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.

Former Knicks, Warriors F David Lee announces retirement from NBA

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One of the NBA’s more under appreciated forwards has announced his retirement from the NBA.

David Lee, who spent time in his career with the New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, and San Antonio Spurs, told the NBA world about his retirement via his Instagram page on Sunday.

Lee, 34, played last season with the Spurs. He averaged 7.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.6 assists for Gregg Popovich’s team.

Via Instagram:

Lee played 14 seasons in the NBA, the majority of which came with the Knicks. During his time in New York, Lee was seen as an unsung hero, nabbing rebounds and doing yeoman’s work from the power forward position.

The Knicks traded Lee to Golden State in the summer of 2010 for Kelenna Azubuike, Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf, and two second round picks. He was part of the Warriors’ 2014-15 NBA Championship before eventually being traded to Boston in 2015.

Sixers say injured Markelle Fultz will be re-evaluated in 2-3 weeks

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We were all waiting for supposed “good news” about injured Philadelpia 76ers guard and No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz. And it looks like we’ve got it? It’s hard to tell with this one.

On Sunday, the Sixers announced that Fultz — suffering from a sore right shoulder — would be re-evaluated in two to three weeks.

That’s at least some kind of timeline, which is more than we got when Fultz was originally ruled out indefinitely at the end of October.

Here’s the announcement from the Sixers.

Via Twitter:

Fultz has reportedly been working out and shooting left handed, which one can only hope is adding to his dexterity.

No doubt Sixers fans just want to see him on the court again as quickly as possible. The saga of the imbalanced shoulder has been a strange one, we’ve all got our fingers crossed that it settles normally.

Damian Lillard defends Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts on Instagram

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It’s far too early for panic in Portland. This is a team most outside Portland thought would finish a little above .500 and maybe grab one of the back-end playoff spots in the West, and at 9-7 they are on that pace.

But after an ugly Portland loss to Sacramento (just a few games after a loss to Brooklyn where coach Terry Stotts benched center Jusuf Nurkick for most of the fourth), Trail Blazers fans were restless and started to slam coach Stotts on the Trail Blazers’ Instagram page.

I doubt Stotts noticed, but Damian Lillard did and jumped in to defend his coach.

Lillard added this (hat tip Mike Richman at the Oregonian).

“Because people think they know more about what it takes to get things done at this level … For our team than they actually do,” he said. “We’re in this position for a reason. And coach Stotts had two 50-win seasons here and four straight years in the playoffs for a reason –because he knows what he’s doing. They mention … our record is 8-7 and we’re having breakdowns late in games. Well those breakdowns are a missed shot here, a turnover there, a defensive breakdown here, giving up extra possessions, missed free throws. It’s things that players control. If we were down 30 every game, that’s different. But we’re in position to win games. And when it’s time to win games, that’s the players’ job. “

Lillard is loyal to those around him and has had the back of teammates and his coach before.

Lillard and his teammates went out Saturday night and got some revenge on the Kings, winning 102-90.

Portland’s defense has been surprisingly good this season, second best in the NBA. It should have been better with Nurkic in the paint, but this has been a radical turnaround for a team where that end of the floor held them back in recent years. While that lofty ranking may not stick all season, the Blazers are defending.

Now the Blazers are just having trouble scoring efficiently (18th in the NBA), which is a little about a less-efficient Lillard and a rough start on that end for Nurkic.  That end of the court should come around, Lillard and C.J. McCollum are too good for it not to.

 

Teammate spoke to Lonzo Ball about walking away from “fight”

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We see these posturing/shoving matches all the time in the NBA, and they’re pointless. Late in Friday night’s Phoenix win in Los Angeles the Suns called a timeout, then Tyler Ulis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got in one a shoving match. As happens, players from both teams raced into the fray to protect their teammate/break it up… except for Lonzo Ball, who looked at it and kept moving along.

I have defended Ball’s actions as mature (he’s right, nothing was going to happen), while others (fans and media) have questioned his leadership for not rushing to stand by teammates, pull guys out of the pile, and having a “band of brothers” attitude.

None of that matters, the only opinions that carry any weight are the ones in the Lakers’ locker room. What did his teammates think? Lakers coach Luke Walton said a teammate did talk to Ball, quote via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Someone on our team talked with him,” Walton said after the Lakers’ practice Saturday, without disclosing who it was. “It’s all part of the learning process.”

If his teammates were bothered, then there’s an issue. It’s more about perception than anything, again nothing was happening in that “fight,” but perception matters. It’s a small issue, but an issue. With young players this gets discussed, and everyone moves on.

Ball’s passing and energy on the court are things teammates love. As his game matures — and he eventually finishes better around the rim and, hopefully for him, finds his jumper — and he grows as a bigger threat on the court, his teammates will forget this ever happened. As will fans. But when you play for the rabid (and not always rational) fan base of the Lakers, and when your father invites publicity and with it scrutiny, things get blown out of proportion. Welcome to Lonzo’s world.