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April 2, 2012
Showing Their Wares
Opportunity for Blazers

by Kevin Pelton

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Though Portland Trail Blazers players and coaches are clinging to the hopes of a playoff run, with the team three games out of the eighth seed with 13 games to play, such a prospect is unlikely. Even after passing the Minnesota Timberwolves with Sunday's 119-106 victory over Minnesota at the Rose Garden, the Blazers would still have to jump over three teams to reach the postseason. An updated version of Bradford Doolittle's simulation, using results in the month of March to rate teams, did not show Portland advancing in any of the 1,000 runs.

Even if the Blazers can already be considered effectively eliminated, don't say the remaining games on the schedule are meaningless. Since the trading deadline, Portland has gotten a valuable opportunity to evaluate the young talent on the roster to determine which players, if any, can contribute going forward. On Sunday night, newcomers Jonny Flynn and J.J. Hickson joined second-year forward Luke Babbitt to play key roles in the win over Minnesota. Facing off against a Timberwolves second unit that has been devastated by injuries, the Blazers' own makeshift reserve corps proved a difference-maker.

Hickson actually got the start, stepping in for the injured Joel Przybilla. The assignment was also a reward for Hickson's terrific effort Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers, when he came within two points of his career high, finishing with 29. In six games with Portland, which claimed him off waivers on March 21, Hickson has already scored nearly 60 percent of his point total from 35 games for the Sacramento Kings. After opening Sunday's game slowly, he finished with 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting and nine boards.

The Kings have to be wondering where this Hickson was in Sacramento. This version looks a lot more like the one the Kings surrendered Omri Casspi and a first-round pick to get last summer. In part, the Blazers are using Hickson in a way that makes him much more effective offensively. Pairing him and LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt means one of the two big men is almost always going to have a quickness advantage. Portland is also putting Hickson in more pick-and-rolls, the area in which he's always excelled. That was tough for Sacramento to do because Isaiah Thomas is the only Kings guard who is effective running the pick-and-roll, and Thomas played just 235 minutes with Hickson all season.

The result is that Hickson is getting much better shot opportunities than he did in Sacramento, or even last year in Cleveland. According to mySynergySports.com, nearly 20 percent of Hickson's shots with the Blazers have come off pick-and-rolls, with just 4.9 percent as the result of spot-up situations. The latter number is down from 13.2 percent with the Kings and 14.8 percent in 2010-11. It's even lower than his mark from his successful 2009-10 season with the Cavaliers (10.7 percent). Hickson is one of the league's worst midrange shooters, so cutting those attempts out of his game and focusing instead on getting to the rim has made him far more efficient.

The lingering question on Hickson that Portland must determine the rest of the year is whether he can be effective enough defensively to keep on the floor. Certainly, Hickson's liabilities are more tolerable when he's at power forward rather than at center or next to Aldridge. However, minutes are the four are hard to come by with the Blazers right now between Aldridge and the hot-shooting Babbitt, who has thrived as a stretch four since the deadline.

Under former head coach Nate McMillan, Babbitt had few opportunities to play rotation minutes. At the time McMillan was fired, Babbitt had played more than 10 minutes just four times, none of them in games decided by fewer than 18 points. Of course, it's hard to blame McMillan, whose focus was on winning games rather than developing players. When he did get on the court, Babbitt looked tentative and unsure of himself, making little case for additionally playing time.

Babbitt has been the biggest beneficiary of Portland's decision to recast its team with a focus on younger players. What's interesting is that interim head coach Kaleb Canales has also changed Babbitt's position. Previously, his playing time came largely as a small forward, but Babbitt is now backing up Aldridge in the rotation. When Babbitt was drafted, I suspected he might eventually develop into a floor-spacing power forward, but figured that might take a few years as he added strength.

Instead, Babbitt is already demonstrating the kind of splits we see from many tweener forwards who specialize in outside shooting. Playing against smaller, more athletic defenders, these types of players (who also include former Blazer Travis Outlaw and Shawne Williams, the injured former Knick and Net the team acquired at the deadline) have a tough time finding open looks from downtown. It's when they move to power forward that their shooting becomes deadly, more than offsetting their weaknesses at the defensive end of the floor.

Such may be the case with Babbitt, who has been on fire for the last week. Dating back to March 25, he's made 12 of his last 18 attempts from beyond the arc and is now shooting 52.5 percent on threes for the season, a number that is sure to cause SCHOENE to burst into flames when it tries to project Babbitt this summer.

Certain matchups will always be difficult for Babbitt defensively. He struggled with the quickness of Derrick Williams Sunday, and Friday night's battle with Blake Griffin was borderline unfair. As long as Babbitt makes them pay on the other end, Portland will live with such shortcomings. Given that as recently as last Saturday Babbitt had shown little evidence he could contribute in the NBA, any flashes of competence are encouraging.

The irony was obvious in former Minnesota lottery pick Jonny Flynn helping deal a crushing blow to his former team's playoff chances. Acquired at the deadline largely because his expiring contract fit in the trade that sent Marcus Camby to Houston, Flynn has gotten an opportunity to play the last four games with first Raymond Felton (personal) and now rookie Nolan Smith (ear infection) out of action. Flynn had 10 points and five assists on Tuesday against Oklahoma City, five points and three assists in L.A. and four points and a season-high seven assists Sunday against the team that drafted him.

Like Hickson, Flynn is now being put in more favorable situations. He was terribly mismatched in Kurt Rambis' triangle offense and was stuck behind two terrific point guards this season in Houston, so this is Flynn's first chance to run a typical NBA attack. Portland is in little danger of being overtaken by "Flynnsanity" any time soon, but Flynn has looked like a competent backup point guard, which is a step up from his disappointing, injury-plagued 2010-11 campaign.

Flynn will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, making any action he gets over the season's final month essentially an open audition to the rest of the league. For players like him and Hickson, who will be restricted, these games may as well be the playoffs.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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