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Trail Blazers Roundtable: Impact, Injuries, Predictions, and Paychecks

Friday, March 13, 2015

 

Damian Lillard

With 20 games remaining in the 2014-15 regular season, the Portland Trail Blazers face not only an uphill climb to keep their footing in the Western Conference, but also to deal with mounting injury concerns. Once the season is over, regardless of the outcome, they will then have to deal with very tough decisions about who stays in a Portland uniform. We asked five of Oregon Sports News staff writers to contribute their thoughts on those subjects and more.

Writers contributing will be Jared Wright (JW), John Stupak (JS), Patrick McEachern (PM), Garrett Thornton (GT), and Casey Mabbott (CM). 

1. Who or what has made the largest impact on the Trail Blazers' season?

(JW)  It has to be LaMarcus Aldridge’s stellar, consistent play. You could name Damian Lillard’s improvement, Nicolas Batum’s free-fall, Robin Lopez’s hand injury, or lately Wesley Matthews’ season-ending Achilles rupture, but Aldridge is the be-all, end-all for Portland.

Despite injuries to both thumbs, LMA just keeps pumping out games with 21-12, 23-10, and the occasional 30-point explosion to keep Portland among the top teams in the league. Ask yourself this: where would the Blazers be right now if he opted for surgery?

(JS) Schadenfreude. Or, other teams’ injury problems, specifically Oklahoma City. Portland was able to gain a nice cushion of a lead in the Northwest Division thanks to the Thunder’s slow start which was largely due to the absences of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant for extended periods of time. The injuries to those two players helped Portland get a large enough divisional lead that it may very well be the reason they secure a top four spot in the West playoffs. Specifically to the Blazers themselves, they have made noticeable improvements on defense and bench production, two areas they absolutely needed to improve upon from last season. But, perhaps nothing bigger happened to the Blazers this season than what has happened to their rivals. 

(PM) If it weren’t for Neil Olshey, the answer to this question would likely be “Wes Matthew’s Left Achilles Tendon.” But, by bringing in Arron Afflalo at the trade deadline, Olshey has given the Blazers a puncher’s chance at making a run in what stands to be a truly wild Western Conference playoffs. Plus, the offseason additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake have been major driving forces behind an improved Blazer bench, and a big part of the team’s overall success amid a flurry of injuries to key players. Without Olshey’s deft touch with the roster this past year, it’s not difficult to imagine the Blazers sitting at home come playoff time. 

(GT) It would be fairly simple to say that LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard have had the largest impact, I mean, they are the best players on the team. That is not being disputed. But in my mind, Robin Lopez has had the largest impact on this team, this season. After playing in all 82 games of last season, Lopez missed 23 games this season with a broken hand. During that stretch Portland struggled to beat quality competition and had a bit of a slump, going 13-10. Since his return, the team has been reinvigorated defensively. He is the anchor of the defense and a safety valve on offense. For Portland to contend for a title this year, they need a healthy Lopez. 

(CM) LaMarcus Aldridge has put up a MVP caliber performance, but all things considered, I simply cannot overlook the contributions made by Damian Lillard. He is the Blazers’ leading scorer, and 11th in the NBA in points per game. He’s giving the Blazers a point on the scoreboard for every $2,562 he’s paid (a HUGE bargain while he plays out his rookie deal) and nearly a two point bucket for every minute he’s on the court. He also happens to lead the team in minutes played, assists, steals, and is second in three point field goals, fourth in rebounds, and the only player other than Steve Blake to appear in every regular season game, all while earning a salary that is 5 times less than Aldridge’s. He may not always pass the eye test, his defense can be called in to question, and he has the most turnovers of any Blazer; but with the amount of players that have missed time this season, Lillard has been the one constant moving the team forward regardless of who is or isn’t on the court, and not one other Blazers’ player can match his overall dollars per stat ratio. 

2. Wesley Matthews left a gaping hole at the 2. Can any of the current Blazers players fill it?

(JW) To be blunt, no. Wes was an elite three-point shooter who also played incredible defense; those guys are as coveted as rim-protecting big men in today’s pick-and-roll league, and are snapped up almost as soon as they’re available. Arron Afflalo and C.J. McCollum will do their best, and if the Blazers are lucky, the offensive part of Matthews’ game won’t be missed.

(JS) The real question is who is going to fill the gaping hole on the bench assuming Arron Afflalo slides into the starting lineup from here on out. Afflalo will be fine with the first unit, but he can’t completely fill the void left by Matthews. While Arron is decent on defense, Wes Matthews was the Blazers stopper and his hustle just cannot be matched. They will also sorely miss his shooting as well as he was the team’s most reliable three-point shooter. No single player on the Blazers roster will match Wesley’s skills; rather it will have to be done by committee. Afflalo, C.J. McCollum, Joel Freeland, Myers Leonard and company will all have to step up their respective games to not only make a strong playoff push, but to also keep Portland in one of the top four spots in the West.

(PM) Give it a couple weeks, and it’s quite likely the Blazers starting unit will be humming along, smooth as ever thanks to Olshey’s prescient acquisition of Arron Afflalo.  Offensively, Afflalo’s skill set is remarkably similar to Matthews’, getting a bulk of his points from the three-point line and in the post. On the defensive end, while he may not be Wesley, Afflalo can play tough and hold his own against most wings around the league. That similarity in style should help smooth his transition into the lineup that will get a bulk of the team’s playoff minutes. Of course, this will leave the bench right back where it was three weeks ago, making Meyers Leonard and/or CJ McCollum the duo that will likely need to step up the most if the Blazers are going to make a run come playoff time.

(GT) As the roster is currently constructed, there is no one player that can step in and fill the hole left by Wesley Matthews. This is going to have to be a “by committee” scenario for the rest of the season. The deadline trade for Arron Afflalo all of a sudden looks like another genius move by General Manager Neil Olshey. Afflalo is going to have to shoulder a lot of the load and be a force in the starting lineup. CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Alonzo Gee are going to be called upon to bring some scoring punch off of the bench and help compensate for what the team is missing without Matthews on the court. 

(CM) No. Matthews may not have been on the level of Steph Curry in the three point contest, but in a game situation, there are few players that were more efficient beyond the arc. He also had an above average inside game, and had the ability to be one of the better on-ball defenders in the league. Arron Afflalo, CJ McCollum, and Alonzo Gee will now try to fill the gap, but no one man is going to do it solo. 

3. Portland is currently the #4 seed in the West. Where do you see them finishing?

(JW) I see them staying at 4th in the West. With the stranglehold they’ve applied to the Northwest Division, thanks to Kevin Durant’s broken foot, they’re guaranteed to at least finish there. With Matthews’ injury, it’s too hard to see them leapfrogging Memphis or Houston.

(JS) A week ago this would have been much easier question to answer, but with the recent Matthews injury it now becomes a much more complex question. It remains to be seen just how much the Blazers will miss Matthews. The Blazers fortunes for the rest of this season hinges on the thumb ligament of one LaMarcus Aldridge and the Blazers will have to hope it holds out. My first thought is that Portland will get through the regular season in decent shape. What they do have in their favor is that every team in the West below Portland has their own issues. The team right below Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers, is a team always on the verge of imploding and is dealing with injury problems of their own with Blake Griffin missing significant time. The Dallas Mavericks are struggling to incorporate Rajon Rondo into their lineup and so far that acquisition has horribly backfired, making what was once a potent offense look rather impotent. The San Antonio Spurs have not looked crisp all season and questions about their age are again running rampant, but they are the Spurs so they will probably win the title again anyways, right? The scariest team below Portland, and with major health concerns of their own, is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook, aka The Phantom of Basketball, has been amazing this past month, pushing himself into the race for MVP consideration. If Kevin Durant comes back healthy and if their newly acquired pieces from the trade deadline begin to gel, this team could be the most dangerous team in the playoffs in either conference, but I don’t see them moving up all the way to the number 4 spot before the playoffs begin. I think Portland stays at number 4, but mostly because no other team below them seems poised to make a sustained run to knock them down a peg.

(PM) I think the Blazers have a good chance of holding on to the #4 spot, and not just because it’s guaranteed to them by winning the Northwest Division (which they have all but wrapped up at this point). If they can get Afflalo acclimated to his new role quickly (and all indications are that he will), they shouldn’t fall off their current pace much, if at all. Plus, with a 3 game lead in the loss column on the still Griffin-less Clippers and 4 games on the recently sputtering Mavs, the Blazers might even have a little wiggle-room in their quest to hold on to the 4th best record and the first round home court advantage that comes with it. 

(GT) I see them being in the #4 seed, only because I think they are going to win the Northwest Division. Oklahoma City is currently beat up and 7.0 games behind the Blazers with 20 to go. The Blazers have a stranglehold on the division. There is a very possible (maybe even probable) situation where the Blazers slip some in the conference standings but win the division. By virtue of being the division leader the Blazers would be slotted in the #4 spot, but not have home-court advantage because the #5 seed would have a better record. That would be my prediction.

(CM) Barring a meltdown, the three division winners in the West as it currently stands would be Golden State, Memphis, and Portland. Given the current seeding method, Portland would at worst finish in the 4th spot, but depending on their record they could move up to third, but I’d be very surprised to see them get much higher than that. Without injuries to their stars, the Warriors and Grizzlies aren’t slowing down and while it’s going to be tough to catch Houston, the three spot isn’t locked in yet.   

4. With the season entering its final month, can Portland survive another short-term bite from the injury bug?

(JW) I want to point out, Casey suggested this one. If another Blazer gets hurt, feel free to blame him. If it’s to a big man other than Aldridge, I believe so. With Joel Freeland back, the Blazers have five rotation-caliber big men, with Meyers Leonard’s improved play giving Terry Stotts another option in the frontcourt. If it’s to a guard, or to Batum, no.

(JS) Depends on how short is short term. One game? Two? That’s about the limit right there. Portland needs to hope the injury bug enjoyed the appetizers that were Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge and filled up on the main course that was Wesley Matthews. Portland cannot afford another injury as they are stretched as thin as they can go and there just aren’t enough reliable players in the second unit to sustain another short term or long term injury at this point in the season. The Blazers will have to keep it together down the stretch and as they have shown many times in the past, Portland is often at their best when adversity strikes.

(PM) Things might get pretty ugly if another starter were to go down for any length of time, particularly if it were one of the two All-Stars. That being said, at this point it would take a pretty epic collapse to miss the playoffs entirely. And, while home court advantage would be nice, we already know the Blazers can win big games on the road, as evidence by winning 2 of 3 in Houston last season. So, as long as they can get everyone healthy and in the lineup before the playoffs start, I’d like their chances to win a series or two as much as anyone.   

(GT) Define survive ... Can they make the playoffs with another injury or two? Yes. Can they compete for a title if they are missing another contributing piece of this roster? No. Losing Matthews hurts, a lot. But teams have won titles missing a key piece of their team. This team has very little depth and another injury would basically deal a death blow to their championship ambitions this year. 

(CM) Short-term, I would say that they could. Unless Portland drops at least 7 games more than OKC wins in the next month, the division is theirs. But if a starter is lost for the rest of the regular season and playoffs, I don’t think the team can shoulder the burden of carrying another fill-in player. Afflalo is a good player but has a long way to go to be as comfortable in this offense as Matthews was, and while there’s talent beyond him on the bench, I wouldn’t want to see this team playing without another starter, and I won’t say who I’m thinking of for fear it will become reality. 

Robin Lopez

5. LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Freeland, Alonzo Gee, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, and Dorell Wright are all needing new deals at the end of the season. And there is reason to believe that Aldridge, Lopez, and Matthews could all require max deals to stay. Assuming Portland can find room to absorb two max deals this summer but not three, which players do you keep and which players do you let play the market?

(JW) Keep in mind, the NBA and the Players’ Association can’t agree on a smoothing proposal for the revenue bonanza set to flood the NBA next summer. Player salaries, and the salary caps, are set by the revenue, so the cap could get as high as $90 million next year. Besides that, Paul Allen is extremely wealthy, and GM Neil Olshey is on record saying money is NOT an object.

This is a roundabout way of saying the Blazers can easily afford to keep their starting lineup together for a long time. Aldridge is worth the max (thanks, Captain Obvious!), Lopez should get a healthy salary as a proven rim protector, and Lillard will get extended as well before next season.

The interesting case is Matthews. Will the Blazers pay him knowing he might not be the same player they’ve come to rely on for rugged defense? 

(JS) Nobody on this list except LaMarcus Aldridge deserves a max deal. Even before the injury to Wes Matthews I didn’t think he was a max deal player, but now with the Achilles injury he is almost certainly no longer a candidate for one. There are just too many question marks about when he will return and just how good he will be post-surgery and the lessons of Brandon Roy will weigh heavily here. As for Robin Lopez, you can make a very strong case that he is more valuable to the Blazers than Matthews. We saw how Portland struggled during his absence when Lopez was out with an injured hand. Opponents regularly exploited Portland’s lack of size in the paint and rebounding became a major issue. As much as the Blazers value Matthews’ defense, it is Robin Lopez who truly anchors Portland’s D. Also, is there anyone on this team that is more ‘Portland’ than Robin Lopez? I know you don’t sign players based on their personality match to a city alone, but is there any doubt Lopez belongs in Rip City? The NBA has become a three-point, shoot-em up league and while that makes Matthews valuable, players like Robin become more valuable during the playoffs when the game slows down and defense becomes the more important variable, which again makes Matthews a valuable asset. But, Lopez is more critical to the Blazers, without him Portland has no paint protection, no hard core screener for the offense to work off of and nobody else to do the dirty work as effectively. Wesley Matthews, for how good he is, is a bit easier to replace in this current NBA landscape than a player like Robin Lopez. That said, I’m hoping to see them all back in a Blazers uniform for seasons to come.

(GT) First of all, Aldridge is the only player on that list that is worthy and deserving of a max deal. The free agency market is fairly weak this coming summer but the “money market” of the NBA is incredibly healthy this summer. A lot of teams are going to have cap space. The league is also anticipating a major spike in the salary cap in 2016. What does all of this mean? Teams are going to overspend this summer! Any other year I would think the notion of Matthews or Lopez commanding a max deal on the free agency market would be ludicrous, but this is going to be an unorthodox summer and no one knows what to expect. I expect Aldridge to get a max deal from Portland (5 years, $108 million). I also expect Lopez and Matthews to both be back but not on max deals. Look for Matthews to get $11-12 million a year from Portland and Lopez to get $9-12 million a year. Remember, the Blazers own the “Bird Rights” to these three key pieces and are able to go over the cap to resign them. 

(PM) Boy, talk about a painful decision. While LaMarcus Aldridge is an obvious choice for one of the max deals, choosing between Matthews and Lopez is nothing short of being asked to choose your favorite child. That being said, even before Matthews’ untimely injury, I’d probably lean towards keeping Lopez. Now, with the uncertainty surrounding Wesley’s Achilles, and a potential replacement already on the roster in Afflalo, the decision is pretty simple. It’s just flat out harder to replace a 7-footer who fits in so well next to your franchise player in Aldridge, than it is a 3 and D guy on the wing. Even if Wesley is one of the best in the biz at that role. Beyond that, Lopez’ rim protection and world-class box outs are the driving force behind the Blazers newfound top-10 ranked defense, and he’s become sneaky good on the offensive end as well. It was no coincidence that the team became elite the moment RoLo joined the squad. Plus, after watching DeAndre Jordan (once again) cost his team a game by melting down from the free throw line just the other night, you gotta love a center who shoots over 80% from the charity stripe, as Lopez has done since his arrival in Portland.

(CM)With television revenue sharing expected to increase the hard cap to somewhere between 85-93 million, it’s anyone’s guess how high it will jump. Based on the current projections, Portland would have at least 85M to work with, and 37.7M already locked in. Chris Bosh signed a 5yr extension with Miami last year that netted him nearly 24M in average salary. Assuming Aldridge demands something similar, Portland now has 23M to cover at least four contracts. Can they get Matthews and Lopez to each agree to deals worth less than 10M per year, when similar players are making somewhere between 10-15M per season? My guess is on no, so you roll the dice and re-sign both big men and see what Matthews gets on the open market. If he is snagged by someone else, you immediately re-sign Gee and work to extend Afflalo. If he gets low-balled by the league, hopefully he comes back here angry and wanting to prove he was worth more. With Lillard and Batum up for extensions next year, Neil Olshey needs to be very careful with his bag of cash this summer so that he isn’t forced to let one walk away next summer. Wright and Freeland are both expendable but it would be nice to have either back as long as they can accept deals that keep Portland under the cap.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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