Claver as Starter, Matthews as Sixth Man Makes Sense for Blazers

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Wesley Matthews’ hip injury has left the Blazers without one of their most reliable scoring weapons over the past three weeks. For a young team still figuring out its identity, an injury to such a key player has the potential to be a death blow. Rookie Victor Claver has started the majority of games in Matthews’ place, which on paper seems like it would prompt a massive downgrade to the starting lineup. But it’s been fascinating to watch over the past few games as the starting lineup’s production hasn’t dipped in any meaningful way, while the bench continues to struggle. Claver, while not a scorer, has found ways to contribute in the starting unit and looks more comfortable every game he plays in this increased role. Given the rest of the starters’ offensive potency, Claver seems closer to carving out a niche with the team after struggling to get on the floor in the early season. In the interests of using both players in ways that best maximize their abilities, there’s a strong case to be made that Terry Stotts has stumbled into a new way forward, with Claver starting and Matthews as a sixth man.

Keeping the starting lineup the way it is when Matthews returns to action could prove beneficial to both players. Claver has scored 28 points on the season on 11-for-38 shooting. But scoring was never supposed to be Claver’s strength, and it isn’t what he was brought over from Spain to do for the Blazers. It’s no secret that Portland’s bench has had problems scoring all season, and when Claver plays with other reserves, he’s just another guy who can’t score, something the Blazers’ second unit has more than enough of. When he’s on the floor with Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and J.J. Hickson, however, he isn’t leaned on nearly as much for offensive production. Playing with four capable scorers allows him to concentrate on defense, making cuts to set up passes for teammates’ shots, and rebounding.

There are significant advantages to bringing Matthews off the bench as well. For one thing, it would finally give the Blazers’ bench a player capable of scoring consistently, something they’ve lacked all year. For another, it would put an end to the Lillard-Ronnie Price two-PG backcourts Stotts has often played this season, which have left a lot to be desired. In 105 minutes this season, lineups featuring both Lillard and Price have scored just 95.4 points per 100 possessions, while allowing 100.9. These lineups don’t particularly make sense for either player—Price doesn’t offer nearly enough as a scorer for you to feel comfortable playing him at shooting guard, and while Lillard is certainly a good shooter, it seems a waste to have by far the Blazers’ best floor manager on the court and not running the offense.

Price and Matthews make much more sense together. As a two-man unit, they have been in lineups together for 125 minutes this year. While these lineups have been slightly worse defensively than those with Price and Lillard (allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions), they’ve been astronomically better offensively (105.5 points scored per 100 possessions). Matthews’ greatest strength is as a shooter, something he isn’t able to do nearly enough playing in lineups with three other high-usage scorers. Using Matthews as a sixth man puts him a position where his primary role can be as a catch-and-shoot player. As a distributor, Price represents a huge dropoff from Lillard, but the strides Nicolas Batum has made as a passer in recent weeks mitigate this somewhat. As long as either Lillard or Batum are on the floor with Matthews (a pretty safe bet, given how much Stotts likes to mix-and-match his lineups), there will be someone to feed him the ball when he’s open.

For as little scoring as Claver gives the Blazers, their starting lineups don’t fare much worse offensively with him on the floor than they do with Matthews. The lineups’ respective True Shooting Percentages are nearly identical, and while the team gives up a three-point threat with Matthews out of the lineup, they make up for it in other ways. They are 1.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Claver than with Matthews, but since they also allow 1.7 fewer points per 100 possessions on defense with Claver in the starting lineup, it’s more or less a wash. The two iterations of the starting unit have identical assist-turnover ratios, but the Lillard-Claver-Batum-Aldridge-Hickson version rebounds better, fouls less, and gets blocked less per 36 minutes.

None of this is to say Matthews is having a bad season, or that the idea of benching him should be viewed as a demotion. Before his injury, he was much improved in just about every offensive statistical category over last season. He’s been more comfortable shooting the ball, and especially shown more confidence (and effectiveness) attacking the rim. But given how much Lillard, Aldridge, and Batum offer as scorers, and how paltry and inconsistent their bench production can be, it might make sense for Stotts to try an arrangement similar to the one that has been so effective for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are able to start relative offensive non-contributor Thabo Sefolosha at shooting guard because their starting lineup also features Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. This allows a starting-caliber scorer like Kevin Martin (and before him, James Harden) to anchor the second unit and provide stability when the starters are off the floor. Obviously, the Lillard-Batum-Aldridge trio isn’t at the level of Westbrook-Durant-Ibaka, and nor is Matthews as good a player as Harden or Martin. But that’s completely beside the point—the Thunder are title contenders, and the Blazers are a lottery team, something that would be true regardless of who starts for Portland. What’s important for the Blazers in this rebuilding season is to make sure all of their players are being used in ways that play to their strengths and allow them to develop as players. Using Claver as the team’s Sefolosha and Matthews as their Martin/Harden may be just that.

All lineup data courtesy of NBA.com’s Media Central stats tool.

Blazers 95 – Hornets 94: “I was due for one”

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It’s funny what the structure of a game can do to an evening of basketball. 48 minutes, four quarters, one game in a season; even the most logical of endpoints is necessarily arbitrary, and that’s just the nature of the beast. My point is that this game—the Damian shot game—was not the Damian shot game at all for most of it.

For three quarters, this was a best-case scenario against a weaker team. This was the emergence of an open-floor offense with fluid ball movement and balanced contributions. This was the third and most convincing win in the Blazers’ second three-game streak. It was the return of Nic Batum from his recent slump, posting an extremely rare 5 by 5 box score line with 11 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 steals and 5 blocks. Cut another way, it could have been a parable for the dangers of a young team taking its foot off the gas. But it’s not any of those things, because the rookie hit the shot. 

For a long time, this evening’s game felt like Terry Stotts’ vision taking shape. The Blazers finished with 25 team assists and 11 three-pointers on 29 attempts, passing with rhythm and taking the shots that emerged. And in continuing the trend that has been developing over the past several games, the bench provided solid production. Sasha Pavlcvic, Victor Claver, and Luke Babbitt all integrated themselves into the flow of the game, and Babbitt scored more than ten points for the second straight contest. Sure, it came against a Hornets team that seemed unable to get out of its own way for three quarters, but if you were looking for signs of the Blazers’ growth, you could find a few tonight.

Then the Hornets came back. It was an odd comeback, because even as the margin approached a single possession, the mood inside the Rose Garden was valedictory. J.J. Hickson was playing perhaps his best game as a professional, posting 24 points and 16 rebounds, and Batum was rounding out his stat line. But then, all of a sudden, Greivis Vasquez nearly had a triple-double, and Ryan Anderson seemingly hadn’t missed a shot. Before the crowd knew it, the Blazers had a game on their hands. And then the rookie hit the shot.

And so in a certain way, a game that might have been the most encouraging of the season—a well-rounded effort that conformed to Stotts’ stylistic preferences—became a game that Blazers fans will find even more encouraging for having nearly been lost. 

As I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about, this era of Blazers basketball is taking off in fits and starts. Right now, the team is still past and future tense: they did, they were, they could be, they may. And with a few notable exceptions, there aren’t many figures in this organization who would know when a team makes that tensal switch. Maybe it happens because a young team starts moving the ball and holds on to close out a surprisngly feisty opponent. Maybe it doesn’t happen for years, because lasting change resists a single moment. Or maybe it happens when the rookie hits a shot. 

 

Blazers 98—San Antonio 90: “We’ve got sixty games left”

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“We’ve got sixty games left.”

That was Terry Stotts’ response to a beat writer asking whether tonight’s 98-90 victory over San Antonio might help Damian Lillard’s chances at snaring Rookie of the Year. It’s a sneakily illuminating answer; you learn quickly that no matter what happens on any given night, the defining characteristic of the NBA season is its length. Almost everything coaches and players say, I now realize, is  a way of mitigating the exhaustion that length can wreak.

A game like tonight’s, of course, is its own inoculation against weariness. This was almost certainly the Blazers’ best win of the season, coming against an opponent of San Antonio’s caliber with important players missing time or nursing nagging injuries. It was a classic Rose Garden crowd—excited, almost hostile in its anxiety—and Damian Lillard played what most will call his best game as a pro. But after this game, there are sixty games left.

And so the clichés are trotted out in the locker room. “I never get too high, I never get too low,” says LaMarcus Aldridge. A classic copout, approaching “one game at a time” in its near-platonic inanity.  Nic Batum took a step up the ladder of meaning: “Focus.” As in, focus on the next opponent, bring the energy from the victory, so on and so forth. When Batum talks, you can tell he’s engaged in the conversation, and that he’s drawing the right arrow out of the quiver for your question, but it’s a small quiver in an NBA locker room.

And then there’s Damian Lillard. At this point, I prefer not to ask Damian Lillard questions. I like to listen to his monotone command of the scrum, the veteran savvy with which he grinds the possibility of meaning out of reporters’ questions. This sounds like I’m being snide, but I am not. Damian’s flat affect postgame may in fact be the single trait most deserving of that hackneyed descriptor “poise.”

If you spend a lifetime reading sports quotes, you get sick of this stuff. But when you see Nic Batum joking about being too sore to guard Tony Parker with three quarters of a season left to play, it starts to make sense. There’s too much basketball. There are too many practices. Plane rides. Pressers. Shootarounds. You can’t just go around ascribing meaning to every event, or you’ll become too exhausted to continue.

Think of it like this: 82 games is a season’s worth of emotion stretched as thin as it can possibly be stretched. Like a weak bridge spanning October to April: there is nearly too much chasm to be traversed without trestles. So you step very gingerly on each of the 82 boards, and that way you make it to the other end. I’m starting to realize, 22 games into my first season covering a single team, that these clichés are half-truth and half-necessity, and that a season really is fueled by the mundane satisfactions and disappointments. Wins help, losses hurt, and there are always more games to be played than you have played, until there aren’t.

So when Damian Lillard is fending off reporters in front of his locker, he may be showing a stability more important than the sturdy knees Portland so desperately needs. He’s showing that he understands the fissures in the ground beneath his feet, the danger of declaring a turning point that turns out to have been just another December basketball game. Even footing, every step.

Tellingly, the one time I saw him truly animated was talking to another reporter about his strategy for breaking down defenders with his dribble. Pantomiming a ball in his hand, he told this reporter about how he explores defenders’ tendencies with certain kinds of ballhandling. Craft—that’s what it’s safe to talk about, and Damian was effusive about craft.

And so back to Stotts. His hiring was maligned in part because of his NBA mileage. How could a coach with so many stops under his belt reinvent himself? Could he somehow at this point in his career transcend mediocrity? It remains an open question. But his insistence on taking the long view, I believe, is perhaps his greatest asset to this franchise. If he proves to lack innovation, then he lacks innovation, but among the people associated with the team today, Stotts has by far the most insight into just how much sustained effort NBA success requires.

When I asked him after the game whether the past two wins were something the team would refer to for the remainder of the season, he said “I don’t know…You go through the course of a season, you don’t know which games you look back on. I think there are turning points good and bad, but you don’t know until some time passes. Maybe we’ll look back on this one, maybe we won’t.”

Blazers fans will almost certainly look back on this one. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this team is that it may not.

 

Blazers 92—Raptors 74: “People Get Too Caught Up on Memorable Wins”

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Before I sat down in Terry Stotts’ postgame press conference, I had my lede for this recap. This was one of those off night NBA games, and I’d rolled my eyes and sloughed this beast off my shoulders. The Blazers sat two starters with injuries; the Raptors lost a pair during the game. Amir Johnson was ejected for scuffling with a ref. The Blazers set an NBA record by missing all 20 of their 3-pointers. Somewhere amidst all the stultifying details there was a basketball game, which the Blazers won despite shooting 40% from the field.

So I had written the game off. I’d knock out some locker room video, dredge up some quotes, call it a night. And then Terry Stotts opened up his conference with a joke about all the missed threes: “Yes, I know we broke a record. And for that record to be broken in a win is even more impressive.” I laughed at the throwaway line, but over the course of the presser, it emerged that Terry Stotts was genuinely pleased with this game. This game in which Sasha Pavlovic played 41 minutes, and just 3 Blazers hit half their shots. This game for which the announced crowd of 16,862 was almost certainly at least three thousand too high.

In the locker room, it was the same. JJ Hickson joked with reporters  that the locker room wasn’t opened yet, then he and Will Barton sang a duet to each other. It wasn’t raucous joy that filled the room, but a noticeable workaday contentment. While reporters gathered around LaMarcus Aldridge to hear his take on the game, I slid over to Jared Jeffries to ask him about the team’s mood.

I haven’t talked to Jared before—in fact, I’ve generally been pretty timid addressing players at all to this point. But I found myself sort of surprised that the locker room was as upbeat as it was; after all, the product on the court had been only marginally, if at all, better than the loss that preceded Saturday night’s borderline depressed mood. So I asked Jeffries: how important is it to get these wins on the weird, ugly, disjointed nights?

Jared was cordial, but I realized how banal the question sounded right as it left my lips. After all, what player is going to tell me that a win is unimportant? He gave me some standard stuff about how this group of guys really likes being around each other, etc., etc.  I tried to clarify my question, maybe sound a bit smarter: “I mean, this wasn’t exactly the sort of win fans would point to as memorable…”

“People get too caught up on memorable wins,” he interrupted. Will Barton walked up and whipered something in his ear. Jared laughed and dapped him up and made a joke I didn’t understand about whatever character was on Will’s sweatshirt. I thanked Jared, and I left the locker room.

It is so easy to draw artificial lines around a locker room. The locker room as an idea and as a space is a cliché, and it is fraught in the way that any cliché is.  So understand my hesitation when I say that outside of a professional locker room, it’s easy to make conjectures on what’s going with a team. And let me also clarify that “outside the locker room” is still my primary mentality—I’m not claiming any privilege on whatever bunker mentality you might assume. I’ve always had the remove of a spectator’s position, or at most a blogger’s, so I know from outside the locker room.  And from outside the locker room, this was another one of those nights that was so dull as to almost represent an imposition. Inside the locker room, though, it was the only kind of night there is.

“People get too caught up on memorable wins,” Jared said, as I effectively interrupted his conversations with a teammate. By which I understand him to say, the win is all. Inside the locker room, this is an almost unbearable trite notion. Outside the locker room, for those of us whose daily lives are not literally about the ability to outscore our opposition, it’s still unbearably trite. But, as I learned tonight, that doesn’t prevent it from being true.

Look, maybe you knew all this, and it’s hardly worth writing. But I didn’t. In fact, the idea of a win on a night like tonight can seem ridiculous with the sort of remove I’m accustomed to. What motive should this franchise have to pursue a victory when two of its starters are sitting and the roster could use the infusion of a high draft pick? Why should a rookie star be on the court in this game after rolling his ankle and threatening serious injury? As a fan and viewer, it’s easy to be informed by the big picture of competitive viability and the cynicism so easily acquired with endless information at our fingertips.

But I drove to the game from my own day job, which is another experience I’m relatively new to. And I was in that locker room Saturday night, for eight mute and glum minutes. So when Will Barton interrupted my interview with Jared Jeffries, and the two shared some joke I didn’t understand, I was inclined to believe Jared when he told me that we get too caught up on memorable wins.  

Pre-game with Terry Stotts

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Tonight’s game against the Raptors has some intrigue and some potential hairiness. With Wes Matthews missing his first game in four years with a hip contusion and Nic Batum sitting with a lingering back issue, here’s what Terry Stotts said pre-game about plugging players in to play for the injured starters:


FYI what he is chuckling about at the start of that video: the first strategy he proposed to fill in for Wes and Nic was “ride LaMarcus.” TERRY GOT JOOOKES.

Stotts takes a bit of heart after the examples of players who’ve filled in for injured starters across the league. When he references Jeremy Lin here, I’m positive he means to be declaring his faith in Pavsanity starting tonight:


Finally, fans, while this may just be an injury-riddled trek through the meaninglessness of December, for Stotts this is a match-up against Dwane Casey, his long-time colleague/friend/buddy cop sidekick. (“Stotts is on the Casey? No? You’re right.)Aaanyhoo here’s Terry on going up against his ol’ frenemy (really just friend):

PRS Preview Podcast: Blazers vs. Raptors with James Herbert

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For the latest PRS Preview Podcast, I talked to Hardwood Paroxysm writer, HoopSpeak Live producer, and Raptors expert James Herbert. We discussed Andrea Bargnani’s struggles, the development of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan’s improvement, and more. Listen below and follow James on Twitter at @outsidethenba.

Sacramento 99—Portland 80: The Schedule Catches Up

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You want fireworks. The team goes away for two weeks and returns to open a six game home stand and you want a Saturday night at the Rose Garden. You want rejuvenated players to fly up and down the court and bask in the sort of fervor they were never going to find in Indianapolis or Charlotte. Sometimes what you get, though, is 48 weary minutes in a losing battle to fend off the mirthless inevitability of an NBA schedule.

Before last night’s game, Terry Stotts told reporters tat the Blazers hadn’t been able to have an “energetic” practice all week; afterward, Damian Lillard admitted the game felt “dead” while LaMarcus Aldridge confessed to having never found his legs. Nic Batum shuffled around in a towel, one hand in the small of his back, and the newly injured Wes Matthews didn’t appear. Joel Freeland, who played all of 9 minutes, sat with an Ace bandage wrapped around his torso to hold an ice pack on his back with a wry look on his face.

It was always going to come to this for the Blazers, whose depth on the best of days is nearly a punchline. But last night—with Victor Claver and Will Barton’s assignment to Boise compounding the effects of Batum and Matthews’ injuries—it felt like everybody in the building was looking at the exit from the jump.

On the court, the Blazers started slothfully and were unable to fully recover with a third quarter run. They had 9 turnovers in the first frame as Batum toed gingerly around and no player but JJ Hickson seemed capable of finding a rhythm. Luke Babbitt provided some brief first-half excitement with back-to-back threes and a few precious minutes leading all players in scoring, but pretty much no matter the competition, a team does not ride JJ Hickson and Luke Babbitt to victory.

The putative stars of the game for Sacramento were John Salmons and DeMarcus Cousins, though it would’ve been impossible to tell without a box score. If you told me I watched DeMarcus Cousins post 19 points and 12 rebounds while barely jogging inside the three-point arc on most plays, I would’ve thought you were either lying or nearly blind. But he did, and Travis Outlaw got a few licks in during a desultory fourth quarter that put the game away for good.

It’s important to note that this game was not a harbinger. Batum and Matthews may miss some games—Batum expressed doubts about his status for the upcoming Toronto game, and Matthews’ injury can linger—but this didn’t expose anything new or troubling about the team. The Blazers may have overperformed early to reach 5-5 but they’ve still beaten just one team that has a winning record and haven’t strung together consecutive games suggesting they’re consistently able to overcome the problems inherent to the roster.

No, this was just the sort of night that you get in early December after the team has played 7 games in 11 days. On its own, it’s not a referendum on character or a gut-check or any of those old clichés, but if these nights keep piling up, I suspect the team will start to run a deficit of good will with fans and local media.  This is the team we expected to have, but the reality of the next four months will be an interesting litmus for where the team stands with Portland right now. Because understandable and predictable as they are, game’s like last night’s just aren’t all that fun.

 

 

PRS Preview Podcast: Blazers vs. Kings with Akis Yerocostas

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For the first PRS Preview Podcast following the Blazers’ brutal seven-game road trip, I talked to Akis Yerocostas, an editor at the SB Nation-affiliated Kngs site Sactown Royalty. We touched first on the news that Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia has denied funding for a new arena in Virginia Beach, and what that means for the Kings’ future in Sacramento (for the latest on that situation, StR’s Tom Ziller has a great piece here). After that, we discussed a variety of topics relating to the Kings’ season and tonight’s game, including the odd lack of minutes for Isaiah Thomas, the improvement of Jimmer Fredette, how Damian Lillard matches up with the Kings’ backcourt, the inconsistency of rookie Thomas Robinson and regression of DeMarcus Cousins, how Cousins and Chuck Hayes could exploit Portland’s lack of frontcourt depth, the sad reality that former Portland fan favorite Travis Outlaw is no longer a viable NBA player, the Kings’ win over Orlando last night, and more. Listen below and follow Akis on Twitter at @aykis16.

Olshey Putting D-League to Use

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The Blazers announced today that they have assigned Victor Claver and Will Barton to the Idaho Stampede. This isn’t a surprising move by any means, and it was only a matter of time before Neil Olshey began to make use of the D-League to develop some of the team’s rookies.

One of the most significant yet under-the-radar changes the Blazers have made since last season was the purchasing of the Stampede as the exclusive affiliate of the Blazers after it was previously shared with the Jazz and Nuggets, and installing head coach Michael Peck to run the same playbook Terry Stotts uses in Portland. The Blazers currently have no open roster spots, so they likely won’t make use of the D-League as much as some other teams from the standpoint of calling up unknown talent, but this kind of organizational continuity and consistency is one of the little things that have impressed about the team’s rolling out of the Neil Olshey era.

Claver has barely played for the Blazers and spent most of the season on the inactive list. Sending him to the D-League makes sense, since he can’t get on the floor in Portland thus far. Barton has appeared in 16 games, including a breakout performance against the Pistons on November 26 in which he scored 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting. Since the start of the season, when Stotts gave almost no time to Barton, Claver, or Joel Freeland, he has started to make a point of playing at least one of the three rookies per night for extended minutes.

It will be interesting to see how long Claver and Barton stay in Idaho. The NBA recently relaxed its rules on how often teams can shuffle its players between the NBA and D-League, and teams like the Spurs and Warriors have taken advantage of the newfound freedom. Keith Schlosser of Ridiculous Upside had an interesting piece this week detailing how teams are timing their D-League assignments based on their travel schedule. Given that the Blazers just returned from a seven-game road trip in which both Claver and Barton played, it doesn’t seem that that’s what they’re doing so far, although part of that may be due to the lack of playoff-caliber opponents they played. With a long stretch of home and west-coast games and several days off between games coming up, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Claver and Barton shuffled back and forth frequently over the rest of the month to allow them to log minutes in the D-League while still being available for games when Stotts feels like using them.

The expanded use of the D-League is a positive development for the NBA going forward, and it’s great to see Olshey taking advantage of the valuable resource he has at his disposal. The biggest hurdle still remaining in the integration of the D-League into the NBA’s fabric is a system similar to Major League Baseball, allowing teams with full rosters to call up players after they send others down. Certainly Coby Karl would be at least worth a look right now as a backup point guard considering how bad Nolan Smith and Ronnie Price have been.

PRS Preview Podcast: Blazers at Pacers with Jared Wade

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For the latest PRS Preview Podcast, I talked to Jared Wade of the ESPN TrueHoop Pacers blog 8 Points 9 Seconds. We discussed the early-season struggles of one-time Blazers free agent target Roy Hibbert; the similarities in the developmental curves of Nicolas Batum and Paul George; both teams’ disastrous benches; the Pacers’ unconventional rebuilding methods and the backlash that has resulted from fans and media; and more. Check it out below and follow Jared on Twitter at @Jared_Wade.