Portland’s bandwagon getting full as Lakers come to town

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As you read this, the Portland Trail Blazers are the top seed in the Western Conference. Which after five whole games has all the meaning of a politician’s campaign promise, even in a 66 game season. Few people mention them as title contenders.

But if you were watching the other day they beat Oklahoma City comfortably. A few people took notice. Thursday night they get the Los Angeles Lakers, win that (and the Lakers always struggle in Portland) and that Trail Blazers bandwagon is going to start to fill up.

How did this happen? Portland was a team built for Brandon Roy and Greg Oden to be the stars, but their bodies betrayed them and the Blazers had to go another direction.

They went that direction fast — every season since ’05-06 the Trail Blazers have been one of the three slowest-playing teams in the league. This season they are the fourth fastest (97.4 possessions per game, stats via Hoopdata). With that they have maintained their offensive efficiency, which at 104.7 points per 100 possessions is fifth best in the NBA.

Part of the reason for that success is they are not settling for jumpers any more, as Zach Lowe broke down at Sports Illustrated’s Point Forward.

The Blazers took a lot of shots (26) at the rim (against the Thunder), something they have done much more of this season. About28 of Portland’s 83 shots per game – 33.7 percent — have come at the rim; such close shots accounted for just 30.5 percent of its overall attempts last season, and considering how often this team is getting to the line now, those stats undersell the degree to which it is going to the basket. LaMarcus Aldridge is shooting more jumpers, but he hasn’t reduced his close shots or free throws in the process. Gerald Wallace is barely shooting long two-pointers at all so far, preferring to either fly to the rim or shoot threes.

They also have the fifth best defense in the league, 94.7 points allowed per 100 possessions.

That’s’ a 10 point per 100 possessions differential. The only teams with better ones are the Heat, Bulls and Nuggets. (You expect the Heat and Bulls, the Nuggets are another team surprising us early.)

Can they keep it up? That is the big question. Can they continue to defend at this level — they were an average defensive team the last few years, are they just playing well in a hot streak to start the season or are they this good? Will other teams’ threes start to fall? Portland has six players averaging double-digits in scoring per game, can they maintain that kind of balance? Can Aldridge be the go-to guy in the clutch? Jamal Crawford can keep up this pace, but can Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas? Portland has been a great rebounding team this season after being weak at it in years past, will they revert?

I’m not convinced they are contenders, not yet. But I also don’t think all the numbers are flukes. In a Western Conference in transition Portland is going to be a top-four seed in West and come the playoffs they will be a handful for any of the preseason contender

Watch Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard score first buckets in returns

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It’s only preseason. But if you’ve sat out an entire season with an ACL injury,  just getting on the court feels like a milestone.

And getting your first bucket back feels memorable.

That happened for the Nuggets Jamal Murray and the Clippers Kawhi Leonard on Monday night.

For Murray, the bucket came on a corner 3 in transition.

Murray also showed flashes he’s getting his handle and wiggle back, something that made him a great fit with Nikola Jokic.

Leonard wasted no time, scoring the Clippers’ first bucket by lulling his defender to sleep and then shooting the pull-up 3.

I feel we’re going to see a lot more of that this season.

The NBA is just better with these two back on the court.

 

Cavaliers Evan Mobley out 1-2 weeks with sprained ankle

2022-23 Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day
Nick Falzerano/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Cleveland Cavaliers might have the best frontcourt in the East this season with All-Star Jarrett Allen and the emerging star Evan Mobley, but it may be a few weeks before we see them together.

Mobley is out 1-2 weeks with a sprained right ankle, the Cavaliers announced a couple of days before their preseason opener. Mobley stepped on a teammate’s foot and rolled his ankle during practice, according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

Mobley, who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game in his first campaign, but his more significant impact was on the defensive end. Mobley earned All-Defensive Team consideration as a rookie — an incredibly rare feat — and with Allen formed an impressive backstop for teams trying to drive the paint.

Reports out of Cavaliers training camp rave about the improvements made in Mobley’s offensive game, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks to see that for ourselves now. Mobley, with a more consistent face-up game and jumper, has the potential to develop into a top 15, maybe even top-10 player in the league. The Cavaliers are banking on the young core of Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and the just acquired Donovan Mitchell to be able to take the team far in the next few years, with Mobley’s improvement key to just how far they can go.

It sounds like Mobley will be good to go for the start of the season.

Karl-Anthony Towns just cleared to walk Saturday following non-COVID illness

Karl-Anthony Towns Offseaon Workout
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
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Karl-Anthony Towns has not been in camp with the Timberwolves, sidelined by a non-COVID illness. Beyond that, there were not a lot of details other than his girlfriend Jordyn Woods saying on social media that she had taken him to the hospital.

Towns spoke to the media for the first time this season on Monday and said he was just cleared to walk again on Saturday, but did not get into detail about whatever illness he is dealing with.

First, it is Towns’ right if and when to disclose what he went through. This is not an on-court injury leading to a loss of playing time, and it is his call to talk about.

Towns has been sidelined before by illness, including COVID. After losing his mother and other family members to the disease, he also had a long battle with it. Fortunately, this is not that virus, but whatever it was it sidelined him for a couple of weeks.

That missed training camp is a setback as the Timberwolves try to get used to a two-big lineup with KAT and Rudy Gobert, plus some other new faces. Still, Towns and Minnesota should be good to go by the start of the season, a team thinking playoffs and much more after spending big this offseason.

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.