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.

Ben Simmons reps ‘Egg Boy’ on shoes (PHOTO)

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The internet has tried to raise several thousand dollars for Will Connolly, better known as “Egg Boy”, after he slapped an egg on the head of New Zealand senator Fraser Annig. As of publication, the Go Fund Me has more than $71,000, which will be donated to the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings.

Connolly went viral as the perfect, realtime response to the racist views espoused by Annig, who spoke of anti-immigrant (and anti-Muslim) rhetoric directly following the Christchurch massacre despite himself being an immigrant to New Zealand.

Thanks to his courageous act, Connolly has become a kind of internet sensation. A native of Australia, Connolly got a little recognition by countryman Ben Simmons on Tuesday.

Via Twitter:

Gen Z is going to save us.

Report: Markelle Fultz is moving rehab from L.A. to Orlando

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Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has already said that former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz is not expected back on the court this season. Fultz was traded back in February from the Philadelphia 76ers to his new home in Central Florida.

Now it appears that Fultz will be doing his rehabilitation back in Orlando. According to a recent report from Josh Robbins, Fultz will shift his rehab from Los Angeles to Florida from here on out. To that end, Fultz said he wants to be closer to his new teammates.

Via The Athletic:

“I think it’s what’s best for me and the team,” Fultz said after he watched practice Tuesday. “(It’s beneficial) just being around these guys, so they see my face and I see their face. I’m going to learn as much as I can. As we make this push for the playoffs, I want to be here with my guys and just support them.”

Fultz is still trying to get his shoulder right, and not to mention his shooting stroke and comfortability on an NBA floor. If anything, his return back to the Magic organization should be seen as a good sign, especially as the season comes to a close. A lot of players already spend their offseason in Los Angeles, so the idea that Fultz would want to return shortly before the Magic season ends is encouraging.

We don’t have a timeline for his return just yet, but at this point Fultz is a reclamation project that Orlando is happy to have under their guidance. If they can turn him into an NBA player, they could have something special at a relatively low asset cost.

Report: Doc Rivers agrees to an extension with Clippers

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Doc Rivers will be staying with the Los Angeles Clippers.

According to multiple reports, Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer have agreed to an extension that will keep Rivers with the Clippers organization “long term”.  Some earlier rumors had Rivers potentially being a candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers, who are presumed to have an opening this summer. But Rivers told reporters on Tuesday that he isn’t going to be heading across the hall, and that he’s happy where he is.

Via Twitter:

Rivers has led the Clippers to a surprising season, one that should result in a postseason bid despite a sort of ramshackle roster.

I think Rivers’ legacy was called into question following the departure of both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but his ability to create a winning atmosphere in L.A. in a post-star era for the Clippers is a testament to his ability.

Of course, Rivers might not have to go without a star for too long. Rumor has it Kawhi Leonard still favors the Clippers as a top destination this summer should he choose to leave the Toronto Raptors.

A fan paid nearly $7,000 to see LeBron and Giannis, then got neither

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March in the NBA can be a bit of a gamble for fans looking to score tickets as a means to watch their favorite players play. On good teams or bad, stars are subject to rest this late in the season.

Apparently one fan found that out the hard way after shelling out several thousands of dollars to see Giannis Antetokounmpo square off against LeBron James on Tuesday.

With the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers set to go head-to-head in Wisconsin, neither Antetokounmpo or LeBron will be on the floor. That’s going to upset one fan who, according to Darren Rovell, paid $6,970.50 for courtside seats.

I had a friend have this happen to him recently. Expecting a trip to New Orleans, he purchased tickets to watch the Pelicans play the Portland Trail Blazers earlier in the year. His tickets were for several rows behind the Blazers bench, and although they weren’t too expensive, no doubt they would have left wallet a bit thicker if he would have known that Anthony Davis would not have been playing.

Stay home, watch the game on your 4K television, and have a private bathroom and fridge. I know I shouldn’t tell you not to go to NBA games, but at least this wouldn’t happen to you if you stayed home.