51 Q: Which team takes biggest step back this season?

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51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

WHICH TEAM WILL TAKE THE BIGGEST STEP BACK THIS SEASON?

Kurt Helin: Portland Trail Blazers

Portland is the clear and obvious choice — they lost or traded LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Nicolas Batum. That’s four starters out the door (plus guys like Arron Afflalo), and the guys they brought in are not of the same quality — many are not good jump shooters. When Aldridge chose to take his talents to San Antonio, the Blazers wisely decided to rebuild — and it’s a lot easier to rebuild when you start with a piece like Damian Lillard. But it’s going to be a process, at times a painful one. What they do offensively now must change — they loved the pick-and-pop with Aldridge, but now their big guys can’t shoot with range, so they are going to roll and that will draw defenders into the paint, meaning things will get clogged. It’s going to be a rough season in Portland.

One team that will push Portland for the crown? The Atlanta Hawks. They won 60 games last season and I expect a healthy step back for a few reasons: 1) They weren’t as good as their record last year, they had the point differential of a 56-win team; 2) They are going to miss DeMarre Carroll on the wing, especially with Thabo Sefolosha still trying to come back from injury; 3) Last season in the regular season they were fortunate to be largely healthy, odds say they will not be that lucky again. The Hawks are still a quality playoff team, they made some quality pickups in the offseason such as Tiago Splitter, but they will fall back to reality this season.


Dan Feldman: Portland Trail Blazers

Portland — largely by design, once LaMarcus Aldridge left — has chosen to take a step back. And it should be a large step. The Trail Blazers SLUMPED to a 51-31 finish last season. When everyone was healthy, they at least belonged in the championship-contender conversation. Now, it’d be a minor miracle if they won 51 games, let alone seriously enter the playoff race. They let Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo walk in free agency, and they traded Nicolas Batum. That’s just too much attrition from a team that values continuity, especially when the replacements are so young and unproven. I like what the Trail Blazers are doing. I just don’t expect them to win much this season.

Sean Highkin: Boston Celtics

Boston was the surprise of the second half of last season, going 20-11 after the All-Star break and sneaking into the playoffs as the seventh seed. It’s to Brad Stevens’ enormous credit that this roster of mostly spare parts played as well as it did down the stretch. And none of the moves they made this summer were bad, per se — it’s just hard to see where they got definitively better, at least to the point where they can definitely be penciled in as a definite playoff team. They re-signed Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko to good value contracts and signed Amir Johnson to fortify the paint, but they still lack an identity beyond “scrappy overachievers.” They have four point guards now, and none of them (save for maybe Marcus Smart) are the clear long-term answer. Danny Ainge is still waiting for the day when the years of asset collecting translate into a star. It’s certainly not anybody on this roster, which is full of players who are the fourth or fifth-best player on a good team. Boston should be right around where they were last season: in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the East, but without a clear path forward.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he learned from Kawhi Leonard: “He was calm”

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Milwaukee was up 2-0 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals on Toronto, having won those games by an average of 15 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had scored 54 points, pulled down 31 rebounds, dished out 11 assists, and was looking every bit the MVP.

Then the games shifted to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard took over — including guarding Antetokounmpo more — and the Raptors rattled off four straight wins to take the series on their way to the NBA title. The Greek Freak still averaged 20.4 points a night in those final four games, but the buckets were much harder to come by.

Milwaukee returns this season as the Eastern Conference favorites and legit title contenders, in part because of what they learned from that loss. Antetokounmpo told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports he learned a lot directly from Leonard in that series.

“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”

Leonard is the living embodiment of the old John Wooden axiom “be quick, don’t hurry.” He’s not rushed, he’s rarely forced into shots he doesn’t want to take or plays he doesn’t want to make.  That’s true of all champions on some level. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan all bring an inner calm.

If Antetokounmpo brings that to his game, the Bucks are one big step closer to a title.

Domantas Sabonis on trade rumors: ‘I know exactly how the Pacers feel about me now’

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The Indiana Pacers have started to explore the trade market for Domantas Sabonis. There are logical reasons for this: Sabonis is good (he was second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season), yet he and the Pacers are nowhere near agreement on a contract extension, and the Pacers already paid big money for Myles Turner to be their center, how much do they want to pay Sabonis, too?

That’s sound logic if you’re in the Pacers’ front office.

If you’re Sabonis, it can feel like a slap in the face to a guy who put in a lot of sweat and passion for the franchise. That’s what Sabonis sounded like in this quote, via Scott Agnes of The Athletic.

The Pacers are not talking about the report, which started with the well connected and reliable Sam Amick at The Athletic.

Pacers’ brass needs to talk about this with Sabonis (and likely already have, behind closed doors). If the Pacers trade him, it’s likely not until after Dec. 15 at the earliest (when most players signed this summer can be included in a deal) and probably closer to the February trade deadline. That’s a lot of season to play out, and Sabonis remains a vital part of the Indiana rotation.

There is likely to be a lot of interest in Sabonis on the market. However, because he’s a center (a position teams are careful not to overspend on in today’s market) and in the last year of his rookie deal — meaning he becomes a restricted free agent next summer and gets more expensive — teams are not going to overpay for him. Right now the Pacers are asking for too much and interested teams are lowballing their offers. The sides will meet in the middle.

That middle could shift if Sabonis has a rough start to the season. Both sides need him to play well and feel comfortable, whatever is going on with the business side of his contract.

Raptors, Pascal Siakam reportedly agree to four-year, $129.9 million max contract extension

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Pascal Siakam is going to be the face of the Toronto Raptors going forward.

This was expected. Toronto was never going to let its young star slip away; the only questions were when it a contract extension got done and the price.

The answers came Saturday, with the Raptors and Siakam’s agents reaching terms on what will be a four-year, $129.9 million max extension for the reigning Most Improved Player. Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN broke the news.

There are no player or team options, this is a straight four years.

Last season, his third in the league, Siakam made a huge leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, took on a larger role as a shot creator, played impressive wing defense, and was a key part of the Raptors winning the first title in franchise history. He is at the heart of their future and a guy the Raptors wanted to keep through whatever rebuilding/retooling process comes in the next few years.

The Raptors could have played it out, and let Siakam go to restricted free agency next summer. However, in what will be a down free agent market, some team would have tried to poach the young wing — a real position of need around the league — with a max offer. The Raptors would have matched, but all that drama might have created bad blood. Maybe the Raptors overpaid a little, but they get to keep their guy and have him happy.

Siakam is the third player to get a max extension to their rookie contract this summer. Both Ben Simmons (Philadelphia) and Jamal Murray (Denver) signed five-year, $170 million max extensions. Siakam decided to take one year fewer, but also hits free agency again a little earlier.

Chinese state media says Adam Silver will face retribution for ‘defaming’ China

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Adam Silver has worked to portray the NBA as a progressive league that favored free speech. However, when push came to shove in a conflict with China over a Tweet from Rockets GM Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong, Silver’s first statement seemed to protect the status quo and the cash the world’s largest nation generates for the NBA.

That backfired, and Silver came out with a stronger second statement that backed Morey’s right to free speech. Since then, the league has worked to emphasize that position.

In an interview at a TIME Magazine event this week, Silver added to that sentiment saying China asked for Morey to be fired and the league said no. “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business. We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

The Chinese government denied this, and now Chinese State media is saying there will be retribution for Silver. From the South China Morning Post:

Chinese state media has warned that NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution” for defaming China in the latest twist to a dispute that began with a basketball team executive tweeting his support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong…

“Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong,” it said. “This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.”

Silver’s handling of the controversy had proved his “double standards”, the broadcaster said, adding that he had “defamed” China on the international stage.

“To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving,” it said.

Silver didn’t fabricate this. We’re all smart enough to know how this went down: Chinese officials would never outright say “you need to fire Morey” but they could strongly imply it with words and actions. Silver’s phrasing on this — that it was “made clear that we were being asked to fire him” — suggests precisely this scenario. It’s how people with power ask for something unethical or illegal, whether we’re talking mob bosses or politicians, the ask is strongly implied but not direct, allowing denial later.

China wanted its pound of flesh, maybe to fire Morey but at least a public rebuke and fine/suspension. They got none of it. Now they can use Silver’s comment — clearly aimed at the domestic market to bolster the NBA’s image in the US — to cause a little more pain. China has shown it can hit the NBA’s bottom line, it flexed its muscle, but how far does either side really want it to progress?

As we have been saying all along, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It may fade from the spotlight, but the NBA/China relationship is a story that will be a cloud over this entire season.