NBA Season Preview: The Portland Trailblazers

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greg_oden_portland_trailblazers.jpgLast season: 50-32, a fantastic achievement considering the comical amount of injuries the Blazers suffered last season. What this team was able to accomplish with Juwan Howard and Jeff Pendergraph, and then later with Marcus Camby, a mid-season acquisition, at center was pretty amazing.

Head Coach: Nate McMillan, who, right or wrong, is no stranger to the term ‘hot seat.’ Based on the magic show his team put on last season, I’m inclined to go with wrong.

Key Departures: Juwan Howard, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, and Rudy Fernandez’s interest in ever playing NBA basketball again.

Key Additions: Luke Babbitt, Wesley Matthews, and hopefully, some better luck.

Best case scenario: Greg Oden comes back looking better than ever, Nic Batum blossoms, everyone stays healthy, and the Blazers mount an improbable run against the Lakers. They’d probably still fall a bit short, but it’s the mounting that counts, right?

For that to happen: In terms of the injuries, a lot of it comes down to chance. The Blazers can train appropriately and be cautious, but there’s no unfluking your way out of a fluke knee injury. Should the basketball gods choose to smite (or in the case of last season, attempt to smite) the Blazers once again, all they can do is roll with the punches.

As for the rest, it’s about returning last year’s most productive pieces while integrating new ones. Travis Outlaw only played 11 games for the Blazers last year, and they’ve clearly proven that they can get by without him. Juwan Howard’s production can easily be replaced by one of the other Blazer bigs returning from injury (Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla), and the combination of Wesley Matthews and Luke Babbitt will fill in for Martell Webster splendidly.

On paper, there’s no reason why the Blazers can’t do everything they did last season and more, which should make the coming year a pretty exciting one for the Blazer faithful.

More likely, the Blazers will: Be quite good, but a bit bogged down in the West’s second tier.

As has been mentioned many times before in these previews, the West is pretty tough. There are the Lakers, back-to-back champs in all of their team-to-beat glory, and behind them, a slew of talented and deep teams competing for the other spot in the Western Conference Finals. Oklahoma City is there. San Antonio is there. Dallas is there. Maybe Utah? Denver? Houston? Phoenix? It’s an absolute mess of promising teams, and somehow the Blazers will try to forage through that group for the West’s silver medal.

They’re certainly as capable of pulling off the feat as any team in the bunch…until that asterisk starts rearing its ugly head. Like it or not, health matters. Greg Oden matters. Marcus Camby has been ridiculously effective for the Blazers, but let’s not forget his deserved reputation of being somewhat brittle as well. There’s a lot riding on three centers with busy injury histories, and two of them won’t even be ready for opening night. I don’t want to rule the Blazers out by default because Brandon Roy is too good and this team is too good, but it’s something we have to keep in mind when evaluating Portland’s chances this season.

They’ll be good. Very good, in all likelihood. But so much of what they could be hinges on a clean bill of health that may not be coming, and that’s unfortunate. Even more unfortunate is that it overshadows just how quietly impressive LaMarcus Aldridge has become, how brilliant Brandon Roy routinely is, and how exquisite Nic Batum and Jerryd Bayless can be (and, to be fair to Nic, how tremendous he is as of this very moment). 

On the bright side, it’s clear that this team can function without depth in the middle, and they’ll be formidable regardless of what happens with Oden’s recovery. Portland was a shockingly good rebounding team last year (4th in offensive rebounding rate, 7th in defensive rebounding rate) despite often playing with undersized bigs, and there’s no reason why they can’t be similarly effective on the boards this season. .

On offense, Roy is one of the best in the game, and the Blazers on the whole follow suit. They have shooting. They have players who can get to the rim. They shoot a ton of free throws (relative to their pace), take care of the ball, and as mentioned previously, hit the offensive glass. It’s why the Blazers had the 7th best offense in the league last season, despite missing not just their centers, but also Roy, Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Steve Blake, and Travis Outlaw for significant stretches. Portland should have another successful offensive year with better health, internal improvement, and a few upgrades, and this year’s offense should be closer to the best-in-the-league outfit Portland fashioned for the ’08-’09 season than last year’s makeshift model.

The problem, as is usually the case with the Blazers, is their defense, and the root of that problem goes far deeper than a few injured centers. That’s not to say that the presence of Oden and Przybilla wouldn’t help things, but if Portland is going to sprint out of the crowded second tier, it’s going to take more than those two. The Blazers aren’t awful on defense, but a merely average mark won’t be enough. They need to get better, and that’s as much on McMillan’s system as it is on the players.

Prediction: 53-29. Good for a solid playoff seed, but possibly not good enough to keep them out of a second round date with Los Angeles. It’s a hard knock life, playing in the West.

NBCSports.com’s 50 best NBA players in 5 years: Players 50-46

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan for the design help). We will be rolling out five players every weekday through Aug. 30, counting down to No. 1. 

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

These are players 50-46 on our list.

50. Cade Cunningham

Cunningham is tailor-made for modern basketball. He’s 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds as a high school senior. He’s a tough, physical and athletic wing that was already considered a top 25 player in his class, but two years ago he decided to make the transition to playing the point full time. It’s worked. He has shined through high school and on the EYBL circuit. He was the best player at the summer’s U19 World Cup despite playing two years above his age group. As his jumper continues to improve, he is going to find himself in a position where he can play on the ball or off of it while being a guy that can defend up or down.

Put another way, he’s versatile and multi-positional on both ends of the court. I think he will end up being the first player that we project as being the ‘Next Luka Doncic,’ and while asking him to be the Rookie of the Year as a 19 year old is a tough ask, keep in mind that, as of today, Cunningham projects as the first pick in the 2021 draft. He’s the perfect combination of being a high-floor prospect because of how well he fits at the highest level combined with having the talent to potentially be an all-star one day.
—Rob Dauster

49. Emoni Bates

Hype is dangerous. Turning 14 and 15-year-old basketball prodigies into celebrities, anointing a child that is too young to obtain a driver’s license as the next big thing is setting a kid up for failure. Let’s take, for example, Sebastian Telfair. There are mitigating circumstances there, of course, but Bassy is, by any subjective measure, a massive success as a basketball player. He spent a decade in the NBA. He made nearly $20 million in salary from the NBA alone. For the entirety of his 20s, there were not 100 people in the world that were better than him at his job – being a point guard. But he was Stephon Marbury’s cousin. He was a God in Coney Island before he got to high school. When he was a junior, he was on the cover of SLAM magazine – which was the pinnacle of the basketball world in the early 2000’s – with LeBron James, being touted as the next generation of intergalactic megastar.

When that’s where the expectation for your career is set, you are almost assuredly going to fall dreadfully short.

While Telfair’s story ended up with a three-year prison sentence, the cautionary tale of too much being given to a player too early can also be told with Renardo Sidney as the subject. Or Lenny Cooke. Truth be told, it’s a longer list than you may realize.

Which brings me to Emoni Bates. He is a 6-foot-9 shooting guard from Ypsilanti, Michigan, who led his high school team to the state title in 2019. He outshined Bronny James in a game earlier this summer. Anyone with two functioning eyes can see how similar his game is to that of another long, lanky and tall shooting guard that now resides in Brooklyn. He’s already been dubbed the crown jewel of the 2022 NBA Draft. He hasn’t started his sophomore year yet and we are already saying he will be one of the 50 best basketball players on the planet when he turns 20.

If he simply ends up being a run-of-the-mill pro and spends the rest of his last being termed a bust, I will be complicit.

But let me be clear: I’m not one for hyperbole. I’m conscious of what words mean. I understand that putting “Emoni Bates” and “Kevin Durant” in the same sentence – whether it is on this site, on twitter, on TV, wherever – is putting a significant amount of pressure on this kid. He’s also the best prospect that many of the smartest people in grassroots basketball have ever seen, or have seen in a long, long time. As one former NBA player put it to me, “[those guys] are going to be good. He’s good now.”

There are two reasons I’m buying Emoni, so long as he stays healthy, coming close to reaching his ceiling. For starters, his father, Elgin, seems to be smart, grounded and completely cognizant of what his son is going to have to deal with in the very near future. “Don’t let this go to his head or bother him due to the fact that it can get overwhelming and crazy,” Elgin told me in July. “Sometimes it’s trying when you try to get out of the gym and everyone is grabbing his arm, and as a parent, I have to notice that. I have to pay attention to his body language. If he’s uncomfortable, if he doesn’t want to be in a certain situation, we get him up out of there.

“The main thing for me is being a parent and protecting my child.”

The other reason is that Emoni has some killer in him. He’s uber-competitive. He’ll throw an elbow if someone is getting too physical. He’ll run his mouth after burying yet another step-back three in someone’s eye. He wants to win more than anything, regardless of whether he is playing a meaningless pickup game or a knockout-round game at Peach Jam. And that, more than just his physical tools and skill set, is what reminds the smartest basketball minds of KD.
—Rob Dauster

48. Klay Thompson

Our panel of voters may have been harsher with Thompson than almost anyone else in this five-year projection. The Golden State Warriors themselves believe and hope our ranking of Thompson is far too low — this past summer they gave him a new contract that will pay him $43.2 million the season before this ranking targets.

Shooters tend to age well because that skill does not quickly fade, however, what makes Thompson elite is he is more than just a pure shooter. He is an All-Defensive Team level perimeter defender who also can put the ball on the floor and run a little pick-and-roll in a pinch. It’s how those other things age that is the question with Thompson. The fact he will miss a chunk of next season with a torn ACL impacted our voters because, long term, it could limit his non-shooting skills. Plus, like a lot of the Warriors, he has put a lot of miles on his young body.

That said, in five years Thompson is still going to be able to play an important role on a good NBA team because the man is going to be able to find space and knock down shots. Which is why he may well outplay this ranking.
—Kurt Helin

47. Cole Anthony

The biggest question with Cole Anthony at the next level is going to be whether or not he is actually good enough to play the role that suits him best. He was the Russell Westbrook of high school and AAU basketball, a tremendous athlete and high volume lead guard that put up monster numbers. He can make shots, but he’s not really a shooter you are going to ask to play off the ball, and he can create for his teammates, but he’s wired to be a bucket-getter.

In the modern NBA, we see a lot of point guards playing that role. Russ, John Wall and De’Aaron Fox are the guys that Anthony will look to follow in the footsteps of. But those guys are, or, in Fox’s case, project to be very soon, bonafide superstars in this league. Is Anthony talented enough to be a bonafide superstar? He certainly has the potential to be.
—Rob Dauster

46. Lonzo Ball

I still believe. Leaving Los Angeles may be the best thing for Zo’s career. Now, he can focus on basketball without the headaches of the Lakers organization and the backdrop of Hollywood (who knows what LaVar is up to).

Ball has struggled to stay healthy in his promising NBA career. Shoulder and ankle injuries sapped his effectiveness over his two seasons, but with a revamped medical staff in New Orleans, he has a chance to truly breakout. I was there when he and LeBron James each posted a triple-double in Charlotte last December. That was a month before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury, but that seems like a decade ago.

Ball can really play. If he can figure out the apparent yips at the free throw line — Ball shot a paltry 6-of-26 from the free throw line in 18 games after that Charlotte game — he has the potential to be special. Importantly, over that same stretch, he shot a healthy 36 percent from 3 on 5.9 attempts per game, which shows that he can shoot the rock.

With his defensive acumen, elite passing abilities and basketball IQ, Ball has a bright future ahead of him, especially now with Zion Williamson on the receiving end of those passes. If he can stay healthy, I truly think there’s a Jrue-Holiday-type career ahead of Ball. What better place to grow up in this league than alongside Holiday in New Orleans? At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for Ball to live up to lofty expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Consider me bullish on Ball.
—Tom Haberstroh

Former Cavaliers coach David Blatt reveals he has multiple sclerosis

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David Blatt is one of the NBA’s all-time memorable characters. Renowned for his overseas success, Blatt got hired as Cavaliers coach just before LeBron James returned. Blatt won a lot in both the regular season and playoffs, but he was cocky and had plenty of blind spots. He alienated his players, which ultimately got him fired during Cleveland’s 2015-16 championship season.

Blatt now coaches Olympiacos in Greece. Unfortunately, his story has taken a sobering turn, as he was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis.

Blatt:

Well, the problem is the PPMS which in my case and in my age manifests itself primarily in the weakness of the legs. fatigue/balance and strength are real issues for me. I have taken on a specific regimen of strengthening and balance exercises as well as swimming and aquatic workouts to improve overall body conditioning and help with muscle pliability and motion.

I am a coach and my job is to lead and teach and inspire a lot of people. Not being as agile or active doesn’t affect my ability to do those things. I am fortunate. I have great doctors trainers physical therapists and management that accept my disabilities and help me overcome. How could I possibly complain? I absolutely cannot and will not.

This is sad news about the 60-year-old Blatt. But I appreciate his determination to overcome the setback. He was always headstrong, and that might be the exact attitude he needs right now.

Marc Gasol says Team USA still incredibly talented, “great team”

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In past Olympics and FIBA World Cup years, international observers have said the guys USA Basketball cuts from the roster — or maybe even the Select Team of young players they practice against — could win gold in their own right. The USA’s talent pool is that deep.

This year that idea is being put to the test.

After a string of high-profile players withdrawing from the team — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and on down the line — Team USA will have just one All-NBA/All-Star player on the roster in Kemba Walker.

That roster went out and comfortably beat Spain — the No. 2 ranked team in the world by FIBA — in an exhibition last Friday. While we should be careful reading too much into a friendly, Spanish center Marc Gasol told Marc Stein of the New York Times the Americans still had plenty of talent.

“I’m sure that it’s going to fuel them,” Gasol said of the loud skepticism increasingly endured by the American team.

“The amount of talent that the U.S. generates every year is unbelievable,’’ he added. “Even with all the guys that dropped out — or if you want to say these guys don’t have experience internationally — they’re still super talented physically and technically. And they’re pretty well-coached as well. So you put it all together and it’s a great team.”

(The “pretty well-coached” line is a joke, by the way, players and Gregg Popovich have that kind of relationship.)

The USA is still the team to beat in China when the World Cup tips off Aug. 31. Spain has a puncher’s chance to knock off the USA, France has some good talent on the roster, and Greece has Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, Team USA should be able to comfortably beat any of those sides.

Serbia, led by Nikola Jokic, is the one team with a legitimate shot to knock off the Americans.

But Serbia is the underdog for a reason. Even with all the players choosing to stay home, the USA is the most talented roster in the tournament. The gap is narrowing, but the rest of the world has not caught up to the American talent level. What Serbia, Spain, and other countries do have is a familiarity of players and system — these guys grow up playing together and have a natural chemistry, something the USA tries to cram together in a couple of weeks. Popovich has focused on building those bonds with this team, knowing that is the area of both weakness and potential growth.

This USA team may not have the intimidating talent of previous years, but it still has enough to win. And the rest of the world knows that, even if the American public does not.

Lakers reportedly doing “due diligence” in talking to Dwight Howard

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The Lakers were going to lean heavily on DeMarcus Cousins this season. Los Angeles has arguably the best center in the game today in Anthony Davis, but he is not built for nor does he want to play 30+ minutes a night banging away down in the post. Davis wants to face up, run the floor, and play most of his minutes at the four next to a more traditional center, then slide over in key matchups and situations. Cousins was going to be that center (he and Davis have some chemistry from their time together in New Orleans).

Now Cousins is almost certainly lost for the season with a torn ACL, and the Lakers are left looking through the guys other teams have yet to sign to try to find a Cousins replacement. There are not a lot of good options, which is why the Lakers wisely plan to take their time and look at everyone.

Dwight Howard is part of that process. While the Howard camp may be excited about the prospect of returning and gaining redemption in Los Angeles, for the Lakers this is more about part of the process, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Again, as with all of free agency, when you read about a sourced story (about Howard and the Lakers for example), think about who benefits from it being public and telling a reporter about it. Think about the reporter’s connections. Shelburne is very well connected to the Laker organization, for example.

The Lakers absolutely need to take a long look at Howard. After he left Los Angeles, Howard eventually found a groove as a quality NBA center. From the 2015-16 to 2017-18 seasons, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in all of those seasons at about 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use right now. However, Howard played just nine games for the Wizards last season following another back surgery and some hamstring issues. He was not healthy.

The Lakers have to decide how healthy Howard is and would he be able to bounce back to the level he was in those previous three seasons? Even if he can, is he a better option than Joakim Noah, who impressed a lot of people around the league with his solid 41 games for Memphis the second half of last season? What about Kenneth Faried?

Los Angeles has a lot to consider. Howard should be part of that mix, but don’t expect a quick decision here. The Lakers have almost a month until training camp opens and are not in a rush, they want to get this right.