NBA Season Preview: The Portland Trailblazers

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greg_oden_portland_trailblazers.jpgLast season: 50-32, a fantastic achievement considering the comical amount of injuries the Blazers suffered last season. What this team was able to accomplish with Juwan Howard and Jeff Pendergraph, and then later with Marcus Camby, a mid-season acquisition, at center was pretty amazing.

Head Coach: Nate McMillan, who, right or wrong, is no stranger to the term ‘hot seat.’ Based on the magic show his team put on last season, I’m inclined to go with wrong.

Key Departures: Juwan Howard, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, and Rudy Fernandez’s interest in ever playing NBA basketball again.

Key Additions: Luke Babbitt, Wesley Matthews, and hopefully, some better luck.

Best case scenario: Greg Oden comes back looking better than ever, Nic Batum blossoms, everyone stays healthy, and the Blazers mount an improbable run against the Lakers. They’d probably still fall a bit short, but it’s the mounting that counts, right?

For that to happen: In terms of the injuries, a lot of it comes down to chance. The Blazers can train appropriately and be cautious, but there’s no unfluking your way out of a fluke knee injury. Should the basketball gods choose to smite (or in the case of last season, attempt to smite) the Blazers once again, all they can do is roll with the punches.

As for the rest, it’s about returning last year’s most productive pieces while integrating new ones. Travis Outlaw only played 11 games for the Blazers last year, and they’ve clearly proven that they can get by without him. Juwan Howard’s production can easily be replaced by one of the other Blazer bigs returning from injury (Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla), and the combination of Wesley Matthews and Luke Babbitt will fill in for Martell Webster splendidly.

On paper, there’s no reason why the Blazers can’t do everything they did last season and more, which should make the coming year a pretty exciting one for the Blazer faithful.

More likely, the Blazers will: Be quite good, but a bit bogged down in the West’s second tier.

As has been mentioned many times before in these previews, the West is pretty tough. There are the Lakers, back-to-back champs in all of their team-to-beat glory, and behind them, a slew of talented and deep teams competing for the other spot in the Western Conference Finals. Oklahoma City is there. San Antonio is there. Dallas is there. Maybe Utah? Denver? Houston? Phoenix? It’s an absolute mess of promising teams, and somehow the Blazers will try to forage through that group for the West’s silver medal.

They’re certainly as capable of pulling off the feat as any team in the bunch…until that asterisk starts rearing its ugly head. Like it or not, health matters. Greg Oden matters. Marcus Camby has been ridiculously effective for the Blazers, but let’s not forget his deserved reputation of being somewhat brittle as well. There’s a lot riding on three centers with busy injury histories, and two of them won’t even be ready for opening night. I don’t want to rule the Blazers out by default because Brandon Roy is too good and this team is too good, but it’s something we have to keep in mind when evaluating Portland’s chances this season.

They’ll be good. Very good, in all likelihood. But so much of what they could be hinges on a clean bill of health that may not be coming, and that’s unfortunate. Even more unfortunate is that it overshadows just how quietly impressive LaMarcus Aldridge has become, how brilliant Brandon Roy routinely is, and how exquisite Nic Batum and Jerryd Bayless can be (and, to be fair to Nic, how tremendous he is as of this very moment). 

On the bright side, it’s clear that this team can function without depth in the middle, and they’ll be formidable regardless of what happens with Oden’s recovery. Portland was a shockingly good rebounding team last year (4th in offensive rebounding rate, 7th in defensive rebounding rate) despite often playing with undersized bigs, and there’s no reason why they can’t be similarly effective on the boards this season. .

On offense, Roy is one of the best in the game, and the Blazers on the whole follow suit. They have shooting. They have players who can get to the rim. They shoot a ton of free throws (relative to their pace), take care of the ball, and as mentioned previously, hit the offensive glass. It’s why the Blazers had the 7th best offense in the league last season, despite missing not just their centers, but also Roy, Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Steve Blake, and Travis Outlaw for significant stretches. Portland should have another successful offensive year with better health, internal improvement, and a few upgrades, and this year’s offense should be closer to the best-in-the-league outfit Portland fashioned for the ’08-’09 season than last year’s makeshift model.

The problem, as is usually the case with the Blazers, is their defense, and the root of that problem goes far deeper than a few injured centers. That’s not to say that the presence of Oden and Przybilla wouldn’t help things, but if Portland is going to sprint out of the crowded second tier, it’s going to take more than those two. The Blazers aren’t awful on defense, but a merely average mark won’t be enough. They need to get better, and that’s as much on McMillan’s system as it is on the players.

Prediction: 53-29. Good for a solid playoff seed, but possibly not good enough to keep them out of a second round date with Los Angeles. It’s a hard knock life, playing in the West.

Report: Knicks would like to trade for pick in 2016 draft

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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The rebuilding New York Knicks are without one of the key pieces needed to rebuild in today’s NBA — a draft pick. The Knicks have zero in this year’s draft. None. Nada. Zip. You get the idea. This sis not the fault of current team president Phil Jackson, he inherited a situation where this year’s picks were in the wind (the first rounder gone as part of the Andrea Bargnani trade).

Jackson would like to find a way back into this draft, reports Ian Begley at ESPN.

The Knicks plan to acquire a pick in June’s draft. The best-case scenario would probably be a late first-round pick but second-round is more likely. The club has shown interest in several players in recent weeks, including Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell, who has a workout scheduled with the club next month. New York also interviewed Kansas guard Wayne Selden at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago and has expressed interest in him as the draft approaches, according to league sources. Selden, a 6-6 guard, would fit the mold of the big guards Phil Jackson used in his Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Laker teams.

Of course he would like to trade into the draft. He’s also like to lure Kevin Durant to the Knicks. Snagging a draft pick is far, far more likely, but the question remains who does he have on the roster to trade that teams would be willing to give up a pick for? Jose Calderon? Getting into the draft requires assets and — as has been the challenge for Jackson since he agreed to the job — the previous regime stripped this team of assets.

Still, expect Jackson to come up with something. But it’s not going to be a game changer; he’s going to have to win in free agency to get that.

Report: Sixers to explore trades for Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Jahlil Okafor #8 and Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers play in the game against the Utah Jazz on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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The Sixers are on schedule to have 7-foot Joel Embiid suited up for them next season at center. They may have 6’10” Dario Saric in from overseas (if not next season, the one after). They are about to draft 6’10 forward Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick.

Where does that leave the two guys who were the core of the Sixers’ front line last season, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel?

Possibly on the trade block, according to Chad Ford and Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Philadelphia 76ers will explore trading Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel in the buildup to the NBA draft on June 23, according to league sources.

Sources told ESPN that the Sixers are determined to gauge the trade market for both Okafor and Noel and are increasingly likely to move at least one of them in conjunction with the draft, in which Philadelphia holds the No. 1 overall selection for the first time since selecting Allen Iverson in 1996.

Ford said more on a 97.3 ESPN Philadephia radio interview, via the 700 Club at CSNPhilly.com.

“I think that they’ll gauge the interest of both players. I think that there might be a slight preference for Noel, to keep him around with the Sixers, and I think you might be right, there might be a slight, better value for Okafor out on the market, but I think everyone agrees that that combination of those two players doesn’t necessarily work. The Sixers needs to pick up assets, especially if they’re gonna go ahead and do a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram with the first pick in the draft. Then they’re gonna need those assets to start to fill out their backcourt, because the 24th pick and [the 26th pick], you’re not finding starters.”

I doubt they would move either for another pick. Remember that “the process” is dead in Philly — the Sixers want to start winning more now under the Colangelos. How far they are willing to go down that road — and what pieces they may be willing to sacrifice — remains to be seen, but here is what GM Bryant Colangelo told NBC Sports after finding out his team got the No. 1 pick.

“I’ve been quoted as saying you can only have so many developing players in your fold,” Colangelo said. “There’s a lot to consider to finding a balance… I think there needs to be a blend of young talent and veterans on your roster, there needs to be a balance.”

Okafor is what he is — he can score in the paint, he can rebound, he will get you some buckets, but he’s not much of a defender and he’s not an explosive athlete. He has a real place, a real value in the NBA, particularly while still on his rookie contract. The question is will the Sixers get good enough offers to make a swap.

Kevin Love sparked by Channing Frye phone call

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: J.R. Smith #5, Matthew Dellavedova #8, Kevin Love #0, Channing Frye #9, LeBron James #23 and Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on from the bench late in the game against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) As the shots dropped, the score widened and the head-banging Cleveland crowd screamed louder, threatening to rip off the arena’s roof, Kevin Love raised his arms and gestured for fans to do more.

Usually, it’s the other way around.

Shaking off two miserable games in Toronto, Love, whose two seasons with the Cavaliers have ebbed and flowed like Lake Erie’s tides, scored 25 points in just three quarters of Game 5. Cleveland pummeled the Raptors 116-78 on Wednesday night to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

Love’s performance, which began with him knocking down a turnaround hook in the lane and finished with him going 8 of 10 from the field, restored his confidence, quieted detractors and showed his teammates he can deliver when needed. It also prevented the Cavs from facing a win-or-else situation in Game 6 on Friday night in Toronto, where they are 0-4 this season.

“Just a bounce-back for him,” said LeBron James. “He knew he didn’t play his style of basketball or how he wanted to play to help us win in Toronto. He wanted to make a different outcome of it, and he did that. He’s a true professional.”

This was Love in peak form, an inside-outside threat and completely opposite from the player who made just 5 of 23 shots and was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 4 for Channing Frye. This is the Love the Cavs will need to finish off the Raptors and make a second straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

This is also the Love who along with James and Kyrie Irving completes Cleveland’s Big 3, a trio dependent on each third doing its part.

Love returned from Canada in a shooting slump and personal funk. He felt as if he had let his teammates down in Games 3 and 4. Love’s body language, the subject of constant speculation since he arrived from Minnesota in 2014, appeared that of a bruised, if not beaten, man.

His spirits were dragging. His teammates picked them up.

Love spoke to coach Tyronn Lue and then received a phone call Tuesday night from Frye, the savvy, 11-year veteran who has provided both points and perspective for his younger teammates.

“He basically just told me that no one’s immune to the NBA playoffs,” Love said of his pep talk from Frye. “These types of things happen and you have to keep fighting through it in order for us to win. He said I needed to be aggressive, and I give him a lot of credit for staying on me and staying vocal.”

Love was in attack mode from the outset in Game 5. He demanded the ball, taking advantage of a mismatch against Raptors forward Luis Scola. Love scored Cleveland’s first basket and nine of the first 17 points. And after knocking down a 3-pointer – he made his first six shots – to give Cleveland a 27-16 lead, he summoned Cavs fans to bring the noise.

The game plan was to get Love some early touches near the basket and let his game expand.

“We always run plays to start the game for Kevin, hope he draws fouls or makes an easy shot down low in the paint,” Lue said. “That kind of frees it up for him. When he starts inside-out, he’s able to do more on the floor.”

Lue said the support – OK, the love – that Love felt from his teammates since Game 4 made a difference. They know what he means to their title hopes, and weren’t going to abandon him.

Love, too, didn’t want to lose his teammates’ trust. So he pushed himself.

“He works hard every day, sometimes too hard,” Lue said. “But he’s constantly in the weight room. He’s constantly doing conditioning, constantly working and shooting. That’s why when he misses a couple shots, it doesn’t bother me because he puts the time and puts the work in. Some nights he’s just not going to make shots.”

Love didn’t want to make too much of his Game 5 turnaround. But considering the stakes, it was colossal for the Cavs.

“More than anything, I just wanted to respond,” he said, “just wanted to help us win in any way that I could. I don’t care if I went 0 for 30 and we got a win. Any way that we can win and I can help, I’m going to do it.”

Report: Pat Riley ‘quietly detests’ Dwyane Wade-LeBron James friendship

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 14:  U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with National Basketball Association 2012-2013 champion Miami Heat player LeBron James after welcoming the team -- including President Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade and others -- during an event at the White House January 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. This is the second year in a row the team won the championship and made a trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade share a very close friendship.

LeBron and Pat Riley – who signed LeBron and Wade to the Heat in 2010 – have a much more complicated relationship.

Riley seemingly challenged LeBron entering the 2014 offseason, and LeBron left Miami to return to the Cavs. Then, Riley couldn’t stop telling everyone how surprised he was LeBron left. After LeBron departed, Riley noted how the Heat had “no more smiling faces with hidden agendas.”

So, about the intersection of the LeBron-Wade friendship and Riley-LeBron relationship…

Pablo Torre of ESPN:

On-court effort, after all, isn’t really why Heat president Pat Riley quietly detests the Wade-James friendship.

as coach of the Heat, Riley kept the spirit of the ’80s alive by reportedly instituting a $1,500 fine for any player who helped an opponent up off the floor.

Riley wasn’t complaining when LeBron’s friendship with Wade helped lure the star forward to Miami. Riley wasn’t complaining when LeBron led the Heat to two championships, either.

But I at least understand where Riley is coming from. His old-school sensibilities don’t allow for friendships across teams, and there are legitimate reasons to draw a line.

Wade addressed this well with Torre in a feature on the LeBron-Wade friendship that’s well worth reading in full. Wade:

“You’re talking about two guys who went to the Finals together, four years in a row,” Wade says. “My job and his job was to get as close as possible, to know everything about each other and get on the same page as two leaders on the team. And then he goes elsewhere and you ask us to hate each other! It’s ridiculous.”