NBA season preview: Portland Trail Blazers

2 Comments

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.

Dave Joerger: Luka Doncic praise not veiled shot at Kings’ front office or Marvin Bagley, who’s the next Kevin Durant

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Leave a comment

Kings coach Dave Joerger said of Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic:

“Perhaps there was an idea that there was a ceiling on him – I don’t see it, unfortunately for us,” Joerger said. “He’s great for them and he’s great for our league.”

It was easy to read into that statement. Sacramento drafted Marvin Bagley No. 2, passing on Doncic, who went No. 3. One of Bagley’s key supporters has been Kings assistant general manager Brandon Williams, and Williams and Joerger have been feuding.

Now, Joerger is fighting the inferences.

Joerger, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“All we’re trying to do is say something positive about another team’s player,” Joerger said. “There’s no veiled shots at anybody. De’Aaron (Fox) gushed about him and Bogi (Bogdan Bogdanovic) gushed about him and his ability and wishing him the best. It’s unfortunate that we had to play him and so is the rest of the league because the guy is playing really well right now.”

“It was out of love and positivity and people are trying to turn it something between Vlade (Divac) and I. Vlade and I are like this. Three years we’ve been working together and we love it. I love him.”

“When we drafted Marvin at two, we were high-fiving like crazy. We got the right guy for us and where we’re going to be. This isn’t going to be a story in three days and it will definitely be buried five years from now when we have the next (Kevin) Durant, (Russell) Westbrook, because that’s how good they are going to be. They are both going to be in the All-Star game and we’re going to be deep in the playoffs and I’m excited about that. I like where we are and love we’re going.”

Talk about an overcorrection. Durant and Westbrook have each won MVP. When those two reached their primes and stayed healthy, the Thunder made the Western Conference finals every year. Fox is having a breakout season and is on the star track, and Bagley looks solid for a rookie. But that’s an insanely high bar.

It might even be Joerger protesting too much, to the point he adds only more belief to the idea his initial statement contained subtext.

Maybe that’s unfair to Joerger. Coaches frequently praise opposing young players with “unfortunately for us” – meaning “unfortunately for us” we must play against him for many years. This could have been totally innocent.

But I can’t help but notice Joerger mentioned Divac, who quickly gave the coach a vote of confidence when hot-seat talk emerged, and not Williams. Joerger also made a point guard-small forward comparison, even though Fox and Bagley are a point guard and power forward/center – unless you recall Divac saying Bagley could play small forward. Another veiled shot at the front office?

I really don’t think so. But Sacramento’s years of dysfunction make people see rifts and subtle jabs where none might exist. That’s just something the Kings will have to deal with until they sustain success.

Report: Austin Rivers signing with Grizzlies

Will Newton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Wizards, Suns and Grizzlies are trapped in a transaction triangle.

After a three-way trade between the teams fell through due to Brooks confusion, Washington and Phoenix completed a simplified version of the deal. The Suns sent Trevor Ariza to the Wizards for Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers, whom Phoenix is waiving.

Rivers’ landing spot? Memphis of course.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Don’t expect Rivers to be a major difference maker in Memphis. He’s a solid defender who had been a decent 3-point shooter the last couple seasons but not at all so far this year. When not spotting up, he’s often overly ambitious – but occasionally impressive – as a driver.

Rivers will add depth at shooting guard, where the Grizzlies have Garrett Temple, Dillon Brooks, Wayne Selden, MarShon Brooks and Shelvin Mack.

Memphis must waive one player now. It could be MarShon Brooks. We know how the Grizzlies (and Suns) view him.

This signing leads to a conspiracy theory I don’t believe, but find interesting: The Grizzlies agreed to the trade with Dillon Brooks… learned the full parameters of the deal… realized they’d rather just sign Rivers outright than deal Dillon Brooks, Selden and a second-rounder for Kelly Oubre… claimed they meant MarShon Brooks all along… let the Wizards ship Rivers to the Suns, who’d waive him… signed Rivers.

When undermining the original three-team deal, the Grizzlies would have had to know Washington and Phoenix would complete their own trade with Rivers getting waived. Perhaps, Memphis surmised that while the teams negotiated, but the timing – and complexity – makes that unlikely. But still fun to consider.

Nets once thought they were trading for No. 2 overall pick, would have gotten Bulls’ second first-rounder

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Leave a comment

A Wizards-Suns-Grizzlies trade just fell apart because the teams confused which Brooks was involved. Phoenix thought it was getting Dillon Brooks. Memphis thought it was sending MarShon Brooks.

But this isn’t the first time wires got crossed in trade discussions.

Former Nets executive Bobby Marks of ESPN:

The closest it’s ever happened – and this is a funny story – is that in 2006, we thought we getting the second overall pick in the draft from Chicago. And we were going to pick LaMarcus Aldridge. And it wound up being that Chicago was offering us their second first-round pick in the draft, which was pick 16. It turned into Rodney Carney. So, that’s the closest that we’ve ever come to backing out or a deal was agreed upon and going from there.

The Bulls might as well have sent the No. 2 to pick to the Nets. On draft night, Chicago dealt No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge to the Trail Blazers for No. 4 pick Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa. The Bulls got more value from No. 16 pick Rodney Carney, trading up with the 76ers for No. 13 pick Thabo Sefolosha, who was a helpful role player in Chicago then flipped for a pick that became Taj Gibson. In that 2006 draft, the Nets picked Marcus Williams No. 22 and Josh Boone No. 23.

The big difference between this non-deal and the Brooks mishap: It didn’t reach the point active players were informed and details were leaked to the media. That’s harder to walk back and maybe part of the reason the Suns and Wizards still swapped Trevor Ariza for Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers after the Grizzlies pulled out.

Report: Trevor Ariza ‘checked out mentally’ with Suns

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
5 Comments

Why did Trevor Ariza leave the Rockets, who came as close as anyone to beating the Kevin Durant-boosted Warriors in the playoffs, for the lowly Suns?

Money.

Ariza signed a one-year, $15 million contract with Phoenix last summer. That salary likely far surpasses what Ariza could have gotten elsewhere – especially Houston, where the Rockets are wary of the luxury tax.

Predictably, a veteran signing with bad team for a quick paycheck turned out poorly. The Suns traded Ariza to the Wizards essentially as soon as he became eligible to be dealt.

Duane Rankin of azcentral:

According to league sources, this was a “mutual” decision between Ariza and the Suns.

Ariza checked out mentally early in the season, according to sources. After practices would ended, he’d leave before everyone else, when that’s usually an opportunity to bond.

He’d break from the team huddle before his teammates and wasn’t engaged.

Signing Ariza to that contract was always part of a bad plan. He didn’t put the Suns over the top, and that money could have gone to a player with a future in Phoenix.

Sure, it would have been nice for Ariza to lead and mentor more. He could have served as a better example for the young Suns.

But it’s not easy to go from the peak of competition to a quickly lost season. Ariza’s misery was predictable and understandable.

It spread to the court, too. He’s having arguably the worst season of his career.

Washington hopes Ariza will play better there. He’s better cast as a glue guy on a good team.

However, it’s unclear whether Ariza will actually be rejuvenated by the Wizards, who’ve been stuck in their own turmoil. There’s also risk Ariza, 33, has declined due to age in ways that won’t simply reverse in a better environment.

At least he ends his depressing Phoenix chapter. This will be the lasting scene of his time there. Gina Mizell of The Athletic: