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.

Malik Monk: I thought Knicks would draft me

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Malik Monk to the Knicks was predicted and reported as a possibility. And when the No. 8 pick came up, the Kentucky guard was still on the board.

But New York – then still run by Phil Jackson – passed on Monk to draft Frank Ntilikina.

Monk, who wound up being drafted No. 11 by the Hornets, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

“Me, my agent, everybody in my agency, my family — we thought we were going to New York,” Monk told the Daily News last week after a posing for his Panini trading card. “It was here, my agent is here (based in New York), a great agent, everybody thought it was going to be here. Went to dinner with (Jackson), had a great workout, everything was positive.”

Naiveté and/or wishful thinking by someone who had never been through the draft process before? Perhaps.

But Monk’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, is quite experienced.

What did the Knicks do to make the Monk camp believe they’d draft him? Misleading in those situations can grate agents, though if Jackson did that, at least New York eradicated the problem.

Report: Kyrie Irving and LeBron James didn’t meet in Miami

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Another day, another disputed rumor involving LeBron James.

This time it’s one about him meeting with Kyrie Irving in Miami.

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN:

I just got off the phone with folks about an hour ago. They said LeBron James and Kyrie Irving never met at all. They were both in the city of Miami. But, I was told, it is quite possible to be in the same city and not see each other. They never met. They never talked.

Whether or not they’ve already met, Irving and LeBron might need to address their problems soon

The Cavaliers might not have their high asking price for Irving met before the season, and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert already discussed the possibility of Irving returning. LeBron and Irving might have to reconcile a future as teammates.

Malcolm Brogdon: Charlottesville was white supremacism and terrorism

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Rookie of the Year and Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon – who played four years at the University of Virginia, which became the epicenter of white-nationalist protests – was asked about the events in Charlottesville and his thoughts on the statue of Robert E. Lee.

Brogdon, via Sports Illustrated:

It was pretty shocking. To see this happen at a place that I call home is sort of jarring for me.

But, if I were to be honest, the level of hate and blatant racism that still dominates the minds of so many Americans today, it’s not shocking to me. I think at the end of the day, you have to call it what it is. I think this is white supremacy, and I think it’s domestic terrorism. I think we live in a country where we go overseas, and we fight other people’s wars, and we fight terrorism overseas internationally. But we don’t want to fully acknowledge the terrorism that goes home domestically.

So, I think it’s a shocking event. But it’s not surprising sort of the hate that is still around.

My thoughts about it have never changed. I’m a person that thinks things should not be glorified that did not do the country any justice. For example, these statues stand still, but all they do is divide people. At this point in time, I think that America needs to be unified. And the statues are clearly something that’s not unifying people. It’s going to continue to create a divide within our communities. And I think they have no place in our society right now.

Kudos to Brogdon for calling spades spades.

Racism is still a problem – not one we’re comfortable discussing, which only exacerbates the problem. It must be acknowledged to be solved.

“Terrorism” is too often a term we reserve for only crimes committed by Muslims. A white supremacist driving his car into a group of counter-protestors – killing one – is almost certainly designed to terrorize them.

But I disagree with Brogdon that the statue should be removed because it’s divisive. It should be removed because it glorifies someone who led a war against the United States to protect the racist institution of slavery.

Unity is nice, but unifying around what? Brogdon might find that the people who agree with his call for unity have a different vision than he does.

Jazz mitigate loss of Gordon Hayward well, but that’s still a devastating departure

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Jazz traded up to draft a player who is already exceeding expectations.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

The Jazz made a savvy trade to land a starter before free agency even began.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

The Jazz executed several nice value signings.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

In what was otherwise a smart offseason, there’s just no way around Utah losing Hayward – a 27-year-old star at the critical wing position. Hayward’s importance to the Jazz is self-evident in the effort to re-sign him – a max offer, a billboard, multiple players flying to San Diego for a final meeting. His departure to the Celtics derails what had been a promising ascension.

Two years ago, the Jazz were the only team with four 25-and-under players – Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood – who posted at least six win shares.

Last year, the Jazz were the only team a pair of 26-and-under players – Hayward and Gobert – who posted at least 10 win shares.

Though Favors’ and Hood’s progress was sidetracked by injury, Utah still made another step forward with Hayward and Gobert becoming All-Star caliber. If Favors and Hood got healthy, they could have joined Hayward and Gobert – and Donovan Mitchel (who was drafted No. 13 this year then impressed in summer league) and Ricky Rubio (who was acquired for just a likely low first-round pick thanks to the Jazz’s excess cap space to close the 2016-17 fiscal year) – in a core that was growing into a legitimate Western Conference power.

Alas, Hayward bolted for Boston, which threatens even more in the Eastern Conference.

The Jazz rebounded as well as can be expected. They preemptively got Rubio for just a lottery-protected Thunder pick, allowing them not to re-sign George Hill and deal with the 31-year-olds frequent injury troubles. Mitchell has quickly drawn rave reviews. Thabo Sefolosha ($5.25 million), Jonas Jerebko ($4 million) and Ekpe Udoh ($3.2 million) are all on favorable salaries – and each have unguaranteed seasons tacked on for next year, making their deals even more team-friendly.

Those players could join a deep rotation that already includes Gobert, Favors, Hood, Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson and Dante Exum. And here’s a little secret: Gobert – not Hayward, the team’s lone All-Star – was Utah’s best player last year. The Jazz aren’t falling off the map just yet.

Their defense might be even better. They could win even more than the 51 games they won last year if healthier.

But their offense will suffer without Hayward’s creation (which could hurt their defensive rating, if they’re defending after makes less often), and their ceiling is far lower. Guaranteeing Ingles $50 million during his 30s is probably an overpay that will also limit flexibility, though at least his salary declines annually.

The Jazz did a good job of handling losing a star. But losing a star isn’t good, and I’m grading results.

Offseason grade: D+