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.

Report: Knicks will roll over cap space if they don’t sign Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard

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The Knicks are chasing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. New York will reportedly get a meeting with Kawhi Leonard.

But Irving appears headed to the Nets, and Durant might follow. Leonard appears to favor the Raptors in a two-team race with the Clippers.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

New York still believes it’s in the hunt for Kawhi Leonard, Irving and Durant. But, according to a source, the Knicks will punt their $70 million-plus in cap space if they can’t land one of those Tier A free agents.

This plan would require patience Knicks owner James Dolan has rarely shown. The Knicks have missed the playoffs six straight years. Twice during that span – including last season – they posted their worst record in franchise history (17-65). Dolan publicly proclaimed confidence New York would sign major free agents this summer.

He’d really allow the Knicks to delay winning even further?

New York is positioned to wait until 2020 free agency (though Joakim Noah‘s cap hit will remain on the books after an avoidable error). R.J. Barrett and Kevin Knox will still be on relatively cheap rookie-scale contracts. As a second-round pick, Mitchell Robinson is even lower-paid. If they sign players to only one-year contracts this offseason, the Knicks will once again have massive cap room.

But good players generally want multi-year deals. So, New York would be choosing among a far more limited pool of free agents. Another gloomy season would likely await.

And then the 2020 free-agent class looks weak. Especially with Anthony Davis already on the Lakers, there probably won’t be an attainable superstar for the Knicks. There might not even be an attainable star.

Then what? Sacrifice the 2020-21 season to gear up for 2021 free agency? Maybe Barrett, Knox and Robinson develop and send New York on a different track, but that’s far from assured.

The genius of this plan is it allows Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to keep their jobs while the team continues to stink. There would be no expectations of winning anytime soon – as long as Dolan abides.

Report: Kyrie Irving doesn’t like living in Boston

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Has Kyrie Irving been in contact with the Boston Celtics about his free agency? We have reports that say that Irving has “ghosted” the Celtics… and of course we have counter reports that say just the opposite.

It’s hard to believe anything that swirls around Irving, one of the more enigmatic and tiring personalities in the NBA. At the very least, Irving has appeared to send signals that he is looking to sign with the Brooklyn Nets. Chief among them being that Irving recently fired his longtime representation and signed with Roc Nation, which has a close partnership with the Brooklyn front office.

Boston has had a hard time getting free agents to come to play for the franchise, and that’s before they had a standing beef with Klutch Sports. According to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, one of our Irving’s problems with the Celtics was that he simply didn’t like living in Boston.

Via ESPN:

“Kyrie Irving didn’t like Boston. I’ve been told this by many people. He didn’t like living in Boston — he just didn’t. By the end he had issues with Brad, by the end he had issues with Danny… by the end he had issues with pretty much all of us.”

We have heard rumors that things started to go wrong in the Celtics locker room when coach Brad Stevens seemed to openly favor injured star Gordon Hayward a bit too heavily (Hayward played for Stevens at Butler in college).

Meanwhile, Danny Ainge has the propensity to rub folks the wrong way. He makes whatever decision he thinks is the best from a basketball perspective, relationships be damned. We learned that with the Isaiah Thomas trade.

At this juncture it seems unlikely that Irving will return to the Celtics. Meanwhile, we will probably continue to get stories like this out of Boston.

Chris Paul: “I never asked for a trade” and says he’s happy to be in Houston

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With Golden State laid low by injuries (and maybe a defection), Houston should be the team stepping to the front of the line saying “it’s our turn” in the West.

Instead, the Rockets two stars — James Harden and Chris Paul — are feuding, ownership is turning coach Mike D’Antoni into a lame duck, and everyone without a fantastic beard hears their name in trade rumors.

The Harden/Paul feud is real, but Paul tried to downplay it at a charity event in Los Angeles over the weekend, denying a trade request and saying he was happy to be in Houston, as reported by Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

“I never asked for a trade,” Paul said. “I never demanded a trade.”

“I’ll be in Houston,” Paul said. “I’m happy about that. I’m very happy about that. I’m good.”

The report goes on to note Paul was asked if he had to work things out with Harden and he kind of danced around that question but said the issues were around a season-ending loss. Certainly, two straight years of being bounced by the Warriors has the Rockets frustrated. However, there is also a style issue: Harden dominates the ball and likes to work in isolation, Chris Paul can’t be as efficient that way anymore and prefers a more fluid offense (and more pick-and-roll for him). Coach D’Antoni gives a lot of leeway to Harden.

Harden and Paul need to work their issues out because Paul is nearly untradable (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener with a pick or young player). Paul still has value on the court — a master floor general he averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists per game last season — but he is 34-years-old, lost a step last season, has an injury history (he played 58 games last season), and is owed $124 million fully guaranteed over the next three seasons. There simply are not teams interested in trading for Paul.

Houston could head into next season the favorites in the West. Part of that depends on how things shake out in free agency (does Kawhi Leonard come West, for example), but a lot of it is just the Rockets getting their act together. I expect Paul and Harden to figure things out, at least well enough to make it work. Mostly because they don’t have a choice. Paul isn’t going anywhere, whether he asked to leave or not.

 

Zion Williamson on Pelicans: ‘I’m ready to stay here’ (VIDEO)

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Zion Williamson is finally, officially a New Orleans Pelican. David Griffin and the Pelicans front office selected Williamson No. 1 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft on Thursday.

Now, we just have to wait for the Anthony Davis trade to be official and we can put this whole thing behind us.

Meanwhile, Williamson has been celebrating. According to TMZ, he had a big pizza party with his friends after the draft in New York. Williamson has since reported to the team in Louisiana, where he’s already saying all the right things to the media.

Speaking during a team event, Williamson said that something just hit him and that it was a gut feeling that he was glad to be in New Orleans.

“This is my home,” said Williamson. “I’m ready to stay here.”

Via Twitter:

Williamson could also be seen getting recommendations for the excellent cuisine in the Bayou.

As No. 1 overall picks and future franchise cornerstones go, Williamson already seems to have the temperament of a guy who’s willing to take over from the last one in Davis.