dallas, and Detroit have the bigs to go one-on-one with LaMarcus. It worked pretty well for Dallas to single-cover LA. It worked a little for Houston and Detroit, too. Portland overcame Houston and Detroit’s efforts to keep them from knocking down a lot of threes. Dallas might have gotten lucky, depending on how you feel about Monta’s game winner. However you spin it, the teams that have gone one-on-one with LaMarcus and tried to keep the Blazers from burning down the house from three have had a little more success. However, there are only a few teams that have the kind of front court depth to even hope to compete with LA in the post. Maybe the solution is to go small, so LA has to play center, and push the ball on every possession. Houston did that for a while, and it seemed to work. The problem for the Rockets, of course, is that Dwight Howard needs to be on the court for that team to be most effective.

Deckard: I employ a similar strategy against Aldridge that the Blazers employed against Dwight Howard in the last Houston game. They knew Howard would kill them if they left Lopez in single coverage. They opted to go that route anyway, figuring one player going ham was far more palatable than getting served an all-you-can eat buffet from multiple directions.

If I’m Portland’s opponent I make the same decision. I know Aldridge will drop 20+ on me. That won’t kill me. Eating up turf three points at a time will. Even if I double-team Aldridge I’m only going to bother him moderately at the cost of leaving Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, etc all wide open. I don’t take away enough to justify the price. If I single-cover LaMarcus he’s probably going to score 6-8 more points. But if I can keep a man close to Matthews and Batum, forcing them to choose between contested threes and dribble-drives, I can chip way more than 6-8 points off of their scoring averages and come out ahead.

The only exception I’d make is if I had fairly long, fairly fleet defenders who could cover the weak-side in a three-man zone. If I can space three defenders well enough to cut off the initial shot once the ball gets reversed, the extra guy watching Aldridge should be able to recover by the time the next pass gets made.

Defending the Blazers shouldn’t be as much of a headache as it is in theory. Some teams aren’t disciplined enough to keep to the correct coverage and other teams seem to stick to their all-purpose defensive strategy even when it doesn’t make as much sense against Portland as it does against your average team. One great thing about the 2013-14 Blazers…sooner or later they make opponents pay for that kind of mistake.

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5. Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, and Andre Iguodala are all sidelined with injuries right now and it's no coincidence that their respective teams are struggling a big. Which player's return will have the biggest impact?

Holdahl: It's got to be Iguodala. The Grizzlies weren't exactly playing well before Gasol got hurt and the Pelicans were probably always a long shot to make the playoffs even with Davis healthy. So basically, the stakes have always been higher with the Warriors and Iguodala. Golden State was already lean on talent outside of their starting five anyway, and missing Iguodala has really exacerbated that issue.

Haynes: Marc Gasol without a question. He’s the key that drives that team. He’s the true definition of a defensive minded big man whose value doesn’t appear on a stat sheet. Without him, Memphis probably isn’t a playoff team. New Orleans wasn’t a Top 8 team in the Western Conference standings before Anthony Davis sustained his injury and Golden State made the playoffs and had success last season without Andre Iguodala. Gasol will have the biggest impact upon return.

Tokito: Gasol. Memphis is 3-7 without him. Golden and New Orleans have players who can fill the void for Iguodala and Davis. Gasol is a unique player who really holds the Grizzlies’ defense together.

Gundersen: Impact is a hard thing to quantify. We can look at on-court/off-court numbers and see the difference these guys make on their teams. But I'm going to answer this question based on the context of where each team is and where they can go once that player returns. That's why I'm going with Iguodala here. Iguodala takes the Warriors from playoff team to a Western Conference title contender. Marc Gasol was amazing last year and Anthony Davis was a menace early in this season but I don't think the Grizzlies or Pelicans have realistic championship aspirations when those two guys come back. For me, Iguodala is the only one of those three that will impact the race to the championship. Among line-ups that have played at least 100 minutes, the Golden State line-up of Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry is tied for the best net rating (difference between offensive and defensive efficiencies) in the league, coming in four points per 100 possessions better than Portland's starting line-up. Iguodala is a sometimes forgotten superstar and his return will change things for the Warriors for the better.

Acker: I think Gasol and Iguodala have the advantage over Davis. New Orleans wasn’t a playoffs team last season, and probably were a long shot for the playoffs this season. Memphis and Golden State were both favorites for top spots in the West at the start of the season, and at the moment neither is in the playoff picture. Getting Iguodala back will certainly help the Warriors and will probably catapult them back into the West’s top eight. For Memphis, though, their problems are probably bigger than just an injured Marc Gasol. The Grizz weren’t at the top of their game when their big Spaniard got hurt. Having him back will help, but it probably won’t solve all their problems.

Deckard: This is the great thing about the West this year so far. Only one of those three teams is below .500 as I write. That’s Memphis and they’re only a single game under. But I’m going to say Gasol because the Warriors can cover Iggy’s absence better than the other two teams can do without a center and because New Orleans is kind of a crap shoot even with Davis.