Kurt Helin

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51 Q: Which team takes biggest step back this season?

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51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

WHICH TEAM WILL TAKE THE BIGGEST STEP BACK THIS SEASON?

Kurt Helin: Portland Trail Blazers

Portland is the clear and obvious choice — they lost or traded LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Nicolas Batum. That’s four starters out the door (plus guys like Arron Afflalo), and the guys they brought in are not of the same quality — many are not good jump shooters. When Aldridge chose to take his talents to San Antonio, the Blazers wisely decided to rebuild — and it’s a lot easier to rebuild when you start with a piece like Damian Lillard. But it’s going to be a process, at times a painful one. What they do offensively now must change — they loved the pick-and-pop with Aldridge, but now their big guys can’t shoot with range, so they are going to roll and that will draw defenders into the paint, meaning things will get clogged. It’s going to be a rough season in Portland.

One team that will push Portland for the crown? The Atlanta Hawks. They won 60 games last season and I expect a healthy step back for a few reasons: 1) They weren’t as good as their record last year, they had the point differential of a 56-win team; 2) They are going to miss DeMarre Carroll on the wing, especially with Thabo Sefolosha still trying to come back from injury; 3) Last season in the regular season they were fortunate to be largely healthy, odds say they will not be that lucky again. The Hawks are still a quality playoff team, they made some quality pickups in the offseason such as Tiago Splitter, but they will fall back to reality this season.


Dan Feldman: Portland Trail Blazers

Portland — largely by design, once LaMarcus Aldridge left — has chosen to take a step back. And it should be a large step. The Trail Blazers SLUMPED to a 51-31 finish last season. When everyone was healthy, they at least belonged in the championship-contender conversation. Now, it’d be a minor miracle if they won 51 games, let alone seriously enter the playoff race. They let Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo walk in free agency, and they traded Nicolas Batum. That’s just too much attrition from a team that values continuity, especially when the replacements are so young and unproven. I like what the Trail Blazers are doing. I just don’t expect them to win much this season.

Sean Highkin: Boston Celtics

Boston was the surprise of the second half of last season, going 20-11 after the All-Star break and sneaking into the playoffs as the seventh seed. It’s to Brad Stevens’ enormous credit that this roster of mostly spare parts played as well as it did down the stretch. And none of the moves they made this summer were bad, per se — it’s just hard to see where they got definitively better, at least to the point where they can definitely be penciled in as a definite playoff team. They re-signed Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko to good value contracts and signed Amir Johnson to fortify the paint, but they still lack an identity beyond “scrappy overachievers.” They have four point guards now, and none of them (save for maybe Marcus Smart) are the clear long-term answer. Danny Ainge is still waiting for the day when the years of asset collecting translate into a star. It’s certainly not anybody on this roster, which is full of players who are the fourth or fifth-best player on a good team. Boston should be right around where they were last season: in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the East, but without a clear path forward.

Rajon Rondo working on moves, shooting while riding PhunkeeDuck

Dallas Mavericks v Houston Rockets - Game Two
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Drinking a beer and riding a PhunkeeDuck around the arena after an NBA Finals loss? That may not go over so well.

But getting in a little work on some ball handling and shooting drills while riding one in the off-season? Why not? Camps don’t open for three weeks, and all work and no play makes Rondo a dull boy.

And Rajon Rondo‘s going to have a little fun.

A video posted by Rajon Rondo (@rajonrondo) on

I’m not sure how George Karl works this into the Kings’ offense this season. But if Marco Belinelli rides one during the game is he faster?

It’s official: Sixers sign point guard Kendall Marshall

Indiana Pacers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Tony Wroten. Isaiah Canaan. Pierre Jackson. Scottie Wilbekin. T.J. McConnell. The Philadephia 76ers have plenty of options at point guard, but nobody that makes you think, “that guy is perfect to feed Jahlil Okafor/Nerlens Noel/Nik Stauskas the rock.”

Enter Kendall Marshall. The pass-first point guard has officially been signed by the Sixers, the team announced. He will make a fully guaranteed $2.1 million this season, and then there are three non-guaranteed seasons after that, reports Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders.

Marshall is an old-school point guard who has fantastic court vision and knows how to feed guys the ball. But he’s been with three teams in three years, playing a limited role everywhere, because of everything else. He’s coming off an ACL injury and will miss the first part of the season. His defense is not good. He’s not terribly athletic. He’s not a good shooter (although he did improve and hit 39.1 from three last season — he needs to sustain that). There are plenty of questions.

That said, it’s not a bad gamble for a Sixers team that is rebuilding and has arguably the worst point guard lineup in the NBA. This signing doesn’t change that, but it’s a reasonable roll of the dice, Marshall’s high IQ style may be a good fit (ultimately likely as a reserve, but a good fit).

Mexico beats Argentina, Canada has top seed in FIBA Americas

Windi Grateron, Gustavo Ayon
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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Gustavo Ayon scored 16 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter and Mexico overcame a 15-point deficit to hand Argentina its first loss of the Olympic qualifier, 95-83 on Wednesday night in the last game of the second round.

Ayon also grabbed 14 rebounds, while Jorge Gutierrez scored 23 points and Francisco Cruz added 21 for the Mexicans. They earned the No. 2 seed and will face Argentina again Friday night in the FIBA Americas semifinals.

Earlier, Canada beat the Dominican Republic 120-103 to finish first and will play Venezuela in the other semifinal.

The winners will get the two Americas’ berths into the 2016 Olympics. The losers will play in the 2016 FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament.

Mexico is trying to qualify for its first Olympics since Montreal in 1976.

Luis Scola scored 26 points and Andres Nocioni added 21 for Argentina.

Canada won its seventh straight game as Cory Joseph scored 17 points to lead a balanced attack.

Anthony Bennett and Nik Stauskas each scored 14 points for a Canadian team that features nine NBA players and is one of the favorites to earn one of the berths in Rio.

“We did the job in a tough day because we played an emotional game last night,” said Canada coach Jay Triano, whose team beat Mexico on Tuesday night. “The legs were tired and we needed to turn it around quickly against a team that plays unconventional basketball. I’m happy with the win and we have 48 hours to prepare for the big game.”

Canada is trying to qualify for its first Olympic games since Sydney in 2000.

Venezuela qualified for the semifinal round with a 75-62 victory over Panama.

John Cox scored 21 points and Heissler Guillent came off the bench to add 13 for the Venezuelans, who are trying to qualify for their first Olympics since Barcelona in 1992.

Venezuela was a surprise because it came to the tournament without three of its best players: Greivis Vasquez of the Milwaukee Bucks, Luis Bethelmy and Gregory Echenique.

“No one saw us as guests to the dance of the final four, but we are there and we earned it,” said Venezuela coach Nestor Garcia. “Everybody thinks that we are a team that’s one step below the other three and we are going to use that to our advantage because we have everything to win and nothing to lose.”

Also Wednesday, J.J. Barea scored 19 points, Renaldo Balkman added 17 and Puerto Rico got an 80-69 victory over Uruguay to finish fifth and clinch a spot in the 2016 FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament, to be played July 4-10.

“The first half was the best defensive effort that I have seen in a long time. I’m really proud with this group,” Puerto Rico coach Rick Pitino said. “We came in here limping, but we will play next summer with a healthy team and we will try to make it to Rio.”

Behind 25 from Danilo Gallinari, Italy beats Germany in EuroBasket OT instant classic

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How well is Italy playing at EuroBasket 2015? Andrea Bargnani looks like a good two-way player. You read that right.

Despite Bargnani’s 17 points, he was not the star of Italy’s dramatic overtime win Wednesday over Germany. That honor went to the Nuggets’ Danilo Gallinari, who dropped 25 points on 11 shots — including keying the 10-point fourth-quarter comeback by the Italians, and he drilled the shot that sent the game to OT. Then he hit the shot in the extra period that put Italy up for good. You can see his highlights above, and also know he was getting to the line all game.

The win punches Italy’s ticket for the knockout round.

It leaves the Germans scrambling with Turkey and Spain for two spots in the next round.

That is not the fault of Hawks’ guard Dennis Schroder, who carved up the Italian defense all game to the tune of 29 points and seven assists.