Are the Portland Trail Blazers destined for mediocrity?

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The Portland Trail Blazers stood pat during Thursday’s trade deadline. Well, mostly. The team decided to send project big man Noah Vonleh to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for … hold on, let me look it up. Milovan Rakovic. Or that is to say the team traded for the rights to the Serbian pro, although Blazers GM Neil Olshey says Rakovich won’t ever suit up for the team.

The move allowed the Trail Blazers to move under the luxury tax for this season and avoid their first strike toward the luxury repeater tax which looms large over NBA front offices. Important, but not exciting or the stuff that inspires passion from NBA fanbases.

Despite the hopes of many Blazers fans, Olshey’s role at the deadline was less deal-maker and more comptroller. Portland didn’t add any kind of talent to their roster, even after franchise cornerstone Damian Lillard spoke with team owner Paul Allen to get an assurance the team was looking to contend soon.

So the question is whether the Blazers have a plan to hoist themselves above their competition, or if they’ll simply remain in the middle of the pack out West before their wick burns to the tab?

Olshey himself tried to explain his strategy to NBC Sports Northwest as the team headed into the trade deadline this year. The Blazers GM outlined three main paths they wanted to follow: grab a temporary rental, add a big-time contributor, or cut below the luxury tax line. They weren’t able to do the first two, so they did the next best thing and saved Allen a significant chunk of change by offloading Vonleh.

Olshey lobbied hard for Portland’s decision to tread water, rightfully downplaying the idea that the team needed to make a change to the Lillard – CJ McCollum backcourt. That’s fine, but where Olshey sold the hardest was in the need for patience, telling NBCSNW, “This is Year 3 of what’s supposed to be a three to five year rebuild”.

That last part is a little harder to swallow, mostly because it rewrites the post-LaMarcus Aldridge history of the Blazers. In truth, Portland made the playoffs in spite of a slow start to the 2015-16 season, beat a decimated LA Clippers team in the first round, and greatly exceeded expectations. That shortened Olshey’s teardown around Lillard and McCollum.

The team then signed Evan Turner and inked Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard to new deals. The addition of Jusuf Nurkic at the deadline last year was supposed to be the last major piece to fall into place as the Blazers took around a season-and-a-half on a short rebuild. Even if they planned on spending all of 2018 shoring up their chemistry, Olshey’s supposed five-year plan was tossed out the window after they beat LA in 2016 and was further accelerated by nabbing Nurkic.

But things soured as 2017-18 began. Harkless wasn’t playing much, although he’s improved recently. Leonard is a bench fixture. Nurkic has been wildly uneven, and Turner’s fit with the team is tenuous at best. All that and a heavy cap burden hasn’t left room for improvements as Blazers fans wring their hands and Olshey plays the role of zen master publicly.

Olshey told NBCSNW that you can’t force trades that aren’t there, and that’s true. It’s also harder to get anyone to pick up the phone when the pieces you have aren’t of any interest to your contemporaries, a position Olshey finds himself in now.

So where does Portland go from here, at the bottom of the playoff seedings and with a palpable-if-deniable urgency surrounding the team? Lillard and those around the Blazers downplayed his talk with Allen, but it was a reminder that the clock is ticking for him (Lillard is 27 and turns 28 in July) and this rebuild. Portland needs to get better under a salary crunch and that’s without even considering Nurkic’s contract situation this summer, or the fact that they’re also slated to lose one of their most productive big men in Ed Davis because they just can’t afford him.

Turner’s contract is an albatross and escalates to a whopping $18.6 million during the 2019-20 season. It’s near impossible for Olshey to move him as Turner doesn’t shoot the 3-pointer well, he drives but doesn’t draw that many fouls, and when he does drive it’s often in a weaving, horizontal fashion that allows help defenders to dig down and then recover on Portland’s shooters, hurting the Blazers’ chances to fire away from deep.

The answer is for Olshey to find the kind of trade he’s yet to pull off in Portland: a big one.

The Trail Blazers GM has been efficient, his transaction roster filled with guys like Robin Lopez, Aminu, and Davis. But Portland could very well be headed for long-term mediocrity if Olshey isn’t able to find his way out of Turner’s contract, or come up with a big trade that moves multiple pieces. That could mean biting the bullet and offering up useful players — Aminu or Nurkic come to mind — or parting with more draft picks than they like.

Lillard has remained steadfast in his dedication to the team, but the summer of 2021 is a long way off and when his contract expires who is to say he won’t want to head somewhere else if the Blazers are unable to slip out of their current salary troubles? Remember, you could pose the same question about McCollum, and both guards have mega deals that will only continue to squeeze Portland’s salary space as the years go on.

Right now the Blazers are winning, and their record in 2018 is a far sight better than their 2017 showing. No matter how the season ends, or how much they talk up four straight years of playoff appearances, if the Blazers want to move to the next level it will be up to Olshey to finally pull the trigger and find a deal come June that clarifies the future in Portland.

Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash headline 2018 Hall of Fame finalists

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LOS ANGELES — It’s a good year for guards.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame announced the Finalists for the class of 2018, and you could put together one heck of a modern NBA lineup: Steve Nash and Jason Kidd in the backcourt, Ray Allen on the wing with Grant Hill as your small-ball four and Chris Webber at center.

They were five of the 13 North American nominees for the Hall, men and women. Also very deservedly being honored with the 2018 Curt Gowdy Media Award: longtime and iconic NBA photographer Andy Bernstein, and ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke. There are not two more deserving — or better — people.

The Hall of Fame Class of 2018 will be announced at the Saturday of the Final Four in April.

Here is who voters will be choosing amongst:

RAY ALLEN. Jesus Shuttlesworth should be a lock in his first time on the ballot, he has as pure a jump shot as the league has ever seen. Allen is a two-time NBA Champion (2008 Boston Celtics and 2013 Miami Heat), was named an All-Star 10 times, and (for now at least) is the NBA career leader in three-point field goals made. Before getting to the NBA he was a 1996 First Team All-American at UConn. Just to add to the resume, he has an Olympic gold medal (2000). But when you think of Allen, you’ll think of this shot.

JASON KIDD. Another lock to get in first ballot. Kidd one of the greatest point guards of his generation, he’s got an impressive resume as an NBA champion (2011 Dallas Mavericks), five-time All-NBA First Team, four-times All-Defensive First Team, a 10-time NBA All-Star, and the 1995 NBA Co-Rookie of the Year. At the University of California, Kidd was named Pac-10 Player of the Year and a consensus First-Team All American in 1994.

GRANT HILL. If all you remember is the post-2000, post-injury Grant Hill, you missed out. He was the 1995 Co-Rookie of the Year (with Kidd), five-times All-NBA, a seven-time NBA All-Star, and in college at Duke was a member of two NCAA national championship teams (1991, 1992). Hill also has a gold medal in the 1996 Olympic Games, and he’s been very active in philanthropic efforts off the court.

STEVE NASH. Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Nash is a two-time NBA MVP who helped revolutionize the NBA with the seven-seconds or less Suns. He’s an eight-time NBA All-Star, and three-time All-NBA First Team member. Hie is third in all-time assists and holds the NBA record for highest career free throw percentage (.904).

MAURICE CHEEKS. A lock-down defender for most of his 15-year career, Cheeks is an NBA champion (the 1983  Philadelphia 76ers) and a four-time NBA All-Star. Cheeks is still involved in the game and is currently an assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

CHRIS WEBBER. Nominated again, we’ll see if he gets in this time, considering his college and NBA impact he should be. Webber is a five-time NBA All-Star, three-time All-NBA, and the 1994 NBA Rookie of the Year. In college at Michigan he was a key member of the “Fab Five,” that revolutionized the college game.

CHARLES “LEFTY’ DRIESELL. Driesell is the only coach in NCAA history to win 100 games at four different schools and just one of 11 coaches to lead four schools to the NCAA Tournament. He is remembered as the coach at Maryland for many years as well as the inventor of the “Midnight Madness” concept.

HUGH EVANS. He was an NBA referee for 28 seasons, officiating nearly 2,000 regular season games, 170 NBA Playoff games, 35 NBA Finals games and four NBA All-Star games. In the summer he used to ref at Rucker Park in New York.

RUDY TOMJANOVICH. Tomjanovich coached the Houston Rockets to NBA Championships in 1994 and 1995 and is one of three coaches to win an NBA championship and an Olympic Gold Medal. He led USA Basketball to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

From the women’s committee:

KIM MULKEY. Mulkey has led the Baylor Bear to two NCAA National Championships (2005, 2012) and 16 NCAA Tournament appearances.

KATIE SMITH. The WNBA Finals MVP (2008) and a two-time WNBA Champion with the Detroit Shock (2006, 2008), she also has three Olympic gold medals. Smith played for the Ohio State University (1992-1996) and was the first female Buckeye athlete to have her number retired.

TINA THOMPSON. Thompson is a four-time WNBA Champion with the Houston Comets (1997- 2000) and a nine-time WNBA All-Star. She is one of the greatest WNBA players in the league’s history.

WAYLAND BAPTIST UNIVERSITY. Long before women’s college basketball became an NCAA sport in 1982, the Wayland Baptist University women’s basketball team won 131 consecutive games from 1953-58 and 10 AAU National Championships overall.

 

Joel Embiid having fun, will compete in three events All-Star Weekend

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LOS ANGELES — Joel Embiid is going to enjoy his weekend in Los Angeles. And his first All-Star Game.

Embiid played 9 minutes for the World in its dominating Rising Stars Challenge win (which is more than most people expected him to play). He’s scheduled to take part in the All-Star Saturday Skills Challenge, then is a starter on Team Steph in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

Like he always is, Embiid is just trying to enjoy himself.

“When I have fun, that means I’m dominating on the court, kicking someone’s ass, and I need that,” Embiid said Friday afternoon in Los Angeles. “Every time I have fun that’s what I do. One thing that I told myself when I came back (from injuries), just go out there and have fun because that’s another way for me to dominate the game. If I’m frustrated, usually it doesn’t go well. It can go both ways, but usually, it doesn’t go well.

“Social media, on the court, it’s all about having fun.”

When he returns to Philly, he’s got to focus on the fun of making sure the Sixers make the playoffs. But for a weekend, he’s soaking up the sun and fun in Los Angeles.

LeBron James responds to Laura Ingraham: #wewillnotshutupanddribble

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A month before the latest school shooting and mass killing in a Florida high school, Kevin Durant and LeBron James recorded a video for the Uninterrupted where they vented that president Donald Trump does not care about most people not does he try to unite them. That video dropped just after the school shooting, where the president took heat for his comments on the situation.

Taking a lazy intellectual path designed to fire up her base, Fox News host Laura Ingraham took the “stick to sports” argument to an  offensive level, saying LeBron and KD should “shut up and dribble.”

Jaylen Brown of the Celtics had already done an excellent job taking down Ingraham’s misguided attack, Durant had responded as well and called the comments ignorant and racist.

Now LeBron has responded on Instagram.

#wewillnotshutupanddribble

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

LeBron and Durant are citizens with the right to speak out, and they should.

Hopefully, this can be the end of this “controversy,” only because Ingraham isn’t worth it.

Team USA turned Rising Stars into dunking exhibition (VIDEO)

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Nobody tunes into the Rising Stars Challenge on All-Star Friday night to see a tight defensive shell and quick rotations to help the helper. We want the game’s great young players to entertain us with their skills.

Team USA may have gotten blown out in the game, but they put on a show — they were dunking everything. As you can see above.

The best dunk of the game? Had to be Donovan Mitchell‘s self alley-oop. Which a good sign heading into Saturday’s dunk contest.