Breaking Down Portland Trail Blazers Center Position for 2014-15 Season

Despite such a successful, turnaround season, the Portland Trail Blazers had one of the worst frontcourts in the NBA last season. It was largely to do with inexperience and a lack of development, with a youthful rotation of Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland backing up the starters.

The center position was no doubt the weakest part of the team last year, but the addition of Chris Kaman in free agency gives Portland a much stronger rotation down low. There’s still work to be done, but the Blazers can be a little more confident about their men in the middle going into next season.

 

Looking Back to Last Season

Portland made a huge leap during the 2013-14 season, making a 21-game improvement to launch into the upper echelon of the Western Conference. The team was largely the same, save for one addition.

A competent and efficient two-way center in Robin Lopez.

The Blazers finally had a decent contributor to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt, who offered exactly what the team needed. Lopez’s passing, defense and rebounding were the missing pieces to Portland’s puzzle, resulting in a major turnaround.

Lopez’s defensive rating of 103.7 for last season, per NBA.com, outdid former Blazers center J.J. Hickson‘s rating of 107.5 from the 2012-13 season. Playing career-high minutes, Lopez pitched in 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.

In addition, Portland jumped from No. 21 (tie) in rebounding percentage for the 2012-13 season to No. 7 for last season. While Hickson remains an able-bodied player in his own right, Lopez does that little bit extra.

Dane Carbaugh of AYoungSabonis.com summed it up well: “Lopez does a number of things well for Portland that Hickson did not. Lopez is a hard worker around the rim, a fundamentally sound post player who keeps a hand on his man and squares his hips to box out as shots go up. The result is that teammates are now rebounding at a greater rate.”

In short, improving the center position turned a lottery-bound team into a fringe contender.

There are other factors to be considered, such as the players adjusting to head coach Terry Stotts’ system and the improvement of Damian Lillard. But nothing made a bigger difference than having a more complete roster with the likes of Lopez on board.

It is probable that Portland would not have gone as far as it did without Lopez last season.

The reserve big men, on the other hand, were either underdeveloped or were lacking in skill against the competition. Robinson and Leonard were both lottery picks of the 2012 draft, picked No. 5 and No. 11, respectively. 

Neither has grown into the player many expected, with flaws found in scouting reports becoming fleshed-out issues. Robinson’s lack of offensive moves became glaring, while Leonard’s confidence issues and court awareness have limited his playing time.

The duo posted less-than-average player efficiency ratings of 14.2 and 9.5, respectively, for last season, per ESPN.com. The coaching staff had their hands tied when it came to substituting players behind Aldridge and Lopez, opting to play a smaller lineup to move away from the inconsistency of Robinson and Leonard.

It was to the extent that a 13-game absence of Aldridge, due to injury, led to Stotts starting small forward Dorell Wright in his place at power forward and playing a very undersized lineup. 

Both had their moments, but it was too erratic to truly value either’s contributions.

Lest we forget the play of Freeland, who actually offered some form of regular help. A sprained MCL derailed much of his season, but the big man put forward 3.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per game with a rebound rate of 15.4, per ESPN.com’s John Hollinger, which was solid and ranked ahead of even Lopez.

While it’s more than likely due to Freeland playing in garbage time, it still points to his value as a player to crash the boards. 

If the center position could receive some sort of grade, it’d fall under a high C to a low B, at best. Lopez was terrific in his own right, but the lack of help all around in the middle was a major flaw in the makeup of the team.

As such, Portland’s frontcourt needed a desperate upgrade. That was the central focus of the Blazers’ offseason, as the front office signed Kaman to a two-year deal worth $4.8 million in the first season.

It’s fairly certain what the big man can offer, and it’s exactly what Portland needs.

 

Looking Forward to the 2014-15 Season

Kaman spent last season with the Los Angeles Lakers in a campaign that’s hard to label. The team wasn’t competitive or rebuilding, but rather just playing it out without purpose. 

Injuries were obviously a factor, with 16 players starting five or more games. Kaman himself was limited to 39 games, but there were also nights where he and Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni butted heads.

The big man received sporadic playing time over the course of the season, which contrasted to what Kaman expected when he signed in Los Angeles. Per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

I’m just going to take the high road and do the right thing, but it’s definitely not what I was told coming in here. Obviously, I would have never came here if they had said, ‘We’re not going to play you at all.’ I thought I had a good opportunity coming here. 

It’s frustrating and I want to be able to try to help if I can, you know? And I really, truly think I can, but it’s not up to me.

There was even a point of the season that Kaman had not spoken to D’Antoni in almost three weeks.

Jeez.

It’s safe to predict that won’t be the case with the Blazers, as the team has an obvious need for his services in the post.

Kaman put up respectable numbers for a reserve center for the Lakers, with 10.4 points and 5.9 rebounds on 50.9 percent shooting. His numbers are potentially inflated under D’Antoni‘s uptempo system, as he played just 18.9 minutes per game.

Either way, it’s clear what he can offer to Portland.

His low-post scoring, mid-range shooting and passing are staples of what the Blazers do offensively, so he’ll fit right in. Kaman isn’t a stopper defensively, though he does have quick feet and averaged a blocked shot per game last season.

As such, he’ll be the primary backup for either spot in the frontcourt. Whether Lopez or Aldridge heads to the bench, Kaman will be inserted to keep the Blazers’ engine running. Robinson showed flashes of improvement in the summer league, averaging 13.7 points on 50 percent shooting with 8.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.3 steals.

But the level of competition in the NBA and the summer league is extremely different, so it’s important to take Robinson’s play with a grain of salt. Basically, it’s encouraging, but we shouldn’t expect anything overwhelming too soon.

Robinson is a power forward, to be sure, but can slide over to play center should injuries occur. It won’t be his primary position, though, as Kaman, Freeland and Leonard will back up Lopez at the 5.

And in that order.

Leonard’s slow development can be expected to a certain extent, as he was a sophomore at Illinois when he was drafted. He’s still just 22 years of age despite two professional NBA seasons, and big men have a tendency to develop late.

With Kaman on board, it’ll relieve a ton of pressure on Leonard to become an instant contributor off the bench. An even lesser role in the rotation has the potential to stunt his growth, but it’s the best thing for him at this point.

Freeland will do nicely as a secondary reserve, coming in to do the dirty work and close quarters strong after Kaman and Robinson have played.

As a whole, the center position for the Blazers is much stronger compared to last season. The only thing that has changed is the addition of Kaman, but it already looks potent with a depth chart of Lopez, Kaman, Freeland and Leonard.

Respect is due to the latter two for their contributions, but both will now be in roles where their services are matched appropriately. Neither will be tested to perform outside their capabilities on a nightly basis and instead can rest easy and hopefully improve with shorter, more efficient bursts of playing time.

It’s more than likely the rotation will change on a game-to-game basis, which will be subject to the opposition, as well.

If Portland faces a frontcourt-heavy squad like the Chicago Bulls, the scale would tip in favor of Lopez and Freeland with defense to limit the energetic play of Joakim NoahWhen the Blazers go against an uptempo team that thrives of swift offense, Kaman and Robinson can get in on the action and put their skills to good use. 

Compared to last season, Portland now has a respectable frontcourt that the coaching staff can rely on. It only needed a mild tweak, which the Blazers found in Kaman. His mid-level deal will see him play plenty of minutes, as it’d be nonsensical to sign him for such an amount without a cemented role in mind.

It’ll mean Robinson, Freeland and Leonard will battle for minutes, while keeping in mind that each player offers something different depending on the opposing team. Robinson’s athleticism is polar opposite to Freeland’s low-to-the-ground play, but both will be useful traits for the Blazers at different points of the season.

In any case, Portland can be much more confident in its frontcourt rotation and the team that is put forward to compete. The Blazers made great progress but will absolutely look to go further and deeper in the playoffs.

Having a more complete roster is essential in doing so, and that’s something Portland now has with strong and fundamental depth at the center position.

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Have Portland Trail Blazers Already Hit Their Ceiling?

On the strength of a high-powered offensive attack led by one of the NBA‘s best guard-forward tandems, the Portland Trail Blazers turned heads and stuffed the win column during a wildly successful 2013-14 campaign.

Now, the real work beings.

After ripping off an unexpected 54 victories last season, the Blazers will no longer be catching anyone by surprise.

With LaMarcus Aldridge producing at his prime level (23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds per game) and fellow All-Star Damian Lillard constantly shattering his ceiling (20.7 points, 5.6 assists per game), the Blazers are preparing to take that daunting turn from hunter to hunted.

The question now will be whether last season was a high point in what Portland can reasonably expect out of this team, or a sign of the great things to come,” wrote CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore.

There are arguments to be made for both sides.

By and large, the Blazers will break camp with the same pieces as last season’s squad. Veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake joined the party in free agency while Mo Williams set up shop with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but none of those registered on the basketball landscape as more than minor moves.

Without a hand in one of the deepest drafts in recent years, the Blazers banked their future success on internal improvements.

That’s no more of a gamble than hoping an unproven prospect pans out or a free-agent addition makes a seamless transition to his new digs. In some ways, it might be preferable.

Portland can focus its efforts on strengthening what it already has in place. Continuity ideally breeds good chemistry, and the Blazers’ best players have already shown a great deal of cohesion.

Terry Stotts‘ starting fiveLillard, Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez—outscored its opponents by an impressive 8.5 points per 100 possessions. For reference’s sake, the San Antonio Spurs led the league with a plus-8.1 net rating last season.

Weighed against only five-man lineups, Portland’s still stood as the eighth-best of the 29 quintets that logged at least 300 minutes together.

Talent isn’t an issue among Stotts‘ top guns, and neither is fit. Aldridge and Lillard share the heaviest scoring loads, Matthews takes on the three-and-D role, Batum fills in where needed as a jack-of-all-trades and Lopez handles the as-unglamorous-as-it-sounds dirty work.

The offense mostly runs through Aldridgehis 29.8 usage percentage surpassed Lillard‘s 25.0 markbut the point guard grabs the keys late in the game. Only four players scored more points in the clutch (final five minutes of a five-point game) than Lillard, and only seven of them had a better field-goal percentage (minimum 50 attempts) in that situation than Lillard‘s 47.3 percent mark.

A stone-cold assassin, Lillard‘s series-ending dagger against the Houston Rockets put an exclamation point on Portland’s season:

With their strongest five on the floor, the Blazers can be really good.

But there are some questions about whether Portland should expect to see those five as often as it did last season. Aldridge was the only starter to miss any games, and Utah Jazz radio personality David Locke noted that type of injury avoidance is a rare gift:

Portland’s starters logged the second-most minutes of any five-man lineup (1,373), and only six other groups even saw half as much playing time together.

The importance of health is as obvious as it sounds, but it’s sometimes hard to quantify. Luckily, ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required) crunched some numbers last April and painted a picture of the relationship between injuries and their impact of team performance:

Using data through last week from my injury database, which includes games missed due to injury or illness but not suspension or personal reasons, there’s a minus-.46 correlation between how many games a team has lost and its winning percentage this season. That means there is a relationship between injuries and results on the court, with more injuries translating into fewer wins.

On average, the 10 healthiest teams in terms of games missed have won 56.3 percent of their games. The bottom 10 have been even worse, winning just 41.8 percent of the time. That’s equivalent to a 12-win swing over a full season between being among the 10 healthiest teams and the 10 most injured.

Obviously, injuries can happen to any team. Portland’s good fortune with health—certainly long overdue considering the franchise’s history—doesn’t mean its luck will soon run out.

It does, however, highlight how well things went for the Blazers last season. Given the Western Conference’s depth, a little luck can go a long way.

Especially for the Blazers, who had limited options behind their top talents. HoopsStats.com indicates Portland finished dead last in bench scoring with only 23.6 points a night, and it’s hard to imagine Kaman and Blake completely solving that problem.

That puts the pressure on Portland’s young players, particularly C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson, to help pick up the slack.

Injuries threw McCollum‘s rookie year off track before it could even get started, but the 6’4″ combo guard can light the lamp when his body is right. He scored 21.3 points per game during four seasons at Lehigh, and he went for 20.2 points a night on 47.9 percent shooting at the Las Vegas Summer League.

“If his Summer League performance was any indication as to whether he was fully recovered and ready to take on the league, let’s just say the Blazers should expect big things out of their 22-year-old reserve shooting guard,” wrote Basketball Insiders’ Jabari Davis. “His continued progression could be just what the Blazers need.”

Robinson, the fifth overall pick in 2012, has struggled to make the NBA transition. Being traded halfway through his rookie season probably didn’t help, and he did show signs of progression as a sophomore.

With career per-game averages of 4.8 points and 4.4 rebounds, he clearly has a long way to go. However, he’s working toward filling the high-energy role this team needs him to play.

“I’m not trying to do nothing crazy out here,” Robinson told TrailBlazers.com’s Casey Holdahl. “I’m just trying to either break bad habits or get used to doing stuff that I need to do next year. So I’m not in pickup trying to score 1,000 points or nothing.”

If the Blazers can get their young guys going, this team could be able to use last season’s success as a springboard to something more. As good as it has been, Portland’s core still has room to grow.

Despite having six seasons under his belt, Batum is only 25 years old. He set a personal best in assist percentage last season (20.9) and posted the second-highest true shooting percentage of his career (58.9).

He is absurdly skilled for a third option and should continue gaining a better understanding of how to maximize his role with time.

Lillard has already cemented himself among the league’s top quantity-plus-quality marksmen, having launched 1,057 threes already in his career and connected on 38.1 percent of them. If he can make himself more of a distributing threat, he could become an even more devastating offensive player.

Aldridge is the senior member of this group in terms of NBA service (eight seasons) and age (29). He should be playing at his peak level, and the players around him should all be climbing toward theirs.

Portland hasn’t reached its ceiling, but getting to that point won’t be easy.

It means getting more out of a five-man unit that was already among the league’s best and keeping enough talent around it that things won’t fall apart if one of the group does. Another round of remarkable health would certainly help, but the Blazers can’t let their medical reports make or break their season.

We haven’t seen the Blazers at their best. They have to make sure we do at some point.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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Portland Trail Blazers Make Key Addition with Chris Kaman

It might seem strange to think of Chris Kaman as the player who could push a team over the hump and get them into the realm of true title contenders, at least at this stage of his NBA career. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what he’s setting up to do for the Portland Trail Blazers

Confused about how a 32-year-old center coming off a lackluster season filled with injuries and personality clashes can have that type of impact?

You wont be for long. 

According to Sam Amick of USA Today, the veteran big man signed on board with the Rip City squad for a two-year deal worth—at most—just under $10 million: 

Chris Kaman agreed Thursday night to a two-year contract with the Blazers, a person with knowledge of the deal told USA TODAY Sports. The deal is worth $9.8 million total but only $1 million is guaranteed in the second year. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because NBA contracts cannot be signed until July 10.

Is Kaman worth nearly $5 million per year?

That’s iffy, but it’s by no means a significant overpay. In a vacuum, the 32-year-old might not be able to command more than the veteran minimum, but the NBA doesn’t operate in such a context-free environment.

As you’ll see, this move has far-reaching ramifications, all of which are positive for Portland. Plus, the ability to save so much money in the second year is a nice insurance policy in case his decline wasn‘t solely because of misuse and a lacking of playing time under Mike D’Antoni.  During the 2013-14 season, the hunting aficionado spent far too much time on the bench, possibly daydreaming of the next time he could get out the crossbow.

Playing only 18.9 minutes during the average contest, Kaman posted 10.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game while shooting 50.9 percent from the field. He was hampered by injuries throughout the campaign, and his lumbering playing style didn’t exactly mesh with D’Antoni‘s up-tempo whims. 

The two’s feud wasn‘t exactly a secret: 

In February, Kaman left no doubt about how he felt while speaking with InsideSocial.com’s Mark Medina

Everybody tries to be positive. I want to be professional about it. It wasn’t what I anticipated coming here. Obviously I thought I had an opportunity to play more minutes with Pau. But history shows with Coach D’Antoni’s style, it’s a small guy’s game, I suffer as a result of that. It is what it is. I can’t argue what he’s saying. I have to trust the position of head coach. It’s obviously frustrating at times, especially when you’re losing a lot like that and we had a stretch where it’s tough to sit there and watch knowing I could help or provide an effort to get a change of momentum.

Is it any wonder he’s now signing with a team he thinks is a much better fit for his talents? 

It shouldn’t be, especially after that was the first thing he brought up once his two-year agreement with a new squad became public knowledge: 

And Kaman wasn‘t the only one excited about his upcoming arrival in Portland, one that will become official after contracts can be legitimately signed on July 10. It’s always good to get Damian Lillard on board as well: 

Even if Kaman can produce identical numbers to the ones he posted last year, he’ll be worth the deal for the Blazers. They may have a number of frontcourt options on the pine, but none are established like Kaman is, and depth is sorely needed on the Rip City bench. 

That’s what makes this such a scary signing for the rest of the Western Conference. 

Portland was often held back by its lack of a contributing bench, forcing the starters into major minutes (luckily, they stayed largely healthy) and wearing them out during the regular season. If Terry Stotts is able to play his second unit without fear of giving up a lead in just the blink of an eye, it’ll keep everyone much fresher for the inevitable postseason run. 

After all, the starting five—Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez—is staying together, and it’s only going to get stronger as Lillard continues improving. Given that this is still a young squad, there’s no reason to expect this team to trend anywhere but in a positive direction.

The bench is where the upgrades are needed, and landing a quality veteran like Kaman, one who’s presumably chasing a shot at a championship, indicates that more small-scale signings are coming.

Portland with depth is scary. Terrifying, even. 

“While Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was coming to terms with just how few of his reserves seemed at all playable in this series, Popovich was drawing a 10-point, seven-rebound performance from Aron Baynesa bottom-of-the-barrel center who logged all of six minutes in the first round,” wrote Sports Illustrated Rob Mahoney after the San Antonio Spurs handed Portland a 116-92 loss to open the second-round playoff series. 

If that scenario changes, everything follows suit. After all, the numbers last year just weren’t pretty. 

According to Hoopsstats.com, the Blazers bench finished No. 27 in defensive efficiency, better than only the Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons. Things weren’t much better on offense, as the efficiency ranked dead last, admittedly by a small margin.

Yay for silver linings?

It’s the defense where Kaman can help most. Even during his down season with L.A., the Lakers allowed 5.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, per Basketball-Reference.com. Over the course of his career, his team’s defense has improved by two points over the same span of possessions when he plays, and it’s been better with him on the court in seven of his past 10 seasons.

Additionally, things were made worse for Rip City by the lack of playing time the non-starters received. It’s not as though the inefficiency was created by too many minutes on the court, falling in line with the typical inverse correlation between volume and effectiveness. The bench players averaged a league-low 13.7 minutes per contest. 

Kaman alone may top that mark in an effort to keep Aldridge and Lopez as healthy as possible throughout the year. And as the legitimacy of the second unit grows, more future free agents should flock to one of the true up-and-coming teams in the vaunted West. 

The bench, in order of money owed in 2014-15, is now comprised of Kaman, Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland, C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver, Allen Crabbe and Will Barton. 

Given the youth of that group, it’s safe to bet on internal improvement, but the Blazers aren’t going to be done making small-scale signings like Kaman. Remember, Damian Lillard recently texted some names he’d like to see Portland chase to CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes, “Yeah…Mo Williams,” and, “Channing Frye, Vince Carter, Spencer Hawes, Trevor Ariza.”

Some of those are reaches, but it’s not entirely inconceivable to see some of those veterans—or others of a similar caliber—taking a chance on being a part of something special. Well, it’s more inconceivable now that Kaman has absorbed what was likely the team’s mid-level exception, but minimum contracts still exist, and the allure of a deep playoff run can often trump monetary impact late in a player’s career.

Additionally, the recent signings by other franchises are only driving up prices, which makes this deal more palatable. Dwight Jaynes explains for CSNNW.com: 

Faced with the very real prospect of being priced out of a chance to sign Spencer Hawes or Channing Frye for the mid-level exception, the Trail Blazers got an agreement with Chris Kaman Thursday night at around five million bucks for the upcoming season.

Yes, that’s the very definition of what’s called overpaying for a player. Kaman’s contract last season for the Lakers was for just $3.18 million and he did nothing during that year to prove he deserved a raise this season, playing in just 39 games.

That said, Trail Blazer GM Neil Olshey probably had few choices considering what Portland had available to spend in the free-agent frenzy going on this summer. Olshey had to have depth in the frontcourt and he at least grabbed a player capable of being a solid contributor when healthy. Kaman is a smart big man who can score and protect the rim. He’s had several solid NBA seasons and is very underrated defensively.

But there’s more to the Kaman signing than his personal contributions and the assumption that more veterans are going to be following in his large footsteps. By bringing his talents to Stotts‘ pine, he’s making young talents like Robinson and Leonard increasingly expendable.

Trade bait, anyone? 

Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb predicted as much even before the former Laker was brought aboard: 

There are plenty of teams out there who’d love to get their hands on some of Portland’s young assets. It’s unlikely the Trail Blazers will break up their starting lineup, but you could easily see a rebuilding team seeking a package built around guys like McCollum and Leonard. Those are precisely the kind of prospects for whom a bad team will happily wait.

Trading partners might include teams like the Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks. Even emergent, young teams like the Charlotte Hornets might be in the market for some new blood.

Could Portland gets its hands on a more proven veteran like Thaddeus Young or O.J. Mayo? There’s no reason to rule the possibility out, and there’s no doubt an acquisition of that magnitude would give Portland a starting-caliber sixth man.

Well, now things are getting really interesting. 

If Portland is able to land not just a bench contributor, but a Sixth Man of the Year candidate without breaking the bank and parting ways with one of its impressive starters, it becomes an even more serious threat to exact revenge upon Gregg Popovich and the Spurs during the 2015 postseason. 

In a best-case scenario, this is exactly what happens. General manager Neil Olshey swaps some of the young players with upside for a more established talent who can come off the bench as a super sub, and Portland gets a lot more dangerous. 

But with Kaman on the board, providing post moves, mid-range shooting and underrated defense from the center position, the worst-case scenario is so much better. 

Even if the Blazers aren’t able to do anything more than fill up their active roster with nondescript players, their bench is better for adding Kaman, who can serve as a solid insurance policy for a certain Stanford product.

And that had to be the No. 1 goal of the offseason. Not finding insurance for Lopez, but adding depth in general.

Mission accomplished, but not necessarily completed. 

 

Like the Kaman signing? Love it? Hate it? Let me know on Twitter and Facebook 

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6 Reasons You Can and Can’t Believe in Portland Trail Blazers’ Playoff Success

The Portland Trail Blazers could advance to the second round of the playoffs or possibly even the Western Conference finals.

The Trail Blazers started out the season by winning 21 of their first-25 games, which prompted many to believe they could win perhaps a round or two in the postseason given how dominant they looked early.

Portland has since lost a bit of a steam. Head coach Terry Stotts has watched his team lose nine of 13 contests in March, and the losses have turned the Trail Blazers into a question mark more than anything.

Granted, the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge has been part of the reason for the stumbles. Aldridge has missed seven straight games due to back spasms.

With that said, the Trail Blazers have shown their best and worst stretches of basketball, and it helps paint a picture of what to expect in the playoffs.

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Orlando Magic 3/25/14: Video Highlights and Recap

After last night’s close loss at the hands of the Miami Heat, the Portland Trail Blazers got back on the court to take on the struggling Orlando Magic.

The Blazers entered Tuesday looking to snap out of a skid that has seen them lose two games in a row and seven of their last 10. Portland hasn’t looked like the same team after the All-Star break, and LaMarcus Aldridge‘s injury issues haven’t helped either.

Orlando came into the meeting losers of its last nine games, giving Portland a golden opportunity to turn the tide of its season.

Watch the video for full highlights.

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Portland Trail Blazers’ Good Luck Charm Comes in 15-Year-Old Boy

Portland Trail Blazers super fan Matt Vachter has been the Blazers’ secret weapon this season.

Vachter, who suffers from cerebral palsy, goes to many of the Blazers’ home games and has gotten to meet the players, cheerleaders and coaches before and after the games.

The players show him lots of love and even made a custom jersey for him, but the incredible addition to Vachter‘s story is that when he attends games and gives daps to players, the team is 39-5. Now if only they could get him to go on their road trips.

[Portland Trail Blazers]

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The 1 Team the Portland Trail Blazers Do Not Want to See in NBA Playoffs

The Portland Trail Blazers aren’t quite the offensive juggernaut/title contender that they looked to be in a roaring 22-4 start to the season, but make no mistake, they’re lurking as a team that could make some noise in the playoffs.

Portland is banged up, but it’s also been fairly stingy on defense lately and still has the offensive rebounding and outside shooting to give a team headaches in the postseason. Certain teams, anyways.

The Western Conference side of the playoffs is basically one big game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” It’s all about drawing the right matchup. And the one team, above all others, that the Trail Blazers do not want to see in the playoffs is…the Houston Rockets. The team they’re currently slated to meet in the first round. Yikes.

 

Defense

There may be better teams than the Rockets out West, but none of them are as uniquely equipped to give Portland problems on the defensive end.

Houston is scoring more efficiently against Portland than pretty much any team in the league, and its two stars have rolled through the Blazers defense. Just take a look at James Harden and Dwight Howard‘s numbers against Portland.

  PTS TRB AST TS%
Harden (vs. Portland) 30.3 7.3 5.3 64.1
Harden (season averages) 24.8 4.6 5.7 61.6
Howard (vs. Portland) 25.5 13.5 1.8 65.7
Howard (season averages) 18.6 12.4 1.8 59.8

That’s some scary stuff. As Grantland‘s Zach Lowe recently detailed, the Blazers defense is designed to take away three-pointers at the expense of giving up more looks at the rim. Houston’s offense is designed to get a ton of shots from deep and at the rim.

The results are what you’d expect—the Rockets are shooting just 32 percent from deep against the Blazers, but they’re scoring over 56 points per game in the paint. Houston’s also feasting on the offensive glass, grabbing around a third of its misses against Portland.

A lot of Rockets fans are (quite fairly) unhappy that the majority of Howard’s touches come from the low block instead of in what should be a lethal Harden-Howard pick-and-roll combo. But against the Blazers, those looks have been dynamite. Houston is shooting 58 percent (!!) on post-ups against Portland, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).

Robin Lopez has been great for the Blazers this season, but he doesn’t have the strength or speed to hang with Howard. Howard can literally move him around in the paint, and even when he’s really humming, Portland has been hesitant to send help.

Houston’s wings cause similar problems. Again, Portland opts to protect against corner threes instead of packing the paint, and Harden in particular has taken advantage of that. The Rockets are taking and making a huge chunk of shots at the rim against Portland, and even worse, they’re drawing a ton of fouls in the process.

The Blazers are typically great at avoiding fouls, but they’ve sent the Rockets to the free-throw line far too often. Even worse, they’re not set up to take advantage of Houston’s turnover problems. Portland’s conservative scheme rarely forces turnovers, limiting one of the easiest ways to attack Houston on the other end.

 

Offense

Unfortunately for the Blazers, things don’t look all that much better against Houston on the offensive end.

Despite what Howard’s presence might have you think, the best way to attack the Rockets is at the rim. Opponents are shooting nearly 61 percent in the restricted area against the Rockets, and 48 percent even when Howard is around the basket, an unusually high number against a defender of Howard’s caliber.

But the fault doesn’t lie with Howard so much as it does with Houston’s perimeter players.

Patrick Beverley is the only steady defender among the starters, and even he is prone to gambling too much. Chandler Parsons is inconsistent at best, and Harden is…Harden-ish (though he’s not usually that horrendous). As a result, Howard is left on an island to deal with a lot of unhindered shots at the rim.

Portland doesn’t really have the personnel to take advantage of that. The Blazers have scored the NBA‘s third-lowest amount of points in the paint, and a good chunk of the shots they do get at the rim come from offensive rebounds or LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups. And as Lowe wrote, those have been pretty ineffective over the last few months.

The “jump-shooting team” label is a tired one, but it fits the Blazers better than most teams. Portland has taken more threes and more mid-range jumpers than they have shots at the rim, and Houston defends both of those areas well. The Rockets are aggressive against pick-and-rolls in order to force opposing bigs into tough mid-range jumpers like this:

Unfortunately for the Blazers, that shot is Aldridge’s bread and butter. Aldridge has taken more mid-range jumpers than the entire Rockets squad and has hit 42 percent of them. That’s a passable number, but not nearly good enough to justify it being such a big part of the offense, even if it does open up outside shots for Portland’s wings.

Aldridge has put up some big numbers against the Rockets, but that’s more a result of him averaging nearly 24 shots in those games than anything else—he’s posting a true shooting percentage of just 50 percent against them.

To be fair, Portland can take advantage of a few mismatches against Houston.

For example, Damian Lillard‘s pick-and-roll three game could give the Rockets (who sometimes struggle defending above-the-break threes) problems. And as much as they’ve failed to secure defensive rebounds, the Blazers have done well on the offensive glass against the Rockets. Still though…not a ton to work with here.

 

Conclusion

Like quite literally every playoff team in the West, the Blazers are going to be a handful in April. They’re more than capable of winning a series—or even multiple series—if everything breaks right. Even a series against the Rockets.

With that being said, though, the Rockets are the worst-case scenario for the Blazers. Portland fans shouldn’t exactly be cheering for their team to lose games, but let’s just say it wouldn’t be the worst thing if they happened to get passed in the standings.

 

All statistics accurate as of 3/24/2014 and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference unless specifically stated otherwise.

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Miami Heat: Live Score and Analysis

The Portland Trail Blazers (45-25) are on the road to take on the struggling Miami Heat (47-21) at the AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday.

The Heat won a close game, 108-107, in the only other meeting between these two on Dec. 28.

 

Tipoff7:30 p.m. ET

Coverage: NBATV

Injuries (via CBS): LaMarcus Aldridge, POR (questionable, back); Joel Freeland, POR (out, knee) 

 

Keys to the Game

With Aldridge struggling with a back injury, the Blazers need others to step up and fill the offensive void. Most of that responsibility will fall on Damian Lillard.

On the other end, Greg Oden will start at center for the Heat. It will be his first chance to take on the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in the 2007 draft. They’re 4-7 in their last 11 and could use more production from the center position.

 

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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Greg Oden Expected to Start vs. Portland Trail Blazers on March 24

The next time the Portland Trail Blazers play, Greg Oden will be starting—just not for them.

According to the Miami Heat‘s game notes, Oden will start when the reigning NBA champions host the Blazers on Monday, March 24, in what will be a game highlighted by what-could-have-beens.

Portland selected Oden with the first overall pick in the 2007 draft. As The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman reminds us, his arrival was supposed to be the start of something special for the Blazers, but things quickly turned tragic:

The Blazers selected Oden with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, causing giddy fans to storm the court during a draft party at what was then called the Rose Garden. His selection was supposed to cement the Blazers as an NBA powerhouse, creating the tantalizing possibility of a Big Three featuring Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Oden, and stimulating visions of multiple NBA championships.

But you know how that ended. Oden would play just 82 career games over five seasons with the Blazers as injuries — including five on his knees — stained his tenure in Portland and sabotaged his career. He averaged 9.4 points and 7.3 rebounds with the Blazers.

But while he’s hardly the dominant player he once was — or at least was projected to be — Oden has resurrected his career in Miami.

Indeed, Oden has managed to rebound from recurring knee injuries in Miami, where he’s seldom expected to contribute, let alone buttress a dynasty.

Expectations have steadily increased in Miami, though. With each passing game, Oden becomes more of a lineup fixture. He’s started in three of the Heat’s last five games, providing the occasional block or thunderous dunk, offering further glimpses into the player he once could have been.

But the pain and anguish of his injury-riddled time in Portland continues to linger.

Though Oden has appeared in 20 of Miami’s games, he has yet to clear 15 minutes in a single contest, in what is a stark reminder that what “once could have been” will never actually be.

For the rest of his career, Oden could find himself on a minutes cap, forever a game-time decision on the tail end of back-to-backs.

Blazers fans can relate to this all too well—and more.

Portland held out hope that he could return and produce for nearly five years before giving up in 2012. Regardless of how marginal his role in Miami is, it has to be bittersweet watching him play for a contender after failing to elevate the Blazers’ status for four-plus years.

Still, it’s refreshing to see Oden simply playing. 

Before this season, Oden’s last regular-season appearance came in December 2009. More than five years came and went before he took the court in Washington, this time as a member of the Heat.

On Monday, he’ll take the court once more, against the team that first gambled on him and lost. But while he and the Blazers are liable to get nostalgic, past failures aren’t important.

“The biggest victory for him is that he is available and in uniform,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Oden earlier this month, per ESPN’s Michael Wallace.

Miami, Portland—it doesn’t matter where he’s playing. Oden is back, even though plenty of people doubted he would ever play again.

Victories for Oden don’t get any bigger. 

 

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Charlotte Bobcats 3/22/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The Portland Trail Blazers looked to continue their recent win streak on Saturday against the Charlotte Bobcats. The Blazers were riding a two-game win streak and faced a Bobcats squad that had dropped two straight. 

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