Was LaMarcus Aldridge's injury a blessing in disguise? Have the Trail Blazers changed their defensive philosophy? And has Will Barton earned himself a permanent spot in the rotation? Eight local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.
1. Over his past four games (Utah, Minnesota, Denver, Brooklyn), Will Barton is averaging 8.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, and countless highlights in his 17 minutes of action. Has "The Thrill" earned himself a permanent spot in the rotation even when the Trail Blazers return to full health?
Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com:I believe he has. At this point, I would give Barton whatever minutes were going to Dorell Wright, who has also played well during the recent spate of injuries, and/or C.J. McCollum. Barton isn't the shooter that either Wright or McCollum is, but he's a much better at playmaking and putting the ball on the floor than his competition on the bench. He's also got that contagious energy that seems to be missing from the second unit from time to time, so I think you go with "The Thrill" until further notice.
Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: Permanent? No. Will Barton’s role along with CJ McCollum is very fluid. It depends on who’s playing well at the time. While Barton’s games as of late have been sensational, but in all likelihood, he’s one bad performance away from being the 1tth man again. If he can keep up this level of play, yes, he will remain in the rotation. However, whenever McCollum gets another shot and he has some success, he’ll remain in the rotation as long as he plays well, too.
Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman), The Oregonian: Will Barton was perhaps the Blazers’ biggest bright spot as they excelled through a slew of injuries over the last couple of weeks. It looks like coach Terry Stotts will continue to play him limited minutes at backup shooting guard as long as he continues to produce.
Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: No question he has earned a role, although I would not say permanent. There might be times when Terry Stotts goes back to CJ McCollum in that role, when he needs more shooting, but for now, Barton’s energy and athleticism have been a significant addition, especially in home games.
Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: In the short term, Stotts has indicated that he is for right now. He's got to stay consistent to keep that fourth backcourt spot but I wouldn't be surprised to see that one flip back and forth until the playoffs when they can shorten their rotation.
Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: Writing this after the Blazers beat the Nuggets and Will Barton clocked about 13 minutes of court time, I would say that “The Thrill” has earned himself at least an extended look with the Blazers’ regulars. My guess is coach Terry Stotts is looking into a deeper rotation for the stretch run. Due to some excellent play when Portland was short-handed, Barton is on the short list to be the Blazers’ new second guard off the bench. I doubt, though, that Barton’s minutes will carry over into the final few weeks of the season, when Portland is really jockeying for playoff seeding, and then into the playoffs. Barton has been fantastic with the Blazers short-handed, and there’s a chance that he’ll be inserted in a big game (even a playoff game) should there be an emergency, but it’s unlikely his spot in the regular rotation is permanent.
Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: t’ll be hard for Barton to take time from Mo Williams during a stretch run against tough competition, let alone in the playoffs. He’s probably competing against C.J. McCollum for a few reserve minutes per game. Both are young and will fluctuate. C.J. started up and has trended downward the last couple weeks. Barton started down and has emerged. Likely neither one will get off the roller coaster this year. But both show promise for next season and beyond. More minutes will open up for them if they can play consistently enough to take them.
SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: Barton brings energy on offense and length on defense so yes he has earned more minutes. We'll see him play more but not every game once everyone is healthy. I think Stotts is still only going to go 10 deep in games so will see him based on that night's matchups.
2. When the team looks back on this season, will they view this time without Aldridge as a blessing in disguise and why?
Deckard: More like a dodged bullet. This shows you how this wacky, wonderful year has gone for the Blazers. They enjoy perfect health for most of the season, then decimating injuries come during a stretch against weak opponents (Denver, Utah, Brooklyn) and teams missing key players as well (San Antonio, Minnesota, Denver, Brooklyn).
Nevertheless, going 4-1 with Aldridge and company missing is a major achievement. The Blazers may have solidified their mid-bracket playoff position with these wins. The starters flexed muscles they don’t usually get to use and a couple bench players have posted their season-best games, but all of that combined isn’t as important as the .800 winning clip.
SlyPokerDog: Anytime you can win the majority of games while trying out different lineups you have to consider it a blessing. The injuries forced Stotts to go deeper into the bench and the bench responded. This will give Stotts more options and more confidence in those options as the season races towards the playoffs.
3. To date (February 27th, 2014) the Trail Blazers allow 103 points per game. But over their last four games, no team has been able to crack the century mark against their defense. In fact, Portland is giving up a stingy 91.5 points during that span and doing so with the services of only one true center. What changes have you seen from the Blazer defense that are leading to these results? Or has it been a product of a slightly easier schedule?
Deckard: Caliber of opponent has something to do with it. More specifically the lack of outside shooting from those four teams has made defending easier for the Blazers. Only Utah shot a decent percentage from distance against Portland and the Jazz don’t attempt that many long-range shots. This allowed the Blazers to concentrate on drives and the paint.
During this period Robin Lopez hasn’t just been “one true center” but THE One True Center, stepping up to defend the lane like cavalry riding over the hill. He’s been magnificent. Portland’s perimeter defenders have done a good job channeling drivers into Lopez and he’s erased them, along with most post players.
Denver, Brooklyn, and even Minnesota tried to attack the Blazers through methodical matchup advantages. If you move slowly and predictably Portland’s defense is more than capable. Teams that force the Blazers to move feet, rotate, and make decisions give Portland problems. You can understand Kevin Love thinking he could go right at Thomas Robinson but whoever designed and encouraged the offensive scheme of the Nets and Nuggets ought to have their heads examined.
SlyPokerDog: Both Barton and Claver give us a stronger defensive presence and should be used more depending on matchups but I think the lower scoring average is because of the lack of quality opponent.
4. It is being reported that Danny Granger will sign with the Clippers and Caron Butler will ink with the Thunder. Should players who have their contracts bought out be after the trade deadline be eligible for the postseason? Also, will any of these post-deadline signings make a difference down the home stretch?
Deckard: Of course! I don’t see why they wouldn’t be eligible. If a team doesn’t want you—two teams, really…one that traded you away and another that bought you out—why shouldn’t you be able to play for a team that does?
Granger has been playing poorly this season compared to his pre-injury norm. Butler could be interesting in OKC but how many small forward minutes do they have to give? Glen Davis might make more of an impact with the Clippers or even Beno Udrih with the Grizzlies.
Historically these waiver pickups haven’t made a big difference. Playoff series can sometimes tip on small moments, though. You can see why these teams might pick up a guy on the cheap just in case.
SlyPokerDog: Yes, players who have their contracts bought out should be eligible for the postseason. The rule should be tweaked slightly so players like Ben Gordon can sign with a team but that's only a minor problem.
On paper it would look like the Clippers helped themselves the most. Granger, Davis and Turkoglu would seem to be improvements but this is not fantasy basketball. It's up to Doc Rivers to incorporate them into the rotation.
5. As of this writing (February 27th, 2014), the Oklahoma City Thunder have lost three straight home games (Miami, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland) for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Coincidentally enough, the losing skid started as soon as Russell Westbrook return to the lineup. Is this a case of OKC getting used to playing with their All-Star point guard again? Or are they genuinely a better team without Westbrook?
Deckard: Saying they’re a better team without Westbrook is going too far. Saying they have some things to work out is more accurate. But to be fair, the entire starting lineup suffered in the Heat and Clippers matchups. Westbrook shot poorly in both those games but his teammates did as well against Miami. Defense was a critical, lineup-wide issue against the Clippers. The Cleveland game they probably shouldn’t have lost but that was also Westbrook’s best outing of the three.
If the Blazers and Thunder were to meet in the playoffs the Blazers would certainly feel better about their chances with Westbrook out than with him playing. Chemistry and criticism aside, he still creates plenty of trouble for opponents.
SlyPokerDog: While Westbrook is a very good player he's not on the same level as Durant. The problem is he doesn't see it this way. Instead of looking to get Durant involved Westbrook looks for his shot first. As constructed the Thunder appear to be a more complete team with Reggie Jackson running the offense. The Thunder are still a damn good team with Westbrook but he takes the ball out of Durant's hands and that only benefits the rest of the Western Conference.