ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers

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Last season: For the first few months of the season, the Blazers had the best record in the Western Conference, something nobody saw coming. They cooled off a bit after that hot start but still finished 54-28, good for the fifth seed. Damian Lillard made his first All-Star team, LaMarcus Aldridge made his third straight, the addition of Robin Lopez gave them the rim protector they had sorely needed, and starters Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews had solid years. They beat the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets in six games in the first round, their first playoff series win since 2000.

Signature highlight from last season: Try “Signature highlight of the franchise’s existence.” Lillard’s buzzer-beating three to give Portland its first postseason series win in 14 years wasn’t just the defining moment of the Blazers’ season, it was one of the greatest shots in playoff history, period.

Key player changes: With no draft picks and no significant cap space, the Blazers had a quiet offseason. They let backup point guard Mo Williams walk and signed Steve Blake and Chris Kaman. Not the flashiest pickups in the world, but both are veterans who fill positions of need off the bench.

Keys to the Blazers’ season:

Will the streak of good health continue? Just about everything broke right for Portland last season, injury-wise. Aldridge missed a couple weeks with a back injury, but other than that, the Lillard-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge-Lopez starting five was stable and productive. It’s a lot easier for head coach Terry Stotts to tinker with the bench rotation when the starters are as locked-in as they were. Two straight years of that kind of stability is a lot to ask.

How much will the young guys improve? Since the Blazers are bringing back essentially the same team they had last season, their best hope for improvement is in some of their younger bench players.  Will Barton was one of the few bright spots in the Blazers’ second-round loss to the Spurs. Rookie C.J. McCollum missed the first three months of the season with a broken foot and never really cracked the rotation when he returned. Meyers Leonard still hasn’t proven he’s an NBA player. Last year’s starters played the second-most minutes of any five-man unit in the league (1,373) and their next-most used unit played just 119 minutes. As good as their starters are, somebody is going to get banged up or get into foul trouble at some point, and at least a couple of that group of young players needs to step up as a reliable contributor night-to-night to take some of that pressure off.

Can the defense improve? The Blazers have a top-five offense (108.3 points per 100 possessions) and plenty of scoring firepower, but if they want to jump from fringe contender to actual title threat, they need to improve on the other side of the ball. This improvement, like their overall bench play, also needs to come from within after a quiet offseason. They have the raw tools for a good defense, but they lack consistency on that end. That needs to change, and it should in this core’s second year together.

Why you should watch the Blazers: They’ve got one of the fastest-rising stars in the game in Lillard, a cold-blooded shooter who thrives in big moments. Aldridge is at least in the conversation for best power forward in the league, a reliable, versatile presence who can score in the post and from midrange. Stotts’ offense is heavy on shooters and extremely tough to guard when things are clicking.

Prediction: 50-32. Nobody saw Portland winning 54 games last year, and that number was at least partially due to a soft early schedule and an unsustainable record in close games. But even if they don’t finish as high in the Western Conference standings as they did last season, this is still a playoff team, and a very good one.

Report: NBA executives expect busy in-season trade market

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For the first time in years, the NBA feels wide open — more than 10 NBA front offices think they have a shot at an NBA title next season (a few of them are delusional about that, but they believe). It’s one of the reasons we saw such an aggressive trade market last summer, teams thought they had an opening so the Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Lakers (Anthony Davis), Nets (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant), Houston Rockets (Russell Westbrook), and others were aggressive on the free agent and trade markets to land stars.

Expect that aggressive mindset to carry over to the in-season trade market.

That’s what executives have been telling Sean Deveney of Heavy.com.

“We’ve been getting calls all summer,” one general manager told Heavy.com. “There are a lot of things we are considering. The dust settles a little, you’re aware of your weaknesses and your holes and so you find ways to address that. I think we’re going to see more of that than usual. I think if you look at the market, there is going to be a very brisk trade market this winter for a few reasons.”…

Chief among those reasons is a sense that next spring’s Larry O’Brien trophy is up for grabs, a feeling that took hold during last year’s Finals when Kevin Durant of the Warriors ruptured his Achilles tendon and crystallized when Golden State lost to Toronto, then saw Durant sign with the Nets as a free agent…

The other big driver of the trade market this season figures to be the open, empty crater that the 2020 free-agent class has become. Teams hoping to make significant changes in their direction won’t have free agency to lean on. Trades will be the way to go.

The lack of a decent free agent class in 2020 is why teams are still eyeing and calling Washington about Bradley Beal (and those calls continue to be rejected, Washington is not interested as of now and Beal himself wants to stay because he wants to qualify for the $250 million supermax contract and only the Wizards can give it to him). The only big 2020 free agent is Anthony Davis and nobody around the league thinks he’s leaving the Lakers and LeBron James after all he did to get there. After that, the biggest unrestricted names are Kyle Lowry, Andre Drummond (player option), DeMar DeRozan (player option), Danilo Gallinari, and Goran Dragic. There are restricted free agents such as Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown, but they will be expensive to steal away.

With high expectations in a lot of front offices after last summer, when the reality of the season hits and holes in the roster are exposed — or injuries create new ones — teams are going to make moves to fill them. Trade rumors are going to fly around the league and the rumor mill will continue to be on full tilt, something fans love but the league is wary about. Owners and NBA league execs don’t like the focus on player movement being bigger than the games themselves, in part because the games are where the money is made, the teams don’t cash in from trade rumors. Put simply, winning Twitter doesn’t put money in an owner’s pocket.

That’s not going to stop the rumors, expect them to be flying again all season long.

Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball reportedly working out with no restrictions in NOLA

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a bright future ahead of them. This season will be the first for No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, and the team is expected to be a playoff contender thanks to a solid young core and proven veterans like Jrue Holiday.

But one of the things that could hold the Pelicans back? Health.

Both Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball — two of the cornerstone pieces sent over in the Anthony Davis trade with the Los Angeles Lakers — have battled various ailments. Ingram had a blood clot that knocked him out in March. Ball had been dealing with an ankle injury for most of 2019.

A team with this many fresh faces will need as much time together as they can get, and so it’s good news that both Ingram and Ball are reportedly getting some run in recent practices.

Via ESPN:

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram and guard Lonzo Ball have been full participants in the team’s voluntary offseason workouts in New Orleans, a source told ESPN on Tuesday.

Neither player has been restricted by the injuries that shut them down last season while members of the Los Angeles Lakers, representing a significant step with training camp around the corner on Oct. 1.

New Orleans is expected to be a challenger in the Western Conference, which has been weakened by the departure of Kevin Durant (and the injury to Klay Thompson) in the Bay Area. Yes, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George represent a formidable force for the Los Angeles Clippers, but the parity in the Western Conference should allow a team like the Pelicans to make some noise.

If his team can get healthy and find some rhythm, it might be a quick turnaround for David Griffin after losing Davis via trade not so long ago.

Joel Embiid says he’s lost 25 pounds this summer (VIDEO)

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The big knock against Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid was that he just wasn’t in shape enough to play NBA basketball. Several times down the stretch last year, and Embiid couldn’t be relied upon to play from a conditioning standpoint.

But all that might be about to change.

In a recent video posted to social media, Embiid could be seen eating extremely hot chip as part of a marketing campaign. As Embiid gulped down the fiery junk food, he mentioned that he had actually lost 25 pounds over this summer.

“This summer I lost about 25 pounds,” said Embiid as he struggled to deal with the heat from the Carolina Reaper-laced chip by gulping down glasses of milk. “I’m about to put it back on with this milk.”

That’s a huge bit of news for Sixers fans who have derided Embiid’s lack of willpower when it has come to his diet. The Cameroonian center famously loved Shirley Temple’s, and there have been stories of him eating huge amounts of Chik-fil-A and up to four milkshakes in one sitting.

A thinner, slimmer Embiid should not only take some weight off of his knees and ankles, but it might also allow Brett Brown to keep his best player in the game for longer stretches in important situations.

Summer in the NBA is rife with news of #musclewatch, but for now here’s hoping that Embiid can keep the weight off. Keep counting those calories, my dude.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.