NBA Season Preview: The Portland Trailblazers


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.

Charles Barkley: Klay Thompson is a better player than Kevin Durant

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You know the NBA season is back when Charles Barkley is just talking out his… er, saying ridiculous things.

On Inside the NBA before the tip off of San Antonio thrashing Golden State, Barkley said then tried to defend the idea that Klay Thompson is a better all-around player than Kevin Durant. It was vintage Barkley — and it’s what makes the barbershop feel of Inside the NBA must-watch television every week.

The flaw in Barkley’s argument is that he tries to use the “two-way player” argument to try and balance out Durant’s and Thompson’s offensive contributions. Is Thompson a better defender than Durant? Yes. Even though people underestimate Durant’s defense a little, I will stipulate Thompson is a better defender. But does that defense make up for how much more offensive versatility and shot creation Durant brings to the table compared to Thompson? No. Again, Thompson is an excellent offensive player and probably the second best shooter in the game, but he does not create shots or force a defense to adjust the way Durant does. KD’s amazing offense tips the scales more than Thompson’s defense. KD is the better overall player.

And The Jet is way too quick to dismiss Kawhi Leonard as maybe the second best player in the league. But Leonard made his case just after these comments.

Watch Jonathan Simmons posterize JaVale McGee

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This was the exclamation point on the Spurs thrashing of the Warriors on opening night.

Jonathan Simmons — who was a beast in the first half and finished the night with 20 points off the bench — was pounding the ball out top, then as the clock wound down blew by rookie Patrick McCaw, got into the lane looking for the two-handed slam. When JaVale McGee slid over to contest Simmons switched to the one-hander and finished over the big man.

That’s the way to start an NBA season.

Three things we learned Tuesday: Kawhi’s Spurs are not to be trifled with

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 25:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs dribbles the ball up court against the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter in an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on October 25, 2016 Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The NBA season has returned, and we are back with our morning recap of what you need to know from the night before around the NBA — three things we learned. So if you were busy watching the Cubs bats go cold, here is what you missed.

1) The Spurs are Kawhi Leonard’s team — and they are magnificent. Every year we give lip service to the “don’t sleep on the Spurs” idea, and then we get wrapped up talking about some other bright, shiny new object. Like say a move from Oklahoma City to the Bay Area. We do exactly what we said we weren’t going to do.

Then San Antonio reminds us they are fierce competitors and contenders. Tuesday night the Spurs went into Oracle Arena and slapped Kevin Durant and the Warriors around. This was an old-school beatdown. In a game where the Warriors had the winners of the last three MVP awards, Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the court — a career-high 35 points on 21 shots, he got to the line 15 times, and he had five steals. Tim Duncan is gone and this is now Leonard’s team, without question. He was simply unfair, just torturing the Warriors on both ends and leading a physical Spurs team that dominated the glass — the Spurs had 24 second chance points to the Warriors 4.

Leonard didn’t do it alone, LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points and 14 boards, Jonathan Simmons came off the bench for 20 and had a highlight chasedown block on Stephen Curry. But make no mistake, this was Leonard’s team and night.

Games in October are incredibly poor predictors of the outcome of a May playoff series. Both of these teams will evolve over the course of the season, and the Warriors will get things figured out. But we learned on opening night there is no doubt the Spurs are Kawhi’s team — and they are not to be trifled with.

2) Golden State’s defense needs some work. It was easy to see the rough spots in the Warriors offense the team still needs to be smoothed out — the passes to teammates who had already vacated the spot, the threes not being in rhythm (7-of-33 from deep, a number of those looks uncontested), and all those stars playing next to each other rather than with each other. It was to be expected.

However, offense wasn’t the Warriors’ big problem — their defense was atrocious. The Spurs scored at a ridiculous 125.9 points per 100 possessions pace, because literally half of their shot attempts were uncontested (according to the player tracking stats). San Antonio had an eFG% of 54.1, and the Spurs grabbed the offensive rebound on 41.2 percent of their shots when they did miss. Leonard had a career-high 35 points, Aldridge 26, and the Spurs time after time got the shot they wanted — and they had 24 fast break points, the Warriors did not get back in transition defense. The Warriors missed Andrew Bogut inside, both as a rim protector and on the glass (this was not Zaza Pachulia’s best night).

The past two years, the Warriors had a top five NBA defense, and that as much as their vaunted shooting was the reason they went to back-to-back Finals. No doubt they made the right move adding Durant to the roster — they are going to figure this all out. This was the first game of 82, and we knew there would be some bumps at the start. But more than the offense, Steve Kerr and his staff need to get the Warriors back to being a defensive force.

3) Damian Lillard’s brilliant offense overcame his defense. Again. Damian Lillard came into this season saying he wanted to be MVP, and on opening night he put up those kinds of numbers — 39 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and he led his team to an opening night win against Utah. Portland did a great job of setting their high picks especially high, then letting Lillard go downhill fast off them right at Rudy Gobert — and Lillard finished around and over the big man all night.

Portland had an eight-point lead at the half and led by double digits for chunks of the second quarter, but in the third Utah took the lead because they exposed Lillard on the other end. Utah started running a George Hill/Joe Johnson pick-and-roll (1/3 action) and when Lillard switched it they got the ball to Johnson and he just overpowered Lillard on his way to 29 points. Johnson shot 6-of-7 in the paint and scored at will all night.

Lillard came back and had 16 of his points in the fourth quarter to help Portland get the win, he was nothing short of brilliant on offense. The Blazers got enough stops to rack up the victory at home. But their small backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum is going to be a defensive challenge all season long.

Opening night bonus note: LeBron James was having fun at the expense of the Knicks’ defense. The Cavaliers cruised to a win over New York, and LeBron James had a triple-double and did whatever he wished. And what he wished was to dunk. A lot.

Watch Jonathan Simmons’ chasedown block on Stephen Curry


Jonathan Simmons did his best LeBron James impression on opening night.

While the Spurs were running the Warriors out of Oracle Arena — a 129-100 Spurs win — Simmons had a fantastic chasedown block on Stephen Curry. It was one of the plays of the game (most of the rest came from Kawhi Leonard).

Simmons had 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting off the bench for the Spurs in the win, which included a poster dunk on JaVale McGee late. Just to put some icing on the win.