51 Q: Beyond Lillard, who steps up for Blazers?

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ outlook changed in a hurry this summer. They went from a 51-win team that looked like a legitimate contender in the Western Conference before a season-ending Achilles injury to Wesley Matthews, to losing four of five starters (including LaMarcus Aldridge) in the offseason and replacing them with young, mostly unproven players. They’re all but certain to be one of, if not the worst teams in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard is their only dependable, proven scorer, and he’ll have a greater burden than ever on the offensive end. But with the new, lower expectations comes a lot of opportunity for some of the other players to prove themselves.

Lillard will see a lot of time in the backcourt alongside C.J. McCollum. That unit won’t be able to defend anybody, but there’s plenty of scoring potential there. McCollum averaged just 15.7 minutes per game during the regular season but blossomed in the playoffs, scoring 17 points per game and shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range in the Blazers’ first-round loss to Memphis. That’s an extremely small sample size, and it remains to be seen whether McCollum can keep up that level of production playing an expanded role for a full season. His ideal use is probably as a sixth man leading the second-unit offense. But the Blazers are severely lacking in shot creators outside of Lillard, so McCollum will have plenty of opportunities to put up numbers, even though that likely won’t translate into wins.

One of the most intriguing players on the Blazers’ roster is Lilliard’s 2012 draft classmate, Meyers Leonard. Miscast as a center because of his size for the first two years of his career, Leonard found a role last season as a stretch four, shooting 42 percent from three on 112 attempts. As a rookie, he looked completely lost on the defensive end, which made him almost unplayable in the years when Portland was trying to contend. But he’s made strides on that end, to the point where you can at least keep him on the floor. As the longest-tenured Blazer along with Lillard, he’s the most familiar with Stotts’ system, which will be an advantage for him trying to earn playing time against a stable of newcomers.

The rest of the Blazers’ frontcourt rotation sans Aldridge and Robin Lopez will be interesting to figure out, too. Besides Leonard, the players are all new, with varying track records. Noah Vonleh, acquired from Charlotte in the Nicolas Batum trade, is a complete unknown as an NBA player. The former No. 9 overall pick barely played in his rookie season, but looked good in Summer League (whatever that’s worth), displaying a solid midrange game, ballhandling skills and athleticism undiminished by the back surgery that limited him last season. He’s still extremely raw, but he’ll have opportunities to be a contributor. Free-agent signee Ed Davis is more limited but more of a known quantity. He’s a great rebounder and scorer around the basket, and could be an effective pick-and-roll partner for Lillard. His skillset is largely redundant with that of Mason Plumlee, whom the Blazers traded for on draft night and will probably start at center.

Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers’ biggest and most controversial free-agent signing, is going to anchor an otherwise dreadful perimeter defense that’s losing Batum and Matthews. He’s versatile and athletic, capable of playing both forward positions. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give them much in the way of shooting, which will be tricky in Stotts’ movement-heavy offense. He’ll likely start at small forward, since there’s virtually nobody else there on the roster, but he’s been most effective in Dallas and New Orleans as a smallball four.

Stotts is going to have a lot of room to experiment with all of this stuff.. The likeliest starting lineup to kick the season off is a Lillard-Gerald Henderson-Aminu-Leonard-Plumlee unit, with McCollum as the sixth man. But there will be many different lineups. One of the benefits of a season with no expectations outside of a high lottery pick is plenty of space to try stuff. This roster and rotation is not going to look in April like it does in November. The Blazers, with among the lowest payrolls in the league, have plenty of space to make a move at the deadline and should be highly motivated to do so to hit the salary floor. Lillard is poised for an all-time huge-numbers-on-a-bad-team season with the dearth of offensive talent around him. It’s going to be a lot of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Lillard is the only sure thing, and the Blazers locked him up long-term with a five-year extension. That part of the rebuild was easy. Sorting out which of these young pieces are a part of their future will take more time.

Are these the new Mavericks alternate jerseys?

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The Mavericks want you to take them seriously. They traded up for Luka Doncic, traded for Kristaps Porzingis then signed a bunch of solid role players. Dallas became a good team through brute force.

Then these make the rounds…

Though the Mavericks haven’t announced anything, that would be an elaborate fake of a new alternate jersey.

These are pretty ridiculous. Dallas has the added misfortunate of using a graffiti-influenced font just after the Nets and Clippers did – only the Mavericks’ is more cartoonish.

But I’m absolutely certain, in several years, there will be major nostalgia for these as throwbacks.

Gordon Hawyard admits he’s frustrated by latest injury

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Following a gruesome leg injury that robbed him of a couple of years of his career, Gordon Hayward was finally starting to look and feel like himself — like the All-Star from Utah the Celtics thought they were signing. Hayward averaged 18.9 points per game, shot 43.3 percent from three, pulled down 7.1 rebounds, and dished out 4.1 assists per game. He was a playmaker Brad Stevens could lean on.

Then Hayward fractured the fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand on a fluke play. Hayward had surgery to repair it and will be out for six weeks.

Of course Hayward is frustrated. Via NBC Sports Boston:

“Like I said, happy that it shouldn’t be that long. Obviously frustrated — it sucks watching and not being able to go out there and play, especially with the start that we’ve had. I think this time around, I’ll be able to run around, use my legs still, maintain my conditioning, which I’m very thrilled about and then be around the team, too. And kinda stay involved, which is good…

“I think we’ll take it, as cliche as it sounds, we’ll take it day by day and week by week and it’s one of those things that, once the bone is healed, then it’s kind of how much can you tolerate and how well does my body handle with the swelling, kind of how well it takes ramping up activities and doing different basketball things,” said Hayward. “Honestly, looking at the plan that we set up today and just kind of attacking each day. Hopefully, I’ll be back sooner rather than later.”

The 9-1 Celtics can afford to be patient bringing him back. No need to rush it. They are a deep and talented team, but they need Hayward at his playmaking and scoring best to be a real playoff threat. Hayward should be back around New Year’s Day, why risk his hand issues becoming chronic so he can play in games in December?

Hayward, a competitor, is not going to want to be patient. After everything he’s been through with injuries, hard to blame him.

 

Russell Westbrook on Patrick Beverley: ‘He don’t guard nobody, man. He just running around doing nothing’

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley have a history.

After his Rockets beat Beverley’s Clippers last night, Westbrook fanned the flames.

Mark Berman of FOX 26:

Westbrook ripping someone else for phony defensive effort? That’s rich. Westbrook is the king of that style.

Beverley is one of the NBA’s best defensive guards. Sure, he has antics. But there’s an underlying effectiveness behind all his bark.

James Harden scoring 47 points hardly disproves Beverley’s defensive ability. Harden’s output by defender:

  • Beverley: 4 points on 1-of-9 shooting
  • Other: 43 points on 11-of-17 shooting

Three Things to Know: Trash-talking Rockets get 47 from James Harden, beat Clippers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Trash-talking Rockets get 47 from James Harden, beat Clippers. Dear basketball gods: Can you please arrange a Clippers vs. Rockets playoff series? We’d all appreciate that down here. Thanks.

There are no statement games in November, but after the Rockets 102-93 win against the Clippers Wednesday a lot of statements were being made. An intense, emotional game led to a lot of trash talk on the court that spilled over into the locker rooms afterward. These teams do not like each other — and that makes it fun. The basketball gods need to give us more of this.

Everyone was getting in on the act.

Russell Westbrook trash-talked Patrick Beverley’s defense.

Let’s put aside the irony of Westbrook calling out another players’ defensive effort for a second, he’s just wrong. It’s just not factually accurate. Beverley is a good defender and ESPN’s stats guys have the proof

The best trash-talking of the night came from Austin Rivers.

The younger Rivers should forever be grateful to his Dad for that oversized three-year, $35 million contract, but when Doc Rivers got into it with the officials, the younger Rivers urged quick-trigger Tony Brothers to go over and toss his dad out. And Brothers did. That’s when Austin waved off his dad and made the call-me gesture

(Just for the record, Doc had a point. After a failed attempt to call a challenge — Rivers took longer than 30 seconds to do so — he said two referees told him the Clippers had two timeouts. After he used one, Rivers was told that was his last one. If the officials indeed screwed up his timeouts, he should have been pissed.)

There was basketball, too — and James Harden was better at it than anybody.

Harden’s 47 pushed his per-game average over his last five to 41.6 per game. More importantly, he got his buckets when his teams needed them — he scored 17 points in the final six minutes (and did it against Kawhi Leonard and Beverley). Even with elite defenders to match up the Clippers started throwing double-teams at Harden, it just didn’t matter.

Thanks to Harden, the Rockets executed down the stretch. The Clippers did not. Los Angeles’ first half was sloppy and listless, their worst half of the season. They missed bunnies and open threes all night. Los Angeles climbed back with a good third and led at 83-80, but the Clippers offensive execution and shot selection down the stretch was poor.

Leonard finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists, but P.J. Tucker did an excellent job keeping him in check — Leonard 4-of-10 for 10 points with Tucker as the primary defender, according to the NBA.com matchup data.

If these teams meet in the playoffs next spring, this November meeting will be ancient history. Both teams will have evolved and be different by then (the Clippers will be different on Thursday night in New Orleans when they get Paul George back). However, the tone was set. And we want more of it.

2) Ja Morant does not play like a rookie, hits game-winner against Hornets. Sure, Ja Morant brings some freakish athleticism to the point guard position in Memphis. But what is really impressive is the poise he brings — he does not look like a rookie coming out of a small college.

He looks like a beast who can hit game-winners – which he did against Charlotte.

Morant finished with 23 points and 11 assists.

He did all that in 30 minutes — the Grizzlies wisely continue to manage his workload this season, limiting him to 30 minutes a game (with some nights off). This is absolutely the right thing to do. When we talk about the science of “load management” what we’re talking about is the cumulative impacts of numerous seasons of running up and down a hardwood floor — starting in AAU/High School and running up to the NBA — and how that wears a body down and leads to injury.

Ja Morant is getting plenty of minutes, plenty of chances to learn and make mistakes, and he is closing out games (obviously). But he’s still thin and his body’s still adapting to the grind of the NBA. If you have a franchise cornerstone player — and the Grizzlies believe they have one in Morant — why wouldn’t you take steps early to lengthen his career and effectiveness? Why would you ramp up the miles on his odometer during a 24-win season? The Grizzlies are making the right long-term play (especially after watching their prized rookie from a season ago, Jaren Jackson Jr., have to miss the end of the season with an injury).

3) Is Orlando interested in DeMar DeRozan? Makes sense. Are the Spurs going to trade him is another question. An interesting early-season trade rumor popped up via our friend Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer:

The Orlando Magic have interest in trading for the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan.

For Orlando, this makes a lot of sense. The Magic’s offense has been dreadful this season, scoring less than a point per possession so far. They need a guy who can get buckets, and DeRozan can do that. From the midrange, sure, but the guy scores efficiently and raises the floor of your team —get DeRozan the rock and your team will have a respectable offense. Orlando needs that.

The question becomes, what do the Spurs want to do? Good luck with that one. DeRozan can opt out of the $27.7 million he is owed next season and become a free agent next July, and the Spurs talks with DeRozan about an extension went nowhere. Conventional wisdom in that kind of situation is to trade the player and at least get something for him before he walks. The Spurs, however, do not follow conventional wisdom. The Spurs are going to be a fringe playoff team in the West and may want to keep the band together and make a push for the postseason. Maybe they want to start rebuilding around a young backcourt of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White, but would they really trade DeRozan to jump start that? Maybe. Maybe not.

Just consider this the start of what will be a lot of trade rumors this season — with a very down free agent class next summer, teams will be turning to trades to upgrade their rosters.