Warriors: 125 – Trail Blazers: 98: Another Brick in the Wall

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Portland Trail Blazers 98 Final
Recap | Box Score
125 Golden State Warriors
Nicolas Batum, SF37 MIN | 2-10 FG | 2-2 FT | 3 REB | 9 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 8 PTS | -12

Batum was all over the place tonight in a negative way, which was pretty unfortunate to watch. He was settling for bad jump shots all night, and was continually getting beat by Harrison Barnes. Best part of his night was definitely the nine assists that he got as the secondary distributor.

J.J. Hickson, C28 MIN | 5-8 FG | 5-7 FT | 10 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 15 PTS | -7

Hickson providing his usual energy in the game against the Warriors. His defense wasn’t great, but neither was the team’s as a whole. J.J. also didn’t get as many minutes as usual, but that is because the game was already out of hand in the fourth.

Meyers Leonard, C41 MIN | 9-17 FG | 3-3 FT | 10 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 1 BLK | 0 TO | 22 PTS | -11

Leonard provided a lot of awesome plays tonight, showing the same confidence in his jumper that lead to him shockingly making a three. Meyers even provided some good one-on-one defensive moments, even if his rotations were that of a rookie big. My favorite part of the line is the fact he was actually assertive on the glass; regardless of defensive effort, Leonard is a much better NBA player when he picks shots up off the glass.

Damian Lillard, PG31 MIN | 4-11 FG | 6-7 FT | 1 REB | 8 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 3 TO | 16 PTS | -8

Damian once again wasn’t that efficient scoring from the field, but still found a solid way to score from the line. Lillard also was effective passing the ball, and has shown a knack of being a distributor lately. Watching Curry go off for 39 wasn’t the best for Damian’s already kind of poor reputation defensively, but that will probably be more of an off-season issue.

Wesley Matthews, SG32 MIN | 6-11 FG | 4-5 FT | 3 REB | 0 AST | 2 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 18 PTS | -9

Matthews was by fair the best Portland wing player scoring the ball from the field, and wasn’t hammered by Klay Thompson on the defensive end. He did get into the trap of settling for bad shots also sometimes, he just made a good amount of positive plays to counteract it.

Joel Freeland, PF10 MIN | 0-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 0 PTS | -17

Freeland has gone 0-9 for his last 9 attempts from the field, which is kind of disappointing. He also looked lost on defensive for the limited minutes he played, so there wasn’t a lot of positive energy for the 26 year old rookie.

Luke Babbitt, SF10 MIN | 2-4 FG | 0-0 FT | 5 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 5 PTS | -9

Luke Babbitt made an appearance tonight, which has become sort of an uncommon thing. Nice to see that he hit the glass, and it was very interesting to see him actually drive to the hoop.

Victor Claver, SF14 MIN | 1-3 FG | 1-1 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 3 PTS | -14

Claver was pretty lost on both ends of the court. Before the garbage time three point play he was terrible when he was looking to score, and like others wasn’t very helpful on defense.

Eric Maynor, PG18 MIN | 1-7 FG | 3-4 FT | 1 REB | 4 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 5 PTS | -26

Maynor struggled from the field, much like every other perimeter player tonight. As much as Eric has been a joy to have on the Blazers’ bench it was rough to seem him shoot so poorly. As a passer, though, he was definitely good. Four assists to zero turnovers will always be a good margin.

Will Barton, SG12 MIN | 0-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 0 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 0 PTS | -18

Will struggled, and it was hard to watch as he is a guy to certainly root for. Sometimes he just seems to put himself in bad situations way too much, but hopefully that is him being a young player more than anything.

FIVE THINGS WE SAW

  1. Golden State shot 54% from the field the entire game. It is excruciatingly tough to win basketball games when your opponent does that and Portland wasn’t able to overcome it.
  2. Going into the game, I thought Carl Landry was going to be a problem. My hunch came to fruition as Landry ending up going 9-10 from the field for 25 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Just a matter of Golden State’s bench being better.
  3. It was good to see some of the young guys getting minutes. Obviously with Meyers he got 41 but there was also a good amount of minutes shown to Freeland, Babbitt, Claver, and Barton. Younger players getting experience is pretty huge for going into next year at this point.
  4. With his last three pointer tonight, Damian Lillard tied Steph Curry for most three pointers for a rookie with 166.
  5. MEYERS. LEONARD. THREE.

Warriors Blazers Preview: Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair

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The Blazers travel south to the Bay Area this evening to dance with the Warriors. The teams have met justonce this season, a 103-97 victory for the Dubs back in January. It was a rather unusual game – together, Damian Lillard and Nic Batum scored 53 of Portland’s 97 points, on 20-36 shooting. Blazers not named Lillard and Batum, however, combined to shoot just 15-56 (26.7%) from the floor and just 5-24 (20.8%) from three.

While the Warriors currently sit in the No. 6 seed in the West, nine games above .500, their record may be a bit misleading – they’ve only outscored their opponents by a total of 23 points over the course of the season. That would suggest that Golden State is an average team – a suggestion that is reinforced by other numbers; the Warriors rank 13th in offensive efficiency and 15th in defensive efficiency.

The game will be won or lost on the Warriors’ three-point line. Golden State leads the league in three-point accuracy, shooting just a hair under 40 percent (39.9%). Meanwhile, the Blazers are among the league’s best in defending the long ball – opponents shoot just 33.6 percent against them, the third-best mark in the league.

The Warriors create a lot of their three-point looks in transition – players like Klay Thompson will run to the long range stripe instead of the rim on fast breaks, and Stephen Curry will set up drag-screens before the defense is set and step straight to the arc for a pull-up. It’s an unconventional philosophy that even the most prepared teams can be caught off-guard by if their focus lapses.

Defensively, Golden State generally does a good job forcing low-efficiency shots, surrendering just a 48.4 effective field goal percentage (eighth-best in the league), and they clean up their defensive glass – they grab 74.9 percent of available defensive rebounds, tied for second-highest. Their problems defensively come in other areas; they don’t force turnovers and their foul rate is a touch high. While neither of those areas are ones that the Blazers are particularly adept at exploiting, it still presents opportunity.

Jazz 105 – Blazers 95: Frustrating collapse, a step toward the draft

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Utah Jazz 105 Final
Recap | Box Score
95 Portland Trail Blazers
Nicolas Batum, SF40 MIN | 4-6 FG | 6-7 FT | 2 REB | 4 AST | 0 STL | 1 BLK | 4 TO | 17 PTS | -4

Batum was strong scoring the ball tonight, but that was the bulk of his contribution. Nic wasn’t a minus on the defensive end, and showed it especially on a very nice chase down block. However, he was a decent part of the team’s turnover issues tonight and didn’t do much beyond scoring. 

J.J. Hickson, C36 MIN | 8-11 FG | 1-4 FT | 14 REB | 2 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 17 PTS | -17

J.J. played fairly well for himself. He was hitting the midrange jumper and had some nice highlight finishes on alley-oops. Hickson’s defense wasn’t solid, but I’m not certain if Hickson a was huge issue in terms of the total defense. He easily should be considered a plus for the night.

Meyers Leonard, C32 MIN | 5-11 FG | 2-2 FT | 3 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 3 TO | 12 PTS | +10

Leonard played decently. He was eaten alive by Al Jefferson on defense, but honestly, what young center isn’t? With the post moves Jefferson displays, he almost has his way with young big men, and Leonard wasn’t different. It was really encouraging to see Leonard have the confidence in his jumper to take open shots, even if he only went 2-5 outside the paint.

Damian Lillard, PG40 MIN | 7-16 FG | 10-14 FT | 2 REB | 7 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 24 PTS | -15

Lillard wasn’t exactly great from the field, nor was it encouraging to witness his defense on Mo Williams. Lillard was the leader on the offensive end without Aldridge, and his early distribution was certainly a positive.

Wesley Matthews, SG38 MIN | 3-10 FG | 4-4 FT | 5 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 12 PTS | -15

Wes was nearly solid tonight and didn’t stand out for any poor play, which may not be saying much tonight. As for offense, Matthews was good from three but struggled elsewhere.

Joel Freeland, PF14 MIN | 0-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 4 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 0 PTS | -10

Freeland was alright tonight. Getting a third of the team’s offensive rebounds in such limited minutes was more than likely good.

Victor Claver, SF18 MIN | 3-6 FG | 0-1 FT | 4 REB | 1 AST | 1 STL | 2 BLK | 0 TO | 6 PTS | -4

Claver didn’t have his best night tonight. First of all, his three point shot looked atrocious when he took some, and he was playing sub-par defense when he was in. It’s still nice to see him on the floor after his ankle injury.

Eric Maynor, PG21 MIN | 3-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 5 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 7 PTS | +6

Maynor was a nice spark off the bench. His floater is always a joy to watch when he is hitting it, and he was finding baskets for his teammates. Once again, Maynor was far and beyond the best player on the bench.

FIVE THINGS WE SAW

  1. The first thing that has to be noted is Mo Williams’ performance turned around is the second half. Williams started the first half with only two points, but ended up finishing the game with 28 points. Portland’s defense shifted focus to helping Leonard guard Jefferson, freeing up some of the Jazz’s perimeter players.
  2. It was interesting to see Portland’s offense without LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA is obviously a centerpiece to the team and a foundation on the roster, but it was interesting that the offense flowed so well without regular post touches for him.
  3. 16 turnovers in one game was frustrating to watch, and it was definitely a team effort for the Blazers. The only member of the team with decent minutes who didn’t have a turnover was Claver, and after him only Freeland had less than two. The 24 easy points was definitely an influence in Utah’s victory.
  4. I’m sure this is sort of obvious, but the fact that the Jazz scored 62 points in the paint was really hard to watch. It wasn’t just that Millsap-Jefferson-Favors had 60 combined, as the Blazers struggled to rotate on defense after wing players cut to the hoop.
  5. This isn’t in that much doubt anymore, but the Trail Blazers solidified their position in keeping their draft pick. Definitely a shining light in having another lost.

Flex With Us: The Jazz Scouting Report

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If you are a fan of the Utah Jazz, the sky is falling. If you are a fan of the Portland Trail Blazers, look down; the sky is resting by your feet.

Utah and Portland are both currently slotted outside of the Western Conference’s playoff picture, but they arrived there on different trajectories. Weak road play and feeble bench production have kept the Blazers out of the postseason picture for nearly the entire season. The Jazz have seen their fortunes turn after the All-Star break with plenty of close losses that have ultimately led to their ceding of the eighth seed to the Lakers. Over the next four days these two teams will meet twice for a Northwest Division home-and-home.

In a way, the Jazz are the anti-Blazers. Utah’s bench has provided incredibly productive minutes, scoring 39.4 points per game on the season, the 5th best mark in the league. This trend has only gotten stronger of late. In March, the Jazz have the 2nd highest scoring bench at 45.5 points per game with thier starters ranking 29th among opening units, producing just 50.4 points.

Looking at this optimistically, you could say that the Jazz have great reserves who produce in the minutes given to them. A different approach would lead one to ask, “why isn’t Ty Corbin playing these guys more?!” Most of this noise has been made about Utah’s surfeit of big men, which led to much speculation around the trade deadline. However, Ty Corbin’s insistence on misappropriating minutes on the wings and in the backcourt is what really seems baffling. Breaking down line-up data for the season, it becomes apparent that a great many of the most effective units for the Jazz have included guys like Gordon Hayward, DeMarre Carroll, and Alec Burks.

The numbers from 82games.com back this up as well. The following is a chart with how the Jazz are either better or worse when certain guys are on the floor along with their minutes per game.

Player

Net Change

MPG

DeMarre Carroll

+6

17.1

Gordon Hayward

+5.1

28.4

Alec Burks

-2.5

18.0

Marvin Williams

-2.9

24.7

Randy Foye

-4.2

26.8

Jamaal Tinsley

-5.2

19.8

Mo Williams

-7.6

30.7

 

Perhaps Corbin should be reassessing his rotations. Mo Williams is still a very good midrange shooter, but is getting torched on defense, as is Randy Foye. Marvin Williams is shooting 30 percent on corner 3-pointers, a shot he has needed to add to his arsenal for years now. Meanwhile, Gordon Hayward is shooting 41.6 percent overall from 3 while getting to the line at a very good rate (41 free throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts). DeMarre Carroll isn’t quite the shooter Hayward is, but rebounds well from the wing and is finishing at the rim. Burks is the biggest unknown, mostly due to his lack of playing time, but appears to have a good feel for scoring.

After you get past the rotation issues, it becomes apparent that this is a slightly watered down version of Jerry Sloan’s “Foul and Flex” Jazz squads.

Offensively, the Jazz have managed to stay above the league average in efficiency. They do a ton of damage on cuts to the basket where, according to Synergy, they score 1.25 points per possession, the 3rd best mark in the NBA. They also are 6th in offensive rebound rate, so they are creating second shot opportunities. Further, the Jazz cash in on above-the-break 3-pointers, shooting 36.7 percent, a top-5 figure.

Based on their use of the Flex offensive style, the data about cuts makes sense. Flex is predicated on a lot of off-the-ball screening and good passing to find cutters who are creating seams to the basket.

Take this play from Utah’s recent game against the Suns. Gordon Hayward has received the ball up top and swings it to the wing to initiate the offense.

Hayward then clears out to the weak side, seemingly allowing the play to develop on the other side of the floor.

Hayward then makes the “flex” cut over an Enes Kanter screen that allows him to get down the lane while the ball makes its way back to Jamaal Tinsley on the wing.

Tinsley himself had just come off a screen and has the space to work a pass to Hayward who is moving down the lane (virtually unguarded because Jared Dudley tried to get through the screen) where he will eventually finish over Hamed Haddadi.

The Jazz also run a good amount of post-ups from the flex and this is understandable with the big bodies they have in Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter. That power style can be overwhelming for some teams and it will be interesting to see how LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson are able to cope after getting beat up by the stout Reggie Evans in their latest contest.

Defensively, the Jazz are still going to foul. A lot. They are past the days of leading the league in opponent free throw rate by eye-popping margins, but they still give up their fair share of whistles. In fact, Utah’s opponents have taken the 5th most free throw attempts this season. This was always a dubious strategy as free throws are a highly valuable shot to give up and it isn’t working out well this year as the Jazz rank 21st in defensive efficiency.

The bright spot for Utah is Derrick Favors, who has proven to be a defensive force in his own right. Favors is quite mobile for pick-and-rolls, but can be a legitimate rim protector. Watch for how Favors reacts to the constant forays to the rim by Damian Lillard and Eric Maynor’s pull-up floaters in the lane.

The Jazz are now wrapped up in a three-way battle for the last playoff spot with the Mavericks and Lakers. This pair of games with the Blazers and a similar set in April against the Wolves are likely Utah’s most winnable games. A motivated Jazz team could bully their way to two wins by the beginning of next week. If not, Portland may put to rest the waning playoff hopes of the crew from Salt Lake.

Stats courtesy of nba.com, 82games.com, mysynergysports.com, and hoopsstats.com

Brooklyn 111 – Portland 93: The Reggie Evans Show

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If the neon script on the famous White Stag sign above Couch Street reads, “Reggie Evans” after tonight, it would be fair recognition for the dominance that the Brooklyn forward displayed over Portland in a 22-point, 26-rebound performance to lead the Nets to a 111-93 win over the Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. Evans asserted himself from the opening tip, recording 9 points and 10 rebounds in the opening quarter alone as the Nets ran out to a 37-17 lead. Playing in the first game home from a 5-game Eastern swing, the Portland frontcourt lacked the energy and requisite gully-ness to handle Evans’s repeated assaults on the offensive and defensive glass.

Whenever it seemed that Portland might have made a play to halt the run or swing the moment, Brookyn – or more particularly Evans, pounded the Blazers in the painted area for an easy bucket. As the former Iowa Hawkeye first found his points on put-backs and in the slop after offensive rebounds, the Nets soon started posting him and feeding him the ball on the block. In honesty, Evans probably hadn’t seen that many post entries since his days at Woodham High School in Pensacola, Florida. Normally a rugged player himself, J.J. Hickson could not match Evans’s work rate nor could he protect the rim at even the most basic level as Brook Lopez cruised his way to a 28-point night. Even with both Lopez and Evans on the bench to start the 2nd quarter, Andray Blatche, the amnestied former Wizard center best known for owning a shoe in which Gilbert Arenas defecated in, scored the first 7 points of the period on a 3-point play, second-chance dunk, and an Aldridge-esque running right-handed hook.

Aldridge, meanwhile, was the only Blazer who started strong, coupling his usually consistent jumper with some effective spins and drop step moves on the low block to finish with a respectable 24 points on 11 of 14 shooting despite looking periodically hobbled with ankle pain. Midway through the 1st quarter, he came down from a jump shot and landed on the foot of who else but Reginald Jamaal Evans.

Damian Lillard was barely noticeable through the first half of the game and recorded his first points with 10:14 left in the third quarter. He finished with 15 points on 4 of 12 shooting. Deron Williams, who finished with 6 points and 10 assists, uses his size and deceptive quickness as a more than capable defender at the point, but Lillard seemed disinterested and detached for the majority of his 34 minutes. His typical explosions to the rim and creative finishes were not seen on this night and so it’s no surprise that the Blazers offense stagnated for long stretches. Eric Maynor, however, provided some offensive activity, getting into the lane with some consistency and creating some open shots.

In general, the game provided ammunition to almost every possible criticism of the Blazers over the course of the season. Lillard didn’t look like a true point guard. Aldridge scored but looked soft defensively and couldn’t rebound. Hickson looked ill equipped to defend a true center. But then, befitting the surreal sight of Reggie Evans taking over an NBA basketball game, the lone period of excitement for Blazer fans came from the much-maligned Blazers bench. Trailing 95-69 at the beginning of the 4th quarter, Coach Terry Stotts put in the walk-ons. Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver, Joel Freeland, Wil Barton, and even rarely seen bench unicorns Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith, all got minutes in the last quarter as the Blazers began cutting into the Brooklyn lead. It’s worth noting that Jared Jeffries did not play and still hasn’t seen time since his folly in New Orleans that cost the Blazers a win and drew a rarely seen level of ire from Stotts.

Playing a newly energized half court defense, the Blazers started getting stops on one end and chipping away at the lead on the other end. With just less than 7 minutes to go, Leonard, who looked to be sporting the early stages of a shiner under one eye, gritted his way for an old fashioned three-point play to cut the lead to 17. Then after another stop, Luke Babbitt drilled a corner three to cut the lead to 14. After yet another stop, Wil Barton had a great look at a 3 to cut it to 11 with just over 5 minutes but it clanged off the rim. P.J. Carlesimo reinserted his starters and on came the bearded rebounding monster, Reggie Evans, who promptly snagged an offensive board, got fouled, and hit one of two free throws to end the Blazer run, and thus seal the game. Lest anyone forget, he is Reggie Evans and he is to be feared.

Preview: Nets at Blazers (featuring a podcast!)

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Portland returns to the Rose Garden tonight, after a five game East Coast road trip, where they will host the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets are on the fifth game of an eight game road trip. So far they have beaten the Pistons, Mavericks and Suns, and have lost to the Clippers.

The Blazers will try to avoid a second loss to the Nets this season. The Blazers fell 98-85 to the Nets on November 25th in Brooklyn. In the last meeting between the teams, Portland was outrebounded 48-34, which contributed to their struggles against the Nets frontline and All-Star Brook Lopez.

LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland’s all-star, did not attend practice yesterday due to flu-like symptoms. If Aldridge is indeed unable to play, the Blazers will likely turn to rookie Meyers Leonard and veteran Jared Jeffries to pick up the slack. Jeffries has not played since March 10th against the Hornets.

Despite their recent road struggles, the Blazers remain only two and half games out of 8th place in the Western Conference. With every remaining game this season against a team with a better record, the Blazers will be hard pressed to make up ground. However, they only play four more road games this season and have shown they are capable of playing at a higher level against superior competition. Brooklyn, on the other hand, has clinched a playoff spot and hopes to maintain their position as the 4 seed in the East and secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

UPDATE: Joe Johnson is out tonight for the Nets.

For a bit more on the match-up, check out the Brooklyn’s Finest podcast with PRS’ own Danny Nowell.

On Barton

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I’ve found equal parts fun and frustration in my efforts to pin some sort of an identity to this year’s Blazers team. Necessarily, as a team in transition, their character from the fan’s perspective is in development. And yet, as something like a coherent identity emerges, it is a pretty workmanlike one, and suspicious of excitement. On the court, the Blazers have sometimes looked like misguided insurgents refusing to accept the limitations of their arsenal, but off the court, they’re mostly a staid and steady group. They take after the personalities of Wes Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Damian Lillard—good and, after some time spent observing them, likeable players, but stoics all as far as the media goes. This approach has its own rewards for observers, but I mean to say that the team is mostly composed not only of professionals but self-conscious professionals, players who pursue a certain ideal of stability and focus.

Not so Will Barton. On a team of yeomen—and I stress again, that there is something to appreciate in the locker room of stiff upper lips—Barton is a vibrant and open presence. It is rare that he is not smiling, and his smile is not shy; you can almost always see his Adam’s apple, and his head is usually craned back, and he is usually joking with Elliott Williams. Perhaps as a function of his youth, almost certainly as a function of his relative lack of prominence this year, and hopefully as a consequence of his being just plain sociable, Will is one of the two or three easiest players to talk to in the locker room.

My favorite interaction with him was after the Clippers came to play in the Rose Garden. During the game, Blake Griffin unleashed the sort of hellacious dunk he has made mundane. There was a buzz in the Rose Garden, but the dunk came in transition—it wasn’t on anybody, and the game wasn’t extremely close, so time didn’t exactly stop for a lot of flexing and gaping. After the game, Will still couldn’t get over it. “Bruh,” he said, “that was the best dunk I have ever seen.” I pressed him. The best ever? I listed a few. He clarified that it was the best dunk he’d ever been present for. For a good two or three minutes, he described the hangtime, the distance Griffin covered. It was matter-of-fact adoration, untroubled by any presumption of competitive propriety.

Will Barton makes $550,000 this season.

On the court, his play matches his demeanor. He is almost charmingly single-minded in his pursuit of shots. It seems to me that his recklessness is often rewarded. In the second half of the season, he has developed what I suppose is a concerning habit of driving toward the hoop along the baseline, but picking up his dribble with his lead foot over-extended. It’s a classically compromised position. The defender straightens up, closes in, narrows his space. Barton is trapped. He pivots, he fails to see the swing pass. He shoots a fadeaway. It drops.

I am given to understand that Barton’s on/off numbers are terrible this year. I haven’t looked, and I don’t think he’s at the level yet where his success is about the brutal calculus of efficiency. Eventually, it should be, but when Will is in the game fans measure his successes and failure on a possession-by-possession basis. A bad shot goes in, a gamble on defense rewards the other team an opportunity in transition, he runs up and down a few times, he checks out. His last game, a twenty point loss, he played just under seven minutes and finished 1 for 1 from the field. On/off and plus/minus can wait.

I don’t have any idea how he’s going to develop. It’s easy for me to see both sides—on the one hand, his instincts are one-dimensional, and he has by no stretch proven himself what you would call reliable on either end of the court. That said, his athleticism and preternatural ability for getting points have sustained plenty of players throughout the years, and who’s to say he can’t improve his deficiencies? I truthfully don’t know how he’ll turn out.

What I do know is that he’s the kind of player the Blazers otherwise lack. The perimeter scorers, for their many strengths, are not explosive “slashers” or “leapers” or whatever your chosen word is for the players whose existence seem to revolve around taking their defender off the dribble and bounding at the rim. I’m not even arguing that such a player is a necessity, just that Barton is one of these, and the other Blazers aren’t.

And that’s the space that Will Barton occupies. On and off-court, he is marked by an unstructured ebullience that singles him out as unique. Some of it, yes, is just his youth, but remember that there are four rookies on this team, and the rest of them follow or aspire to Lillard’s model of premature equipoise. And I’ll say again: that’s great, and from the perspective of many fans and team employees, perhaps the best of all possible worlds. But Will has a chance to give the team something they don’t have, and in the doldrums of a season that is quickly losing meaning for its own sake, I hope we learn just how much of it he can give.

 

Blazers’ Plays of the Week

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Welcome to Plays of the Week, where every Wednesday we’ll take a look Blazers’ sets from the past 7 days that caught our eye. If you see a play call or a trend that intrigues you, hit us up on twitter or leave a message in the comments section below.

Damian Lillard Drag Screen

We’ve seen this action a lot recently from the Blazers and it’s had a number of benefits. Firstly, it alleviates some of the ball pressure that Damian Lillard has seen. In last Monday’s loss to the Sixers we saw Jrue Holliday picking up Lillard almost at half court. The early screen allows Lillard to keep his momentum and operate in what is basically a transition opportunity. Another benefit is that the big man defending the screen is usually in terrible position, allowing Lillard to attack or set up his teammates as the defense scrambles.

In the first clip, notice how high Aldridge sets the screen, and how Spencer Hawes is in no position to defend it as he is already on his heels as Lillard attacks the basket. 

The second clip shows the same action, but starting slightly lower—just above the three point line. Again, the big man defending the play is in no position to help with either the ball handler or the roll man, and it results in a decent look for LaMarcus. 

This action has become a staple of Portland’s offence and has been quite effective so far. Keep an eye on how teams defend this going forward, at this point it looks to be catching teams by surprise. 

Pick and Roll Options

In Friday night’s win against Atlanta, the Hawks did a great job of hitting the roll man from different areas on the floor. Portland runs a ton of pick and roll and late in the game they took a page out of the Hawks’ book: 

The Blazers have at least three capable ballhandlers/passers (Batum, Lillard, Maynor), so if this action is something that we’re going to see regularly, we certainly have the personnel to run it. 

 The Versatility of Nic Batum

 Batum’s emergence as an effective passer and pick and roll ballhandler has given Terry Stotts a number of new options on how to deploy the versatile wing. Batum also effectively straddles the line between aggression and setting up his teammates, and more often than not makes good reads.

Here are three plays from the past week that showcase Nic as a passer, as a pick and roll ballhandler, and as the primary scoring option: 

The action here is simple enough, Nic flares off a LaMarcus screen and, without taking a dribble, makes the correct read delivering the ball to a wide open LA for a good look. 

From Sunday night’s loss in OKC, Nic is the inbounder and the primary scoring option. As soon as he throws the ball in he comes off the screen hard and is ready to shoot. Also, any play that features a big man setting multiple screens will always be a favorite.

The last clip is a beautifully designed sideline out of bounds play from late in the Sixers game. Batum is tasked with the ballhandling duties and makes the correct read in finding Wes Matthews for a good look at a three.

Credit Philadelphia’s defence on this play, they did a great job of defending the screen, picking up the roll man and staying with the corner shooters. There was one man open on the play and Batum found him. 

DEBATE! Are the Blazers locked into mediocrity?

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(Note: New PRS contributor Jeremy Conlin approached me about doing a post examining whether the Blazers had committed themselves to a core that will linger between the haves and have-nots of the NBA for several more years. As you’ll see below, I had very strong feelings, so we agreed to settle this like old fashioned gentleman scholars: by debate. What follows is long, yes, but proves a worthy inquisition into the very fabric of basketball philosophy. Enjoy.—Danny)

Jeremy Conlin: The 2009 Blazers had everyting figured out. 

They led the league in offensive efficiency, pouring in 113.9 points per 100 possessions, piloted by all-world shooting guard Brandon Roy, who posted a PER competitive with Kobe Bryant that season. Roy was joined by forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a budding star, as well as two-headed center monster Groel Odezybilla, who combined for 14 points, 15 rebounds, and 59% shooting from the floor. They were upset in the first round of the playoffs by Houston, but everything was looking up – Roy, Aldridge, Oden, and hot prospect Nic Batum were all 24 or younger. By all accounts they were the team of the future in the Western Conference.

But alas.

Greg Oden injured his knee (again) the following season. He hasn’t stepped onto a court since. Roy’s knees also took a turn for the worse in 2010 – three years later he runs like he’s 82, not 28. Aldridge continued to develop, but the team fell apart around him over the next few years, even as the front office scrambled to re-tool. They eventually decided to cut the cord and dealt Gerald Wallace for a lottery pick and all but gave up on the season. You can’t quite say they “tanked,” but let’s just say that Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet were prominently involved. 

So the Blazers hit the re-set button. They parlayed their two lottery picks into point guard Damian Lillard and center Meyers Leonard (who fill what were two positions of extreme need for Portland). They re-upped with Nic Batum on a long-term deal, which locks up their entire core through 2015. 

But here’s the question: if this is their core through 2015, where is it taking them? 

Championship teams are built around transcendent superstars. The ones that aren’t are built around transcendent defenses (2004 Pistons), a lesser superstar in a diluted league (1978 Bullets, 1979 Sonics), or overwhelming depth of talent (1989, 1990 Pistons). 

Which one of those models to the Blazers fit? They don’t seem to have a transcendent superstar in the making – Lillard is a rookie but he’s already 22 years old – he doesn’t have the upside that guys like Kyrie Irving or Derrick Rose did as rookies. It’s highly doubtful that the frontcourt of Leonard and Aldridge will anchor a 2004 Pistons-level defense, and while it’s futile to try to project a roster three years in the future, the odds are against the Blazers turning a league-worst bench in 2013 into a championship-level bench by 2015. 

The Blazers are clearly building for the future, but are we certain that the future they’re building towards is worth that effort? Are they building towards a glass ceiling that’s lower than championship-level?

Danny Nowell: I hopped into this post idea of yours not because I disagree with your premise—that the Blazers aren’t built around a transcendent superstar, and that a championship with this core is unlikely—but because I can’t fault the Blazers for that fact. You point out that in 2009, this team was poised to compete for several years, stacked not merely with talent but with complementary talent, perhaps the hardest thing to find for a developing roster. Of course we know how that went, and the Blazers current situation is comparatively lamentable. But I think that criticizing them for this is difficult; no they don’t have a “transcendent superstar,” but neither do about 26 other teams. In a town that has a long history of striking out on free agent acquisitions, the Blazers have drafted a likely Rookie of the Year, groomed LaMarcus Aldridge into a two-time All-Star, and in hiring Terry Stotts changed Nic Batum from a premium floor-spacer into a hybrid distributor/shooter. So I think my question is, and it’s not rhetorically, what realistic opportunities have the Blazers missed out on?

This gets into a recent hobby horse of mine and something that I don’t think most fans like talking about. In the past 30 years, 9 teams have won championships. I don’t know whether that sounds bad to most people, but 3 teams have 18 of those titles and 5 have 24. Championships don’t really move around in this league. The only franchises to win a title in the past 30 years that don’t have at least one more are the 76ers in 1983 and the Mavericks  in 2011. Otherwise, the Spurs, Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, and Lakers win and a few other good teams get lucky every now and again. Ergo, I think fans would be better served taking a healthier outlook on championships. Not only do you have to amass a “championship” caliber core, but you have to outlast whichever team probably already has one. Put it this way: It’s an open question whether the Thunder will be able to break through for a ring. I think it’s likely, but right now one team in the league has what looks to be the recipe for success: a stable, winning roster with a talent no other team can match. That team is the Heat. Even Kevin Durant can’t count anything as inevitable, because that’s not how it goes in the NBA. 

JC: But Danny, don’t you think it’s a bit irresponsible to lock yourself into a ceiling which, at least for right now, appears to be below “championship contender”? You mention Oklahoma City, and while you’re absolutely right to say that the Thunder winning a title is far from an inevitability, they’ve at least put themselves in a position where a title is within reach. They made the Finals last year, and are probably the favorites to represent the West again this year – who’s to say with a few bounces of the ball their way (or a poorly-timed injury to an opposing roster) they couldn’t be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come mid-June? 

My basic philosophy is this – every team should have the goal of being a championship contending team at some point over the next five years. For teams like Miami and Oklahoma City and San Antonio, this is manifesting itself already. For teams like Houston and Cleveland and New Orleans, they have franchise-altering stars that are more likely than not to develop into the transcendent superstar that can lead a team to championship contention. For teams like Charlotte and Orlando, they’re in the process of bottoming out to hopefully secure that type of player in the draft. 

For teams like Portland, I’m not sure how they fit into that equation. Even if we look at the best-case scenario for this roster, are they going to be better than San Antonio, Oklahoma City, or the Clippers at any point in the next three years? What about Oklahoma City, the Clippers, Memphis, or Houston at any point over the next five? And that’s before we even get to teams like the Lakers (who always seem to be able to re-tool), Minnesota (if they can ever get and stay healthy), and Golden State and New Orleans (who seem to be built for long-term success, even if we aren’t quite seeing it now). 

It’s the Five Percent theory – if you have a five percent chance at winning a title, you should pull out all the stops and move heaven and Earth to try to make that happen. The problem is, I’m not sure Portland will even have that five percent chance with this roster as presently constructed. They seem to be setting themselves up as the perennial also-ran – the team that can advance to Round 2 if everything goes right, as opposed to the team that can play for a title if everything goes right.

DN: If I could find a single thing “irresponsible” about what Portland is doing, I might agree with you. Let’s stay with OKC, since theirs is the model after which the “blow it up or compete” gospel is constructed. You write that they “put themselves in a position where a title is within reach;” the single largest thing they did toward this end was to draft after the Blazers. They took Kevin Durant. Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo were taken before Russell Westbrook in 2008; Kevin Love was taken after. You can bottom out and time and again and end up the Kings, or bottom out once and get lucky like the Spurs, or never really bottom out and get lucky like the Bulls did with Derrick Rose. You can’t fault the Blazers for getting unlucky with their own efforts to acquire a superstar—by all rights, they had two, and haven’t blown anything since.

Damian Lillard is on a rookie deal. Nic Batum makes a lot of money, but because it was a matched offersheet the Blazers signed him to, we know he plays at market value.  LaMarcus Aldridge makes 13 million dollars right now—or, $3.5m less than Zach Randolph, and less than Eric Gordon makes. Exactly what is your prescription here for this “irresponsibility?” Trade all these guys and start drafting? Sacramento, Charlotte, Toronto, and lately Detroit, New Orleans, and Phoenix would probably like to discuss just how much control you can have over that process. 

20,000 people go to the Rose Garden most nights. To be safe, let’s call it 17,500. The Pacers, a better team than the Blazers, would likely consider serious malfeasance for the Blazers’ levels of attendance and fan devotion. This is a playoff core, to be sure, that is not at all overpaid. The one player on the team who might be considered a “mistake” player would be J.J. Hickson, if his production at the end of last year had hornswoggled management into paying him a lot. They didn’t—he makes $4 million this year. I can’t get my head around why a team in a devoted town would tear itself down to the studs to put itself in the same position it was five years ago: losing to maybe get a draft pick for an incredibly talented player who might stay healthy. 

JC: You’re right, teams don’t have total control over the draft process, but for the overwhelming majority of teams, it’s the only way to acquire a sure-fire superstar. It’s an incredibly tough pill to swallow, but I think it’s generally the smart move to make. The teams that wallow in the lottery for years on end are the teams that either (a) completely screw up their draft picks, or (b) are incapable of developing those players once they get them on the roster. Portland has never fallen into either one of those groups. Yes, they took Greg Oden over Durant, but there are 25 other teams around the league that would have made that same “mistake,” and it’s not like there’s a slew of recent players who have gone on to great things after leaving the Pacific Northwest. 

It ultimately comes down to what your goals are as a small-market team (and perhaps “irresponsible” was the wrong choice of words). If your goal is to win as much as you can while staying fiscally responsible and ensuring that your fans remain supportive, then Portland is certainly doing so. But if your singular goal is to win a title within a reasonable time frame, in most cases, you have to get worse before you get better. Portland did get worse, and swindling the Nets out of a lottery pick certainly helped, but it seems to have left them in no-man’s land. Not bad enough to secure another star player in the draft, but not good enough to contend for a title, and not much flexibility to dramatically improve the roster through other means.

DN: Tracy McGrady, Chris Webber, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Penny Hardaway, Yao Ming and a host of other players are tank-worthy talents. None of them succeeded in getting their team past the point this Blazer team could reasonably hope for. However, some teams have tinkered their way to titles and taken advantage of off years. The Mavericks, for example. I’m not saying the Suns need to ride the Goran Dragic era to glory, but I’m saying that a team with legitimate hopes of making the playoffs in the short-term is doing its job. “No man’s land” perhaps, but if that’s the case, history suggests that almost all of the league has always been in no man’s land. 

JC: That’s why there’s a combination of luck and skill involved. You need some luck to land a high draft pick, and then from there you need to nail a few other picks or be judicious with your available cap space. There are guys like Serge Ibaka, Kenneth Faried, Ryan Anderson and Portland’s own Nicolas Batum who have been impact players for teams drafting late in the first round. There are teams like Houston and San Antonio and Denver who manage their cap at expert levels that border on wizardry. 

There’s always going to be luck involved, but the way I see it, I’d rather roll the dice on a big gamble – bottoming out for the highest draft pick possible, or putting together a blockbuster trade package for a superstar already in the league – than roll a bunch of dice on a series of smaller gambles, trying to piece together a contender by improving 2% here, 5% there. As the saying goes, go big or go home.

Picked Apart

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If you watched the Blazers last weekend, you probably noticed two things:

1.      The Blazers’ home, white “Rip City” jerseys are the cleanest in the league.

2.      The Blazers are hopeless guarding the pick-and-roll.

I’ve written about the general defensive schemes and breakdowns of the Blazers, and while I don’t want to be redundant, some the Blazers’ defensive woes persist to an extent that the team can’t make up the difference. 

In last Thursday night’s TNT broadcast, the Knicks exploited Portland’s weakness as a way to cope with not having Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and Amare Stoudemire. The geriatric clinic of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, and Kenyon Martin were able to get easy rolls to the rim all throughout the first half. In fact, the Knicks ran 31 total plays in the game that were classified as pick-and-rolls on Synergy and these yielded an insane 1.15 points per possession.

It was the same story against Detroit on Saturday as the somewhat more youthful backcourt of Jose Calderon and Will Bynum found the likes of Jason Maxiell crashing to the hoop for easy buckets when they weren’t laying the ball in themselves. 

So just as any good coach would, Terry Stotts decided to change the game plan. In the second quarter against the Pistons, he started having his bigs more aggressively double the pick and roll. This worked well to foil the next few possessions as the Detroit guards were caught, well, off guard.

However, the whole “equal and opposite reaction” thing came from Pistons’ interim head coach Brian Hill. Hill called for a beautiful misdirection in the pick and roll in order to get an easy bucket before the trap could fully be enacted.

Detroit starts in the one-four flat before Jason Maxiell makes a hard charge towards the top of the key as if to set a screen.

Knowing that the game plan is now to try to hard trap the ball-handler, J.J. Hickson essentially beats Maxiell to the screening spot. 

Maxiell knows the drill as well and as soon as Hickson gets a little too far with his momentum carrying him forward, Max crashes hard down an empty lane.

Will Bynum rockets a pass right over Damian Lillard’s head to Maxiell who layed it in (somewhere Clyde Drexler was saying, “dunk that, big man”). 

There are two main problems with what happened in the play above. Hard-trapping a pick and roll isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but on this play Lillard and Hickson are doing it at the top of the key where there is still plenty of space for Bynum to operate. On the wing or in the corner, the hard trap would have been more disruptive. Secondly, Maxiell goes untouched down the lane. On pick-and-rolls or even a simple slip screen like this, a help defender has to try to rotate and bump the roll man in order to impede his progress. Maxiell hasn’t been this open since…I mean it’s Jason Maxiell, so plenty of other times, but you get what I mean. 

The overall numbers are ugly too. Portland gives up 1.08 points per possession on plays that Synergy classifies as pick-and-rolls with the roll man finishing. This ranks 29th in the league and is well above the 1.02 points per possession that the average NBA team scores on a given trip. 

This is a pick-and-roll league. Every team will run sets from that playbook no matter what else their base offense may hold. Teams will continue to rake the Blazers over the coals PnR-style until someone gives them a reason not to. Portland needs to find a consistent, effective defensive concept for this or else they won’t be competing for much of anything going forward. 

All stats courtesy mysynergysports.com