trailblazers

Minnesota vs. Portland Preview, with Q&A from John Flesta of Timberpups

Timberwolves vs. Blazers, writer vs. writer

Earlier this week, I was approached by John Flesta of Timberpups.com with a fun opportunity for a Blazers vs. Timberwolves preview.

Basically we’d run a Q&A with each other, and post the answers on our respective blogs.

With an opportunity to debate sports—and shower the Blazers with homerly praise—I jumped on the offer. While we tried to bring our answers back to the game at hand, it was hard to not discuss the offseason drama that unfolded between these two teams.

For the purposes of this preview, we’ll go back and forth with the Q&A.  Just to add a wrinkle, we have the same name, but please note the “h” or lack thereof in the responses.

Blazers Question #1 for Jon at NWSportsBeat:

What was your reaction to the conclusion of this summer’s drama regarding Nicolas Batum and what’s been the biggest surprise of his early season success?

Jon:

Nicolas Batum is one of my favorite Blazers (only jersey I own!), but after his PR storm (saying he wanted to leave Portland, the incident in the Olympics, etc.) I was ready to cut ties with him for the right price.

To me, that “right price” would have been any sign and trade that could have netted Portland a promising player like Derrick Williams. A move like that could have saved Portland a lot more money, while toning down short-term success in hopes of better long-term success. But with Paul Allen, I wasn’t surprised he opted to keep Batum around. Especially since Portland seems to have this vendetta thing going with David Kahn.

Nicolas Batum, Ricky Rubio

Imagine if these guys had ended up on the same team. (Photo: AP)

I’ve been most surprised by Batum’s ability to actually step up his game. The guy is averaging 20.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 48 percent. All are career highs. While I’d like to see a bit more consistency (shooting at or above 50 percent), it’s hard to complain with the production. He’s also shown poise and leadership taking over games, which he needs to keep doing to justify that contract.

Pups Question #1 for John at Timberpups.com:

With Brandon Roy already missing time (and set to miss this return trip to Portland), do you think it was a mistake for the Timberwolves to go after him?

John:

Signing Brandon Roy wasn’t a mistake in my opinion it was a calculated risk that is already showing signs of failure.  Given Roy’s surgery this past Monday, he is now expected to miss about a month of action.  That puts the Pups in a bit of a predicament given the injury to Chase Budinger, as they are left with Alexey Shved and Malcolm Lee to play heavy minutes at the SG position.  Shved has been close to phenomenal for the Wolves, while Lee leaves a lot to be desired.  We’ll also likely see newly signed Josh Howard playing minutes at SG as well.

What the Wolves should have done – and this isn’t MMQB’ing, I felt this way during the offseason – is put a full court press on OJ Mayo immediately after the Batum saga ended.  According to a local Wolves reporter, this never happened at all and we know what Mayo is doing so far this season in Dallas.

Net/net, it wasn’t a mistake for Kahn and company to sign Roy, as SG was a huge positional need for this team going into the offseason.  They took a risk and it doesn’t look like it is going to pan out.  The season is still young, but I didn’t think (see: hoped) that Brandon would already be missing a significant amount of time.

The “good” news is that Roy’s contract has provisions in it, so if he decides to shut it down for good, we aren’t on the hook for next year and that would open up cap space for the team to work with.

Blazers Question #2 for Jon:

Can you tell us one or two strengths and weaknesses to watch for on Friday regarding the sensational rookie, Damian Lillard?

Jon:

Lillard has a real good shot and can score in just about every way. While Minnesota’s defense has been stellar, point guards have troubled them. If they can’t defend Lillard, he can explode on the offensive end.

Defensively, he’s very quick and savvy. His 1.5 steals per game—compared to Ridnour’s 1.77 turnovers per game—could play a big factor in this game. He’ll do everything he can to force the ball back into his hands.

Despite the breakout season, Lillard is still a rookie who makes mistakes. Ball control has been an issue with him, and he can serve up a lot of turnovers in a short amount of time. He’s pretty poised when it comes to fouls, but has hit a couple cold patches with his shot.

While he could have a big game against the T-Wolves, he’ll have to stay calm and consistent.

Pups Question #2 for John:

Without Kevin Love, how will Minnesota try and contain Portland’s bigs, specifically LaMarcus Aldridge?

John:

Somewhat surprisingly, this has actually been a relative strength for the Wolves frontcourt so far this season. Despite his struggles offensively, Derrick Williams has been our starting PF and is playing good man to man defense.  He is by no means a lockdown defender, but he also isn’t getting blown out of the water by anyone either.  He played David West and Carlos Boozer in back to back games two weeks ago and held them in check.

With that said if Aldridge heats up during the game, you can expect Andrei Kirilenko to slide over to guard him, as AK47 has and will guard any position effectively while on the floor.  Coming off the bench, Dante Cunningham has been a very pleasant surprise.  He’s also playing very good defense against both forward positions.

I would expect LaMarcus to get his normal points and rebounds, but I wouldn’t expect him to have a career night just because Love is not on the floor.

Updated: Given Kevin Love’s return to the lineup, I would still expect LaMarcus to get somewhere around his season averages. However, he’ll be tested much more on the defensive end given that Love has returned to the floor and already seems to be ready for big minutes. Love put in 35 minutes Wednesday night, dropping a 34 and 14 evening on the Nuggets.

Derrick Williams received a DNP-CD and I would expect to see similar “results” from the second year player until he is moved to another team at some point over the coming weeks.

Blazers Question #3 for Jon:

Is there any chance the Blazers don’t go after Nikola Pekovic this coming offseason?

Jon:

It comes down to the development of Meyers Leonard, Portland’s No.11 pick in the draft.

If he shows promising growth over the season, I don’t see any reason Portland doesn’t develop him as their franchise center. If he keeps playing like he has (3.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game), no reason they don’t go after someone in this deep upcoming free agent class.

Even if Leonard pans out, it wouldn’t surprise me if they looked to stockpile depth at the position—especially with Portland’s history with centers.

J.J. Hickson has done well for Portland, but he’s a short-term answer. I think they’d really like two defensive minded centers to rotate through.

Among next season’s free agents, Al Jefferson and Nikola Pekovic seem like the most obvious targets, with Pekovic fitting Portland’s defensive mold much better than Jefferson. With the history of these two teams, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Portland go after Pekovic with the same aggressiveness they showed towards Roy Hibbert this past summer.

It would make for another very interesting chapter in these teams’ offseason rivalry towards one another.

Pups Question #3 for John:

After inevitably losing out on the Nicolas Batum sweepstakes, how has Minnesota filled the void at small forward? All things consider, do you think they’re better, or worse off without Batum?

John:

Minnesota vs. Portland

You never know what will happen when these two men meet on the court. (Photo: Rick Bowmer / AP)

Andrei Kirilenko deserves to be in the All-Star Game through the first month or so of the season.  There is little to no flash in his game whatsoever, but by the end of the night, he’s filled the box score.  Without AK47, the Wolves probably wouldn’t have three wins right now.  Also mentioned above, but Dante Cunningham has been a solid rotational player for Rick Adelman.  It will be interesting to see what happens when Kevin Love comes back, because these two guys have outperformed Derrick Williams and his minutes are going to be heavily squeezed.

In regards to Batum, I really liked the efforts our FO put in to get him to Minnesota.  It became too much of a circus in July, but I thought that he would have been a great match with Love and Rubio, and formed a nice core that could have grown together.  I think Batum’s contract is a little north of where it should be, but there was so much ridiculous money thrown around this offseason that it didn’t really matter to me, since it isn’t/wasn’t a “max deal”.

Regarding the second part of the question, there are two answers.  In the short term, the Pups are better off with AK47 on this roster.  He’s been phenomenal for the team on and off the court (the latter by helping Alexey Shved transition to the NBA).  However, I can’t imagine Andrei’s in the league four years from now and if he is, there is no way he’ll be as productive and efficient as he has been this season.  So longer term, I would have really liked to have seen the Batum signing come to fruition.  This does put added pressure on our FO to “win now”, as our owner and head coach are also not going to be around for that much longer.

(Bonus question for John which he threw back at me!)

Pups Question #4 for John:

These teams feature two of the NBA’s brightest up-and-coming point guards in Ricky Rubio and Damian Lillard. Though Rubio won’t return from injury in time for this game, who do you think will be the better long term player, and why?

John:

I can’t talk rationally about this, so let this be a preface for the following paragraph.  Assuming there are no lingering issues coming off of his knee surgery (thanks again Kobe!), I think Rubio is a shining star in the NBA for the next decade.  The Wolves can and should be a playoff team as long as he and Love have a complementary group of players alongside them.  As soon as the Wolves start to enter the playoffs, more and more fans will become aware of just how awesome Rubio is.  He’s a fantastic teammate, makes everyone around him better, and is an absolute joy to watch.

I’ve seen very little of Lillard so far this season (parts of two games), so would you care to make the case as to why Lillard might be better?

Jon:

From what I know about both these guys, I think Lillard has a chance to the better scorer, but Rubio the chance to be a better facilitator.

Lillard has good vision of the court, but I think he’ll always hold onto his score first mentality. Rubio is more of the team man, running the offense like a true point. It’s like choosing between Rondo and Westbrook. Both bring different things to the position, and are gong to gel based on certain team needs.

And to be honest, where Portland’s at I’d rather have a Rondo (Rubio) than a Westbrook (Lillard).

But both are miles above what Portland’s had in the last decade, so I’m more than happy to have Lillard on the team. He’s also showing tremendous promise as a rookie, so I’m certainly excited to see what happens in the coming years.

We hope you enjoyed the preview for this Friday’s match-up between the Pups and Blazers.

Again, you can read more from John at Timberpups.com and/or follow him on Twitter.

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