The Trail Blazers don’t need to panic … yet

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The Portland Trail Blazers had a rough summer. The team didn’t have the cap room to sign any big time free agents, nor were they part of any major trade that would have landed them a rotation player or a draft pick. Allen Crabbe, matched on an RFA deal in 2016 as future trade spec, went to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for an exception the team could use.

Debits and credits aside, the team’s talent is still significant enough to weigh heavy compared to the team’s mediocre 6-6 record.

The team got off to a rough offensive start, particularly when it came to star Damian Lillard. Last season, Lillard sat second row behind C.J. McCollum as the former battled a nagging foot injury. He looked sluggish and uncomfortable; unbalanced.

Although fully healthy for 2017-18, Lillard hasn’t been his normal self. He’s shooting worse from the field, less frequently and nearly six percent worse from 3-point range, and his value over replacement player has plummeted.

More importantly, Lillard’s free-throw attempts have skyrocketed. Watching Portland games looks like a few seasons ago, with Lillard constantly going to the rim and launching his body toward the stanchion, to hell with the consequences. It feels like it’s a reaction from having to force the offense, something that doesn’t come naturally under Terry Stotts.

This could have something to do with Jusuf Nurkic.

The Bosnian big man — hailed all too quick by Blazers fans over the summer as the savior — has looked sloppy over the first month of the season. Turnovers, poor shooting nights, and getting muscled by both the Marc Gasols and Tyson Chandlers of the NBA has not hung well on him. The amount of awkward, backwards-facing hook shots from Nurkic have been … unbecoming.

That’s to say nothing of his defense, which has too often looked like this:

Nurkic is playing at replacement player-level for the season thus far. Stotts benched him for nearly the entire fourth quarter on Friday against the Nets, likely because of his recent shortcomings.

Al-Farouq Aminu‘s absence due to injury has poked a hole in the extremely thin armor of Portland’s defense. He’ll be back from his ankle issue soon enough, but even the resurgence of guys like Ed Davis (playing masterfully, I should add) can’t make up for the lack of progression from guys like Maurice Harkless and the aforementioned Turner.

Even with a Big 3 they hope to grow together, Portland just isn’t deep enough to compete with the upper echelon in the Western Conference. The Blazers’ bench is filled with developmental talent and guys who can do one thing OK at an NBA level. What they need are two or three who can do a few things each — that’s the difference between contenders and challengers.

The situation is made even worse when you consider that two of the Blazers’ most important players, Aminu and Davis, are on deals that combined total $3.5 million less than one year of Turner. Say what you will about the contracts of Harkless and Meyers Leonard, but much of Olshey’s lauded frugality has been rendered null by Turner’s deal.

There’s no doubt some in Portland will preach patience, and that this team needs time. These folks are right across the aisle from the fans who have been screaming for the team to trade McCollum for DeMarcus Cousins for the better part of the last three seasons.

Even adding a third piece like Nurkic at his peak doesn’t help the fact a team led by McCollum and Lillard — the team’s core, in place for multiple seasons now — will need better defending and shooting on the wing from both starting and bench units.

This is the unpleasant counter to the argument that Nurkic’s performance last season over 20 games was going to lead to some kind of Disco Stu-esque chart of unconstrained success. Portland’s flaws are what they are. They needed a player to provide what Nurkic gave them last year, but that didn’t mean they could fail to address their remaining gaps.

To wit, Lillard has seemed to be more effective on defense, and some early numbers suggest he’s headed in the right direction. He passes the eyeball test too — he’s closer on closeouts, and free from the camp he used to set up on the hips of opposing, screening big men.

McCollum, for his part, has built on the successes of last season. He’s been the most impressive Blazers player this season, playing more minutes, shooting more 3-pointers, and scorching the nets at 52% from deep. While Lillard is still the franchise player and the one hitting game-winning 3-pointers, the fact is that McCollum has instilled more confidence for those watching heavy minutes of Portland basketball.

Other positives include Caleb Swanigan, who is destined for rotation or starters minutes over the next three seasons. That’s not only a good value for the team but an opportunity for Olshey to jettison his unhealthy attachment to Noah Vonleh either by trade or by dodging his extension. Harkless is still useful. Davis is back to being a complete headache for just about every NBA big man.

It feels privileged to slice apart a team like Portland in this way. This is a squad with talent, solidly in the middle of the Western Conference. But their standing isn’t a complete surprise, especially for those who inoculated themselves against “Nurkic Fever”.

Whether fans in Oregon like it or not, Nurkic’s diminished play and the hamstrung nature of the Blazers roster — now led by Turner’s contract with Crabbe gone — has shown that the team hasn’t made much of a leap in their first full season with renewed hope.

Olshey just signed a new contract in August, which makes sense for the team given his drafting ability and trade prowess. However, heading toward the holidays and 2018 the team sits roughly where it has since 2015 after separating from LaMarcus Aldridge — that’s with Lillard and McCollum’s stars shining brighter over that time.

While I prefer to defer to the adage of you can’t make trades that aren’t there, the salary on this roster begs the question of what Olshey has the guts or the freedom to do in the coming two seasons. Eventually, the conversation in Portland has to go from preparation to execution, and 2017-18 feels like the season to see that leap and define that path.

If we’re having this conversation come the 2018 trade deadline, we might finally get those drastic steps some Blazers fans have been calling for. For now, we’ll have to wait and reserve our panic for Portland.

DeRozan has 29, Raptors win 11th straight, beat Mavs 122-115

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan made the game-winning basket in overtime and the Toronto Raptors rallied to match the longest winning streak in franchise history, extending their season-best run to 11 by beating the Dallas Mavericks 122-115 on Friday night.

DeRozan scored 29 points and Jonas Valanciunas had 21 points and 12 rebounds as the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors won for the 18th time in 19 games. Kyle Lowry got the night off to rest as the Raptors played the second game of the back-to-back.

Delon Wright had 15 points and Fred VanVleet scored 14, helping Toronto improved to an NBA-best 29-5 at home.

Dallas had won three of four. Harrison Barnes scored 27 points for the Mavericks, Dennis Smith Jr. had 19 and J.J. Barea 18.

Up 84-78 to begin the fourth, Dallas stretched its lead to 101-93 on a jump shot by Barnes with 5:43 remaining, but four points from DeRozan cut it to 101-97 with 4:32 left.

Toronto kept coming, pulling within two on a pair of free throws by DeRozan and, after a Dallas turnover, tying it at 106 on DeRozan’s jumper with 1:15 to go in regulation.

Each team turned the ball over before Barnes missed a jumper with 24 seconds left and VanVleet grabbed the rebound. After a timeout, DeRozan let the clock wind down before driving and kicking to Serge Ibaka, who missed a potential game-winning shot. DeRozan also missed before the buzzer, sending it to overtime.

VanVleet and Dallas’ Dwight Powell each made a 3 in overtime before DeRozan drove for the tiebreaking basket with 53 seconds left.

Valanciunas sealed it by making five of six at the free-throw line in the final 10 seconds.

Toronto also extended its franchise-record streak of games with 100 or more points to 22.


Kevin Durant has fractured ribs, out a couple of weeks

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The injury bug is hitting the Warriors hard — not with anything that seems like it will last into the playoffs, but it’s still a concern.

Stephen Curry (ankle) and Klay Thompson (fractured thumb), Draymond Green is just returning to the rotation (along with David West and Jordan Bell), and now this — Kevin Durant is going to be out a couple of weeks.

What incomplete means is it is nondisplaced, or to use the slang it is a cracked rib. The bone was not moved out of place and does not need to be reset.

The good news for Warriors fans about all these injuries are they should heal up in a couple of weeks and the Warriors should be fully loaded for bear come the playoffs. And no doubt this team knows what it needs to do to win, it can get back into its groove quickly.

So long as we’re not talking about all these injuries in the second week of April, Warriors fans do not need to worry.

Baseline jumper gives Dirk Nowitzki 11,000 made baskets in NBA

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We need to savor these final years — potentially final games — of Dirk Nowitzki‘s career. The future Hall of Famers is one of the great pure shooters, and probably the greatest shooting big man, in NBA history.

The Maverick’s star hit another milestone Friday night, 11,000 made NBA baskets. Only eight others have reached that mark, and Nowitzki did it with a high arc baseline jumper.

The man is a marvel.

Dallas was up 60-54 on Toronto at the half.

Report: Jazz to sign David Stockton, son of Utah legend John Stockton, to 10-day contract

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The Utah Jazz have been on a roll — they have gone 20-2 of late — but the point guard ranks are getting thin. Ricky Rubio has a knee contusion that may keep him out for a game or two, and his backup Raul Neto is out with a fractured wrist. This is where the Jazz are making a smart move, bringing in a 10-day contract guy for depth and getting a look at him.

That guy? David Stockton. Son of Hall-of-Famer and Jazz legend John Stockton. Via Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

G League guard David Stockton, son of Utah Jazz legend John Stockton, is signing a 10-day contract with the team, league sources told ESPN. Stockton, 25, is expected to join the Jazz today, sources said.

Stockton, who played his college ball at Gonzaga like his father, has spent most of this season with the Reno Big Horns and averaged 16.3 points and 5.2 assists a night. Watching him in Summer League, Stockton is a smart, floor general kind of point guard who knows how to run a team. He is not as athletic as most of the guys he has gone up against, but he knows how to compensate.

However long this lasts, it’s good to see a Stockton in a Jazz uniform again.