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.

76ers coach Brett Brown: Joel Embiid’s minute limit likely to remain 28 this season

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 6: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on January 6, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the 76ers 110-106. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Joel Embiid‘s per-36 minute numbers – 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks – are unprecedented by any rotation regular.

In fact, the only players to come close are Hall of Famers: David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Player Year Team Points Rebounds Blocks
Joel Embiid 20117 PHI 28.0 11.0 3.5
David Robinson 1995 SAS 26.2 10.3 3.1
Patrick Ewing 1990 NYK 26.7 10.2 3.7
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1977 LAL 25.7 13.0 3.1

Robinson, Ewing and Abdul-Jabbar each averaged more than 36 minutes per game. Embiid is at just 25 due to a minute limit.

How would the 76ers rookie handle a larger load?

According to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown, we probably won’t find out this season.

Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly

This is probably the right approach considering Embiid missed his first two professional seasons due to injury, but it’ll cost the 76ers on the court. They outscore opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions when Embiid plays and get outscored by 11.3 points per 100 possessions when he sits.

Embiid will still run away with Rookie of the Year, though I doubt he takes much solace in that. He wants to play.

On the bright side, this will improve Philadelphia’s draft position.

Report: Timberwolves “actively shopping” Ricky Rubio, packaging with with Shabazz Muhammad

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 15: Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on during the game against the Charlotte Hornets on November 15, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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 Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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At 14-27, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been one of the bigger disappointments of the NBA season. Maybe we were all a year out in front of what this team will become with all this talent. Especially defensively (Tom Thibodeau can’t work instant miracles, it turns out).

Offensively, they lack shooting. The Timberwolves have two slashers in Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, they have Karl-Anthony Towns in the paint, but you can pack the paint on this team — they get 23.3 percent of their points from three, the third-lowest percentage in the league, and they take the fifth fewest threes per game in the league. Fixing that is going to fall more on Thibodeau the GM — this team needs shooters. Ideally at the point guard spot.

Which means the Timberwolves are shopping Ricky Rubio, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are actively shopping point guard Ricky Rubio in trade proposals, league sources told The Vertical.

The Timberwolves have attached Rubio to multiple offers with Shabazz Muhammad to several teams around the NBA, league sources said. Minnesota has been seeking something of a “bridge” guard in return, a player capable of starting in the short term, but who’ll ultimately settle into a backup role and give way to rookie Kris Dunn to become the long-term starter, league sources said.

The Sacramento Kings have had a strong interest in acquiring Rubio, but there’s no traction on a deal between those two teams, league sources said. So far, the Timberwolves are trying to exhaust the market elsewhere for a better return of assets than the Kings can offer.

This is confirmation of something talked about on this site and whispered around the league for a while — the pieces don’t fit well in Minnesota and Rubio was always likely to get moved. That said, the Timberwolves are not giving him away, there needs to be a quality return of Rubio stays put. And the question is, what team is in a position to bring in a point guard who is a brilliant passer but can’t shoot? That’s a very short list.

The Kings start Darren Collison at the point and bring Ty Lawson off the bench behind him — one of those guys plus some other pieces could come to Minnesota (Omri Casspi?). The Kings desperately want to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and they are just half-a-game back of eight-seed Portland, but does Rubio get them there? Rubio is a better passer but not near the shooter (Collison hits 40 percent from three). Collison for Rubio seems a lateral move.

I can see why the Timberwolves are looking for a better offer, and leaking this so teams know they are serious may help bring a few more suitors to the table.

One other thing to watch in Minnesota: Is Dunn the future at the point guard spot? He’s the first pick of the Tom Thibodeau era so they are committed to making it work, but is he a future starter? Or, should the Timberwolves spend money on a quality free agent point guard this summer (Patty Mills, Jeff Teague) and make him the glue that brings all the talent together? That buzz is out there around the league, it’s something to watch.

Report: Carmelo Anthony tells Phil Jackson he wants to stay with Knicks

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks during a stop in play against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden on January 12, 2017 in New York City. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Phil Jackson asked Carmelo Anthony whether the star forward wanted to remain with the Knicks.

Apparently, what Anthony said publicly over and over and over and over and over was true.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

This further proves Anthony’s loyalty to New York.

A trade could’ve sent him to a better team with a more-desirable boss and netted him a $10 million trade bonus. But Anthony enjoys living and playing in New York, even with the tumult – including Jackson – that follows.

Now, it’s on Jackson to improve the roster around Anthony, repair player-coach relations and create a culture where the starting point guard doesn’t go AWOL.

Report: In ‘far more contentious’ meeting, Phil Jackson asked Carmelo Anthony whether he wanted to stay with Knicks

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Carmelo Anthony finally got his desired meeting with Knicks president Phil Jackson.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

At turn after turn after turn after turn after turn, Anthony has stated his loyalty to the Knicks. What has he done since to indicate he wants to leave New York?

Jackson, not Anthony, has fostered all this recent controversy.

Jackson built a crummy roster that faced a difficult path to the playoffs. Jackson used the code word “posse.”  Jackson publicly critiqued Anthony for being a ball hog. Jackson mouthpiece Charley Rosen wrote “Anthony has outlived his usefulness in New York.”

Anthony just wants to play basketball for a good team in the world’s biggest market – not work under a black cloud. Jackson is making it impossible for Anthony to get all his wishes, though.

So, the question falls to Anthony: Would he rather keep playing for the Knicks – and all that comes with it – or waive his no-trade clause to join another team?

For years, he has unequivocally answered that question publicly with devotion to New York. But the act of Jackson asking might invite a different response.