NBA season preview: Portland Trail Blazers

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Last season: Nothing will push you toward rebuilding like disappointment, and their 28-38 record was that. This was a 48 win team a couple seasons ago, but last season a team that should be playing fast and pressuring teams was average in pace and threatening nobody. Point guard Raymond Felton took the blame from fans for being out of shape (he was), coach Nate McMillan took the blame from management and they fired him and replaced him with Kalab Canales. None of it mattered. Outside of an All-Star season from LaMarcus Aldridge everyone else on the roster didn’t live up to expectations.

Key Departures: Consider it an overhaul — Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford are all gone. They got serious about rebuilding and shipped everyone out.

Key Additions: Through the draft they added two lottery picks — point guard Damian Lillard and center Meyers Leonard. Both looked good at Summer League (Lillard was co-MVP) and both are going to get a lot of run. They are going to be key for Portland. After that, unless Joel Freeland excites you none of these additions can be called key.

Two other key additions — the aggressive Neil Olshey as GM and Terry Stotts as coach.

Three keys to the Trail Blazers season:

1) Nicolas Batum, it is time to step up and earn that contract. Through four NBA seasons, Batum has been good — last season he averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 39.1 percent from three, took on more offense and had a PER of 17.3, and he shows flashes as a defender but is not consistent. This season — with Batum sporting shiny new a four-year, $45 million contract — they are paying him to play like a star. Portland needs him to be real NBA No. 2 guy on a team. He has to be better than just pretty good most of the time.

He needs to score more and lead on offense. He can knock down the three, but his handle needs to improve so he can attack better off the dribble. The defense needs to be there nightly. He needs to find a groove with Damien Lillard. The Blazers have locked themselves in a bit with big contracts to Aldridge and Batum, those two have to be the stars. Aldridge will be, no question. Batum has got the skills, but this needs to be his breakout year.

2) After Batum and Aldridge, who is going to step up? LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star, one of the best power forwards in the game right now. Nicolas Batum is good and on the verge of a breakout season. And after that…

There is rookie point guard Lillard, who has been given the keys to the Blazers offense and asked to run the show. Which is a lot to ask for a rookie out of Weber State. In the middle there is rookie Meyers Leonard, who is tall and athletic but with a raw offensive game. So far in preseason it has looked like J.J. Hickson could beat him out for minutes, which speaks to how far he has to go to be a starting NBA five. Leonard was always a project but they need to see something from him this year.

And after that… who do you like on the Portland roster? Wesley Mathews is solid. Hickson has shown flashes but misses a lot of jumpers (which he keeps taking). Who is left to step up? Nolan Smith? Jared Jeffries? Luke Babbitt? Ronnie Price?

Someone is going to step up or depth will hurt Portland this year.

3) They need to need to add pieces, but how? Portland is rebuilding, but with big contracts handed out to Aldridge and Batum plus other deals on the books, Portland is not in a place where they can just add guys easily via free agency. They can have some space if they let Hickson walk and don’t bring back guys like Babbitt, but they are not “we can go get a max guy” below the cap.

Neil Olshey will be aggressive, he will make deals because that is what he does. But it will be interesting to see if he can get them more cap room to use in future seasons.

What Trail Blazers fans should fear: Meddling ownership. Paul Allen and his Vulcan crew stepping in to make decisions. The best owners stay out of the way — hire a smart GM, a smart person to run the business operations, then let the basketball people do their thing. Don’t let personal relationships with a coach or anyone influence business decisions. Only change the GM when it’s clear he has failed. But Paul Allen likes to stir the Blazers pot, and when he does plans seem to reset. It happens too often.

How it likely works out: Even if Batum does have a breakout year and Aldridge is once again an All-Star, the Blazers are trusting a rookie point guard to lead them to the playoffs. Which means it is going to be a long season. The Blazers will be entertaining and not an embarrassment, but when the inevitable injuries of any NBA season come the depth of this team will be exposed. And it won’t be pretty.

Prediction: Portland finishes 33-49 and is back in the lottery, hoping for a lucky Ping-Pong ball bounce. This is a year to be measured in growth of young players that lets them build for the future. They have Aldridge for three more seasons, they need to find a way to win with him in that time or the rebuilding may have to start again.

Kristaps Porzingis after conversation with new coach: “Man im excited!”

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David Fizdale learned a lot of lessons in his first go around as a head coach, spending 101 games with the Memphis Grizzlies. At the top of the list: Build a strong bond with your star player. Or else.

Fizdale is trying to do that, saying he would fly to Latvia this summer to spend time with Kristaps Porzingis. But first came a phone call, and that seemed to go very well.

It’s not just Porzingis. Fizdale was bonding with Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Damyean Dotson on Wednesday night in Boston. A little “this is where we want to be” motivation.

Good on Fizdale for all of this.

The Knicks got the best coach for them on the board in Fizdale, and so far the new front office — general manager Scott Perry and president Steve Mills — are making smart decisions. Knicks fans should be optimistic. Knicks ownership just needs to be patient (not James Dolan’s strong suit), because with no Porzingis for a large portion if not all of next season the team will struggle. Wins will be hard to come by. Fizdale needs a season to develop players and lay the foundation for what he wants to build, while the new front office needs time to clean up the salary cap mess that is New York right now.

With some patience, the Knicks could have something special in a few years. And Fizdale may have found the right home for his talents because he’s already got players buying in.

Report: Police officers involved in Sterling Brown’s arrest suspended 15, 10 and two days

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Bucks guard Sterling Brown was tased and arrested in January despite not being violent or overly combative while being questioned about a parking violation.

Gina Barton, Mary Spicuzza and Ashley Luthern of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

The Milwaukee police officer who first confronted Milwaukee Bucks rookie Sterling Brown outside a Walgreens in January was suspended for two days, the Journal Sentinel has learned.

Two supervisors who later arrived, escalating the situation, were suspended for 10 and 15 days, sources said. Several other officers were reprimanded.

I don’t know whether these suspensions are the appropriate punishment.

But police too often trampling on the rights of people, especially minorities, is a far greater problem than these three officers and this incident.

No, Tom Izzo is not going to coach the Orlando Magic

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The Orlando Magic have been looking for their next head coach — after letting go of Frank Vogel right after season ended — while Mike Budenholzer (Bucks), David Fizdale (Knicks), Lloyd Pierce (Hawks), James Borrego (Hornets), and Igor Kokoskov (Suns) all got jobs (plus J.B. Bickerstaff had the interim title taken away in Memphis).

Not much news had leaked out of Orlando through all of that process, outside of interest in University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson and an interview this week with former Charlotte coach Steve Clifford.

Then came a report from Michael Scotto of The Athletic that the Magic had interest in Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

It didn’t take long for people close to Izzo to shoot that down.

A few points of clarification here. First, plenty of NBA front office executives have thought Izzo would make a great NBA coach and have reached out with feelers over the years. I have no doubt the Magic were interested, and may well have reached out (directly or through back channels) to gauge interest. That’s what smart organizations do.

At this point in his career, at age 63, it’s hard to imagine Izzo making the leap to the NBA — and if he does it will be for a Godfather offer (in both money and roster). With all due respect to Aaron Gordon, that’s not Orlando. Never say never, but like Mike Krzyzewski and others who could have made the leap to the NBA, at this point Izzo seems a college lifer. He’s in one of the best jobs in the land, a place where he is revered and respected, and he’s not likely to change that up now.

You can’t really blame him. It’s hard to leave a good job — just ask Jay Wright. But with Izzo, NBA teams will still ask occasionally, just to make sure.

Steve Kerr calls NFL’s new national-anthem policy, which is strikingly similar to the NBA’s, ‘idiotic’

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The NFL released a new national-anthem policy that requires players to stand on the field or remain in the locker room (or similar location) during the song.

That didn’t sit well with Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Melissa Rohlin of the Bay Area News Group:

Good thing Kerr doesn’t work in a league that mandates players, coaches and trainers “stand and line up in a dignified posture” during the anthem, that suspended a player for sitting during the anthem, that warns players for chewing gum or being in the bathroom during the anthem, that has a team that blocked a black anthem singer who wore a “We matter” jersey.

Oh, wait.

He does.

The NBA, like the NFL, is first and foremost a business seeking profit. When confronted with social issues, from Donald Sterling to “I can’t breathe” shirts, the NBA has always kept an eye on its wallet.

With the threat of anthem protests looming, the NBA proactively met with players to head off any kneeling. That was business strategy, nothing grander.

The result? Players linked arms during the national anthem in the name of same vague unity, co-opting the space and distorting the message of Colin Kaepernick’s more meaningful protest.

Eventually, teams stopped linking arms during the anthem. Nobody really noticed when it fell off.

All the while, no sponsors or fans were aggrieved.

The NFL is just trying to get to the same point with a similar policy.

But the NFL already alienated its players through the heavy-handed implementation of this policy and years of other issues. The NBA has established greater trust from its players, both by finessing them in talks about societal issues and actually standing behind them, like the Bucks did with Sterling Brown.

There are plenty of opportunities to criticize the NFL relative to the NBA. The leagues’ national-anthem policies are not a good one.

And spare me the idea that leaders trying to divide us from on high is What’s Wrong With Our Country. Centuries of racism have already divided us.

Some leaders, like Donald Trump, exploit those divisions. Other leaders talk fancifully of unity without actually reconciling what caused the divisions.

But the actual divisions were already significant.