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: Tobias Harris won’t play for Team USA in World Cup, either

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The theoretical lineup of players who’ve withdrawn from consideration for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup roster just gained frontcourt depth.

So far, we had:

Add Tobias Harris.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Harris is a real loss. He’s a good player whose ability to blend with other good players – as he showed with the 76ers last season – would’ve made him particularly helpful on Team USA.

The Americans still have other forwards available – Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma, Paul Millsap, P.J. Tucker. But none match Harris’ combination of talent and frontcourt versatility.

USA Basketball is down to just 14 players for its training camp next month:

The U.S. almost must add more players to the pool.

Wizards: We’ll offer Bradley Beal max contract extension, won’t trade him if he rejects it

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The Wizards will offer Bradley Beal a max contract extension when he’s eligible Friday, new general manager Tommy Sheppard confirmed to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Washington will give Beal his choice of length. The maxes:

  • One year, $34,502,129
  • Two years, $71,764,428
  • Three years, $111,786,897

But that’s less each season than Beal could get by playing out his current contract then re-signing. It’s even less each season than Beal could get by playing out his current contract then leaving. And it’s way less than Beal could get if he becomes eligible for a super-max deal (either an extension next offseason or re-signing in 2021) if he makes an All-NBA team either of the next two seasons.

Here are Beal’s max salaries on an extension and projected max salaries on a new contract:

Season Extension now Re-sign Leave Super-max*
2021-22 $34,502,129 $38M $38M $44M
2022-23 $37,262,299 $41M $39M $47M
2023-24 $40,022,469 $44M $41M $51M
2024-25 $111,786,897 $47M $54M
2025-26 $50M $58M
Total $111,786,897 $218M $118M $25M
Average $37,262,299 $44M $39M $51M

*Beal’s super-max amounts would be the same on an extension next offseason or fresh contract the following year.

So, it’s hard to see Beal accepting an extension.

He’d get financial security. There’s always risk in waiting – injury, unexpected decline or something else.

But Beal is so talented and just 26. The NBA is also short on quality shooting guards. He’s in tremendous position to secure a max contract in 2021 free agency.

So, how will the Wizards react if Beal doesn’t sign right now?

Wojnarowski:

If Beal passes on the extension, the Wizards have no plans to engage in trade talks with two years, $55.8 million left on his contract, Sheppard said.

“He’s got two years left on his deal, and he’s from Missouri and we are going to have to show him,” Sheppard told ESPN. “We need to show him that we are about building this the right way, that we aren’t going to have character-deficient guys around him. We are going to surround him with guys he wants to play with. He saw that right away in free agency with us bringing back Thomas Bryant.”

They’re really going to pitch him on playing with Thomas Bryant. Thomas Bryant! And I like Thomas Bryant. He was a breath of fresh air for the Wizards last season, and they re-signed him for $25 million over three years. But he’s also still just Thomas Bryant.

The NBA is full of star duos. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant?

That’s supposed to tempt Beal to stay in Washington?

The Wizards will likely be bad next year. John Wall could miss the entire season, and his huge salary encumbered Washington’s ability to add other players. Beal has touted his loyalty to the Wizards. But after living through what will likely be a miserable season, how will he feel about Washington then?

Beal said the Wizards told him they wouldn’t trade him. Sheppard has now gone public with that message.

But Washington also pledged not to trade Otto Porter then dealt him to the Bulls a week later. Plans change. Sometimes, there’s posturing for negotiating position.

There’s still plenty left to unfold. Beal isn’t even yet eligible for an extension. Maybe he’ll shock me and sign one this summer.

If not, the Wizards likely face an uphill battle for keeping him happy enough to stay in 2021 free agency.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard’s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, asked teams for guaranteed sponsorship money

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Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers won the offseason.

Leonard got a max contract to play in Southern California, where he grew up and clearly wanted to return. He’ll also be joined by his desired co-star, Paul George.

The Clippers get both stars and early status as championship favorite.

But the process has left some bitterness with the teams that didn’t get Leonard.

The Raptors have spread word Leonard’s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, made unreasonable requests. The Lakers reportedly feel they got played in their Leonard pursuit.

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

This is me putting on my reporter’s hat here. People in NBA circles are talking about this right now. Allegedly, the uncle, Uncle Dennis, was asking for a lot of stuff from the other teams. Houses, planes, sponsorship, guaranteed sponsorship money, just as an example. They’re throwing this stuff out there.

I have no idea whether this is true or not. I’m not trying to cast any aspersions on Uncle Dennis. But people in NBA circles are talking about this as we speak.

This chatter is designed to make both Robertson and the Clippers look bad.

Robertson is painted as greedy and preposterous. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits teams from providing players with those types of special benefits. In fact, a team arranging a sponsorship for its player is specifically listed as salary-cap circumvention.

Still, I don’t have a huge problem with Robertson asking. There have been numerous suspicions of under-the-table payments. If that happens regularly, of course Leonard should want his cut. If that’s not really something that happens, it’s on the teams to say no.

But did teams say no?

This raises questions about what the Clippers did to lure Leonard. They reportedly looked into acquiring his logo from Nike so they could gift it to him contingent on him signing. (That didn’t happen, and lawsuits between Leonard and Nike are pending). They also previously got fined for arranging a sponsorship for DeAndre Jordan when he was a free agent.

If there’s credible suspicion or even just accusations from other teams, the NBA should investigate. But people should put their names behinds their accusations – at the very least to the league.

Without that, this just looks like sour grapes.

Bradley Beal not playing for Team USA in World Cup

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How would this lineup fare in the 2019 FIBA World Cup?

Though undersized, that unit has a ton of talent. With even an average bench, that group could medal.

It’s a tribute to the United States’ depth of talent.

Those five players have all reversed plans to attend USA Basketball’s training camp next month. Beal is the latest to withdraw.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal has pulled out of playing with Team USA in the World Cup this summer, agent Mark Bartelstein told ESPN.

Beal is awaiting the birth of his second son during World Cup preparation and competition, which led to the decision.

That’s a joyous reason for Beal not to play.

It also leaves the Americans in a bind. They’re down to just 15 players listed as in consideration for the World Cup roster:

And Lowry is dealing with a thumb injury.

Donovan Mitchell is the only shooting guard on that list. Beal, McCollum and Gordon pulling out zapped the depth at that position. Team USA can use two-point guard lineups or play bigger wings like Khris Middleton at the two. But I wouldn’t be surprised if more players get added to the training-camp roster.