Portland tasked with fixing what isn’t broken

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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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he learned from Kawhi Leonard: “He was calm”

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Milwaukee was up 2-0 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals on Toronto, having won those games by an average of 15 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had scored 54 points, pulled down 31 rebounds, dished out 11 assists, and was looking every bit the MVP.

Then the games shifted to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard took over — including guarding Antetokounmpo more — and the Raptors rattled off four straight wins to take the series on their way to the NBA title. The Greek Freak still averaged 20.4 points a night in those final four games, but the buckets were much harder to come by.

Milwaukee returns this season as the Eastern Conference favorites and legit title contenders, in part because of what they learned from that loss. Antetokounmpo told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports he learned a lot directly from Leonard in that series.

“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”

Leonard is the living embodiment of the old John Wooden axiom “be quick, don’t hurry.” He’s not rushed, he’s rarely forced into shots he doesn’t want to take or plays he doesn’t want to make.  That’s true of all champions on some level. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan all bring an inner calm.

If Antetokounmpo brings that to his game, the Bucks are one big step closer to a title.

Domantas Sabonis on trade rumors: ‘I know exactly how the Pacers feel about me now’

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The Indiana Pacers have started to explore the trade market for Domantas Sabonis. There are logical reasons for this: Sabonis is good (he was second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season), yet he and the Pacers are nowhere near agreement on a contract extension, and the Pacers already paid big money for Myles Turner to be their center, how much do they want to pay Sabonis, too?

That’s sound logic if you’re in the Pacers’ front office.

If you’re Sabonis, it can feel like a slap in the face to a guy who put in a lot of sweat and passion for the franchise. That’s what Sabonis sounded like in this quote, via Scott Agnes of The Athletic.

The Pacers are not talking about the report, which started with the well connected and reliable Sam Amick at The Athletic.

Pacers’ brass needs to talk about this with Sabonis (and likely already have, behind closed doors). If the Pacers trade him, it’s likely not until after Dec. 15 at the earliest (when most players signed this summer can be included in a deal) and probably closer to the February trade deadline. That’s a lot of season to play out, and Sabonis remains a vital part of the Indiana rotation.

There is likely to be a lot of interest in Sabonis on the market. However, because he’s a center (a position teams are careful not to overspend on in today’s market) and in the last year of his rookie deal — meaning he becomes a restricted free agent next summer and gets more expensive — teams are not going to overpay for him. Right now the Pacers are asking for too much and interested teams are lowballing their offers. The sides will meet in the middle.

That middle could shift if Sabonis has a rough start to the season. Both sides need him to play well and feel comfortable, whatever is going on with the business side of his contract.

Raptors, Pascal Siakam reportedly agree to four-year, $129.9 million max contract extension

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Pascal Siakam is going to be the face of the Toronto Raptors going forward.

This was expected. Toronto was never going to let its young star slip away; the only questions were when it a contract extension got done and the price.

The answers came Saturday, with the Raptors and Siakam’s agents reaching terms on what will be a four-year, $129.9 million max extension for the reigning Most Improved Player. Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN broke the news.

There are no player or team options, this is a straight four years.

Last season, his third in the league, Siakam made a huge leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, took on a larger role as a shot creator, played impressive wing defense, and was a key part of the Raptors winning the first title in franchise history. He is at the heart of their future and a guy the Raptors wanted to keep through whatever rebuilding/retooling process comes in the next few years.

The Raptors could have played it out, and let Siakam go to restricted free agency next summer. However, in what will be a down free agent market, some team would have tried to poach the young wing — a real position of need around the league — with a max offer. The Raptors would have matched, but all that drama might have created bad blood. Maybe the Raptors overpaid a little, but they get to keep their guy and have him happy.

Siakam is the third player to get a max extension to their rookie contract this summer. Both Ben Simmons (Philadelphia) and Jamal Murray (Denver) signed five-year, $170 million max extensions. Siakam decided to take one year fewer, but also hits free agency again a little earlier.

Chinese state media says Adam Silver will face retribution for ‘defaming’ China

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Adam Silver has worked to portray the NBA as a progressive league that favored free speech. However, when push came to shove in a conflict with China over a Tweet from Rockets GM Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong, Silver’s first statement seemed to protect the status quo and the cash the world’s largest nation generates for the NBA.

That backfired, and Silver came out with a stronger second statement that backed Morey’s right to free speech. Since then, the league has worked to emphasize that position.

In an interview at a TIME Magazine event this week, Silver added to that sentiment saying China asked for Morey to be fired and the league said no. “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business. We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

The Chinese government denied this, and now Chinese State media is saying there will be retribution for Silver. From the South China Morning Post:

Chinese state media has warned that NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution” for defaming China in the latest twist to a dispute that began with a basketball team executive tweeting his support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong…

“Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong,” it said. “This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.”

Silver’s handling of the controversy had proved his “double standards”, the broadcaster said, adding that he had “defamed” China on the international stage.

“To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving,” it said.

Silver didn’t fabricate this. We’re all smart enough to know how this went down: Chinese officials would never outright say “you need to fire Morey” but they could strongly imply it with words and actions. Silver’s phrasing on this — that it was “made clear that we were being asked to fire him” — suggests precisely this scenario. It’s how people with power ask for something unethical or illegal, whether we’re talking mob bosses or politicians, the ask is strongly implied but not direct, allowing denial later.

China wanted its pound of flesh, maybe to fire Morey but at least a public rebuke and fine/suspension. They got none of it. Now they can use Silver’s comment — clearly aimed at the domestic market to bolster the NBA’s image in the US — to cause a little more pain. China has shown it can hit the NBA’s bottom line, it flexed its muscle, but how far does either side really want it to progress?

As we have been saying all along, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It may fade from the spotlight, but the NBA/China relationship is a story that will be a cloud over this entire season.