ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers

4 Comments

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.

Kawhi Leonard dunks on Luka Doncic, scores 36 to spark Clippers win

Leave a comment

DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Mavericks brought back one big man but lost another Tuesday night, and in the end, they couldn’t rein in the reigning Finals MVP.

Kawhi Leonard scored 36 points, Landry Shamet hit two clutch 3-pointers late and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-107 Tuesday night for their fourth straight win.

Leonard also had the dunk of the night going right over Luka Doncic.

Dallas ended a four-game winning streak, and more importantly, lost a key piece in center Dwight Powell just as they welcomed back Kristaps Porzingis.

Powell went down to a non-contact, right Achilles tendon injury in the first quarter, and though he will have an MRI on Wednesday, the team is fearing a worst-case scenario.

“Guys like him define the culture we want here,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “It doesn’t get much tougher than this, if it ends up being what we fear it might.”

Luka Doncic had 36 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists for Dallas. He scored 24 points in the second half to help rally the Mavericks after they trailed by double digits from late in the second quarter through most of the third.

Shamet helped the Clippers seize the game late in the fourth quarter. His 3 from the left wing to give Los Angeles a 100-98 lead with 2:48 to play. Montrezl Harrell added two free throws, then Shamet sank another 3 from straight-on to put the Clippers up by seven. He finished with 18 points.

“We just kind of found a way to win,” Shamet said. “We’d loved to keep that lead the whole game, but that’s not how it’s going to be. It’s a long season. We got to find different ways how to win like we did tonight.”

Leonard added 11 in the fourth quarter, including his only 3 of the game with 1:15 left, which put the Clippers up 108-100.

But Dallas rallied, as Doncic hit a 3 and Maxi Kleber a dunk. After a Clippers turnover, Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s potential tying 3 spun around and out. JaMychal Green missed two free throws for LA, but then Doncic missed two – the second intentionally – and Leonard sealed it with two free throws.

 

Pelicans reportedly “really pulled back in trade talks” to focus on playoff push

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three-and-a-half games.

Despite an injury-riddled 17-27 first half of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans are just three-and-a-half games out of the playoffs in a surprisingly soft bottom of the Western Conference.

Combine that with the team going 11-5 in their last 16 games, plus getting Zion Williamson in the lineup starting Wednesday, and the Pelicans have gone from sellers at the trade deadline to a team standing pat and planning to make a playoff push, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Around the G-League showcase just before Christmas (when league executives gathered in Las Vegas) there was a lot of buzz about the Pelicans trading point guard Jrue Holiday or big man Derrick Favors to help with their rebuild around Williamson. However, the recent hot streak and the emergence of Brandon Ingram as an All-Star level player has the Pelicans reconsidering their plans.

Memphis sits in the eighth seed in the West and has played well of late (8-2 in its last 10) behind the emergence of Ja Morant. However, New Orleans, San Antonio, Phoneix, and Sacramento have all shown flashes in recent weeks and could make a run at the final playoff spot in the conference (or higher if some team fades from the pack). Every one of those teams is trying to decide whether to make trades for young players/picks at the deadline or make a playoff push (Portland is the one team that could do both because they will get Jusuf Nurkick, Zach Collins, and CJ McCollum back from injury).

David Griffin, the man with the hammer inside the Pelicans organization, has until the Feb. 6 trade deadline to decide whether to go for the playoffs or make trades looking for guys on Zion’s timeline. How the team looks in the next couple of weeks with Williamson back will play a big factor in that call.

Dallas’ Dwight Powell leaves game with Achilles injury and it looks bad (VIDEO)

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

This looks bad.

Hopefully it’s not what it looked like, but Dallas’ big man and critical role player Dwight Powell went down in the first half against the Clippers with a non-contact leg injury and will not return to the game with what the team is calling a right Achilles injury.

Here is a video of Powell going down as he plants to drive the lane; if you are at all squeamish this would be one to skip.

That looks a lot like a torn Achilles. Medical tests likely will confirm that tomorrow.

Powell is starting at center for the Mavericks, giving them 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game, more importantly bringing toughness and doing the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Powell has become an important part of what is working in Dallas.

If this is a torn Achilles Powell is done for the season. This will ultimately mean more run for Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, plus it could send Dallas out into the market looking for another big man before the trade deadline.

Friends, family, former teammates of Delonte West trying to him find his way

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The conversation among Delonte West’s friends, family, and former teammates will sound familiar to people who have sat in living rooms or around dinner tables around the nation trying to find ways to help a friend or family member battling mental illness.

They offer help in a variety of ways — money, housing, a path to medical assistance through doctors — but can be frustrated at every turn as those steps fail to help.

West has been out of the league for seven seasons, but his challenges with bipolar disorder — something he announced he had during his playing days — have not ended. Last weekend, a disturbing video of West being attacked and beaten on a Washington D.C. street surfaced. It was followed by a second video showing West handcuffed and talking to the police, where West used graphic and disturbing language to accuse another man of pulling a gun on him. Legally, nothing came of the incident.

However, it showed how much West continues to struggle. A lot of people from the NBA family have tried to help West, but have been frustrated by the results, something Shams Charania wrote about at The Athletic.

Professional basketball allowed West to have structure in his life, to have a level of stability. According to those close to him, that has gone by the wayside since he exited the NBA…

Former teammate Jameer Nelson is one of many people who have witnessed West’s post-career distress and offered help. The National Basketball Players Association has maintained close contact with West and made itself available as a resource. His college coach at Saint Joseph, Phil Martelli, and West’s former player agent, Noah Croom, have been in communication with each other — and West — about providing him support. The same can be said for the Celtics and Mavericks. Both Boston GM Danny Ainge and Dallas owner Mark Cuban have been in direct contact at various points, according to those close to West.  They all want him to find his place in life, and they want to be a helping hand when needed.

The NBPA helped facilitate his residence change from Dallas to Maryland in recent years and extensively supported him financially, as recently as this month, according to sources. Ainge and the Celtics have given him a scouting job to scout games in the D.C. and East Coast area, sources said, but West has had mixed results due to fluctuating attendance. His close friends and family have all stepped in whenever they could.

As has happened with so many families around the nation, all that support and love has not been enough, it has not had the desired impact.

Nelson, West’s former St. Joseph’s teammate, posted this on Twitter over the weekend:

Delonte West announced he had bipolar disorder back in 2008, during his eight-season NBA career — a career that was cut short in part by a series of actions and lack of reliability (from teams’ perspectives) likely tied to his condition.

There is no shortage of love and concern for West, and there are a lot of people who want to help. How to help, and if he will accept that help, are very different questions. Ones a lot of people can relate to.