Portland Trail Blazers

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.

Jeanie Buss says decision to fire brother Jim was so hard “I probably waited too long”

EL SEGUNDO, CA - AUGUST 10:  Jim Buss and his sister Jeanie Buss of the Los Angeles lakers attend a news conference where Dwight Howard was introduced as the newest member of the team at the Toyota Sports Center on August 10, 2012 in El Segundo, California. The Lakers acquired Howard from Orlando Magic in a four-team trade. In addition Lakers wil receive Chris Duhon and Earl Clark from the Magic.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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The question has been for weeks not if but when. Ever since Magic Johnson was brought on as a “consultant to ownership” for Jeanie Buss and the Lakers the writing was on the wall, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak were going to be out. Magic’s heavy-handed public campaign to take over Jim’s spot added to the obviousness of the situation.

Nobody expected to be this fast — and certainly not two days before the trade deadline.

Why now? Lakers owner and team governor Jeanie Buss and Magic — the new head of Lakers’ basketball operations — were on the Lakers’ cable network Spectrum Sportsnet in Los Angeles and answered those questions.

“It’s something I thought about for a long time, and once the decision became clear in my mind there was really no reason to wait, Buss said…

“In today’s NBA there is no offseason, you’re constantly preparing for the draft, for the season, for Summer League, so there was no time like the present.”

This was very different from most teams firing a GM and basketball president — Jim Buss is Jeanie’s brother (and will remain part owner), Mitch Kupchak has been a loyal Laker front office soldier for decades. For Jeanie Buss, this was emotional and was not just business.

“This was a very difficult decision,” Buss said. “It was probably so hard for me to make that I probably waited too long. And for that, I apologize to Lakers fans. But now with clarity and direction, and talking to with Ervin, really knowing a change was needed, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Why did she wait so long, through what she called an “erosion” of what the Lakers should be?

“I wanted for the current (she meant former) front office to show us what Laker basketball was going to be. It just wasn’t going in a direction that was satisfactory for what this organization stands for,” Buss said.

Magic added perspective.

“It really wasn’t about the last couple weeks, it’s been about years,” Magic said.

However, Johnson did say in a later Los Angeles radio interview that he was kept out of the loop on the Lakers’ pursuit of DeMarcus Cousins All-Star weekend. He would not say if that impacted the timing, and he dodged the question about whether he would have included Brandon Ingram in the trade.

Johnson said he has talked to numerous other general managers already, both getting well wishes and talking trades — Los Angeles remains expected to move Lou Williams before the trade deadline, according to sources around the league.

“After we leave (the studio where this interview was taking place) we’re going to go back to the war room with coach Walton, Ryan West (an assistant GM), Jessie and Joey (Buss children working in the front office), we’re all going to sit in a room and evaluate trade possibilities,” Magic said.

Johnson continually praised both Luke Walton and the young core of the team — all of which were put in place by the former front office. He said he wanted to build with this core.

“We have the right coach with Luke Walton and a lot of great young players, that we can build and make sure we develop, and help them turn into the stars we think they can become,” Magic said.

“This isn’t about going back to Showtime, we’re not turning back the clock,” Buss said. “The Lakers have figured out how to win in every era, and certainly the game has evolved, and the rules have changed. We, in our discussions, were looking at evolving with the game and what the modern NBA is about.”

Magic said he wants a GM who can work with him and who also knows the CBA and has relationships with teams, “someone smarter than me.” He also talked about everyone in the organization working together in the front office, in a collaborative way.

“That’s how I built my (business) organization, that’s how I want to build this one,” Johnson said.

As expected, both Johnson and Buss said this was about winning and getting the organization going back in the right direction.

“When we sat down for dinner, and she asked me to come back, I think the timing was right,” Johnson said. “It was right for me to put my businesses aside and focus on Laker business, try to build an organization fans can be proud of, both on the court and in the offices.”

Report: Lakers pursued Warriors president Bob Myers

Bob Myers
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
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Give Knicks owner James Dolan this: He was so committed to winning, he spent an unheard of $60 million over five years to hire a lead basketball executive. This is how big-market teams should leverage their advantages, spending big on positions that don’t count toward the salary cap.

Dolan’s problem is that he hired Phil Jackson, who had no front-office experience.

If you’re going to offer the highest salary in the league, why not try to poach someone who’s already succeeding in the same role?

It seems the Lakers, who are looking for a general manager to work under new president Magic Johnson, understand that better,

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Before the Lakers fired Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss on Tuesday, the franchise had already moved away from trying to pursue the Golden State Warriors’ Bob Myers, the franchise’s original top target for general manager, league sources told The Vertical.

After Myers signed a recent contract extension, it became clear to Lakers brass that it would be unable to lure Myers, league sources said.

Myers inherited Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but he drafted Draymond Green and lured Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala to Golden State. The 2015 Executive of the Year, Myers has cemented himself among the league’s best.

The Lakers had little shot of getting him, though. Myers already holds the president title so it would have been tough to see him leaving for a lesser role — especially in the midst of so much success. The Warriors also possess the financial wherewithal to hang with the Lakers in a bidding war.

But good for the Lakers for trying.

If not Myers himself, it seems Los Angeles likes the idea of an agent-turned-general. Kobe Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, has emerged high on the list of candidates.

Report: Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson kept in dark on Lakers’ DeMarcus Cousins trade discussions

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Lakers owner Jeanie Buss wielded her power, installing Magic Johnson as President of Basketball Operations and ousting Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak from the front office.

Why did she drop the hammer today?

It wasn’t just that Jim Buss and Kupchak failed to trade for DeMarcus Cousins. It’s how they internally managed negotiations with the Kings, who ultimately sent Cousins to the Pelicans.

Bill Reiter of CBSSports.com:

One source close to the situation said Kupchak and Jeanie Buss had not spoken since Nov. 1, despite her role as president of basketball operations and the power that gave her to fire Kupchak, and that her brother had resorted to communicating with his sister only through lawyers. The same source said Jeanie never was informed of a potential DeMarcus Cousins trade over the weekend and described a chaotic scene in which Jim Buss insisted low-level basketball officials “vote” on the proposed deal while Jeanie and Magic were left in the dark.

Jeanie allowed this culture by indulging Jim’s silly timeline pledge. That led to too many desperate tactics, even when he wasn’t so desperate to save his job.

She also exacerbated these issues by hiring Johnson as an advisor and then watching him repeatedly spout off about being in charge. Think Jim Buss and Kupchak were eager to answer to and be evaluated by someone gunning for their jobs?

This doesn’t mean Jim Buss and Kupchak handled the situation well, but chaos breeds chaos. There’s plenty of blame to spread around for the Lakers’ predicament.

Jeanie Buss and Johnson should have a better working relationship. At least it won’t face the same pressures as the siblings’ partnership.

 

Report: Kobe Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, leads list of Lakers’ GM candidates

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 26:  Agent Rob Pelinka talks with Kobe Bryant during the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional Final at Honda Center on March 26, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images
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Magic Johnson is now the Lakers’ President of Basketball Operations, and he has said his first call will be to Kobe Bryant.

Maybe that’s just to get the number of Kobe’s agent, Rob Pelinka.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Pelinka is still an agent, and Arn Tellem is a former agent who now works for the Pistons. Agents are becoming trendier picks for front-office jobs since Warriors general manager Bob Myers blazed the trail.

If the Lakers are willing to spend big, Neil Olshey — who previously worked in Los Angeles with the Clippers — would be a good choice. A large salary could pull him from Portland.

Kevin Pritchard or Peter Dinwiddie could be fine if the Lakers aren’t willing to make a mega-offer good enough to lure a sitting general manager. Chris Grant might bring baggage.

As Johnson has acknowledged, he needs a general manager more savvy in the nuances of the salary cap. Any of these names would qualify. It’s about finding the very best person for the job, because Johnson needs all the help he can get.