Where do Blazers, Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts go from here?

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was a similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.

NBA Power Rankings: Looking ahead to the stretch run of season

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Not much change in the rankings this week as teams only played a game, two max, due to the All-Star break. If the NBA season were a horse race, the horses would be entering the top of the stretch for the final run, so we’ll look ahead in these rankings to what the teams have for them going forward.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (44-13, Last Week No. 1). They have been on top of the standings and these power rankings for weeks, and they project to have 62-63 wins at the end of the season, neck-and-neck with the Warriors (GSW has the easier remaining schedule). The question is can Houston beat Golden State in a playoff series? Statistically maybe, fivethirtyeight.com gives the Rockets a higher chance of making the Finals than the Warriors, but I’m not sold. I love the Rockets’ team, but they have to prove they can defend, make plays in the cauldron of the playoffs with opponents drilling down on matchups.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (41-16, LW 3). Winners of seven in a row, they have been the hottest team in the East and project to win the conference with 60-62 wins. This may be the greatest Raptors regular season team ever. Much like Houston, the question is will the improved defense (4th in the NBA on the season) and more egalitarian offense carry over to the playoffs? I want to believe, but when games get tight their offense reverts more to isolations again, and that’s defendable and could be trouble vs. Boston and Cleveland. Still, this team is a legit playoff threat.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-14 LW 2). Is anyone really worried about the future prospects of the Warriors this postseason? Why? Sure, their defense has been pedestrian of late — 13th in the NBA over their past 15 games — but that is more about focus than anything. The Warriors needed a mental break. Steve Kerr goes to Hawaii, Stephen Curry hangs with his family, and Draymond Green does whatever Draymond Green does, then they come back focused and still the team to beat. If their defense struggles the final 24 games, then we’ll talk.

 
4. Timberwolves (36-25, LW 5). This is the highest-ranked team where people around the league seriously question if they can get out of the first round (especially if they matchup with Oklahoma City, which seems the most likely outcome). The Timberwolves’ offense has been elite of late, but the defense continues to struggle — 29th in there NBA over the past 15 games — and how the young players handle the intensity of the postseason — and how they handle Thibodeau in the playoffs — remains a question.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (40-19, LW 4). Boston should bounce back from the recent run losing 4-of-5, their elite defense is bottom 10 in the last five games and with some rest that will change. Boston is on pace for 51-52 wins on the season, and that likely is enough to hold off Cleveland for the two seed, but catching Toronto will be hard. That will set up a Cavs vs. Celtics second round playoff matchup, Kyrie Irving vs. LeBron James. Does Boston have enough offense to win that series without Gordon Hayward back?

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (35-24, LW 7). Playing basically all season without Kawhi Leonard (he has missed 50 of 59 games), the Spurs are still on pace for a 47-48 win season. Impressive, but also the first time the Spurs will not have won at least 50 games in a (non-lockout) season since 1996. The Spurs are tied with the Timberwolves for the 3/4 seed, but San Antonio has the toughest schedule in the West the rest of the way.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (33-24, LW 8). The Wizards have won 7-of-9 without John Wall (out another month after knee surgery) and are the four seed in the East, on their way to a projected 46-47 win season. However, they are just 3.5 games up on the eight seed Miami, and Washington has the toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way. They need to find some more wins without Wall or risk losing home court in the first round and having some much tougher road (this is why good teams need to take care of business all season vs. weaker opponents).

Bucks small icon 8. Bucks (32-25 LW 6). One of the hardest teams to evaluate going forward. In part because Jabari Parker is still playing his way back into shape and the rotation (but he is shooting very efficiently). In part because since Joe Prunty took over as coach they are 9-4 with the second-best defense in the NBA, but they did it against a very soft part of the schedule. Denver put up 134 on them in last game before the break. With 7-of-8 coming up against teams in the playoffs (and the one not being Detroit, on the bubble) we should get a better read.

 
Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (30-28, LW 9). Donovan Mitchell broke out as a star during the All-Star weekend, which is good for him. The Jazz have won 11 in a row, they have the easiest schedule of any of the teams in the West fighting for a playoff spot, and they are on pace for about 45-46 wins (which likely would have them as the six seed). Fivethirtyeight.com has them at an 87 percent chance to make the postseason, which is impressive for a team that lost its best player in free agency the summer before.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (34-22 LW 10). Just how good are the Cavaliers now? How real are the changes? We will find out, but one thing was clear All-Star weekend, LeBron James and the Cavs players are energized again. “Just clearing out… I shouldn’t say that, just getting new faces and getting new energy in the locker room has been big for us,” Love told NBC Sports (adding he is about a month away from returning. “Even in the last two games, you can just see the energy is different, you can see guys are really competing on both ends of the floor.”

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (30-25, LW 13). Philly won five in a row in a homestand right before the break (moving them three games into the playoffs ahead of the 9 seed Pistons). Now the real test comes, 9-of-12 on the road, and while the Sixers have been solid away from the Wells Fargo Center (12-15 this season) their defense has not been quite as good. The good news is the Sixers have the easiest schedule the rest of the way in the East, even with the road games they should be able to hang onto a playoff slot, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 97% chance of doing so.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (32-26, LW 12). Winners of 6-of-7 heading into the break (including beating the Thunder, Warriors, and Spurs), the Nuggets are on pace for 44-45 wins, which will land them in the playoffs at around the 6-7 seed. The concerning factor: They have won those games despite playing terrible defense in that stretch (third worst in the NBA in those last 7 games) and that could catch up with them.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (33-26 LW 11).. The Thunder are a playoff team, but how much damage can they do once there remains a big question. The issue is their defense was one of the best in the league until Andre Roberson went down, and they are 19th in the NBA since then — the team needs to find a fifth player coaches can trust to start and close games. Their improved offensive efficiency — based on better shot quality — can cover the defense in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (33-25, LW 14). Winners of three in a row and 9-of-12 heading into the All-Star break, they are on pace for around 45 wins and a playoff slot — an impressive season for a team most picked preseason to be jockeying for lottery position right now. The main reason is Victor Oladipo, the Pacers are +14.8 per 100 possessions when he is on the court. Soft schedule this week, but then things get tough for the Pacers much of the rest of the way.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (30-26 LW 15). Now we get to the interesting part of the West: If Denver and Utah finish with 45ish wins and are in the postseason, it leaves the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Pelicans all fighting for one playoff slot. All three are projected with almost the same wins (42-44), and it’s going to come down to the little things (and some luck). The bad news for the Clippers? They have one of the toughest schedules in the NBA the rest of the way, more difficult than any of the teams they are fighting for a playoff slot.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (32-26, LW 16). One of the three teams (with Clippers and Pelicans) really on the bubble for the playoffs in the West, but the good news for Portland is they have the easiest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams. Portland picked up a quality win against the Warriors right before the break because Damian Lillard went off, but the Trail Blazers need to find their defense again, they are bottom 10 in the NBA since Jan. 1.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (31-26, LW 17). Anthony Davis has been playing like an MVP candidate since DeMarcus Cousins went down (31.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game, knocking down 42.4% from three), and more surprisingly Emeka Okafor has been solid for them getting rebounds and blocking shots inside. Still the Pelicans are just 4-5 without their center and have a challenging schedule the rest of the way out. If the Pelicans do not get in (even with the injury) don’t be shocked if Alvin Gentry is not back next season.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (28-29, LW 19). When they got Blake Griffin the idea was to make the playoffs this season, but the Pistons need to make up the 1.5 games on Miami to do that (Philly’s soft schedule will make them hard to catch). The challenge, they have 15-of-25 games on the road left this season and Detroit is 9-17 away from the “pizza! pizza!” arena this season. The problem is on the road their defense has been 4.2 points per 100 worse, if the Pistons don’t figure that out fast they can set tee times for mid-April because their season will be over.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (30-28, LW 18). Goran Dragic was finally an All-Star, so Miami has that. The Heat continue to play seemingly every game close (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and while they dominated those games earlier in the season the math has caught up to them of late having lost 7-of-8. Dwyane Wade provided a boost at first, but is shooting just 32.1% overall and 20% from three since coming back to Miami, the Heat are going to need more from him down the stretch.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (24-33, LW 21). General manager Rich Cho is out as GM after building a roster that lacks a second playmaker, is not defending well, and is capped out going forward. Expect the Tar Heel Mafia to be in full force with Michael Jordan picking the new GM for a Carolina team — former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is mentioned. He was a good company man for a long time in LA, but at the end was seen as behind the times, not sure I want him on the day-to-day side of this (maybe as a president overseeing a GM).

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (23-34 LW 20). Lonzo Ball is expected to return to the Lakers’ lineup now and that gives Luke Walton and company to develop and play guys down the stretch. Los Angeles is going to finish with 34-35 wins (probably) and going into the season that was about the projection: Play the young guys, expect inconsistency, watch them grow and develop, don’t worry too much about wins, and clear out some cap space. The Lakers did all that. It’s just an impatient fan base that wants more from the team this summer.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (20-37 LW 22).. This is where the real race to the bottom of the standings — and the top of the lottery — starts. Just three games separate the Bulls (currently the No. 8 slot in the draft) from the Suns (the No. 1 slot). The Bulls are still trying to integrate Zach LaVine back into the rotation and he’s doing some good things (shooting 37.1% from three) but he is struggling to consistently find good shots. Still a lot of work to do with him and this roster.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (18-39, LW 23). A lot of questions as the Magic careen toward the lottery for the sixth straight season: Is Frank Vogel going to be back as coach? (A lot of buzz around the league his seat is very hot.) Are the Magic going to be willing to pay what it takes to keep Aaron Gordon? (He’s a restricted free agent and several teams are lining up to make a run at him, it could get pricy.) Expect a lot of changes this summer around Orlando.

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (18-40 LW 24). Are we watching the final 24 games of Dirk Nowitzki’s Hall of Fame career? If so, we need to savor it. One other big to watch in Dallas: Nerlens Noel. He is expected to be back in the coming weeks, the Mavs need to take a look at him. The sexual harassment workplace scandal on the business side is a very dark cloud over this organization, and it’s going to have some serious repercussions around the league as the NBA has promoted itself as a progressive institution and this is a blow to that image.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (18-41, LW 27). Atlanta has lost four-of-five and is tied for the worst record overall in the NBA — and they have a very tough remaining schedule. Meaning Atlanta is going to get the chance to draft high come June (depending on the lottery) and put someone good next to John Collins. Mike Budenholzer needs to give Collins a lot of run down the stretch, he has the highest PER of anyone in this rookie class but at this point he needs touches and the chance to learn some lessons (likely a few hard ones).

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (18-38, LW 25). They are on a seven-game losing streak, can Chandler Parsons break them out of it? The oft-injured forward is back in the rotation now and he and Marc Gasol could win this team some games down the stretch (which is not what they should want to do as a franchise, but here we are). It’s going to be an interesting offseason, starting with who is hired as the coach for a franchise that should start a rebuild but ownership (where in the world is Robert Pera?) apparently does not want to.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (23-36, LW 26). Losers of eight in a row, they have been outscored by 15.8 per 100 in that stretch, and with Kristaps Porzingis out for the season (and the first half of the next one) the only question is where they finish in the lottery. Well, that and if Jeff Hornacek is back next season? And if they can reach a buyout with Joakim Noah? The Knicks’ solid early play this season, back when New York had playoff dreams, is costing them lottery positioning now.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-39, LW 28). The Kings had three guys in the Rising Stars Challenge — including the MVP — but now the question is how much can any of them help an NBA team? De’Aarron Fox and Justin Jackson need to get a lot of time together on the court, and all these guys need to develop. The Kings are on the way to the lottery for the 10th straight season and they need to do better, more consistent job in that draft, and developing talent, to break out of this rut.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (19-40, LW 29). They have lost seven in a row, and it’s not because of injury or they stopped trying — this is by far the most fun “bad” team to watch in the league, if only every team played this hard — it’s just they are not talented. GM Sean Marks is making smart moves to rebuild Brooklyn, but it is going to be a long, long process.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-41, LW 30). Losers of seven in a row and 12-of-13, they are on pace for another high lottery pick to go with Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and the rest of the young core. The first question is who will be coaching them next season — Jay Triano has done a good job with this roster (despite the losses, this team is not well put together), but will he get a chance. They need a coach who can bring in a culture of player development if they go get anyone.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets move into top spot, Cavaliers into top 5

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Changes at the top this week, with Boston and Golden State each picking up a couple losses in the last seven days it was Houston that moves into the top spot. Meanwhile, Cleveland has moved up fast during its win streak and is now fourth and joining the league elites.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (16-4, Last Week No. 3). Chris Paul has been thriving since his return — he has at least 10 assists and two steals in five of the six games he played in Houston this season, and on the season has 65 assists to only 7 turnovers. The Rockets have won all five games since his return, having the best offense in the NBA and the second best defense in that stretch. They’ve also done this against a relatively soft schedule, but some better tests (Pacers, Blazers) are coming.

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (18-4, LW 1). The win streak ended at 16 when a comeback against Miami fell short, then they dropped the first of a five-game homestand when they had no answer for Andre Drummond or Tobias Harris. The Celtics are 6-3 in games where they trailed by 10 points or more — impressive, but it’s not the way they want to live. Better bench play would keep things closer.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (15-6 LW 2). Kevin Durant has missed 4-of-5 games with a sprained ankle, and the Warriors offense suffered because of it. However, it didn’t really bite them until Stephen Curry had to sit out too and they fell to Sacramento. Both are questionable Wednesday against the Lakers, a game that starts a six-game road trip which includes the Heat, Pelicans, and Pistons.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (14-7 LW 9). Derrick Rose is away from the team contemplating his future, but the Cavaliers have won eight straight without him — the defense is a disaster when Rose has been on the court and overall the Cavaliers are 16.7 points per 100 better when he sits. LeBron continues to carry the offense, especially in the clutch. In the last five minutes of games within five points this season, LeBron has 60 points (second to Kyrie Irving), is shooting 62.2 percent overall, and is a +26.

 
Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (13-7, LW 4). Tony Parker is back, playing 14 minutes in his return and looking understandably a bit rusty, but he brings them even more depth. The better news is he said Kawhi Leonard could return in 2-3 weeks (a timeline Gregg Popovich shot down, but it sounds like Leonard is getting close to a comeback). After a rough start to the season without Leonard, the Spurs defense is back to it’s usual dominating self, allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games (third best in the NBA) and climbing up to 5th overall in the league.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (12-7, LW 5). They went 1-2 on a quick three-game road trip (crushing Atlanta for their one win). What has kept them afloat all season is fantastic bench play (a +12.1 per 100 net rating, best in the NBA) and the latest addition to that is Fred VanVleet, who is giving they quality guard minutes and allowing Dwane Casey to keep his regular rotations.

 
Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (13-6, LW 7). The win in Boston Monday night is as much of a statement win as a team can have in November (which is to say, not much of a statement but a good confidence booster). Andre Drummond was a force of nature, Tobias Harris had 31 points, and Avery Bradley hounded Kyrie Irving into a 6-of-16 shooting night. It’s very early, but that is a blueprint for how the Pistons could be a difficult playoff out.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (11-8, LW 13). Philly is 3-2 in the midst of a long homestand, but the two losses were to the Warriors and Cavaliers so they’re understandable. It’s time to trade Jahlil Okafor for the best offer, those options are not going to get better than the protected second round picks on the table now. It’s a blow to the ego to trade a No. 3 pick for that little, but it has to be done, it’s best for him and the team. #FreeJah

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (13-8, LW 10). When their big three of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic are on the court together, the Trail Blazers outscore opens by a healthy 5.6 points per 100 possessions, with their offense clicking along with a 108 net rating (would be sixth in the NBA). Portland went an impressive 4-1 on a five-game road trip, knocking off the Wizards and Knicks among others. Now they are home for four games, then will spend much of the rest of December on the road.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (12-9, LW 14). Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have had a fantastic chemistry this season, they read each other’s planned cuts and moves well, and are outscoring opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions when on the court together. But Sabonis and the just returned Myles Turner are not finding that same groove and are -6 per 100 (in a limited 66 minutes). Tough week ahead with Houston, Toronto, and New York.

 
Wizards small icon 11. Wizards (11-9, LW 6). John Wall is out for a couple of weeks with a knee injury, and the Wizards are 10.6 points per 100 possessions with him off the court. The Wizards are 1-1 without Wall, with the win courtesy a strong game from Otto Porter vs. Minnesota, and the Wizards will need more of that as they have 6-of-7 games on the road coming up.

 
12. Timberwolves (12-9, LW 8). Minnesota’s defense continues to be what holds the team back (the offense is sixth in the league in the last 10 games), and the main reasons is Minnesota is one of the worst transition defense teams in the league. They allow 17.6% of opponent possessions in transition (only the Clippers are worse) and teams score 127.4 points per 100 possessions on those, 25th in the league (Stats via Cleaning The Glass). Minnesota needs to take away easy buckets from the opposition.

 
Nuggets small icon 13. Nuggets (11-9, LW 11). Paul Millsap is going to be out for three months following wrist surgery, and that has moved Kenneth Faried into the starting lineup with Trey Lyles getting run behind him. Since Millsap went down the Nuggets are 2-2, but that’s a bit lucky as they are bottom 10 in the league in both offense and defense in those four. Starting Monday Denver has 7-of-8 on the road and needs to find wins in there to stay in a strong spot in the playoff race in the West.

 
Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (11-9, LW 15). New Orleans has won 3-of-4 as they move through a difficult part of the schedule, with the kind of games they need to win if they want to be a playoff team in the West (Minnesota, Utah, Portland, and Golden State are up this week). The Pelican defense, led by Anthony Davis, has looked better. With the Pelicans staying healthy (*knock on wood*) while teams around them in the West struggle, now is the time they can win some games and build a little cushion in that playoff race.

 
Bucks small icon 15. Bucks (10-9 LW 16). The Bucks are 6-3 since Eric Bledsoe came to town, and most impressively the team’s defensive rating since his arrival is 101.7 (seventh in the NBA in that stretch). But the defense hasn’t been consistent, there were losses to Utah and Dallas where they didn’t defend the arc well. Milwaukee is 2-1 midway through a stretch of 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Heat small icon 16. Heat (10-10, LW 17). They ended the Celtics 16-game win streak, but maybe more impressive was scoring just 7 points against Chicago in the first quarter and coming back to win that game last Sunday. Goran Dragic has led the offense of late, averaging 19.5 points and 4.3 assists per game, while hitting more than half his threes in their last four games.

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (10-10, LW 12). The Knicks are 9-4 at home and 1-6 on the road, it is something they need to figure out in the next month because after Christmas they have 17-of-21 on the road after a home-heavy schedule to start the season. Joakim Noah was activated and played three minutes in one game, but the Knicks still have a glut of big men, which means they could look to be sellers at the trade deadline.

 
Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (8-11 LW 19).. The win over the Warriors was the best Russell Westbrook has looked all season, both taking charge of the offense and setting up teammates. Then after that win, the Thunder drop games to the Pistons and Mavericks (that’s losses in 4-of-5) and Westbrook hasn’t been as good in those games as the Thunder need him to be. Westbrook is too good not to figure it out, but he’s part of the problem early with the Thunder this season.

 
Jazz small icon 19. Jazz (10-11, LW 23). The Jazz have won three straight and are a surprisingly good 5-4 since Rudy Gobert’s injury. Utah has done it with an impressive offense, scoring 111.7 points per 100 possessions (that level is not sustainable), sparked in part by rookie Donovan Mitchell, who dropped 24 on the Bucks recently. Utah’s defense without Gobert hasn’t been as good, but it’s been middle of the pack, which is better than expected. Utah is the current eight seed in the West and is keeping itself in the playoff hunt without its star.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (8-11, LW 17). The Hornets seemed to be putting it together and won three in a row, with Dwight Howard playing like his old self (or as close to it as we can expect anymore), but then hit a tough part of the schedule and fell to the Cavaliers and Spurs. Bad news it doesn’t get any easier this week: At Toronto, At Miami, then after Orlando it’s the Warriors that come to town.

 
Clippers small icon 21. Clippers (8-11 LW 27). The Clippers had righted the ship against the dregs of the league (wins against the Kings, Lakers, and Hawks) but then came the news that Blake Griffin is going to be out a couple of months with a sprained MCL. The Clippers offense has been 8.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits and with him and Danilo Gallinari out, it’s hard to see where quality playmaking — or wins — are going to come from. The Clippers will struggle to stay in the playoff mix the next couple of months, and that could lead to bigger roster changes come the trade deadline.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (8-12 LW 22). The Lakers continue to have a top-10 NBA defense (seventh in the league right now), but that has slipped the last couple of weeks — the Lakers are giving up 5.2 points more per 100 possessions in their last six games (bottom 10 in the league). That defense is about to be put to the test in a brutal stretch of the schedule — 7-of-10 games on the road and only one team in those 10 is under .500.

 
Suns small icon 23. Suns (8-14, LW 24). Jay Triano is experimenting with who will start at the four. Marquese Chriss has been sent to the bench and Greg Monroe got the first shot, but him next to Chandler Parsons was a spacing disaster. Dragan Bender got the start vs. Chicago and that lineup was -5 in just more than 10 minutes of play (but the Suns got the win because Devin Booker went off for 33, plus the Bulls). With that win the Bulls have started 1-1 on a six-game road trip but the next four are brutal: Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto.

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (7-13, LW 25). The Nets have won just one game in their last five, and when they beat the Grizzlies it helped lead to coach David Fizdale getting fired. Brooklyn has been a scrappy team this season and in their last five games have averaged 107.3 points per 100 on offense (ninth best in the NBA in that stretch). It’s especially impressive with both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell out injured.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic (8-13, LW 20). Losers of nine in a row (and it’s not likely to get easier with the next three games being the Thunder, Warriors, and at the Knicks). The offense hasn’t been good but the issue during the streak is the team’s defense — they have surrendered 116.4 points per 100, worst in the NBA in that stretch. Teams are killing the Magic both from three and on the offensive glass, plus Orlando does not force turnovers or get easy buckets. Notice all those upcoming games mentioned in the first graph are against good offensive teams.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (7-12, LW 21). Coach David Fizdale was fired, and any bounce they get from J.B. Bickerstaff at the helm will be short lived — one can only win so much without the talent to do so. This team was built around the idea that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could be All-Star level players, and they have enough good role players around them to make it work. Conley is out with an Achilles issue, and with other injuries Gasol has struggled to carry the weight of the offense. Management said they made the change because they expect to make the playoffs, not even most Grizzlies fans thought that would happen if one of their stars missed significant time.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (5-16 LW 28). Dallas has won three of its last five and the reason is defense — they are giving up less than a point per possession in that stretch. On the other end, Dirk Nowitzki is back — he is a team-best +55 in the last five games, averaging 12.8 points per games, shooting 45 percent from three, plus grabbing 7.2 boards a game.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (6-15, LW 29). It’s strange to say this about a six-win team, but according to Cleaning the Glass they are also the luckiest team in the NBA with 2.8 more wins than their net rating would suggest (meaning they should be 3-18). They are 29th in offense and 30th in the league in defense this season. On the bright side, D’Aaron Fox has shown flashes (he, like most rookies, just needs to work on his jumper).

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (4-16, LW 26). I like the fact that John Collins has gotten to start the last three games (Luke Babbit is injured), even if that means the Hawks defense suffers. At this point, play and develop the rookie. After Cleveland Thursday there are two home-and-homes where the Hawks could pick up a win or two, with Brooklyn and with slumping Orlando.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-16 LW 30). They have lost six in a row, Lauri Markkanen seems to have run into the rookie wall early, and Jerian Grant and Kris Dunn have been consistently inconsistent. Just to rub salt in all of this, Jordan Bell trolled the Bulls for trading him (well, his pick) for cash considerations, and now he is playing regular rotation minutes for the Warriors. It’s been a rough week in Chicago, but at least they got the 2020 All-Star Game.

Grizzlies’ Mike Conley out at least two weeks with sore heel, Achilles

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Injuries are already starting to shape the playoff chase in the West — Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month in Utah, and the Clippers have lost six in a row as they battle injuries to three starters.

Now add the Memphis Grizzlies to the mix.

Mike Conley, the point guard who, along with Marc Gasol, is crucial to Memphis’ success, will be out at least two weeks to rest a sore left heel and Achilles, the team announced Friday. He could be out longer, Conley has had issues with this Achilles before, the team will want to be cautious, and by far the best treatment is rest.

Conley averages 17.1 points per game, is a great floor general running the offense, and is a quality defender at the point.

Memphis is 7-7 on the season and tied with Oklahoma City for the final playoff slot in the West, but the Grizzlies have dropped six of their last eight. What’s more, they are entering a gauntlet part of the schedule without Conley: Their next game is against Houston, then Portland, and in the next 10 they have the Nuggets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Spurs (twice). The danger is they fall far enough back from the playoff chase they struggle to catch up again.

Expect to see a lot more Tyreke Evans, who has been strong as a sixth man but now will have much more asked of him. Also, more playmaking duties will fall to Gasol, working out of the elbow, and both Chandler Parsons and Mario Chalmers will get the ball in their hands. The question is what do they do with it.

NBA Power Rankings: Boston vaults to top, Warriors moving up

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From No. 14 to No. 1 in a week? The first few weeks of the power rankings things are volatile and this is just Week 2 of our rankings — we’re just figuring out who teams are, there’s a small sample size, and teams make big leaps up and down the board. Boston and Detroit make big moves up the ladder this week, but can they sustain it?

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (5-2, Last Week No. 14). They have won five in a row, they have the best defense in the NBA so far (much better than expected), and Marcus Morris could return this week, adding front court depth. Early on the Celtics have flipped preseason prognostication on its head — they have an elite defense despite dumping their best defenders over the summer, but they are 18th in offense. They miss the glue that was Gordon Hayward on that end.

 
Grizzlies small icon 2. Grizzlies (5-2, Last Week No. 2). They are doing this with a very good defense (which we expected) and an offense that is knocking down more threes than it used to and is getting to the foul line at a higher rate than any team in the league. They are getting something out of Chandler Parsons this season, which is a boost. Starting Saturday they head out on a five-game road trip that will be a real test.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (5-3 LW 5). Did they snap out of their malaise with that blowout win over the Clippers? Maybe, we will get a better sense of that when they face the Spurs Thursday night on TNT. Either way, there is no panic in the Warriors locker room, Steve Kerr reminded everyone the 1998 Jordan Bulls started 8-7, but went on to win the NBA title, their third straight. Kerr said that team felt like this one early, just mentally fatigued.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (5-3, LW 3). The Rockets were in vintage form against the Hornets last Friday — 57 three-point attempts and just 28 midrange shots. That game was the outlier, the Rockets lead the NBA in percentage of shots from the midrange, which is not good. The Rockets offense is 15th in the league right now, and playing at the 20th fastest pace. Is that due to giving heavy minutes to defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute? Either way, they miss Chris Paul.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (4-2 LW 3). It’s a bit of a small sample size mirage, but with DeAndre Jordan and Patrick Beverley leading the way, the Clippers have a Top-10 defense in the NBA (it was first before the Warriors thrashed them, but first was always a bit optimistic). Blake Griffin took too many midrange jumpers in years past (he could hit them, but not at a high enough rate), but that has changed this season with him taking 32 threes and 9 midrange shots. Plus, Griffin is clutch.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (4-3 LW 12).. They have been better than their record shows so far this young season. The big three are starting to figure things out on offense (I love the way they use Carmelo Anthony with the second unit), but the big question is who is the fifth starter. Well, that’s one big question, the other is why is this team struggling so much on the defensive glass (they are 25th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage)?

 
Magic small icon 7. Magic (5-2, LW 11). The biggest change in Orlando is not how well Aaron Gordon is playing this season — although he has impressed and dropped 41 on the Nets — but it’s the pace. Orlando is playing at the third fastest pace in the NBA this young season, faster than the Warriors or Lakers and Lonzo Ball. They haven’t been incredibly efficient in transition (56.8% eFG%) and they are taking too many midrange shots (and not enough at the rim), which makes us wonder if this is sustainable.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (4-2, LW 6). After a slow start to the season in terms of taking and making threes, the Wizards have started to find a groove the past few games (17-of-34 against the Kings, for example). They have already blown two 10-point leads this season. Washington is entering a soft part of the schedule the next couple of weeks (7-of-9 at home, a lot of losing teams) so they need to fatten up the win total now.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (4-2, LW 10). They are 2-2 four games into a rough six-game road swing, which has included losses to San Antonio and Golden State where Toronto had fourth quarter leads but could not execute and hold on down the stretch. On the bright side, they held the Blazers to six points in one quarter. Also, Pascal Siakam has really taken a step forward this season.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (5-3, LW 21). They beat the Warriors, Clippers, and Timberwolves on a three-game win streak, which is impressive. We’re still a little skeptical that they can sustain this level — their starters have been outscored by 36 points so far this season — but the improvement from Reggie Jackson (who has looked closer to his old self) is a good sign. Regardless, they look like a playoff team in an upside-down East early.

 
Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (4-3, LW 1). After a 4-0 start they dropped three in a row on their recent road trip. The good news is they have held their own without Kawhi Leonard and are home for 8 of their next 10, giving them a chance to keep banking wins without their best player. Showdown with the Warriors coming Thursday night on TNT.

 
Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (4-3 LW 9). Giannis Antetokounmpo keeps putting up stunning point totals — 28, 33, and 28 this week — but also is playing 37.4 minutes per game right now (third highest in the league). They are getting decent bench play, Jason Kidd may want to trust it more, even with Greg Monroe out for a couple week. Tough four game road trip starts Wednesday and includes the Cavaliers and Spurs.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (4-3 LW 8). That six-point quarter against Toronto was UGLY, but let’s not dwell on it. The Blazers are the second-best offensive rebounding team in the NBA to start the season, grabbing a ridiculous 28.6 percent of their missed shots. Portland has had a soft schedule to start the season, when they have faced quality teams such as the Clippers and Raptors they lost. The next week sees the Jazz, Thunder, and Grizzlies, and we’ll get a better sense of how good this team really is.

 
timberwolves small icon 14. Timberwolves (4-3, LW 13). This was supposed to be the season Minnesota got better on defense, but early in the season they are dead last in the league on that end, allowing 113.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s very concerning. This team has beaten a good Thunder team twice with Jimmy Butler but lost to the Pacers (without Myles Turner) and Pistons without him, reverting to a lot of old, bad habits.

 
Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (4-3, LW 16). As expected, their defense is fantastic (fourth in the NBA and improving) but the offense relies on spurts from guys who have hot games, like Donovan Mitchell did with 22 against the Lakers. Mitchell also broke out this nastiness against the Lakers.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (4-3, LW 18). Dwight Howard was brought in to return the Charlotte defense to form, and he has helped make this a top-10 defense again early in the season. Problem is, the offense has fallen to 21st in the league and doesn’t get enough points in the paint. Tough week ahead with the Bucks, then on the road against the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Celtics.

 
Cavaliers small icon 17. Cavaliers (3-4 LW 7). Going through a soft spot in the schedule they lost four of five, and in those five games they had the second worst defense in the NBA and were outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. Their transition defense and rotations are a mess. LeBron has been the lone bright spot and Friday night against the Wizards he should hit another milestone and score the 29,000th point of his career, the youngest player (at 32) to do it.

 
Pacers small icon 18. Pacers (4-3, LW 20). Myles Turner is still sidelined with a concussion, but the Pacers offense is a surprise third in the NBA this young season thanks to Victor Oladipo — averaging 23.9 points per game with a 63.5 true shooting percentage — plus some very good play from Domantas Sabonis. That Paul George trade suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

 
Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (3-4 LW 22). Not to ruin a secret coming out later soon, but after DeMarcus Cousins destroyed his old team in Sacramento then dropped a triple-double on the Cavaliers, he won the PBT Extra player of the week (video coming). The Pelicans also got Anthony Davis back in the lineup, and when those two are on the court together this season the Pelicans are +44, when they are not the team is -53. Depth remains the issue.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (3-3, LW 28). About those rebuilding Knicks, as Bobby Marks of ESPN notes, they have the third oldest roster in the East, both raw totals and when waited by playing time. Those old guys can crash the glass however — the Knicks are they best offensive rebounding team in the league this young season, grabbing a second chance on 29.5 percent of their missed shots.

 
Sixers small icon 21. 76ers (3-4, LW 23). Markelle Fultz is sidelined for a while to get his shoulder right, which is what the team should have done all along. Ben Simmons continues to be fantastic early in the season, racking up a triple-double in Dallas and prompting Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle to say he thought Simmons would be good, but the kid is beating expectations.

 
Nuggets small icon 22. Nuggets (3-4, LW 17). What happened to the Nuggets’ offense? They are scoring 10 points per 100 possessions fewer than they did after All-Star break last season. Maybe last season’s numbers were the anomaly, or maybe the struggles of Jamal Murray’s shot and the lack of Danilo Gallinari (now with the Clippers) is hurting their spacing. The Nuggets are home for six in a row and they need to rack up some wins.

 
Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (3-4 LW 24). There’s a lot to like with Lonzo Ball, but when a rookie leads your offense it’s going to struggle — the Lakers are 28th in the league in offensive rating so far this young season, behind even the Suns. I expect that to improve some, but whether they can keep up their 9th-ranked defense to start the season is the more interesting question (don’t bet on it, but they are improved on that end).

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (2-4, LW 15). Miami really misses Hassan Whiteside, both on the glass (where they are getting pushed around), and to get some putbacks and easy buckets that they are not getting now. This has been a very inconsistent team — not just game-to-game, but also within games — and that makes them hard to get a handle on early. They head out Friday on a six-game road trip.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (3-4, LW 30). The Suns have looked better their last four games, winning three, and there are a couple reasons for that. First, they sent Eric Bledsoe home and are playing Mike James and Tyler Ulis at the point — those guys aren’t nearly as talented but at least they care and are trying on defense. Second, Jay Triano has made other moves — starting Marquese Chriss — that make this team a little better. Not good, but not the train wreck they were.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (3-5, LW 19). They would be higher on this list if they could hold a lead — three of their losses came when blowing a 10-point lead (or more) in the game. That includes handing the cross-town Knicks their first win of the season. The Nets remain a really good shooting team, but they do a lot more damage in the first quarter than they do the rest of the game.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (1-6, LW 25). Last Sunday the Kings sat both George Hill and Zach Randolph against the Wizards, going young for a day, and it was a reminder of how far this team has to go. The bright spot has been De’Aaron Fox, who has shown impressive flashes — he’s shooting 42.9 percent from three, and is quick enough to to the rim where he is shooting an impressive 68.8 percent.

 
Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (1-7 LW 27). Dallas’ one win for the season surprisingly came against a hot Memphis team. Shooting has been a problem: Dirk Nowitzki is shooting 40.5%, Harrison Barnes 37.9%, and Devin Harris 35.7%. The other problem for Dallas is now the schedule gets tougher — four of their next six are on the road and the level of competition steps up with the Clippers, Timberwolves, Wizards, Cavaliers, and Thunder coming up.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (1-6, LW 26). They have lost six in a row, and while injuries were part of that (Dennis Schroder missed time) this is an average defensive team so far with a bottom-five offense. With Schroder and Kent Bazemore as the primary offensive options, I’m not sure efficiency is in the cards. It could be a long season.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (1-4 LW 29). They have the worst offense in the NBA this season, and there are not a lot of prospects of it getting better. If you want a silver lining, Lauri Markkanen has played fairly well, the rookie is averaging 15.6 points per game and is showing 41.7 percent from three. Kris Dunn is healthy and has returned to the lineup, he will get a chance to prove his struggles in Minnesota last season were a fluke.