ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Portland Trail Blazers

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Last Season: The Blazers spent the first half of the season threatening for a playoff spot, but one of the worst benches in NBA history ultimately sunk the team’s chances. Damian Lillard’s scoring prowess made him the fourth unanimous Rookie of the Year winner in NBA history, and it simulatenously provided hope that Portland’s current core can contend in the near future.

Signature Highlight: It feels dirty not to have a Lillard or LaMarcus Aldridge highlight here, but by golly gee, this dunk from J.J. Hickson was one of the best of the year.

Key Player Changes:

IN: Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Earl Watson

OUT: J.J. Hickson (Denver), Eric Maynor (Washington), Luke Babbitt, Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavolvic, Ronnie Price

General manager Neil Olshey pulled off some sneaky tanking last year by cobbling together an awful bench with multiple players who won’t even play in the league this season. After hitting on Lillard in the draft, it looked like the Trail Blazers might have stolen another underrated small school grad to slot in as a scoring sixth man. Unfortunately, though, C.J. McCollum’s foot injury will keep him out of action indefinitely.

Adding Thomas Robinson was an incredibly low-risk, high-reward move, as his energy and rebounding should be a welcome sight coming off the bench. Robinson will likely never be a star, but he could carve out a solid role.

If Dorell Wright’s outside shooting returns to form, he could be a steal as a versatile 3 and D guy. Mo Williams is an extremely good shooter and a decent point guard to boot, but he needs to be hidden defensively at all times.

Robin Lopez might be the addition with the biggest impact, as his pure size should help the Blazers control the paint defensively much better than last season.

Losing J.J. Hickson doesn’t hurt nearly as much as his overall numbers would indicate. Hickson was defensive poison as a center last season, and it’s telling that the Blazers were unable to flip him for any asset while he was putting up grossly inflated stats.

Keys to Portland’s Season:

1) Can an improved bench make that much of a difference?

After running his starters into the ground by necessity last season, Terry Stotts can ease off the reins a bit and trust what should be a very capable bench. The on/off ratings for Aldridge (+9.4 points per 100 possessions) and Lillard (+9.1 points per 100 possessions) illustrate just how bad Portland’s reserve unit was last year, and the heavy minutes took a toll late in the season when the defense completely collapsed.

2) Will the defense improve?

Although he’s a plodder, Robin Lopez should plug a few more gaps in this leaky defense. Matthews is still the team’s best defender despite Batum’s reputation, but a lot of the responsibility boils down to Lillard and Aldridge, who need to stop reserving so much energy for offense and start defending pick-and-roll action better.

The Blazers finished 26th in defensive efficiency last season, so there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement here. The starting unit should be explosive, but below-average defensive teams traditionally have a much harder time making the playoffs than below-average offensive teams. The Blazers have to get better here in order to fight for the 8-seed.

3) Which unexpected source can provide the lift?

It’s time for Nic Batum to live up to his potential, as he’s the player who needs to make the biggest leap on both ends for the Blazers to truly be competitive. We know what we’re getting from LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews at this point, and it’s hard to imagine Lillard being significantly better (at least offensively) in his second year.

Perhaps Lopez or Robinson can surprise and add big contributions as well, but Batum is paid too much money to simply be a very good complementary player. The additions of an improved bench and a defensive-minded center can put the Blazers in the playoff conversation alone, but Batum’s continued development as a secondary creator (his assists shot up to 4.9 a game last year) and locked-in defender has to be there.

Why You Should Watch: Damian Lillard is the definition of smooth. Robin Lopez’s hair is the best in the business. LaMarcus Aldridge has three moves he just pairs over and over again, and no one can stop it.  Nic Batum in transition is an adventure. J.J. Hickson and his defense won’t make your eyes bleed anymore.

Prediction: 41-41 and the 9th seed. The Blazers should be able to beat out the other hapless defensive teams vying for the final playoff spot (Mavericks, Lakers), and the talent meshes better in Portland than it likely will in New Orleans. A healthy Minnesota team (oxy-moron?) is my choice for the 8th spot however, as they were much better defensively last year despite massive injuries. I need to see Portland’s defense improve drastically before I can fully believe they are a playoff team.

Cavaliers get Nance Jr., Thompson, Hood back from injuries

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cavaliers are closer to being at full strength.

Forwards Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, and Rodney Hood all returned from injuries on Friday night as Cleveland, which has been riddled with injuries all season, hosted the Phoenix Suns. Acting coach Larry Drew said none of the players will start and all will be on minutes’ restrictions.

Drew, who is filling in while coach Tyronn Lue is on leave to address his own health, plans to keep his starting lineup intact and ease the returning players into the rotation.

LeBron James, Jose Calderon, George Hill, Jeff Green and Kevin Love were scheduled to started against Phoenix, which has lost nine in a row. Drew said he and Lue will talk again Saturday about lineup changes for the upcoming trip to Brooklyn, Miami and Charlotte.

“I really didn’t want to disrupt the starting five that we have out there right now and those guys will be playing limited minutes, so I wanted to get them slowly back and acclimated to what we’re doing,” Drew said. “There’s a chance that there could be some early substitutions to get the guys in there. I’m not ruling that out, but right now I just kind of want to stay with the flow, stay with what we’ve done the last couple of ballgames and then we’ll probably after tonight we’ll see as far as where we stand as far as starters are concerned.”

Thompson missed nine games with a sprained right ankle, Nance Jr. was out four with a hamstring issue and Hood was out the past three games with a bad back.

Drew said he did not know if Lue will accompany the team on its trip.

But while the Cavs are healthier than they’ve been in weeks, the team is still missing Kyle Korver, who is with his family in Iowa following the death of his brother, and rookie Cedi Osman, who is sidelined with a left hip flexor strain.

Giannis Antetokounmpo out for Bucks-Bulls with ankle injury

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo will miss the Milwaukee Bucks’ home game Friday night against the Chicago Bulls with a sprained right ankle.

The Bucks ruled out Antetokounmpo earlier Friday.

Antetokounmpo got hurt in the second quarter of a 127-120 loss on Wednesday to the Los Angeles Clippers when he appeared to trip over teammate Shabazz Muhammad under the Bucks’ basket.

Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in scoring at 27.3 points a game.


PBT Extra: What is going on in San Antonio?

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For the last two decades, there was less drama around the San Antonio Spurs than the recent Russian election. The Lakers were the soap opera, the Spurs and Tim Duncan just kept winning titles.

Not this season. Kawhi Leonard has missed all but nine games, his teammates are asking when he’s going to returnTony Parker — who is playing — says his quad tendon injury was far worse, and the Spurs organization is springing leaks like the Titanic.

What does all that mean? I get into it in this latest PBT Extra.

Short term, Leonard’s return or non-return will have a serious impact on the Western Conference playoffs.

Long term, after the Spurs offer Leonard the designated player max extension this summer (as is expected), everything will get back to normal.

The time Chauncey Billups tried to trick teams into believing he’d be a bad teammate

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In 2011, the Knicks amnestied Chauncey Billups. Unlike traditional waivers, amnesty waivers didn’t require claiming teams to pay Billups’ full salary. They could bid a partial amount – New York on the hook for the rest – and the highest bid would get Billups.

So, it was practically a forgone conclusion someone would claim Billups. The only questions were which team and for how much?

But Billups didn’t want to go to the highest bidder. He wanted to become a free agent and choose his destination – even though his contract and the Collective Bargaining Agreement put him on a different course.

So, Billups – a consummate professional throughout his career – threatened to become a problem. Adrian Wojnarowski at the time:

Wojnarowski now:

I remember talking to Chauncey on a Saturday morning one day. He was very determined that no team would put a waiver claim in on him, because he was headed to Miami. He was going to go play with the Heat. He had his bags packed. But he needed a team not to claim him. And he and I were just talking about this. I read this quote back to him recently, and we were laughing.

He went on this two-, three-minute rant about that basically, “I’m just going to be a complete asshole wherever I go if you claim me.” And so, he went on this rant. And he read that, and he kept going. And finally he stopped. I don’t even remember if I asked him a question. He just started when I called him. And at the end, there was like this pause. And he goes, “Do you think anyone is going to buy it?”

The Clippers submitted the highest bid for Billups, and he quickly got on board. Even though they traded for Chris Paul at point guard shortly after, Billups of course was a model teammate and veteran leader. Late in his career, he couldn’t stay healthy enough to contribute much on the court. But the Clippers still valued his presence. He even re-signed with them the following summer.

This was such a readable bluff – which says plenty about Billups’ character.