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.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: ‘If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work’

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

James Harden and Chris Paul worked reasonably well together on the court, but they played through a lot of tension.

Now, the Rockets are going to a new star backcourt that invites even more questions.

How will Harden and Russell Westbrook fit?

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni on The Woj Pod:

If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work.

To be able to win a title now, you have to get superstars together – and whether it’s two or three or how many else you can get. And then it becomes a chemistry. Because everybody’s ball-dominant. When you’re a superstar, you’ve been the main guy for sure. Now, you’ve got to make it work. And sometimes personalities, it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it works for a while. Sometimes, it’s hard to manage, sometimes. Again, if they’re not on the same page totally 100 percent, I think the organization has to look and see what’s best for the organization.

D’Antoni was asked about Harden and Westbrook. (Best I can tell, D’Antoni never named Westbrook on the podcast, which should allow the coach to avoid a fine.) But D’Antoni could have easily been describing Harden and Paul.

It seems Harden and Paul no longer wanted to make it work. Those two played better together than most people realized. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams each of the last two years, and they had an elite offense. But Harden and Paul clearly grated each other.

Now, Harden and Westbrook will get a fresh start together. They sound eager to re-join forces after beginning their careers together with the Thunder.

D’Antoni is correct: Harden’s and Westbrook’s desire to make this work will go a long way.

But Harden and Paul were once enthusiastic about pairing, and that went south. An initial commitment to teaming up is important. It can also wane quickly.

It also can’t overcome every fit issue. Sometimes, stars just don’t match, no matter their intentions.

D’Antoni is also right about super teams generally require ball-dominant stars to sacrifice for the greater good. There are always diminishing returns on grouping stars.

But other situations have included stars with more complementary skills. So much of what Harden and Westbrook provide involves having the ball in their hands. The diminishment of returns will likely be greater in Houston.

Harden’s and Westbrook’s talent give the Rockets a huge leg up. Those two wanting to play together will push each to do his best to make it work.

It’s still far more complicated than that.

Report: Ben Simmons contract extension allows him to hit super-max triggers

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ben Simmons signed a max contract extension with the 76ers.

It could turn into a super-max contract extension.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The exact value of Simmons’ contract extension won’t be determined until the salary cap set next year. That’s when the extension kicks in. The current projection has it worth about $170 million over five years.

If Simmons makes an All-NBA team next season, it could be worth 20% more – bringing the projected total to about $204 million.

Whether Simmons gets the full bump if he makes an All-NBA team was a matter of negotiation between him and Philadelphia. They could have agreed to pay different amounts depending whether he makes the first, second or third team. (Simmons could also trigger the super max by winning Most Valuable Player or Defensive Player of the Year next season, again contingent on the terms of the extension.)

We don’t yet know the specifics of Simmons’ super-max eligibility. But they’re in his contract now.

There will be a lot riding on his performance next season. We’ll eventually learn how much

The 76ers did well to avoid a player option in the deal. That was likely an advantage of signing Simmons to an extension now rather than forcing him to wait until restricted free agency next summer. Simmons is just 22. He should provide positive value to his team six seasons from now.

Simmons’ trade kicker won’t matter now. A trade kicker can’t take a player above his max salary, and Simmons is starting at his max. But if he struggles to fit with franchise player Joel Embiid, Simmons could be in line for a nice bonus if traded in a few years.

Report: Before Paul George trade, Thunder were already preparing to trade Russell Westbrook next year

Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Thunder are starting over in an unprecedented way.

By sending Paul George to the Clippers and Russell Westbrook to the Rockets, Oklahoma City is becoming the first team ever to trade two reigning All-NBA players in the same offseason. The Thunder are the first team in decades to trade even two reigning All-Stars in the same offseason.

The sequence appears clear: George requested a trade. Oklahoma City granted it. With one star gone, the Thunder had less ability to win with Westbrook. So, they dealt him, too.

But if George didn’t request a trade this summer, Westbrook might have been moved soon, anyway.

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

The clock was already ticking loudly on the Westbrook era, with team officials quietly preparing to hit the reset button next summer, per sources, after one more run.

George’s trade request was a blessing in disguise for the Thunder. They got a massive haul from the Clippers and clearance to trade Westbrook, a franchise icon. The Westbrook trade netted even more draft strong draft considerations from Houston. Oklahoma City has a great head start on its rebuild.

The Thunder had probably peaked. They’ve been good the last few years, but not good enough to win a playoff series. The supporting cast was expensive, and further upgrades would’ve likely been too costly. Westbrook is too good to tank. The four years and $171,139,920 remaining on his contract are a major liability.

However, Westbrook has meant so much to Oklahoma City. His loyalty after Kevin Durant left was so huge.

It would have been difficult to handle the politics of trading him if George didn’t ask out first. That made it so Westbrook was ready to leave. Thunder fans seem supportive of both Westbrook and the organization.

I believe Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti believes he would’ve traded Westbrook soon, regardless. That was clearly the right move for getting past this era of stagnation.

But it’s another thing to pull the trigger on moving such a beloved player. It wouldn’t have necessarily happened, especially not smoothly.

Canada’s FIBA World Cup training camp features 17 NBA players

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

No Andrew Wiggins, no problem.

The disconnect between Wiggins and Canada Basketball seemed like a big deal when Wiggins looked like a budding star from a country without much basketball pedigree. But Wiggins has stagnated. Canada, on the other hand, looks like a rising international power.

Canada Basketball announced its training-camp invitations for the FIBA World Cup. The list includes a whop 17 NBA players:

Though the Nuggets clearly expect Murray to reach the next level, this group is short on star power right now. Don’t expect Canada rival Team USA. But this is a deep pool of solid players. They should be competitive in the tournament this fall in China.

This group is also pretty young. Players like Murray, Gilgeous-Alexander, Barrett, Alexander-Walker and Clarke could take Canada to an even higher level in years to come.

And then the generation that’s growing up idolizing the championship Raptors will come through. Expect Canada’s climb to continue.

The other 12 players invited to Canada Basketball’s training camp: Aaron Best, Aaron Doornekamp, Andrew Nembhard, Andy Rautins, Brady Heslip, Kevin Pangos, Kyle Wiltjer, Melvin Ejim, Naz Mitrou-Long, Oshae Brissett, Phil Scrubb, Thomas Scrubb.