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.

NBA Media Day roundup: Zion looking fit, Ayton sounding reserved, more

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
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Most of the NBA conducted media day on Monday — some moments turned our head.

Here’s what you need to know from media day around the league — just the highlights. This does not include anything on the Nets — there’s a separate story on them — or the Lakers (there will be a story Tuesday morning out of Lakers’ media day).

• The reports of Zion Williamson being in the best shape of his career appear to be true. HoodieBev has the recipts.

We’ll see if this translates to the court — there’s a lot of pressure on him — but Zion looks like he’s put in the work.

• Speaking of players who looked in better shape, James Harden looked slimmed down. He joked he lost 100 pounds, but he also talked about his diet and exercise regimen.

Deandre Ayton got a four-year, $132.9 million contract extension this summer, but not because the Suns were handing it out. Ayton had to get the Pacers to make the offer (which is why he doesn’t have a five-year deal) and then the Suns matched it. Ayton is a guy with a usually upbeat personality, but when asked about his new contract, it was a short answer and a low-key tone.

Coach Monty Williams and All-Star Devin Booker both talked about how they expect Ayton to use the contract as motivation and come out with a monster season. We’ll be watching.

• The Suns’ players and coach had to all answer the “what did you think of the Robert Sarver investigation report?” question, and the answers were unanimous — they were disgusted, saddened, and felt for those (especially the women) who had to deal with his behavior. They also to a man said they had no idea (which, at least before the original ESPN report, may have been true; how he acted around players and those on the business side appears to be different).

• All the Celtics were asked about their former coach Ime Udoka’s season-long suspension, and Marcus Smart summed up the sentiments well — “it’s been hell.” They were caught off guard like much of the NBA was. That said, to a man, they backed interim coach Joe Mazzulla.

• With P.J. Tucker out in Miami there has been a lot of talk about Jimmy Butler playing the four, especially to close games. Butler himself shot that down, saying he is not a four.

The Heat continue to look for a trade for a four, but may not have one to start the season.

• At his end-of-season media session last May, Pat Riley said Kyle Lowry needed to show up in better shape this season. It appears Lowry did, but did it motivate him? “It’s whatever… everyone has their opinion.”

• It’s not media day unless Kawhi Leonard is laughing.

As for Leonard and load management this season, coach Tyronne Lue said he would play it by ear. But also, expect some.

 

Report: Heat, Celtics, Mavericks, Grizzlies may show interest in Crowder trade

2022 NBA Playoffs - 	Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns
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The Phoenix Suns had media day on Monday, but veteran Jae Crowder was not there, part of a mutual agreement with the team to sit out until a trade could be found. It left players and GM James Jones addressing the issue.

What teams are interested in Crowder? Shams Charania of The Athletic says to watch for the Heat, Celtics, Mavericks and Grizzlies among others.

Miami has been at the front of the line in terms of interest (and Crowder has suggested online he would welcome a return to Miami). The Heat have minutes to fill at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly and Crowder — who was on the Heat team that went to the bubble Finals against the Lakers — would be a solid fit. Putting together a trade is a little more tricky. The Heat would likely want Duncan Robinson at the core of the deal, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig — and that means the Heat have to throw in a pick (a protected first) or a minimum-contract player (Gabe Vincent?) to make the deal work. Not impossible, but not likely.

The Celtics need depth at the four but what they can offer is bench minutes, filling Danilo Gallinari‘s role (he is out for the season with a torn ACL) but putting together a trade is next to impossible financially considering who Boston would be willing to give up (not Robert Williams). Dallas could put together a deal if the Suns are interested in Dwight Powell (probably not, the Suns just paid Deandre Ayton a lot of money to be their center) or Reggie Bullock. Memphis could send out the dead money of the Danny Green contract (out for the season due to injury) and picks, or Ziaire Williamson and some minimum players (probably also with picks). Atlanta, Chicago and other destinations have come out in rumors.

As for why Crowder pushed for a trade, the man himself posted his own hype video on Instagram and Tweeted this.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported the most heard speculation around the league as to the reason — the Suns were going to start Cameron Johnson at the four to have more shooting and Crowder wanted none of that — but the reason now is moot. Crowder will get traded.

The only questions are when and where.

Durant, Irving talk about Nets moving on from ‘very awkward’ summer, but drama continues

Brooklyn Nets Media Day
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Media Day — arguably the most boring and tedious day on the NBA calendar — was anything but in Brooklyn.

After a summer Kyrie Irving admitted was “very awkward” — where both he and Kevin Durant pushed to be traded, and Durant threw down an ultimatum saying it was him or coach Steve Nash and GM Sean Marks — everyone was back under one roof and trying to stay on message about just wanting to win.

But drama will follow this team like a dark cloud until they force the conversation to be about something else. Like how many games they are winning.

Until then, the awkward questions and moments will come. For example, why did Kevin Durant ask for a trade this summer? What did he want to see changed? He talked about the team feeling unstable last season. Which it was (for a variety of reasons).

“My whole thing was, I wanted everybody to be held accountable for their habits as a basketball player. I think a lot of stuff was getting swept under the rug because we’re injured or this guy’s not around or just the circumstances. I thought we could have fought through that a little bit more and focused on the guys that were here a little bit more.

“You know, when I went out with the injury, we lost 10 in a row. And I’m like, we shouldn’t be losing some of these games that we lost, regardless of who’s on the floor. So I was more so worried about how we’re approaching every day as a basketball team. And I felt like we could have fought through a lot of the stuff that I felt that held us back.”

Those are the best, drama-free answers he could give. But Durant still loves to stir the pot on Twitter and did so later in the day.

(That was the question asked boiled way down, but both the question and Durant’s answer had a lot more context, it was not a confrontational answer in the moment.)

Kyrie Irving said there were options for him this summer, although limited ones, because he is unvaccinated. He also talked about the reasons he wanted to return to the Nets.

Marks handled the inevitable “your star wanted you fired” questions as well as he could, saying at one point “that’s pro sports.”

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinions and I think from us, it’s not to hold a grudge against what Kevin said, but it’s a little bit of saying, ‘All right, if that’s the way he feels, what’s going on here?’ Like, what do we need to change?” Marks said.

In the end, everyone talked about moving on and the potential for this roster. Durant is not disappointed to be back.

“I wasn’t disappointed. I still love to play. I knew that wasn’t going to get affected regardless of what happened this summer,” Durant said.

The Nets have the talent on the roster to be title contenders, but have more questions than any other team at that level after the past couple of years: Can Durant stay healthy? Will Irving be focused and committed for an entire season? How does Ben Simmons fit in and what is his role? Can their thin frontcourt hold up? Will they play enough defense? Is Steve Nash up to the task? Does this team have the will and drive to be contenders?

Playing through the drama is the only way to answer all those questions, but if they do this team could be a powerhouse.

PBT Podcast: Golden State Warriors season preview

2022 NBA Finals - Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics
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The Golden State Warriors will enter the season hanging banner number four from this era and passing out their championship rings, but this is a team with more questions than most returning champs.

Otto Porter and Gary Payton II are gone and their minutes will go to a young core — Jordan Poole, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman — who are going to be asked to carry a larger load. Particularly during the regular season.

Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area joins Kurt Helin of NBC Sports to break down this coming Warriors season, what to expect, and if the young core can get the older vets to the playoffs rested and ready to defend their title. There’s also talk of what comes next in Golden State, as some hard contract choices are coming in the next few years.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

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