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

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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.

Report: G-League considering tournament including select team of top draft prospects

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There is not going to be a G-League Showcase in Las Vegas right before Christmas. At least not in the traditional sense.

However, the G-League reportedly is considering a tournament-style showcase event while the NBA will be between seasons. This tournament would include the Ignite select team of highly-touted draft prospects getting paid, skipping college, and spending a season working on their game. All that according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The key line here: Decisions are fluid.

The 2020 NBA Draft is Nov. 18. After that, nothing is set in stone; there is no official start date for free agency and no date for the start of next season (although the buzz around the league continues to say February, maybe even March). This G-League tournament would be a way to show off players to general managers/scouts/executives, which means it needs to occur when those people can attend. Until more of the schedule is set, nobody is sure when that will be.

The Ignite team, which will train in Northern California (Walnut Park), is stacked with a number of potential high picks — including Daishen Nix, Jonathan Kuminga, and Jalen Green — and they will be coached by former NBA player/coach Brian Shaw. No doubt the G-League would like to give them and others a chance to shine, but the coronavirus will make finding the right time a challenge. Then the league has to create a bubble again. It’s not cheap or easy.

That said, it could happen. Keep an eye out.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.