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.

Fergie says she “tried my best” after national anthem blowback

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fergie is apologizing after trying something different with the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game.

“I’ve always been honored and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA,” the Grammy-winning singer said in a statement Monday. “I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone. I love this country and honestly tried my best.”

Fergie’s slow, bluesy rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sunday night wasn’t particularly well received at Staples Center or on social media before the 67th edition of the NBA’s annual showcase.

A low chuckle rumbled through the sold-out arena after she finished the first line of the song with a throaty growl on “the dawn’s early light.”

Fans throughout the star-studded crowd reacted with varying levels of bemusement and enthusiasm while her languid, 2 +-minute version of the song continued. Although Fergie was on pitch, her tempo, musical accompaniment and sexy delivery were not exactly typical for a sporting event or a patriotic song.

Golden State All-Star Draymond Green captured Sunday’s mood – and became an instant GIF – when he was shown open-mouthed on the scoreboard and the television broadcast in apparent confusion over the unique vocal stylings. Green then chuckled to himself after realizing he was on TV.

After a forceful finish, Fergie finally got big cheers when she shouted, “Let’s play some basketball!”

The Black Eyed Peas singer, born Stacy Ann Ferguson, is from nearby Hacienda Heights, California.

Famed basketball commentator Charles Barkley joked that he “needed a cigarette” after Fergie’s performance during the TNT halftime show.

Former Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal leaped to Fergie’s defense, saying: “Fergie, I love you. It was different. It was sexy. I liked it. Leave her alone.”

Others on social media weren’t as kind, with criticism of the performance outpacing the positive reviews.

 

Did Lakers help keep LeBron James in Cleveland with trade?

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When the trade went down between the Lakers and Cavaliers before the deadline — sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland in exchange for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye plus Cleveland’s 2018 first-round draft pick (top-five protected) — it caught the NBA by surprise.

The first reaction for a lot of people to the deal? This opens up as much as $70 million in cap space for the Lakers this summer (depending on other moves with players such as Julius Randle). Los Angeles could sign two max players — LeBron James and Paul George. Why would Cleveland help Los Angeles open up room to steal LeBron.

The Cavaliers didn’t see it that way — they knew they had to make a major shakeup or LeBron was gone. At that point, does it matter where? So in a series of moves, Cleveland GM Koby Altman radically remade the roster around LeBron. The goal was to energize them back into being the team to beat in the East, and from there make it hard for him to leave as a free agent. Since the trades, the Cavaliers are 2-0 and LeBron has clearly been reinvigorated, plus they will add Kevin Love back in a few weeks.

Altman’s plan seems to be working, one executive told Mark Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays in Cleveland now,” one high-ranking Eastern Conference team executive said. “The Cavaliers put a really good team around him. The Cavaliers have made it really tough for him to decide to leave Cleveland again. The Lakers might have helped them keep LeBron.”

I had heard from sources for a while LeBron to the Lakers was not likely (Paul George is another story, that door remains open). As Spears notes, the Lakers did not have an All-Star in Sunday’s game. Even if LeBron and PG13 went to Los Angeles, that team was third or fourth best in the West next season. LeBron is in full on legacy mode and wants to win rings. Los Angeles is not the place to do it.

Houston is interesting (and it’s still a team I hear some execs think has a real shot), but the gutting or role players on that roster to make it work would be a concern. Maybe a dark horse such as Philadelphia can emerge. However, if LeBron can lead this newly-energized Cavaliers team to the Finals again (his eighth consecutive trip there), they get a high draft pick with the Brooklyn pick, then LeBron gets a commitment from Altman and owner Dan Gilbert to keep spending and being aggressive, where is he going to be closer to a title than at home?

Lou Williams trolls Jimmy Butler for resting during All-Star Game

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Jimmy Butler was in Los Angeles and enjoying his well-earned All-Star slot on Team Stephen.

Well, except for the actual playing basketball part. Butler did not set foot on the court during the All-Star Game at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

Lou Williams, the Clippers’ guard who likely would have been near the front of the line for an open All-Star roster spot in the West (likely second in the queue behind Chris Paul), but instead took part in the Saturday Skills Competition then had Sunday off, trolled Butler for it on Twitter.

This seems more good natured than genuinely bitter.

Williams will roll with it, but his point’s a valid one — if you’re an All-Star, at least play a little and give the people what they want. Get out there for five minutes or whatever. LaMarcus Aldridge only played four minutes, no big deal.

If you’re not going to use the roster spot, give it up to someone who will.

Report: Raptors won’t sign Vince Carter if he gets bought out

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Of returning to the Raptors, Vince Carter said, “It’ll happen one day.” It sounds as if the Kings would buy him out if he wants.

Will he end the season with Toronto?

Josh Lewenberg of TSN 1050:

After speaking with a few team sources, I can confirm that they’ve had internal dialogue and debate about the idea of bringing Vince Carter back. It’s something that they wanted to do over the summer. That’s why they made him an offer, something that I’ve reported in the past. And it’s also something that they’d be open to in the future, perhaps next year in some capacity. But they’ve decided now is not the right time. And I think the consensus seems to be there’s so much going on right now, and they want this season to be about this team, their accomplishments and their playoff push and not the sideshow that I think would come with a Vince Carter return.

The Raptors (41-16) are on pace for their best record ever. They’re excelling offensively and defensively. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are spearheading a more dynamic offense that spurs hope for more playoff success.

Toronto is probably correct to save the Carter reunion for another year – though it depends who else is available. That 15th roster spot could be useful. If Carter is the best player who’d sign, the Raptors should sign him and deal with the hoopla.

But it’s not clear whom they could get or whether they could even get Carter. He hasn’t sounded like someone who’d forgo guaranteed salary to play for the minimum.