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.

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward warming up, available to play in Game 3

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The Celtics are getting their X-factor back — Gordon Hayward is available for the must-win Game 3 for Boston.

This had been expected, but he was out warming up pregame as reports he would be available started to bounce around the web.

Even 20 minutes of Hayward would be a big boost for the Celtics. Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment.

Hayward’s return gives the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest. He’s the Celtics’ fourth-best scoring option right now, but he’s more dangerous than any other team’s fourth scorer.

Miami leads the series 0-2. If Boston doesn’t find a way to break down Miami’s zone defense and defend the rim better themselves this series is going to be short. Maybe Hayward can help with that on Saturday night.

Ty Lawson dropped by team, reportedly banned from Chinese league after social media posts

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Ty Lawson’s off the court challenges were among the reasons he was playing in China and not the NBA this season. He signed for good money in China instead.

That era of his career after some social media posts, apparently of him at a strip club in China, has him dropped by his team and rumored to be banned from the league.

Lawson’s team, the Fujian Sturgeons, apparently gave this statement to Chinese news agency Xinhua:

“His inappropriate words are inconsistent with the social responsibilities and values abided by our club and have brought serious adverse social impacts to the club and the league. We will not sign him for the new season.”

Emiliano Carchia, the CEO of Sportando, reports that Lawson is out of the Chinese Basketball Association for good.

Lawson’s quickness and ability to create space and score could help some NBA teams, but incidents like this make it less likely an NBA team would roll the dice on the 32-year-old point guard. Lawson spent eight seasons in the NBA then the last two in China.