NBA season preview: Portland Trail Blazers

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Last season: Nothing will push you toward rebuilding like disappointment, and their 28-38 record was that. This was a 48 win team a couple seasons ago, but last season a team that should be playing fast and pressuring teams was average in pace and threatening nobody. Point guard Raymond Felton took the blame from fans for being out of shape (he was), coach Nate McMillan took the blame from management and they fired him and replaced him with Kalab Canales. None of it mattered. Outside of an All-Star season from LaMarcus Aldridge everyone else on the roster didn’t live up to expectations.

Key Departures: Consider it an overhaul — Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford are all gone. They got serious about rebuilding and shipped everyone out.

Key Additions: Through the draft they added two lottery picks — point guard Damian Lillard and center Meyers Leonard. Both looked good at Summer League (Lillard was co-MVP) and both are going to get a lot of run. They are going to be key for Portland. After that, unless Joel Freeland excites you none of these additions can be called key.

Two other key additions — the aggressive Neil Olshey as GM and Terry Stotts as coach.

Three keys to the Trail Blazers season:

1) Nicolas Batum, it is time to step up and earn that contract. Through four NBA seasons, Batum has been good — last season he averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 39.1 percent from three, took on more offense and had a PER of 17.3, and he shows flashes as a defender but is not consistent. This season — with Batum sporting shiny new a four-year, $45 million contract — they are paying him to play like a star. Portland needs him to be real NBA No. 2 guy on a team. He has to be better than just pretty good most of the time.

He needs to score more and lead on offense. He can knock down the three, but his handle needs to improve so he can attack better off the dribble. The defense needs to be there nightly. He needs to find a groove with Damien Lillard. The Blazers have locked themselves in a bit with big contracts to Aldridge and Batum, those two have to be the stars. Aldridge will be, no question. Batum has got the skills, but this needs to be his breakout year.

2) After Batum and Aldridge, who is going to step up? LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star, one of the best power forwards in the game right now. Nicolas Batum is good and on the verge of a breakout season. And after that…

There is rookie point guard Lillard, who has been given the keys to the Blazers offense and asked to run the show. Which is a lot to ask for a rookie out of Weber State. In the middle there is rookie Meyers Leonard, who is tall and athletic but with a raw offensive game. So far in preseason it has looked like J.J. Hickson could beat him out for minutes, which speaks to how far he has to go to be a starting NBA five. Leonard was always a project but they need to see something from him this year.

And after that… who do you like on the Portland roster? Wesley Mathews is solid. Hickson has shown flashes but misses a lot of jumpers (which he keeps taking). Who is left to step up? Nolan Smith? Jared Jeffries? Luke Babbitt? Ronnie Price?

Someone is going to step up or depth will hurt Portland this year.

3) They need to need to add pieces, but how? Portland is rebuilding, but with big contracts handed out to Aldridge and Batum plus other deals on the books, Portland is not in a place where they can just add guys easily via free agency. They can have some space if they let Hickson walk and don’t bring back guys like Babbitt, but they are not “we can go get a max guy” below the cap.

Neil Olshey will be aggressive, he will make deals because that is what he does. But it will be interesting to see if he can get them more cap room to use in future seasons.

What Trail Blazers fans should fear: Meddling ownership. Paul Allen and his Vulcan crew stepping in to make decisions. The best owners stay out of the way — hire a smart GM, a smart person to run the business operations, then let the basketball people do their thing. Don’t let personal relationships with a coach or anyone influence business decisions. Only change the GM when it’s clear he has failed. But Paul Allen likes to stir the Blazers pot, and when he does plans seem to reset. It happens too often.

How it likely works out: Even if Batum does have a breakout year and Aldridge is once again an All-Star, the Blazers are trusting a rookie point guard to lead them to the playoffs. Which means it is going to be a long season. The Blazers will be entertaining and not an embarrassment, but when the inevitable injuries of any NBA season come the depth of this team will be exposed. And it won’t be pretty.

Prediction: Portland finishes 33-49 and is back in the lottery, hoping for a lucky Ping-Pong ball bounce. This is a year to be measured in growth of young players that lets them build for the future. They have Aldridge for three more seasons, they need to find a way to win with him in that time or the rebuilding may have to start again.

Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard headline NBA All-Defensive teams

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Later Monday night, one of Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, or Kawhi Leonard will be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. (The smart money is on Green to win, but you can make a legitimate case for any of the three.)

Before that award is handed out, the NBA released its All-Defensive teams.

Not a lot of surprises here, especially on the first team. Green, Gobert, and Leonard are the top three vote getters for DPOY, so they were going to make this team, and since this team is positionally tied that meant two guards had to join them. (Each team has to have two guards, two forwards, and one center, and the voters have to vote that way.) Chris Paul and Patrick Beverley made that cut. The ballots were cast by 100 members of the NBA media (full disclosure I had a vote). A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.

The biggest surprise: No LeBron James. Good defenders such as Jimmy Butler, Avery Bradley, and Klay Thompson also didn’t make the cut.

Here’s who made the All-Defensive teams.

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE FIRST TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Forward Draymond Green, Golden State, 198
Center Rudy Gobert, Utah, 196
Forward Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio, 192
Guard Chris Paul, LA Clippers, 140
Guard Patrick Beverley, Houston, 110

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE SECOND TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Guard Tony Allen, Memphis, 80
Guard Danny Green, San Antonio, 68
Center Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 58
Forward Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 53
Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 35

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (First Team votes in parentheses): Avery Bradley, Boston, 46 (12); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 45 (16); John Wall, Washington, 38 (14); DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers, 35 (1); Paul Millsap, Atlanta, 35; Hassan Whiteside, Miami, 25 (1); Marcus Smart, Boston, 21 (5); Jimmy Butler, Chicago, 18; LeBron James, Cleveland, 12 (1); Robert Covington, Philadelphia, 11 (2); Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City, 10 (5); Paul George, Indiana, 7; Kevin Durant, Golden State, 6; Dwight Howard, Atlanta, 6 (1); Mike Conley, Memphis, 5 (1); Jae Crowder, Boston, 5; Jrue Holiday, New Orleans, 5; Wesley Matthews, Dallas, 4 (2); Stephen Curry, Golden State, 3; Andre Iguodala, Golden State, 3 (1); Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte, 3; Ricky Rubio, Minnesota, 3; P.J. Tucker, Toronto, 3; Trevor Ariza, Houston, 2; Nicolas Batum, Charlotte, 2; Marc Gasol, Memphis, 2; Eric Gordon, Houston, 2 (1); Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota, 2 (1); Steven Adams, Oklahoma City, 1; LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio, 1; Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland, 1; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit, 1; George Hill, Utah, 1; Serge Ibaka, Toronto, 1; Damian Lillard, Portland, 1; Luc Mbah a Moute, LA Clippers, 1; Austin Rivers, LA Clippers, 1; Isaiah Thomas, Boston, 1; Cody Zeller, Charlotte, 1.

It should be noted that Atlanta’s Millsap had as many total points as Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo for the final slot, but because the Greek Freak got seven first-team votes as opposed to zero for Millsap, Antetokounmpo wins the tie breaker. Also, Boston’s Bradley and Golden State’s Thompson had more points than Antetokounmpo, but they could only be listed as guards.

Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid headline NBA All-Rookie teams

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Later Monday night, at the new NBA Awards show (did you forget that was coming?), the NBA Rookie of the Year will be announced.

In advance of that, the NBA released the All-Rookie Teams.

This was not a deep rookie class, making it a challenging vote. Also, a number of players came on the second half of the season, showing promise that made the process even tougher.

Two players were unanimous first-team choices: Malcolm Brogdon of the Bucks (the front-runner for ROY), and Dario Saric of the Sixers. Saric’s teammate Joel Embiid also made first team, but there was enough concern among voters (100 members of the NBA media, and full disclosure I had a vote) that he only played 31 games that seven voters had him on the second team, and 11 left him off entirely. A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.

Here is who made the cut (players got two points for a first-team vote, one point for a second-team vote).

2016-17 NBA ALL-ROOKIE FIRST TEAM

Player (Team) Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee) 200
Dario Saric (Philadelphia) 200
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia) 171
Buddy Hield (Sacramento) 154
Willy Hernangomez (New York) 128

2016-17 NBA ALL-ROOKIE SECOND TEAM

Player (Team) Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Jamal Murray (Denver) 123
Jaylen Brown (Boston) 106
Marquese Chriss (Phoenix) 91
Brandon Ingram (L.A. Lakers) 83
Yogi Ferrell (Dallas) 63

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (first-place votes in parentheses): Rodney McGruder, Miami, 61 (7); Caris LeVert, Brooklyn, 36 (2); Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City, 19 (4); Tyler Ulis, Phoenix, 10 (1); Patrick McCaw, Golden State, 8; Skal Labissiere, Sacramento, 7 (1); Kris Dunn, Minnesota, 5; Juancho Hernangomez, Denver, 5; Taurean Prince, Atlanta, 5; Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn, 5; Alex Abrines, Oklahoma City, 4; Davis Bertans, San Antonio, 3; Dejounte Murray, San Antonio, 3; Thon Maker, Milwaukee, 3; Andrew Harrison, Memphis, 2; Fred VanVleet, Toronto, 1; Dragan Bender, Phoenix, 1; DeAndre’ Bembry, Atlanta, 1; Jakob Poeltl, Toronto, 1; Malcolm Delaney, Atlanta, 1

 

Russell Westbrook set to learn if his historic season was an MVP one

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A year ago, uncertainty surrounded Russell Westbrook.

Kevin Durant stunned the league by leaving Oklahoma City for rival Golden State in free agency. The four-time scoring champion and former MVP had been the central piece in making the Thunder one of the league’s elite teams since the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Westbrook had played his entire NBA career alongside Durant, so questions about how Westbrook would respond immediately cropped up.

He defiantly answered them with memorable performances.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season and won his second scoring title. He broke Robertson’s single-season record with 42 triple-doubles and led the Thunder to the playoffs. Now, he will join Houston’s James Harden and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as finalists for the league’s MVP award. The winner will be announced Monday at the inaugural NBA Awards show.

Westbrook gained satisfaction from the team’s success, which largely was fueled by his personal dominance.

“With everything happening last summer, people counted us out,” he said the day after Oklahoma City’s season ended. “They weren’t sure how many games we were going to win or how far we were going to go or whatever, but I think the group of guys, we never let that sink in our building. We stuck together, and that’s the thing I’m most proud about.”

Westbrook wasn’t just stat stuffing, either. The Thunder went 33-9 when he had a triple-double and 14-26 when he didn’t. He seemingly gained energy as the season progressed and was statistically better after the All-Star break than before. As for those late-game situations, he led the league with 10 points per game in the fourth quarter and was one of the most dynamic closers in the league.

Westbrook topped Robertson’s single-season, triple-double record on April 9 in Denver. His 36-foot game-winning dagger put the final touch on a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist performance that eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention.

Robertson himself showed up to the Thunder’s regular-season finale and endorsed Westbrook for the MVP award.

“What he has done has been historic in nature,” Robertson told the crowd that night. “He’s played with passion and pride and ability. It’s just outstanding what he has done and the way he did it.”

Durant might be the least surprised player in the league. Westbrook was dominant while Durant was out with a foot injury during the 2014-15 season and claimed his first scoring title, but it wasn’t clear if he could do it all – score, dominate the boards, consistently feed his teammates and come through in big moments – for an entire season.

Turns out, he could.

In the second game of the season, he had 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over Phoenix, the first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975. On March 27, he had 13 points in a 3-minute barrage to rally the Thunder past Dallas. Two days later in Orlando, he scored 57 points and posted the most points ever in a triple-double. He hit a deep 3-pointer to force overtime, and eventually helped the Thunder win. In one of his most memorable games, he scored 47 points in a loss to Durant’s Warriors.

Harden and Leonard also had MVP-caliber seasons:

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JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

As stunning as Westbrook’s triple-double binge was this season, Harden’s was impressive, too.

He posted 22 triple-doubles and helped the Rockets finish with the league’s third-best record. Harden, known primarily as a scorer throughout his career, shifted from shooting guard to point guard and was nearly unstoppable in coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.

Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game and finished second with 29.1 points per contest. In perhaps his best performance, he had 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve.

KAWHI LEONARD, SAN ANTONIO

Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s up for the honor again.

Yet, it was the 6-foot-7 forward’s offensive improvement that put him in the mix for the MVP award. He averaged 25.5 points this season after averaging 21.2 the previous year.

Leonard helped the Spurs finish with the league’s second-best record. He seemed to play as the stage got bigger.

He opened the season with a career-high 35 points in a blowout win over the Warriors. Leonard upped that career high with 41 points in a win over Cleveland on Jan. 21, and he dropped 39 points in a victory over Houston on March 6.

 

New Jordan brand ad asks: Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

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Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s best perimeter defender right now.

Kawhi Leonard is the cornerstone of the seventh best offense in the NBA last season, averaging 25.5 points per game.

He’s a dominant force on both ends, which leads to the question from this fantastic new ad from the Jordan brand:

Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?