Nicolas Batum

Blazers’ Corner: Portland’s Late Season Struggles Seem Familiar

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What it is with the Blazers and the second-half to seasons?  Since the beginning of February, Portland is the only Western-Conference playoff team with a losing record at 13-14.  More recently, they’ve three of four and seven of ten.  Their star player, LaMarcus Aldridge, has been out the majority of this rough stretch, but if you’ve followed the team for a while, you know that All-Star player or not, this team always struggles to close regular seasons.

1999-20 Season

Ah yes, the last great Portland team.  Despite ultimately getting to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Lakers in game 7 (I apologize for bringing this up), Portland did not enter the playoffs on a particularly high note.

 

Portland Trail Blazers
Portland lost to the Lakers three straight years in the playoffs in the early 2000s. | (nba.com)

If you recall  on Leap Year Day in 2000, Portland and the Lakers played at the Rose Garden with matching 45-11 records and 11-game winning streaks.  Anyone who followed the league knew these were the best two teams in the NBA and when they inevitably met in the conference finals, the winner would go on to win the championship.

They eventually lost a 90-87 heartbreaker and the tailspin began.  They would go 14-12 the rest of the way and while it didn’t prevent them from reaching the conference finals (they easily dispatched the T-Wolves and Jazz going 7-2 in both series), they did not have home-court when they played Los Angeles which may or may not have played a factor in that series (they lost two home games and won two road games in that series anyway).

2000-01 Season

The very next season, the team was rolling again.  Following a drubbing of the Golden State Warriors on March 3, the team stood at 42-18.  Things were going so well, they decided to bring more depth to the team by adding an aging Rod Strickland.  As it turned out, he was not the final piece to the puzzle.

A five-game losing streak followed, including two losses to the lowly Vancouver Grizzlies, Shawn Kemp got busted for drugs and left the team and the Blazers went 8-14 the rest of the way.

Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells - sikids.com
Portland was often frustrated late in seasons. | (sikids.com)

Despite finishing with 50 wins, Portland’s limp into the playoffs managed to get them the 7th seed and another matchup with the Lakers.  There was no exciting, long series this time around as the Blazers were swept by the eventual champs in three blow-out losses.  Oh, and they fired head coach Mike Dunleavy after the season.  The same guy who won Coach of the Year with the team two years earlier.

2001-02 Season

From mid-February to mid-March, the Blazers were actually playing really well.  At the All-Star break, the Blazers were an average team at 25-23.  But then they reeled off 18 wins in 22 games and were riding high at 44-27.

They then preceded to go 4-6 in the last ten games, finish as the 6th seed and once again got swept 3-0 by the eventual Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.  It’s a smaller sample size, but it’s still noteworthy.

2002-03 Season 

Another strong start and an average finish.  After winning 7 of 9, the Blazers sat at 39-20 on March 2 and possibly had one more deep playoff run in them with aging stars like Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis.  But once again, the team struggled heading into the post season.

Portland went 11-12 to finish the regular season, met Dallas in the first round as a 7th seed and after being down 3-0 in the series, the Blazers rallied and took the Mavericks to a game 7 in Dallas (the first team in NBA history to force a game 7 after being down 3-0).

But the team would run out of gas in the fourth quarter of the deciding game and eventually lose 107-95.  That was a competitive team with Zach Randolph coming into his own and Bonzi Wells playing the best basketball of his career (remember his 45 points in game 2?).

If only they had had that fire in the last quarter of the season?  They could have gotten home-court advantage and played Dallas four times in the Rose Garden.

2007-08 Season

This team brings back fond memories.  Expected to still be in rebuilding mode, the 07-08 team looked like it was headed there after a 5-12 start.  But then Portland did the unthinkable and won 13 consecutive games and 19 of 21.  On January 14, they were a solid 23-14 behind strong play from a couple of young studs (Brandon Roy and Aldridge), the Vanilla Guerilla Joel Przybilla and the irrationally clutch Travis Outlaw.

Travis Outlaw - wallcoo.net
Travis Outlaw was Mr. Clutch with the Blazers. | (wallcoo.net)

The honeymoon would not last however as the young pups would go 18-27 the rest of the way.  But it was fun while it lasted.

Recent History  

The following two seasons ended with a thud.  The 2011-12 team had expectations going into the season with Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace and newly acquired Jamal Crawford and Raymon Felton as well as rumors of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden’s return.

Yeah… about that.  Felton came in to training camp out of shape, Crawford went from being a streaky shooter to just plain awful, Camby got old overnight, Roy and Oden never played for Portland again and coach Nate McMillan was eventually fired.  The 66-game lockout season is not a fond memory.

And that brings us to last season.  Everyone remembers the 13-game losing streak to end the season, but do you remember that team was 20-15 at one point after beating the Miami Heat at home?  That doesn’t sound like an impressive record, but last year’s team essentially had five players worth a damn.

Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns, Game 2
The last two months have been frustrating. | (Getty Images)

It’s because of this that the starters played too many minutes, broke down and the team went 13-34 (yikes?) the rest of the way.  After the win against the Heat, Portland lost six straight games where the margin of defeat was never greater than six.  This gut-wrenching stretch doomed them the rest of the way.

So as you can see, Portland apparently believes in the adage; it’s not how you finish, but how you start.  This season has followed the same formula and unless the Blazers right the ship quickly, they’re in danger of joining a long list of teams that had unmemorable playoff runs.

 

 

 

 

 

Blazers’ Corner: EDN Goes to the Portland Vs. Milwaukee Game

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This week’s Blazers’ Corner is a little different.  Unlike every other column where I watch the team from the comfort of my living-room couch in Springfield, Tuesday brought me a little closer to the Blazers as EDN was granted press credentials to the game between Portland and the Milwaukee Bucks.

But instead of doing a simple recap (everyone does one of those), I thought I’d share my experience at the game as well as provide some analysis on the game itself.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-115
Nicolas Batum scored 19 of his 21 points in the first half. | (Photo: Craig Strobeck) 

My partner in crime for this trip was photographer extraordinaire Craig Strobeck.  We left Springfield at 3:30 and traveled up north in Craig’s Lincoln town car in hopes of beating the 5:00 traffic in Portland.  We did for the most part.

After leaving the car at the first paid parking lot we could find, we made our way down to the Rose Quarter and attempted to find the media entrance which was an adventure in and of itself.  The traffic guy with the funny accent didn’t know.  Neither did the two fellas siting in a Fox Sports media car (you’d think they would know).  Eventually we were escorted by a gentleman in a fancy suit to the elevator that took us down to the loading dock.

Around 6:00 we finally settled in to the media center after obtaining our press passes.  We stored our gear and enjoyed a nice free buffet.  I had the salad, broccoli and some sort of pasta.  Any meal that’s free is a good meal in my book.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-115
Robin Lopez recorded 15 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks in the victory over Milwaukee. | (Photo: Craig Strobeck) 

We then got a lay of the land out on the court.  Craig found his designated spot on the hardwood floor where he would spend the next three hours.  I then preceded to walk to the different press tables to find where I would be sitting for the game.  Along the way I sheepishly walked through the camera section where Todd Bosma, Director of Game Operations & Events, put me in my place by saying, “Get low, we’re shooting right now.”  Rookie mistake on my part.

After foolishly thinking I would be sitting with the big boys (The Oregonian, Associated Press, etc..), I quickly discovered that I would be sitting at the kid’s table on this night amongst other smaller publications like Blazer’s Edge and Willamette Weekly in the upper section.  I could care less.

As for the game, the Trail Blazers as usual provided fans with another heart-pounding, stress-induced performance against the lowly Milwaukee Bucks.  If not for Nicolas Batum’s hot start (16 points in the first quarter), the Blazers would have found themselves in a bigger hole after the first quarter.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-115
Wesley Matthews took advantage of small defenders by posting up and getting to the foul line in the second half. | (Photo: Craig Strobeck)

The second period was decidedly better as the Blazers outscored the Bucks by eight points.  Mo Williams was the catalyst in the period scoring 10 points including two 3-pointers.

Through three quarters, Damian Lillard was having perhaps his worst game of the season.  In fact, he had more turnovers (5) than field goals made (2) and yet the team maintained a three point lead heading into the fourth quarter (you can do that when you play the Bucks).

The fourth quarter and overtime belonged to the Portland backcourt.  Lillard emerged from the slump he was in and scored 15 points including the game-tying layup that eventually sent the game into overtime.

Wesley Matthews also poured in 15 points in the final 17 minutes and he mixed outside shooting (two 3-pointers) with post-up plays which led to a five-for-five night at the foul line in crunch time.  The capper on the Blazer win was a Matthews steal which he then turned into a behind-the-back pass to Lillard for the dunk.  The crowd that was left (people actually starting leaving at the end of regulation) erupted.  The Blazers defeated the Bucks 120-115.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-115
Damian Lillard realized the shot wasn’t falling so he attacked the basket more in the second half. | (Photo: Craig Colbert)   

At the press conference following the game, Terry Stotts walked up to the podium looking like he had just ate some bad fish.  Had to have been the most demoralizing victory of the season for coach.

“I’m glad I’m standing here after a win instead of a loss,” said Stotts.  “We didn’t come out with the urgency that we needed. … I hope we understand that we were very fortunate to win the game tonight.”

The mood in the locker room wasn’t exactly jovial.  Lillard was just happy to escape with a win.

“If we would have lost that game everybody in here would have been sick,” said Lillard.

Matthews reiterated that sentiment.  “[The Bucks] should have put us away.  We should have been in the locker room pissed off.  But they didn’t.”

Batum summed it up best.  “That was a weird game.  I don’t want to talk about it. … I want to forget that game.”

I met Craig back in the media center and found a bag of popcorn to eat on the way home.  Exiting the loading dock, a crowd of Blazers fans were excited to see Matthews approaching them for a few autographs.  It’s always a lot easier to please the fans after a win.

The Blazers will play Washington on Thursday night before embarking on another five-game road trip.

Random Game Notes:

The two teams combined for 39 points in overtime which has to be some kind of record.

Batum finished one rebound and one assist shy of a triple-double.

Good Meyers Leonard:  His outlet passes after rebounds.

Bad Meyers Leonard:  Missed dunk, total lack of inside presence, inability to block any shot whatsoever, the camouflage pants he was wearing after the game, etc..

Portland’s 20-4 record (83.3 percent) against the Eastern Conference is the best mark of any West team against the East this season.  And yet they still lost to Philadelphia at home.

Lillard is the first NBA player with at least 3,000 points and 900 assists in his first 150 career games since some guy named Lebron James.

Portland is 22-5 when Mo Williams scores in double figures.

Robin Lopez recorded his 26th double-double of the season.  He had 15 for his career entering the season.

Blazers’ Corner: Defense Still a Concern, Batum Unhappy About Triple-Double, Williams Mistaken for Children’s Author

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Defense Still an Issue for Trail Blazers

Well we’re four games into the NBA season and the Blazers stand at a very respectable 2-2.  Following a demoralizing performance in the season opener at Phoenix, the Blazers bounced back with impressive victories over the Denver Nuggets (In Denver no less, a place they never win) and the defending Western-Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs.  They followed up those wins with a loss against the much-improved Houston Rockets on Tuesday night.

Before the season began; the coaches, players and management were all preaching defense as the area they were most focused on improving from a year ago.  Through four games however, there hasn’t been much progress made on that end of the floor.

The Blazers' Big Three - Sam Forencich:Getty Images
Defense is still a priority for the Blazers. | (Sam Forencich/Getty Images)

The team has given up an average of 52 points in the paint through four games and that is good for second worst in the entire league.  With the exception of the Denver game, Portland is giving up 51 percent shooting in the other three games and that’s primarily due to the poor interior defense.  The fact that they’re 2-1 in those games speaks to how well the offense has performed so far this season.

But if the Trail Blazers want to win games, they can’t trade baskets.  Eventually they’ll have to consistently make stops.  The alarming thing to think about is that the majority of points they are giving up have been in the half-court.  Other than the Phoenix game, Portland has done a pretty good job against fast-break points so the biggest weakness has been defending the paint in a set defense.

To be fair, they have had to deal with a number of talented guards including the suddenly dynamic duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Ty Lawson, Tony Parker, James Harden and Jeremy Lin in their four games.  So is the early-season struggles in the paint due to poor play or because of great opposition?  It’s too early to tell, but at least so far, defense continues to be the biggest crux of this team.

Nicolas Batum Records Triple-Double in Strange Way

NBA players would be lying if they said they don’t pay attention to their stats.  Basketball, like baseball, is a stats-driven league and players are always aware of scoring milestones, double-doubles and FG percentages.

Another statistical feat is the triple-double where a player records at least 10 in three different categories.  It’s a sign that a player excelled in multiple areas of a particular game.  Blazers’ forward Nicolas Batum achieved the triple-double twice last season and in the waning moments of the team’s game against San Antonio, he was two points shy of recording another one.

But with the team up seven with only a few seconds left, it wasn’t necessary, or honorable, to score another basket.  It’s one of those unwritten rules that a player doesn’t try to pad his stats when the game is basically over.

Nicolas Batum (Getty Images)
Nicolas Batum | (Getty Images)

 

And yet when Damian Lillard received the inbound pass, he tossed the ball to Batum who dribbled past half-court and harmlessly threw up a long 3-point shot that went in.  As soon as it happened, Batum looked like a dejected child after being told there was no Santa Claus.  Tim Duncan had his hands in the air with a face that read, “what are you doing?”

Batum knew what he had done was wrong and after the game he said as much.  To their credit, the Spurs didn’t seem too upset about it.

“Why would I be mad at that?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.  “He’s a good kid.  I don’t care.”

It was certainly an awkward and bizarre end to the Blazers’ win and what Batum did was probably wrong, but he was at least contrite about it.  We’ve seen much more selfish stat-whores in the past (see Ricky Davis and Andray Blatche).  But at the end of the day it’s still a triple-double whether Batum wants it or not.

Mo Williams Mistaken for Children’s Author

JJ Abrams is one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood right now.  Having directed the two most recent Star Trek films and now in charge of Star Wars returning to the big screen, it’s safe to say he’s one of the most influential names in the entertainment business.

Eager to work with as many creative people as possible, Abrams recently attempted to contact children’s author Mo Willems to not only compliment him on his work after Abrams’ son had made him aware of the author, but to also create a business relationship that might lead to a collaboration at some point down the road.

After getting on the phone with the person he thought was Willems, Abrams was understandably confused following the conversation.

Mo Williams - AP Photo:Rick Bowmer
Mo Williams | (AP Photo: Rick Bowmer)

“He was quiet on the phone, almost monosyllabic, disinterested.  Frankly it was a bit of an odd reaction.  It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that I had, in error, called Mo Williams of the Portland Trail Blazers.”

Why didn’t Williams simply tell Abrams that he didn’t write any children’s books during their conversation?  Because Williams coincidentally has had aspirations about writing children’s books himself and they had communicated before the phone conversation via email about the subject.

It wasn’t until the story was published that Williams found out he was talking with a major Hollywood director.  Now Williams feels like he has an “in” in the business if he wants to try acting some day.

“I think I’m going to reach out to him.  JJ Abrams, let’s get together man.  Let’s communicate, have a lunch, have a dinner, whatever.  Maybe I could become a movie star.”

Mo Williams: basketball player, future children’s author and movie star?  One thing at a time Mo.

 

Blazers Crushed 104-93 in Season Opener Against Suns

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After an incredibly exciting offseason, or so we thought, for the Portland Trail Blazers (0-1) a 104-93 opening night loss to the Phoenix Suns (1-0) has fans and analysts alike scratching their respective heads.

“œThe Phoenix Suns outplayed us,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “They were ready from the get-go. They got out and ran. All the things that we were working on, we had a setback today. Transition defense; we were slow reacting to that. Their guards did a good job of penetrating.”

Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers big man Robin Lopez drives to the hoop in the team’s loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. Lopez finished the game 1-of-4 with three points and two rebounds | (Christian Peterson/Getty Images)

As was the issue last season, the Blazers’ bench failed to help out and a lack of depth sill seems present. Only two Portland players scored in double-digits – LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard – and the collective bench only managed 12 points.

“We were not ready,” Blazers SF Nicolas Batum said. “We can talk about how much better we are and all the things we want to do, but we’ve got to be ready. We had a good preseason. We had a good training camp. But the preseason is over.

“œThat was a good warning for us.”

Batum was the next leading scorer for the Blazers behind Aldridge and Lillard with nine points on 3-of-9 shooting and seven rebounds.

Nicolas Batum
Blazers’ small forward Nicolas Batum dives for a loose ball against the Suns | (Christian Peterson/Getty Images)

But as has been mentioned, the two bright spots were Portland’s two stars in Aldridge and Lillard who finished with 28 and 32 points respectively. Should the Blazers find a way to get the rest of its players more involved, this team is talented enough to make a playoff push. It’s only game one.

“We have 81 more games — that was only one,” Batum said. “But we have to correct things now. We can’t wait.”

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How High is Damian Lillard’s Ceiling?

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After the best rookie season in Portland since Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers’ point guard Damian Lillard is ready to improve on his award winning season and take the next step forward. As a rookie he quickly established himself as the jewel of the 2012 NBA Draft class winning every single rookie of the month award through the season. He finished 2012-13 with 19.0 PPG, 6.5 APG, 3.1 RPG and a league-high 38.6 MPG.

While it’s hard to expect much more from the dynamic playmaker, there’s nothing holding Lillard back from surpassing even the wildest Blazer fans’ dreams.

Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard

But in order to become one of the NBA’s elite he’ll need to sure up a few aspects of his game. The first one being his three-point shooting. Lillard shot just .368 from deep, connecting on 185-of-503 attempts. At media day, Lillard addressed this issue and said it was something he was working on.

[gn_quote style=”1″]“I want to shoot at least 40 percent from three,” Lillard said. “Field goal percentage should probably be higher than it was last year, so 48 percent, somewhere around there… hopefully.”[/gn_quote]

Finding a consistent deep range threat in Lillard would not only be vital to his own game, but would  do wonders as well for the team. Portland ranked 20th in the NBA last season in three point shooting at .353 and hasn’t been in the top-10 since 2008 when they had that Roy guy.

Roy not only helped with his dominant shooting but also his driving ability, which allowed sharpshooters to knock down shot after shot. While the Blazers don’t have the outside weapons now that they did then, they still have forward Nicolas Batum and shooting guard Wesley Matthews who are underrated threats.

Also, the arrival of lottery pick C.J. McCollum is still an unknown. McCollum has been listed as the Blazers’ backup shooting guard but being a top-10 pick he’ll definitely see serious minutes, especially if he can gel with Lillard. This article by Hoops Habit even projected that the duo could be one of the best in the NBA.

Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard | (Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

Another area that Lillard will need to improve upon if he’s looking to join teammate LaMarcus Aldridge in the all-star game will be his assist-to-turnover ratio. Lillard’s 2.2 ATR, while not terrible, is hardly that of an elite point guard. Lillard had the 39th best ratio for players of his position last season behind guys nowhere near his skill level.

[gn_quote style=”1″]“I haven’t even thought about the (assist-to-turnover ratio) numbers, but you don’t want to turn the ball over the same amount of times you did the previous season,” Lillard said. “Coming in, my priority is going to take better care of the ball. Hopefully, my assists will be up higher, and my turnovers will be lower.”[/gn_quote]

With how often Lillard has the ball in his hands, it’s no wonder that he’s going to have his fair share of turnovers. With added shooters (McCollum, free agent Dorell Wright) to the team, expect to see Lillard’s efficiency rise dramatically.

Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard | (Bruce Ely/Oregonian)

But being specific, what is the ceiling for Lillard? Is it a reserve all-star appearance? A starting role in the all-star game? An MVP? Has he already hit his peak and this all moot?

This will be another transition year as Lillard and Aldridge continue to build their on-court chemistry. Expecting anything above an all-star appearance is simply ludicrous. Should Lillard vastly improve on his weaknesses, as were discussed above, he could receive an all-star bid. Even that is an extreme stretch. I can easily name 10 guards better than Lillard.

  1. Chris Paul, Clippers
  2. Tony Parker, Spurs
  3. Russell Westbrook, Thunder
  4. Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
  5. Rajon Rondo, Celtics
  6. Stephen Curry, Warriors
  7. James Harden, Rockets
  8. Dwyane Wade, Heat
  9. Kobe Bryant, Lakers
  10. Derrick Rose, Bulls

I list these in no particular order, but firmly believe that each is more proven than Lillard… at this point. That’s the key. At this point.

Who knows how Bryant or Rose will return from injury? Who knows if Harden will implode with a locker room cancer like Dwight Howard? Who knows how Parker will fare with an aging team around him? Will the dinosaur that is Wade move aside and let LeBron James steal the show in Miami completely? How will Rondo do with complete garbage surrounding him?

Lillard has the potential to make the top-5 of this list if all the pieces fall into place perfectly. That is, of course, for this next season. If we’re looking long-term Lillard easily projects to being a top-3 guard by the prime of his career.

Hopefully for Blazers fans all the pieces GM Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts have put in place are still there in a few years. And you know who I’m talking about… Mr. Aldrdige.

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Cavaliers Show Interest in Trading for LaMarcus Aldridge

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It was reported on Wednesday by Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski that the Cleveland Cavaliers have inquired about acquiring Portland Trail Blazer and two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.  Cleveland has been slowly beginning to put together a plan to bring Lebron James back to his home state (James has the ability to opt out of his contract with Miami in the summer of 2014) and apparently Aldridge is a player Cleveland would like to have to persuade James to return.

But when a franchise is looking to trade for another team’s All-Star, it comes down to what they have to offer.  Looking at the Cavs’ potentially available pieces in this rumored deal, the chances of Aldridge being dealt to Cleveland are about as likely as Lebron returning to the team that drafted him (Hint: They’re not good).

LaMarcus Aldridge
Photo: US PRESSWIRE

Other than Kyrie Irving, everyone on Cleveland’s roster is available and according to Wojnarowski, the Cavaliers are offering a number of young players and draft picks for Aldridge.  While Yahoo! Sports doesn’t provide specifics, the most logical players in a prosed deal would include former top-five picks, Tristan Thompson or Dion Waiters.

But guess what, even if Cleveland offered both players and their top-five pick in this year’s draft, that still wouldn’t be enough of a package for Portland to consider trading their best player.

Thompson showed great improvement from year one to year two (specifically in shooting and defensive rebounding), but he’s still not enough of a talent for Portland to warrant replacing Aldridge with.  Thompson still struggles with finishing at the rim offensively and while his defense is solid (an area Portland greatly needs to improve), it isn’t game-changing good.

With the departure of Jared Jeffries last week, Aldridge is now Portland’s oldest player at 27.  He’s in the prime of his career so why would the Blazers trade him now to get a 22-year-old player who’s still a work-in-progress?  With such a young nucleus to begin with (Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are all 26 and under), the Trail Blazers will be looking to add established players rather than more young prospects.

Waiters was a player on Portland’s radar in last year’s draft so it would seem plausible that they would have an interest in the guard.  But like Thompson, Waiters isn’t enticing enough for the Blazers to give up their franchise player.

Waiters had an erratic rookie season for the Cavs.  He missed 21 games due to injury and his terrible shot selection resulted in season averages of 41 percent from the field and 31 percent from three.  He also struggled mightily on defense — often appearing lost in reacting to screens and understanding how to rotate in space.  Portland’s two best defenders play on the perimeter (Batum and Matthews) so the only ideal reason to have Waiters would be to provide offense off the bench.  Again, not enough of a reason (no matter how bad Portland’s bench was this year) for the Blazers to depart with Aldridge.

Dion Waiters
Photo: chronicle.northcoastnow.com

And then there’s Cleveland’s draft pick.  Experts are saying this year’s draft is one of the worst in recent memory.  Case in point: a recent mock draft has the Blazers taking the once highly-touted Shabazz Muhammad at number ten.  So Portland has just as much of a chance at landing a quality player in this year’s draft as Cleveland does in the top five.

So as you can see, two shaky young players and a high draft pick that isn’t that valuable doesn’t sound very exciting.  Aldridge has two years and $29.3 million remaining on his contract.  In a couple of years he will seek another big deal and whether or not he accepts another one from the Blazers will depend on how fast the team returns to playoff contention.  On paper Cleveland’s deal sounds good: one, maybe two former top-five picks and another top-five pick in the 2013 draft.  But when you really break it down, any deal they offer that doesn’t include Kyrie Irving isn’t in Portland’s best interests moving forward.

Comment below if you think the Blazers would entertain a trade that includes Aldridge. Make sure to continue the conversation on Facebook and on Twitter @EugeneDailyNews

Portland’s Late Season Struggles Almost Ensure Draft Pick. But is That a Good Thing?

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On Wednesday night, the Trail Blazers started a total of three rookies as LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum continued to nurse injuries.  With two of Portland’s best players out and the team riding a six-game losing streak, the Blazers have finally initiated “tanking mode.”  Get ready for the Nolan Smith and Luke Babbitt show!

You have to hand it to them, the fact that they were able to play relevant NBA basketball well into March shows this team is close to reestablishing itself as a playoff team.  Minus J.J. Hickson who won’t be back unless he’s willing to take far less money and come off the bench, the Blazers’ foursome: Aldridge, Batum, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews is a talented and competitive nucleus that the franchise and fan base should be encouraged about.  But it was the over-reliance on them that ultimately doomed the team’s season.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Portland Trail Blazers
Photo: blazersedge

Besides Aldridge and Batum, Matthews has dealt with an array of injuries and even young spark plug Lillard has had a shoulder problem over the past week.  With all four of them being near the top in minutes played, it was inevitable that the talented starters would breakdown at some point.  But as the offseason nears and we move closer to the draft, the top-12 protected pick it looks like Portland will end up keeping (barely, they’re projected to get the 12th pick) will either produce a much-needed contributor off the bench or a bust who will be out of the league in three years.

Here’s a list of the last ten No. 12 picks in the draft:

  • 2012: Jeremy Lamb
  • 2011: Alec Burks
  • 2010: Xavier Henry
  • 2009: Gerald Henderson
  • 2008: Jason Thompson
  • 2007: Thaddeus Young
  • 2006: Hilton Armstrong
  • 2005: Yaroslav Korolev
  • 2004: Robert Swift
  • 2003: Nick Collison

Please, please, contain your enthusiasm (insert sarcasm).  Of these ten guys, only Thaddeus Young has turned out to be pretty good.  Henderson and Thompson have shown flashes (albeit on bad teams), Collison has had a productive career as a hard-nosed defender and rebounder and it’s too early to tell on Lamb and Burks.

From what I’ve concluded, the No. 12 pick like a lot of picks ends up being a total crap shoot. Kwame Brown went number one (he’s currently on his seventh team averaging 1.9 PPG) and future hall-of-famer Tony Parker wasn’t selected until number 28 by the Spurs.  A team can only do so much homework on a guy.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of being lucky.

The early word on this year’s draft isn’t particularly glowing so the chances of Portland landing a significant piece for the bench isn’t positive.  The team has several needs (center, wing player, a ton of low-post defenders) so they can either hold onto the pick or package it in a deal to land an established player.

According to nbadraft.net’s mock draft, Portland is projected to select Michael Carter-Williams out of Syracuse.  Here’s what they list as a weakness for Carter-Williams:  “Ceiling is considerable, but so is his basement, has star potential but also appears to be a guy that could end up playing the majority of his career overseas.”  Yeah, that sounds about right for a guy predicted to go No. 12 in the draft.

Damian Lillard 2
Photo: The Oregonian

Having a low draft pick for a young team is usually a good thing.  But that’s if the team is several years away.  Portland isn’t.  Aldridge is entering his prime, Batum is turning a corner from solid wing player to potential All Star and Lillard is already on the verge of becoming an elite point guard and closer in late-game situations.

They’ve already developed the young talent, now they need proven commodities to shore up the thinnest bench in the league.  The chances of a first-round pick becoming that solution, as you’ve seen from that list earlier, aren’t very good.

But hurray for having another lottery pick….  I think.

Greg Oden receives mixed response in return to Portland

Greg Oden, former No. 1 draft pick and often-injured center for the Blazers returned to Portland on Wednesday for the team’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Portland waived Oden last March following his third microfracture knee surgery.  It was the last straw after five injury-plauged seasons in the Rose City for Oden.  His return to the Rose Garden, most likely to support former Ohio State teammate and current Memphis guard Mike Conley, was his first appearance since 2010.

Oden was greeted with mostly cheers — and a few boos — when he was shown on the video scoreboard in the first quarter.  Oden offered a peace sign in response.

The mixture of cheers and boos is about right for a response for the polarizing figure that is Greg Oden.  Those who showed support probably did so because they were happy to see him in good spirits and on the road to yet another recovery from injury.

Before he crumpled to the floor trying to block a shot from Aaron Brooks in December 2009 (the last time he was on an NBA court) and breaking his left patella, Oden was playing better than anyone on the team.  Yes, that included Aldridge and Brandon Roy.  The center was showing much improvement on the offensive end and his already outstanding rebounding and defense prowess were drastically affecting how teams played the Blazers.

Those who chose to boo Oden probably did so because he was supposed to be the final piece to a championship contender and instead became a punch line.

Oden
Photo: The Oregonian

But to call him a bust wouldn’t be accurate.  If Oden had played the majority of his five season in Portland, didn’t perform well and ended up getting traded or released, then he would have joined names like Michael Olowokandi, Pervis Ellison and the already mentioned Kwame Brown as former No. 1 picks who didn’t live up to their potential.

But we don’t know Oden’s potential because he hasn’t been allowed to fulfill it yet.  In May 2012, Oden announced his intention to sit out the 2012-13 season to focus on rehabbing his injuries.  In January 2013, it was reported that several teams, including Miami and Cleveland, were interested in signing Oden for next season.  If that ends up happening and he goes on to have a productive NBA career, then Portland fans shouldn’t feel anger or resentment but rather happiness and good-will for the big man.

We all wanted to see Oden succeed.  Now if he does, it will have to be in another uniform.  That’s fine by me because after all the adversity this young man has gone through, he deserves another shot at proving everyone wrong.  The somewhat conflicted response from the Portland crowd on Wednesday tells me they understand this.  Hopefully one day soon he can come back healthy and perform at a level somewhere close to what he was beginning to show before that injury in 2009.  By then the fans should know whether to boo him or not.

Blazers Player of the Week: Damian Lillard

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Player of the week

Just when you thought Damian Lillard was going to hit the rookie wall, he opened February with four great games. Averaging 22.3 ppg, 6.3 apg and shooting 46 % from the floor, Lillard has proven to be the guy to go to when the offense is stalling. Against Utah last Friday, the young point guard single-handedly kept Portland in the game. His 20 second-half points made it close and even though Portland eventually lost, Lillard’s second-half performance carried over into the next night when the Blazers played Utah again and won.

Aldridge 2
Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.

You could also argue LaMarcus Aldridge for player of the week. He’s recorded six straight double-doubles (his longest streak in two years) and his clutch play down the stretch against Minnesota; a long, go-ahead jumper and stellar defense in the last two possessions were key factors in Portland hanging on to the win.

Play of the week

Once again it goes to Aldridge. With Portland clinging to a two-point lead, Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio worked the high pick-and-roll with center Nikola Pekovic. This created a switch where Aldridge now had to chase the speedy Rubio as he ran circles in the paint.

Instead of leaving him or biting on a pump-fake, Aldridge remained calm, timed his jump perfectly and blocked Rubio’s shot at the rim. Aldridge is typically better defensively in man-to-mand situations rather than in recovery defense. But on the Rubio play and the final possession guarding Dante Cunningham, the All-Star showed that when it matters most, he can rise to the occasion.

Nicolas Batum’s nagging injury

It’s been quite apparent in the last few games that Nicolas Batum is having a problem with his shooting wrist. He’s constantly grimacing and holding it following a shot or rebound. While he is finding other ways to contribute, his shot attempts have plummeted over the past week.

With his injury and Wesley Matthews’ ankle-sprain last Friday, the All-Star break can’t come soon enough. No other team in the league can afford to lose one of its starters and if Portland has any notion of making the playoffs, they need all five starters healthy.

The unwritten rules of the NBA

On Tuesday night, the Houston Rockets were having a historical night shooting threes. With a couple minutes left in the game, the team tied an NBA record with their 23rd 3-pointer. For those last few possessions, with nothing but bench-warmers in the game, their one goal was to break that record. But their opponent, the Golden-State Warriors, didn’t take too kindly to that.

Warriors’ coach Mark Jackson instructed his team to intentionally foul the Rockets every time they inbounded the ball to prevent them from even having an opportunity to take a 3-point shot. Some words were exchanged, a couple of flagrant fouls ensued, and the blowout game turned into a bit of a circus. When the game mercifully ended, Houston fans were actually booing despite their team winning 140-109.

This bizarre ending reminded me of a Blazers and Bulls game played in November. With Portland up six with just a few seconds to go, rookie Damian Lillard dribbled the ball across half court. But instead of standing their to wait for the clock to run out, Lillard kept going and drove to the basket for an uncontested dunk.  Taj Gibson of the Bulls was not happy about this and confronted Lillard. The players had to be separated and at one point, Nate Robinson pulled Lillard aside and no doubt explained to the young player that that was not okay.

Lillard
Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.

Every sport deals with so-called unwritten rules. In baseball,  stealing a base when your team is up by 12 runs shows poor form. In football, throwing a deep ball with your team up 30 points is considered “running up the score.” These kinds of situations are always tricky. On the one hand, why should a team with a big lead suddenly stop doing what’s worked up to that point and ease off the gas? It’s the other team’s job to stop them.

On the other hand, there’s a respect factor that goes into play where instead of beating an opponent down, you show good sportsmanship by conceding victory and getting the game over as quickly as possible.

What Lillard did was purely youthful ignorance. The look on his face after Gibson confronted him was of true bewilderment. He didn’t know any better. But the Blazers play Chicago again in March. You better believe they remember what Lillard did. Hopefully there’s no hard fouls or confrontations. Get revenge by simply beating them and then move on.

Blazers – Never A Dull Moment in the Second Half

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Remember last week when I said the Blazers like to do things the hard way. Well they were at it again this past week with improbable wins over the Clippers and Mavericks at home. Seriously, if you plan on watching Blazer games just tune in at about the halfway point of the third quarter and you’re in for some entertaining basketball.

Aldridge Buzzer-beater
Photo courtesy of The Oregonian

They scored the last ten points in the fourth quarter to win against Los Angeles and then came back from 21 down in the third to beat Dallas. Never a dull moment with these guys.

Player of the week

I’d like to give this to Nicolas Batum after he recorded his second triple-double in five days following the Clipper win, but in the last two games Batum seems to be focusing more on getting his teammates involved instead of scoring (He only took five shots in the loss at L.A. on Sunday).

Batum is 7 for 19 in his last two games with a total of 18 points. The rebounds and assists are way up this year, but he needs to focus on scoring more when the team needs it. Overall his shooting numbers are down from last year (That’s expected considering he’s more involved in the offense), but it’s the kinds of shots he’s taking.

Batum ranks fourth in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted and so far this season, 53% of his total shots have been from the 3-point line. The next step in his maturation will be driving to the basket. The Frenchman plays nearly 40 minutes every night and only gets to the line three times per game. If the jumper isn’t falling, dunk on somebody.

Now to get back to my original statement of player of the week. It has to go to LaMarcus Aldridge right? His back-to-back double doubles gave him a league-leading eleven for the month of January. Oh and there was also that game on Tuesday.

Going Reggie Miller on the Mavs, Aldridge scored five points in fives seconds. First a step back three (His first of the season) and then his patented turn around jumper from the elbow at the buzzer gave the Blazers another come from behind win. Any question about whether Aldridge deserved to be on the All-Star team were squashed with what he did Tuesday night.

Play of the week

I just talked about it. LaMarcus hitting the buzzer-beating jumper over Dallas. What is it about this team that brings out the best in Aldridge? His highest per-game scoring average is against the Mavs and that’s now two years in a row that he’s beaten them at the buzzer.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trail Blazers
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports

Lillard selected to rising stars event

For the first time since 2009 when Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden were selected (Remember them), a Blazers’ rookie will be playing in the league’s annual rookie-sophomore event, the Rising Stars Challenge.

Damian Lillard, leading all rookies in scoring (18.1 points), assists (6.5) and minutes (38.5), will headline the first-year players as they face a strong sophomore class lead by Kyrie Irving.

This game is always an All-Star Game primer. If you’re looking for some classic basketball featuring set plays, ball movement and passing look elsewhere. This game is all about one-on-one, dunks, lobs, ankle breaking and more dunks. I want Lillard to show off his hops (That’s leaping ability for the older crowd) and maybe some alley-oops to Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes.

This exhibition game is all about athleticism and individuals showing off their skills. It might not be the prettiest form of basketball, but it’s still fun to watch.

Looking ahead

Portland went a respectable 8-8 in January. With the Mavericks and Lakers improving however, the team might need to play a little better than .500 to maintain a shot at the playoffs.

The Blazers have eight games before the All-Star break and seven of them are on the road (Yikes)! We know this team can beat anybody at home, but it’s the road where they still need considerable work. Yes they do have wins over New York and Memphis away from the Rose Garden, but their overall road record is just 7-14. The first half of February might just end up defining their season.

Blazers’ Corner: Mid-season Report

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This week marks the halfway point of the season for the Trail Blazers and so far they’ve been a bit of a surprise. A recent winning streak pushed the team’s record to an impressive 20-15 mark and with wins over San Antonio, Memphis, New York and Miami, a team supposedly in a rebuilding year has positioned themselves for a possible playoff birth.

LaMarcus Aldridge
Aldridge is playing like an All Star once again.

But since a big win over the Heat, the Blazers have dropped six of seven games. In fact, before Wednesday’s blowout win over Indiana, Portland had played a franchise record ten consecutive games decided by six points or less. The team won the first four, but lost the following six. In a way, this stretch of games has served as a microcosm for the kind of season they’ve had. There’s been ups and downs but nearly every game has gone down to the wire.

With the season half over, here are a few observations.

They do things the hard way

Let’s go even further into the team’s close games this season. Of the Blazers’ 21 victories, only three have been legitimate blowouts. Forget wins. In 42 games this season, 26 have been decided by eight points or less. The way the season has been going, Blazer fans should have their blood pressure checked after every game.

The worst bench in the league

All of these close games aren’t doing the starters any favors. Among the league leaders in minutes, three Blazers (Batum, Lillard and Aldridge) are in the top 12. No other team has more than one in the top 20. Coach Terry Stotts has done his best to mix and match starters and bench players, but the ineffectiveness and inconsistency of every bench player has forced all five starters to log too many minutes. Eventually this will catch with them resulting in nagging injuries and inconsistent play from the starters. Somebody has to step up at some point.

The J.J. Hickson dilemma

Blazers’ GM Neil Olshey has said that unless there’s a deal too good to pass up, the organization will not make a move at the trade deadline. In a year that’s supposed to be about retooling and developing, Olshey doesn’t want to sacrifice long-term goals with short-term success.

If there’s one asset on the team that could be a potential trade piece this year it’s Hickson. Playing on a one-year contract, Hickson has been a double-double machine (He’s currently third in the league with 24). But has Hickson’s emergence this season been about being in the right situation or about putting up numbers in order to get a big contract? As good as he’s been, Portland has no intention of starting a power forward at center beyond this season, especially after the team drafted seven-footer Meyers Leonard.

Hickson’s value will never be higher than it is right now and if the team continues to slide, they might want to think about getting something for him before they lose him to free agency this summer.

Nicolas Batum, Paul George
Batum is having a career year.

The emergence of Nicolas Batum

Arguably the team’s first-half MVP, Batum has lived up to the contract he signed last year. Long gone is the Batum who would stand in the corner shooting 3-pointers and disappearing from time to time. Under coach Stotts, Batum has been allowed to be more of a play-maker (He recorded his first triple-double against Washington). He’s single-handily kept Portland in games and his versatility has allowed him to play and defend multiple positions.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that he’s sometimes too selfish. On a night when Portland needs scoring, Batum will look to involve his teammates over taking the shot himself. He’s currently averaging 13 shots-per-game. That number needs to be more like 16.

Damian Lillard is the real deal

Going into the season, the consensus was either Anthony Davis or Damian Lillard would be rookie of the year. With Davis’ continued injury problems and Portland’s success, there’s little doubt who is winning the award now. The Blazers have been searching for a starting point guard for many years now. Both long-term (Sebastian Telfair, Jerryd Bayless, Jarrett Jack) and short-term (Andre Miller and Raymond Felton) players haven’t worked out for a variety of reasons.

But Lillard appears to have the total package. He can shoot (Both spot-up and off the dribble), pass (willingly), dribble (In traffic and without too many turnovers) and most importantly, he’s calm under pressure. He never appears rattled and on more than one occasion this season, the young guard hasn’t been afraid to take the big shot. Portland definitely has their point guard of the future.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard is a safe bet to win Rookie of the Year.

The steadiness of LaMarcus Aldridge

There are only two players in the NBA averaging at least 20 points and 8 rebounds. One is Lebron James. The other is LaMarcus Aldridge. If there’s been a constant for the Trail Blazers, it’s been their All Star forward. If the team needs a bucket, they throw it into their quiet workhorse and while he’s been drifting further and further away from the paint, the outside shots have been falling.

If there’s one concern with Aldridge it’s the “tired legs” that have plagued him the last two seasons. The big man has been near the top in minutes played again this season and if the team has any aspirations of making the playoffs this year, they’ll need their best player healthy and rested come April.

At least the Lakers are terrible

If you had told me going into the season that at the end of January, in the midst of losing six of seven, the Blazers would still be four games better than the Lakers, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. The coaching changes, trade rumors and overall dis-function has been an absolute delight to follow this season. The Lakers have been long overdue for a losing-period. I just didn’t think it would happen to a team with four future hall-of-famers.