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.

Spurs honor Richard Overton, the oldest living U.S. veteran at Military Appreciation Night

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San Antonio is a military town, and on Thursday night against the Memphis Grizzlies the Spurs held a Military Appreciation Night. The team donned their camouflage uniforms, then held court for a very special guest: Richard Overton.

Mr. Overton is the oldest living U.S. veteran at age 110. He was in the Pacific theater during WWII and served in the Army with the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion.

The team honored Mr. Overton during the game, and he received a standing ovation during a timeout.

Via Twitter:

Plus, Mr. Overton got to hang with the Spurs dancers:

Pretty neat of the team to do.

James Harden has been fouled on 3-pointers more than any single NBA team

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Houston Rockets star James Harden is a leading candidate for the 2017 NBA MVP, and for good reason. The Arizona State product has been exceedingly efficient, unburdened by Dwight Howard clogging the lane and fueled by a Mike D’Antoni offense that treats the ball like it’s radioactive.

But Harden has a new claim to add to his statistically-important season. He has been fouled more times on 3-point shots than any team in the NBA.

Not player. Any team.

This revelation is the result of some serious digging by ESPN’s Chris Herring. In an article published to 538, Herring outlined the situation in great detail. It’s worth reading in full, but the shocker comes here:

Harden has drawn a whopping 108 shooting fouls from distance this year with 11 games left to play. For context, consider that, outside of the Rockets, no team has garnered more than 73 of those calls.

If you subtract Harden’s numbers from the rest of the league’s, the average NBA player has drawn fouls on 1.6 percent of his 3-pointers this season, according to BigDataBall, which tracks the league’s play-by-play logs. Harden is drawing 3-point shooting fouls at a 16.7 percent clip, or more than 10 times as often.

Herring’s article goes into how Harden draws the contact (hint: he’s the one initiating it) and why he’s so good at it. Just like on his drives, Herring says Harden uses his arms to his advantage. It’s best to read 538’s article so you can see the visual cues on how Harden does it, but it’s suffice to say it’s impressive.

The immediate discussion here is whether Harden is “gaming” the system by adding this to his already foul-reliant arsenal. The answer is absolutely he is, and that’s why he’s one of the top MVP candidates this season.

Change the rules or change how officials respond to the game. Until then, James Harden is a basketball wizard.

Derrick Rose, his agent both say winning more important than money in free agency

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Lets’s start with a disclaimer: Nearly every player and agent say for them free agency is not about the money, it’s about winning/fit/style of play. Then they go to the team that gives them the most money, even if it’s not very good or plays a style that doesn’t fit with their game.

That said, as players get along in the league, winning does matter more and some players will sacrifice dollars for rings.

Derrick Rose is a free agent this summer, and both his agent and Rose himself said that finding a winning team is what will guide the process.

“Derrick wants to win,” Rose’s agent B.J. Armstrong told NBCSports.com as part of a PBT Podcast (which will drop Friday morning). “That’s who he is, whether he’s playing pick-and-roll or not. In the end, what I found as a player, what I found as an agent, is it’s much easier to play when you’re winning….

“This is his first time, in his nine years of playing in the league, that he’ll actually have an opportunity to select the people he thinks he can work best with. As long as you’re playing in a good spot and healthy, money and the rest of it will take care of itself. Where you get in trouble in this league is when you start trying to do things strictly for money.”

Here is what Rose himself said about his free agency this summer, via ESPN.

“Not even thinking money. I’ve got more than enough money saved. If I stopped playing basketball now, I’ll be all right,” Rose told reporters in Utah on Wednesday night. “I want to win. I want to be happy and feel at peace with myself wherever I’m at. But being at the negotiating table, you never know. I’m not going to negotiate with people where money is the No. 1 thing I’m asking for. I want to win.”

It’s going to be an interesting market for Rose, the number of “winning” or quality teams in need of a point guard and with enough cap space to sign Rose is a limited market. While he has said he would love to stay in New York and the Knicks have not given up on the idea of re-signing him, if they are committed to the triangle offense that may be an awkward fit (and it’s not exactly a winning team). The sands will shift this summer and something will open up, but will Rose take less money — and maybe a lesser role — to be on a team that’s a threat to do deep in the playoffs?

He says so. His agent said so. We’ll see what happens when the money hits the negotiating table.

Charles Barkley says if he was dying he would kill fellow talking head Skip Bayless

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Charles Barkley knows how to get ratings. He said weird stuff all the time. He’s feuded with LeBron James and made fun of LaVar Ball. Now Barkley has said that if he had some kind of terminal illness, he would want to kill former ESPN and current Fox Sports talking head Skip Bayless.

Uh, what?

It was the end part of a conversation Barkley had on The Dan Patrick Show this week, with Barkley quickly cramming it into the final minute of the show.

“You know what we should do for ratings?” said Barkley, “If I get a disease and I’m gonna die, how about you get Skip Bayless in here and I kill him live on national television.”

Bayless makes a living being abrasive, but this feels pretty clumsy. Then again, Shaquille O’Neal saying the Earth is flat is also simply testing the waters of how to get instant buzz around you.

Let’s hope Barkley stays healthy, if only for Bayless’ sake.