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Report: Blazers C Festus Ezeli likely candidate for season-ending surgery

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The Portland Trail Blazers might have just lost a little more hope to fix their ailing front line. On Saturday, it was reported by Yahoo! Sports that Blazers center Festus Ezeli will likely undergo season-ending knee surgery.

Ezeli, 27, was signed by Portland in the offseason to a 2-year, $15 million deal, the second year of which is a team option.

Declining Ezeli’s option for next year and filing for a disabled player exception would give the Blazers — a team $18 million over the salary cap — a little bit of financial leeway, but it still leaves a gaping hole on the floor for 2016-17.

Portland has struggled defensively, and while their rim protection numbers aren’t horrible, they have clearly had issues defending as a team thanks to the play of their forwards and centers.

The Blazers have run out Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh, and Maurice Harkless up front, and have sorely missed the defensive presence of Al-Farouq Aminu, who has played in 12 games due to injury.

Plumlee is a sore spot for Portland, a short-armed offensive center who is a delightful passer and fits well into Terry Stotts’ flow offense. However, his inability on the pick-and-roll has been a point of exploitation for opposing teams.

So, too, have the Blazers felt a sting as Davis’ advanced numbers have receded from last year. The 7-year veteran has not been as effective on the offensive glass, and his finishing around the rim has dipped significantly.

Meanwhile, Leonard has been recovering from a shoulder injury as he rounds into playing shape, and Vonleh is still developing.

Ezeli — who entered 2015-16 with the Golden State Warriors — was slated for a big payday, but injuries have hampered much of his career. He received a bone marrow injection in September, and folks in Portland seemed hopeful he would return. The Blazers seemed to think Ezeli’s signing was more akin to a mid-season acquisition, but they went suspiciously quiet on him as fall turned to winter.

Now we know that the Blazers will likely be without him entirely, and we may never see Ezeli in a Portland uniform if the team declines his option for next year.

Rumors have swirled for Portland about potential trades as a disappointing 13-15 start to the season has them at the No. 8 position in the Western Conference, below where many — including yours truly — slated them to end up.

Potential targets have ranged from Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut — also injured and an unlikely cultural fit in the Willamette Valley — to disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers youngster Nerlens Noel.

It’s unclear what or if Portland is willing to give something important up to bolster the front line. Although the Blazers have started off slow, they are still ahead of where they were at this point last season when they were 11-17. Their schedule is supposed to get easier after the All-Star break, and GM Neil Olshey has shown a propensity to play the slow hand, instead waiting out the season to see what comes of the market and his developing teams.

Still, it’s hard to see a season with so much hope for Portland start to fizzle. Realistically, even if they do end up being a playoff team with a low seed, there’s not a lot of fighting hope for them come elimination time if they can’t do a lot of things well defensively. Just this week the Denver Nuggets lit them up for 132 points thanks to 15 3-pointers, and indeed they are one of the worst teams in the NBA at defending the arc, both in terms of percentage and allowed shots.

It seems unwise that the Blazers will sit tight. Expectations are high this year and with both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum playing at increasingly high levels, it’s going to be hard for the team to waste a year of their primes.

Several Blazers players — including Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe — will become trade-eligible on Jan. 15. Between those two, Aminu, Harkless, and the two first-round picks the team holds, it seems that Portland should have enough to get into serious trade talks in light of Ezeli’s potential surgery.

While Olshey may have wanted to do what he always does — wait, see, and prosper — it seems that Ezeli’s left knee may force the Trail Blazers’ hand sooner rather than later.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.

 

Celtics to get Marcus Smart back for Game 5 Tuesday

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It’s a series that has hinged on defense — Boston has played it well for the majority of five games, bottling up Milwaukee in the halfcourt. The Bucks only played it with real energy at home (and only for about six of the eight quarters the last two games) but when they do they have overwhelmed the Celtics, then converted turnovers and missed shots into transition and early clock opportunities the other way.

For Game 5 Tuesday night, Boston gets its best perimeter defender back — Marcus Smart. He has been out since before the playoffs following thumb surgery last March.

Stevens, via NBC Sports Boston:

“He hasn’t played in six weeks, so it’s hard to say how much (time he will get) but will certainly play,” Stevens said. Stevens said there would not be a minutes restriction on him, but added that the fourth-year guard wasn’t going to play 35 minutes.

Smart is a very good perimeter defender who is very physical and usually assigned to the other team’s best guard (or wing, depending upon the matchup). When Smart was on the court this season, the Celtics allowed less than a point per possession and were 3.6 points per 100 better defensively than when he sat.

Smart likely will get time against Eric Bledsoe and Kris Middleton of the Bucks. Just his presence brings needed depth to the Celtics in what is a critical Game 5 in a series tied 2-2.

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over two to three years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.