Lillard, Aldridge are nice, but Portland’s improved defense makes them contender

7 Comments

LOS ANGELES — When people think of why Portland is a dangerous team in the Western Conference, some obvious reasons leap out at you.

“They’ve got a great point guard, a great power forward, great role players, they are very unselfish, they space the floor and make you work on defense,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said recently.

And he’s right — Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are one of the better one-two punches in the league. The Blazers have a team of solid NBA veterans who buy into the system and with that they have the eighth-ranked offense in the NBA. On offense the Blazers are a sexy team to watch — especially when Lillard takes over a game late with his explosive drives and long-range threes.

But that’s not the end of the floor that makes them contenders.

Two seasons ago, the Portland Trail Blazers finished the season 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Last season the Blazers made strides up the Western Conference ladder in large part because their defense improved, up to 16th in the NBA.

This season they are third in the NBA so far, allowing just 98.7 points per 100 possessions.

The Traill Blazers have become a good defensive team. And that makes them a serious contender in the loaded Western Conference.

“I think it’s been a two-year process,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said of the effort to remake the defense. “I thought what we did last year going from 26 to, whatever it was, 16, it was conservative (philosophy). It wasn’t anything revolutionary.

“Some of it was personnel, obviously, but some of it was we changed our focus, we didn’t extend. My first year we got out and showed on pick-and-rolls, we tried to be athletic. We are much more conservative in our approach to the pick-and-roll. I thought we made good progress last year and this year the focus was on not allowing as many shots at the rim while still taking away the three. Our weak side needed to be better, and I think our defensive rebounding has been better both years.”

Part of it was personnel. The Blazers have Wesley Matthews out on the perimeter as a physical and tough defender, plus they have the length of Nicolas Batum. Most important was the addition last season of the intelligent paint defense of Robin Lopez (who is currently out with broken hand until around the All-Star break). Then it became a culture — Lillard has a bad defensive reputation but he puts in the effort (Lillard’s size can hurt him defensively and he can get rubbed of his man on a screen a little too easily, but he’s game on that end).

The Blazers system isn’t rocket science — they want to take away the most efficient shots on the court, particularly threes, and force teams more into the midrange.

“Their system defensively is to make sure you don’t get threes,” the Lakers’ Scott said. “They do a hell of a job just running you off the threes, they want you to take twos. They’re one of the best in the league at doing that.”

This season teams average 17.5 three point attempts a game against Portland, second fewest in the league, and they shoot just 28.7 percent on those, the lowest percentage in the league. More specifically, teams shoot a league low 30.4 percent on corner threes against the Blazers — that’s the efficient spot that the Spurs and other teams target. Above the break teams are shooting just 28.4 percent from three against the Blazers, also a league low.

That’s a step forward, last season the Blazers were 11th in opponent three point percentage. Two seasons ago when the Blazers used Aldridge’s athleticism to show out on picks they did a good job at the arc but it left the paint exposed and they paid that price. Now, they have Lopez and a new defensive philosophy.

This season Blazers’ opponents are getting shots in close — Portland is allowing 28.6 shots in the restricted area a game on average, top 10 in the league — but they aren’t making them, hitting just 57.9 percent, sixth lowest percentage allowed in the league.

With the size of Aldridge and Lopez in the paint, the Blazers pick-and-roll defense has the big stay back and take away the penetration of the guard coming off the screen. Then, if said ball handler has three-point range, the Blazers’ guard usually tries to fight over the pick and take away the deep ball. Again the goal is simple — force the other team into the midrange for their shot. It’s something they are doing well this season.

“We played back last year too, but I think our weak side has gotten better,” Aldridge said. “I think just having a couple years in this system of guys just learning where to be has been great for us, too.”

Stotts likes what he sees so far, but he also knows it’s January — if the Blazers are playing in late April exactly the way they are playing now it will not be good enough. It’s about the process of improving.

“I send out quotes to our guys every day and the last two or three have been about the process,” Stotts said. “It’s not result oriented. I think that’s one thing we’ve done a good job at is staying in the moment and doing the things that are fundamental to us within the foundation of what we’ve created defensively, and trusting ourselves offensively. I think we all realize that we’re not even halfway through the season and it’s all those things that are going to pay dividends in May and June.”

May and June are when teams that advance to the second round of the playoffs and beyond are still playing. That’s where Portland sees itself — to a man every player on this roster believes they can contend for a title.

With this defense, they are right.

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
Adam Hunger/Getty Images
0 Comments

Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
Al Bello/Getty Images
0 Comments

Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
0 Comments

Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.