Portland tasked with fixing what isn’t broken

2 Comments

Things are going just fine for the Portland Trail Blazers these days: LaMarcus Aldridge made “the leap,” last season, Rich Cho stole Gerald Wallace out of Charlotte with a bargain trade package, Andre Miller was replaced with a younger facsimile, Brandon Roy has shown signs of life, and the roster is loaded with capable contributors.

But then again, that’s exactly the problem: things are just fine for the Portland Trail Blazers, a team with plenty of talent and assets but no place in the top tier nor any straightforward means for significant improvement. The Blazers aren’t exactly locked into their current roster — they have plenty of movable parts — but the team already boasts good, productive players at every position. We know that Portland isn’t an elite team in every dimension of play, but they’ve reached a point where the acquisition of specific skills in order to rectify weaknesses could come at great expense to the overall talent level of the roster.

The Blazers are still without a GM (following Cho’s inexplicable firing), but whomever ends up taking the post will have their hands full. Improving an NBA team is always an arduous task, but elevating an already effective and versatile roster requires incredible finesse. There are too many considerations at this point to merely isolate the team’s weaknesses and go to work finding players that hold those skills. The outgoing talent in any potential trade (even if it’s only in the form of a relatively less essential cog) would likely be too considerable to deal without significant and immediate returns, and yet trades yielding equivalent talent for both parties typically only make sense when filling a positional need — of which the Blazers have none.

Portland could stand to have a bit more frontcourt depth, or really, could stand to have a healthy Greg Oden. But remove that supplementary need you’re left with a good team with so few “little,” moves to make. Elite squads are crafted from nuance, but this roster was already assembled with great attention to detail. They were on the right path with all of the crucial ingredients, but then Roy fell, Oden false started (and false started, and false started…), and the electricity dissipated.  The Blazers still hold all of the components, but something’s amiss in the current.

How does one rectify that problem? How does a GM with a glut of components fix the team’s flow without sacrificing that which generates its power?

It’s hard to say — I’m no electrician. But I’m unconvinced that the problem is a lack of star power. Aldridge is productive enough to act as a team’s primary offensive weapon. He’s that good, and lest we forget, the Dallas Mavericks recently concluded their demonstrative campaign to prove that the one-star model can be effective in the right context. Would Portland benefit from somehow turning Raymond Felton, Nicolas Batum, or Wesley Matthews into a more productive player? Surely. But I remain unconvinced that a lack of a true second fiddle is what dooms the Blazers. They could win with a more cumulative approach, but just don’t seem to have the right amalgamation of overall production and talent. The offensive and defensive potential are there, but the optimal result, for whatever reason, isn’t.

The answers are out there for the Blazers and their GM-to-be, but here’s a hope that the rush to find those answers takes a back seat to an enduring patience. Portland only gets one shot at this. They only have so many pieces that can be dealt and so much cap space to work with. Plus, with a newly implemented CBA, they’ll have entirely new rules and stipulations to consider. It may seem like there’s a swiftly ticking clock, but Aldridge, Wallace, Felton, Matthews, Batum, and even Roy have plenty of productive years ahead of them. There’s a window here, but also a problem worthy of careful analysis and creative thinking. There’s no rush. The evolution from good to great takes time and persistence, and the worst thing that could come of the Blazers’ season is a faulty move made by a new manager looking to make an immediate imprint.

Dwight Howard enlisting Lakers fans to get Kobe to help him in Dunk Contest

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant are not exactly blood brothers for life.

When Howard spent a season with the Lakers back in 2012-13 the two men clashed. To put it kindly. Kobe’s single-minded obsession with winning did not mix well with Howard’s “this needs to be fun — and where are the Skittles” mentality. Fans sided with Kobe while Howard — who pushed hard and came back too quickly from back surgery that season then never got right — became the scapegoat.

Howard is on a redemption tour, having won over Lakers fans this season by simply playing his role and keeping his head down (finally). Now that redemption tour is headed to the All-Star Saturday Night Dunk Contest.

Howard wants Kobe to join him — and is trying to get Laker fans to pressure Kobe to be part of the festivities. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“I’m trying to get Kobe,” Howard said… “So if I can get all the Laker fans to lobby to get Kobe to help me in the dunk contest, that’d be really good. That’d be awesome.”

Sure, because pressuring Kobe and telling him he has to do something is always the best way to motivate him. Good luck with that.

Dwight Howard won the 2008 NBA Dunk Contest dawning a Superman cape and flying high — with Kobe sitting courtside and being impressed.

To be fair, Kobe and Howard get along now, but I’m not about to try and predict Kobe’s next move.

Howard will break out gimmicks, props and tricks come Feb. 15 at the United Center in Chicago for this Dunk Contest. The only question is, will Kobe be one of them?

Here are 15 thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut (and the rest of our Three Things to Know)

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Here are 15 bullet point thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut. Zion Williamson impressed in his debut game — 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time. Here are my thoughts from his opening night.

• What were the odds Zion’s first game would feature zero monster dunks but four made threes?

• I can’t watch those four minutes in the fourth quarter enough.

• The four line-drive threes were the story because they were unexpected, but the most impressive play of the night came when Jakob Poeltl blocked his shot, but Zion got the ball back, gut to the other side of the rim and scored. It was his most athletic bucket of the night.

• Can’t blame the Spurs for letting Zion take those threes, he was 1-of-4 from deep in the preseason and he was not a great three-point shooter in college (33.8 percent on a couple a game). The scouting report was to let him shoot. Future opponents will not let him set his feet and take those shots uncontested (the Spurs were in a zone when his run started, which seemed to be a green light in Zion’s mind, other teams will defend him differently).

• Zion said postgame that when he couldn’t move much during rehab, he worked on his shot. It showed — he looked more comfortable from deep than Ben Simmons has (and maybe even the Greek Freak). Zion has a set shot from three, it’s not a quick release or something he can take in motion pealing off a screen, but it doesn’t have to be. Defenders now will have to close out on Zion when he sets his feet, and when they do he can blow by them and attack the rim.

• Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson worked with Zion, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram this past year on their shots, and all three now have vastly improved jumpers. Vinson is not getting enough credit.

• Coach Alvin Gentry taking Zion out was painful to watch… and exactly the right thing to do. This is not about “rest” it’s about injury prevention — major injuries are more likely to occur when fatigued muscles cannot provide the support for ligaments and tendons on explosive moves and things snap. Williamson was obviously not in peak game shape (nor should he be expected to be coming off knee surgery), so a minutes limit was there to prevent him from pushing through tired muscles and re-injuring his just-repaired knee (or some other body part). Yes, it sucked as fans, but the goal is to have him play most of New Orleans remaining 37 games this season (and for seasons beyond this one), not to watch him go down in his first game back.

• Clearly, Zion needs to round into game shape (as to be expected for any player coming off knee surgery), but Mark Jackson’s handled the weight topic poorly on the broadcast, buying into the “Zion can’t play at that weight” trope. Zion is a unique athlete. Unless you’re a member of the Pelicans’ medial team that has done extensive testing on Williamson, you’re not in a position to say what his ideal playing weight will be (up or down). Maybe he should play at a lower weight than what he is at right now, maybe not, but this is an issue that should be handled with some delicacy, and Jackson was a Pamplona Bull on the run.

• Between Zion needing to lose weight and Brandon Ingram needing to add it, the Pelicans are a body shamers dream team.

• Williamson did defer too much through the first three quarters, but he mostly looked like a rookie who had not played much and was trying to fit in. The upside is he didn’t force anything. He wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t aggressive.

• Zion’s passing was surprisingly good. He made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams (picking up one good assist on an Ingram drive) and took what the defense gave him.

• Zion’s defense is going to be a work in progress (as it is with every rookie not named Matisse Thybulle). He has the athleticism and instincts to be a good defender, we saw it in the preseason, but in his first game against NBA players going at NBA speed he struggled and made some bad reads. It’s to be expected with any rookie, it’s just going to take time to see what kind of defender he will be.

• Expect to see a lot more Zion as a small-ball five, that seems the most natural fit. However, he did have the gravity to draw defenders, which helped open things up for Derrick Favors to get some first-quarter buckets.

• How well Ingram and Zion play together is the $168 million question for the Pelicans. That’s how much Ingram’s five-year max contract from New Orleans will be worth next summer — and he’s going to get it. The question becomes will Ingram and that contract ultimately get traded because of fit issues? It’s way too early to make that call.

Ja Morant — the Grizzlies point guard running away with Rookie of the Year — came off a similar knee surgery last summer and it took him some time to get his legs under him and start to find how to use his athleticism in the NBA. Now he’s must-watch League Pass television. I expect the same thing out of Williamson as he rounds into form following his knee surgery.

• Bonus bullet point thought: That’s still a loss for the Pelicans to one of the teams they are battling for the final couple of playoff

2) Houston snaps four-game losing streak against shorthanded Nuggets (and they are fine with that). Houston had lost four games in a row (and 5-of-6), then rolled into Denver Wednesday, only to find a beaten-up Nuggets squad. No Jamal Murray (sprained ankle), Paul Millsap (knee), Mason Plumlee (foot), Gary Harris (aductor), or Michael Porter Jr. (back).

This is the NBA, you catch teams when you catch them — and in this case, the Rockets were happy to catch the break. Houston got 27 points from James Harden on just 13 shots, and Russell Westbrook had 28 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists, and Houston cruised to a 121-105 win.

The Rockets’ offense has struggled of late, enough that it couldn’t cover up the team’s unimpressive defense. On Wednesday everything clicked. The question is, can the Rockets build off this and get back on track?

Denver, for its part, needs to keep its head above water until they get healthy again.

3) Shorthanded Sixers lose another starter in Josh Richardson, Toronto picks up the win. Philadelphia has gone eight games now without Joel Embiid, and now they will need to go a few games without Josh Richardson, too. The Sixers’ wing pulled up four minutes into the game grabbing his left hamstring. He did not return to the game.

Philadelphia fell to 5-3 without Embiid in a 107-95 loss in Toronto. They have tried to win with defense, starting Matisse Thybulle next to Ben Simmons, but when Thybulle picked up a quick second foul on a Kyle Lowry pump fake and had to leave the game, things started to fall apart for the Sixers.

Toronto got 22 from Fred VanVleet and had a balanced attack with six players scoring at least 16 points.

If the playoffs started today, this would be the first-round matchup and Toronto would have the home court. The Raptors keep on winning, and Nick Nurse’s case for Coach of the Year gets stronger and stronger.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

Leave a comment

Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his cautious start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got their payoff during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a 19-year-old rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first three quarters looking like a rookie who had not played much, needed to work on his conditioning, and was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers. His teammates were telling him to let go and get in the flow of the offense.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three over the top of a zone. Postgame, Zion said during is rehab, when he could not run, he took a lot of standstill jumpers and it paid off. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

Leave a comment

NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.