It's the All-Star break. All the biggest players, joined by the biggest celebrities, descend on one of the biggest cities, and put on the biggest show of the NBA season. Big, big, big, BIG. No matter what your feelings about the festivities themselves, it's tough to not feel overwhelmed and impressed by the sheer immensity of it all.
But here at Blazer's Edge, we like to focus on balanced discussion and community. That can be tough with all the lights and attention turned so intensely on a select few and this lack of perspective can make the whole hullabaloo seem like one lengthy, contrived peacock strut. So, in the interest of balance, what better time to reflect on all the little things players do that so often go unappreciated? And what better way than to come up with our own set of meaningless awards? With that...
Welcome to the 2015 Blazer's Edge Little Things Awards!
Each contributor got one vote to pick the Blazer they thought was the best at a small but important skill, like moving without the ball or setting good screens. The votes were tallied, a winner was crowned, and then we set our writers against one another in a literary cage match to defend or challenge the choice of the winner.
And they did not disappoint, going so cuckoo bananas that we had to break it into three parts. Enjoy the debate, join the friendly swashbuckle with your own ballot, and look for Parts 2 and 3 later this week.
Best Box Out
Applicant should be super tall, a little mean, have a really big butt, and know how to use it.
Winner - Robin Lopez
Brandon: As a kid, one of the first things you learn about rebounding is to find an opposing player and get between them and the basket when the shot goes up. The point is NOT that you're in the best position to jump up and grab the ball: it's to create a pocket of space so that, when the ball careens off the rim, your opponent has no chance of getting it. Multiply this over 5 players, and your team will almost certainly get the board.
This is what Lopez embraces in spades. He's not JJ Hickson, willing to worm through crowds of people to grab the ball himself, leaving his man embarrassingly uncovered. Lopez would rather create space and watch the ball bounce once, even twice as he holds the opposition off, leaving the rebound and its sweet statistical juiciness for a teammate. His unselfish and pragmatic approach to team rebounding makes him the best box out on the team.
Runner Up - Thomas Robinson
Ryan: Robinson is a fantastic rebounder, and part of that is the intensity he puts into his box outs. Lopez is a good rebounder, but he lacks that aggressive edge that Robinson seems to have on the court at all times. Robinson is only 237 pounds, but he looks a lot bigger when rebounding because of how well he spaces himself out to ensure no one else can get a good position.
Proof comes from percentage of rebounds grabbed while the player in on the floor. This season, Robinson has grabbed 26% of the potential defensive rebounds while he is on the floor, and 18.1% of all rebounds. Lopez has grabbed 14.6% of the potential defensive rebounds, and 13.8% of the total rebounds. Admittedly, Robinson is normally playing against the second unit, but it is not like the defending players suddenly get smaller because they are coming off the bench.
Best Close Outs
Step 1: Run full speed at a shooter. Step 2: Get a hand up. Step 3: Change direction in an instant if he decides to drive. Yeah, close outs are hard. Who's the best at them?
Winner - Nicolas Batum
Dave: Yeah, yeah, I know what you're saying. Nic's had a lousy season. He doesn't look like the same player. Got it. But when you want a guy with that magical mix of length, speed, and court awareness to make use of both, who you gonna call? Nicolas Batum. Still. He's your money man on defense when you see the ball swing and you need someone to dissuade the recipient from shooting. He'll be on his way before the ball arrives, he'll make the shooter think twice, and usually he'll be able to contain himself enough at the end to keep from flying by, forcing his man to make the next pass instead of the next shot. Damian Lillard doesn't intimidate the same way. Wesley Matthews can't close as rapidly. LaMarcus Aldridge could do it but it's usually not his job. The centers are too slow and don't belong out there, the bench players too green to realize the need half the time. Whatever the wrist is doing to him on offense, Batum still has this to fall back on.
Runner Up - Wesley Matthews
Ryan: The only reason you could make a case for Batum over Matthews is that Matthews is such an effective on-player defender that he never has to chase out to contest a shot. His opponent never gets that far. In those rare cases, Matthews is the best on the Blazers. Like everything else Wesley does, it comes with high energy and a general disregard for his own safety. How many times this season has Wesley gone after a shot or a loose ball and wound up almost in the crowd?
Batum is a solid defender, but he plays with a highly methodical nature, using just the right amount of energy for any given situation to ensure that he does not get beaten. He also is slower than Matthews in a dead sprint, which you need when contesting an open shot.
Most Consistent Defensive Positioning
The Blazers defensive scheme is like a puzzle. Each guy has to be in the right spot for it to all fit together. Who is in those spots most consistently?
Winner - LaMarcus Aldridge
Dave: You'll notice LaMarcus Aldridge's 24 points and 10 rebounds per game. You'll notice his All-Star jersey, the All-NBA Team he's going to be named to, that huge contract he's about to sign. Amid all that glare, it's easy to ignore that Aldridge's team sits at 37-16 with the second best defensive rating in the league because LaMarcus has morphed into his own personal ad slogan: he's everywhere you need him to be. If opposing guards are penetrating freely, there's Aldridge forming the Wall of Doom with Robin Lopez and company preventing shots from going up. When the opponent starts feasting on offensive rebounds, there's Aldridge beasting them right back into Portland's hands. If the Blazers need to switch, they aren't scared to have LaMarcus watching a perimeter player.
Discerning a good defender as a layman is pretty simple. You never want to notice him unless he's blocking a shot, making a steal, or defending a 1-on-1 isolation play. Tell me the last time you noticed Aldridge letting his man free, getting backdoored on a cut or spin, giving up on a play. He's the perfect party guest, unobtrusive until the conversation starts falling apart, then he's the life of the evening, holding things together. That's smart leadership. It's also pretty darn good defense. Other players make bigger plays, get tougher assignments, get more credit. But if you're pointing to the guy you can depend on play after play, the finger goes straight to Aldridge.
Runner Up - Wesley Matthews
Dan: In the NBA, guys with nick names like Wes $ and Iron Man reach legendary status for their consistent hard-nosed defensive abilities.
Wes played in 250 consecutive NBA games before being forced to sit out of a game on December 10, 2012 due to an injury to his left hip. Always drawing the assignment against some of the NBA's most prolific two-guards, Wes's straight up chest-to- body positioning has helped Portland become one of the premiere defensive teams in the league.
Best Off-Ball Movement
This player can double as a perpetual motion machine in a pinch.
Winner - Wesley Matthews
Chris: You could a make case here for just about any of Portland's wings, but I think Wesley Matthews is most deserving. The way he uses screens to get open is impressive -- like his quick release and ability to hit the step-back three -- but he also knows how to play off the attention Lillard and Aldridge receive to find open looks of his own:
On most plays, Matthews is moving around like this off the ball and, considering he's made more threes than just about anyone in the league at this point in the season, his off-ball movement probably deserves some applause. Matthews isn't taking many of his three-pointers off the dribble, it's often subtle movements without the ball that are getting him open.
Runner Up - Damian Lillard
Willy: A point guard? What? How can the guy with the ball in his hands all the freaking time be the best at moving without the ball? Oh my friend, we have ourselves a very unique point guard. Equally comfortable on and off the ball, Stotts' flow offense and two point guard lineups give Lillard ample opportunity to run around without the orange sphere in between his hands. And, like Matthews, he's an expert at finding the open spaces along the perimeter. But, unlike Matthews, he's uber quick and uses that quickness to beat his man backdoor and on cuts to the rim. It's this double threat that makes Lillard more dangerous without the ball than his backcourt counterpart.