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.

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.

Tyreke Evans: Giannis Antetokounmpo is like a taller me

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Giannis Antetokounmpo torched the Kings for 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the Bucks’ 18-point win Wednesday.

Afterward, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans paid the Greek Freak the ultimate compliment.

Sean Cunningham of ABC 10:

Do you see many players like Antetokounmpo? Evans:

Nah. He like me, but 6-7 – I mean like almost 6-8, 6-7, whatever height he is. He just long, athletic. He get to where he want to go. He got good handle for his size, and he athletic. Once he get around the rim, he can finish.

If only you were an inch taller? Evans:

That’d be a problem. I mean, it’s still a problem, I think, for me to get where I want. But just the athleticism he have and the way he get up off the ground – he got quick bounce. He pretty good at it.

Antetokounmpo is listed at 6-foot-11, Evans 6-foot-6.

This isn’t totally unreasonable. Make Evans five inches taller and add none of the dexterity awkwardness that tends to accompany growth, and he might look a lot like Antetokounmpo. Both are usually slotted at forward while possessing point-guard skills.

But Evans isn’t 6-foot-11, and most 6-foot-11 players can’t move like Antetokounmpo. That fluidity for his size is a big part of what makes Antetokounmpo special. If Evans grew up to be 6-foot-11, he likely would have developed a different skill set than he has now.

Antetokounmpo is the rare player with both the height of a big man and skills of a guard. Evans didn’t miss out on that just because his genes kept him from growing another five inches.

This discussion is also silly for another reason. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s 6-foot-1 and certain he’d be as good as Evans if only he were five inches taller.

Rumor: Blake Griffin increasingly believed to be open to leaving Clippers in free agency

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The Clippers were rumored to have already verbally agreed to terms with pending unrestricted free agents Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

But with formal contract extensions unviable, L.A. was always going to have to play out the season and hope those players remained committed into July.

There might be a hitch in that plan.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

That Griffin would also stay and reap the biggest payday he can seems likely, too—in theory. But more and more people around the league believe he would be open to a fresh start—perhaps with the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who have coveted Griffin for years and would offer a new chance to win.

Does Ding have credible information to suggest Griffin could join the Lakers or Celtics, or is that just speculation on the writer’s part about potential fits? It’s unclear. This is already fairly loosely sourced.

But we should gather more information quickly once free agency begins. Griffin reportedly planned to re-sign quickly. If he shows the faintest hint of exploring the market, that could open the floodgates.

Griffin had been frequently linked to his home-state Thunder, but Oklahoma City would interfere with his burgeoning Hollywood connections.* The same issue would exist with Boston, though obviously not the Lakers. That said, the Celtics are WAY better than the Lakers – and maybe soon the Clippers and Thunder, considering those Nets picks headed to Boston.

*Oklahoma City also since nuked its cap space with contract extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, though trades could always clear room if Griffin wants to come home.

The Clippers are in a bad place right now. One one hand, that forebodes another disappointing end to the season. On the other hand, there’s still time to overcome and send Griffin into free agency on a more positive note.

These are dangerous times for the Clippers, who wouldn’t have cap space to adequately replace Griffin, Paul or Redick if one leaves. So, if one bolts, the others seems more likely to follow. Interpersonal relationships matter, but the Clippers’ primary selling points were always going to be money and winning (with Hollywood proximity a bonus). Winning gets harder if talent walks.

They can still offer the most money, and they’re not leaving L.A. But the Clippers better win more to help avoid what could be a tenser-than-expected summer.

Suns use youngest starting lineup in NBA history

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The Suns have shut down their veterans or been shut down by their veterans with two goals in mind – developing young talent and tanking.

Incidentally, Phoenix also made history.

Against the Nets last night, the Suns started:

ESPN:

Elias on ESPN:

The previous youngest was the Clippers’ starting five consisting of guards Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon, forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged 21 years and 143 days old in a matchup with the Nets on November 15, 2010.

The young Suns gained quality experience – and helped their team to an important loss, 126-98 to Brooklyn.

Phoenix is still 1.5 games “behind” the Lakers for the No. 2 seed in the lottery, but the Suns are within striking distance in case the Lakers screw up and win too much down the stretch.