Five questions the Portland Trail Blazers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
41-41, lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: Not a whole lot. They had to unload Allen Crabbe for what amounted to a trade exception — albeit a large one — after signing him to a restricted free agent deal last season and failing to find a trade partner for him last year. The Blazers did draft Caleb Swanigan and Zack Collins. They also signed Archie Goodwin and Anthony Morrow. Portland failed to find a way to entice Carmelo Anthony to Rip City via a trade.


1) Can the offense take some of the load off of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? Lillard struggled with a nagging foot injury last year and indeed it was McCollum that ended up being the more important Blazer to Portland’s success. However, before Nurkic arrived in Oregon the Blazers were an easy team to scout on film.

Gone from this roster are two of last season’s biggest minutes guys — Mason Plumlee and Allen Crabbe. It’s possible that the Blazers have gotten rid of some of the duplication in both services and experience level, which could benefit their younger players with some structure. They have decided to commit to both Evan Turner and Moe Harkless, and having their roles defined could be easier for this team. With room to grow into their respective positions, several Blazers will be looked upon to provide more and take the load off of Lillard and McCollum.

2) Can Jusuf Nurkic play the entire season? This seems like an issue that folks in Portland are just too scared to broach, whether it be because of the team history or just the fact that they enjoy Nurkic so much.

The big man came over in a trade from the Denver Nuggets last year and played in just 20 games for the Blazers before bowing out due to an injury. Nurkic played most of the season approaching 300 lbs, and running in the Trail Blazers offense perhaps took its toll.

Much of media day in Portland was about the weight and eating habits of the players, Nurkic included. He has slimmed down some and that should help him come through the season with a bit more durability. However, the dark cloud hanging over Portland is not just one that’s filled with rain. I think Nurkic has to be able to play in 65 or more games this season for the Trail Blazers to have a chance in a Western Conference that is even tougher than it was last year.

3) Will the Blazers be any good on defense? This has been the question that has plagued the Blazers basically every season in Terry Stotts’ coaching tenure with the team, save for 2014-15. Portland was an abysmal squad on defense of last season, ranking just 24th the defensive efficiency.

Nurkic should help them a little bit and so too should a fully healthy an of Al-Farouq Aminu. Lillard and McCollum appear to have fully developed as much as they reasonably can on that side of the ball (and considering their expenditures on offense). It will be the rest of the team and the bench that will need to rotate in to make up for their deficiencies.

Terry Stotts said during media day that there are not any big shifts planned on defense for the upcoming season. Instead, we are looking for some defined roles to come out of Portland along with a fully healthy squad that has had more time playing together. Getting Ed Davis back into the big man rotation won’t hurt either.

Much like the title hopes of the Houston Rockets, the Trail Blazers’ playoff hopes will remain dependent on whether or not they can perform on the defensive side of the ball.

4) Will this be the last season of the Dame/CJ pairing? Uppity Blazers fans have been losing their mind asking this question for going on three years now. In fact, before Nurkic was traded to Portland, much of the discussion in Portland was around which of these two players they should swap. Indeed, most fans believed that McCollum was the player to trade, often being floated in the fan theories for then-Sacramento Kings big man at DeMarcus Ccousins.

But Portland GM Neil Olshey has a soft spot for McCollum, and he needed to give him and Lillard a full two seasons to play together as legitimate, dual superstars after McCollum won MIP in 2016. This season will give us the answer once and for all whether this tandem can be relied upon to lead this team. Again, it could come down to whether this team is fully healthy, but I don’t believe the Blazers would move McCollum until next summer. If management gets full season of healthy play out of this roster and they still are not great on defense, McCollum could be a move that happens.

Oh, and get it out of your head that Olshey is ever going to trade Lillard, Blazers fans. You remember how long you yearned for a star player at the point guard spot? Now you have a franchise one, you’re not going to swap him out and downgrade.

5) What is Evan Turner’s role on this team? Turner was abysmal for Portland during 2016, and he had only really started to figure it out after the turn of the new year before he was injured. After Portland lost out on Chandler Parsons and a few other free agents that summer, Turner was the panic move. He is certainly overpaid, but the whole idea of having him on the roster is to take away the ability of an opposing defense to trap Lillard and McCollum off the pick-and-roll.

Granted, Turner does do that somewhat and he now has more time dealing within this offense. No, Stotts’ offense is not tailored to Turner’s strong suits, but then again I’m not sure which kind of modern NBA offense is. Turner works best when he works his way to a specific spot on the elbow and not much else.

That can be a real weapon, and using him more in the pick-and-roll is a good idea. He will be more comfortable with his teammates this season even if he’s not a threat to shoot himself.

All that being said, it remains to be seen whether or not Turner can simply take some of the pressure off of Lillard and McCollum or elevate his game to another level within the confines of this offense. Like it or not, Portland’s success this season will rely on Turner as perhaps the fourth or fifth most important player on the roster.

LeBron James’ triple-double lifts Cavaliers past Bucks

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 40 points as part of his third triple-double in four games and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 124-117 on Monday night as coach Tyronn Lue began his leave of absence to address health issues.

Lue said Monday in a statement he been dealing with chest pains and loss of sleep, and that tests have offered no conclusion about what the issue is. Associate head coach Larry Drew will run the team in Lue’s absence.

James scored 17 points in the third quarter and finished with 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his 16th triple-double this season and 71st of his career.

The four-time MVP took over in the third beginning with back-to-back 3-pointers. After not getting a foul called on a third attempt, he finished Cleveland’s next possession with a massive dunk. He was fouled attempting another dunk and made both free throws the following time down.

Milwaukee cut a 17-point lead to 117-109, but James drove the length of the floor for a dunk with just over a minute left.

Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love returned after missing six weeks because of a broken left hand and scored 18 points in 25 minutes. He sparked a 10-0 run in the second quarter with two 3-pointers

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points and went 11 for 11 at the foul line for Milwaukee, which is seventh in the Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton had 30 points, making 11 of 16 from the field.

Milwaukee guard Jason Terry was given a Flagrant-1 foul for hitting Ante Zizic in the face with an open hand while the rookie center was putting up a shot in the lane. Zizic made both free throws, helping spark a run that built a double-figure lead.

Lue, 40, led Cleveland to the 2016 NBA championship after taking over for David Blatt midway through that season.

The Cavaliers (41-29) are third in the Eastern Conference and have endured roster shake-ups, injuries and other distractions as they try to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time.

No timetable has been given for when Lue will return. He missed the second half Saturday, the second time this season he left a game because he wasn’t feeling well. Lue also sat out a game against Chicago at home in December.


Pelicans rookie Frank Jackson has another surgery, will miss entire season now

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Pelicans say rookie guard Frank Jackson won’t make his NBA debut this season after having follow-up surgery to remove residual scar tissue from earlier right foot operations.

The Pelicans say Jackson also received an injection in his foot.

The club says a specialist in New York handled Jackson’s latest procedure.

The Pelicans acquired the 6-foot-4 Jackson through a draft-night trade with the Charlotte Hornets, who selected the former Duke player with the first pick of the second round last summer.

Following the draft, the Pelicans signed Jackson to a three-year contract at the NBA minimum with two years guaranteed, but Jackson needed a second foot surgery last summer to address a setback following his initial surgery last May.

Jackson spent one season at Duke, averaging 10.9 points.


Giannis Antetokounmpo turns bad pass into ridiculous alley-oop (VIDEO)

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That is just not fair.

Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe threw an alley-oop pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo that was off the mark — high and behind him — but it just doesn’t matter. The Greek Freak gets up and throws it down.

It’s early, but it’s going to be hard to beat that one for dunk of the night.

League’s Last Two Minute Report backs referees (mostly) in Raptors/Thunder game

Associated Press

Anyone who watched the Thunder’s win over the Raptors Sunday afternoon in Toronto — especially the final few minutes — thought it was not referee Marc Davis and crew’s finest hour. There were missed calls and three-straight ejections of Raptors players, which all seemed rather hair-trigger (especially coach Dwane Casey, who was tossed for something a fan behind him said).

The NBA’s Last Two Minute report doesn’t see it that way — it says the referees nailed it.

According to the report, there was only one missed call in the final two minutes: Carmelo Anthony held Pascal Siakam as a pass came to him with 11.7 seconds left, and that should have been called.

What about the play that set DeMar DeRozan off and ultimately got him ejected, the drive to the basket with 33 seconds left (and the Raptors down two) where DeRozan thought Corey Brewer fouled him? The report said that was a good no call:

DeRozan (TOR) starts his drive and Brewer (OKC) moves laterally in his path and there is contact. The contact is incidental as both players attempt to perform normal basketball moves….

RHH shows Brewer (OKC) make contact with the ball and the part of DeRozan’s (TOR) hand that is on the ball. The hand is considered “part of the ball” when it is in contact with the ball and therefore, contact on that part of the hand by a defender while it is in contact with the ball is not illegal.

(I didn’t see it that way, I think the contact was more than incidental, and to me looking at the replay Brewer catches some wrist and impedes the shot in a way that was not legal. Just my two cents.)

The report does not cover the ejections, which are reviewed by league operations but not part of this report.

Three thoughts out of all this:

1) Raptors fans/management/players have every right to feel the calls went against them in this game. As for calls always going against them — as DeRozan complained about after the game — 29 other teams and fan bases are convinced the officials have it out for them, too. I never bought that.

2) The Raptors didn’t lose this game solely because of the officiating. Russell Westbrook was clutch down the stretch, the Thunder were part of it, and the Raptors had other issues, too (Serge Ibaka had a rough game, for example).

3) This loss also does not say a thing about the Raptors in the postseason (even if they went a little too much isolation at the end) — this was their third game in four days, they looked tired and flat at the end. That will not be the case in the playoffs.