Five questions the Portland Trail Blazers must answer this season

AP
1 Comment

The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
41-41, lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: Not a whole lot. They had to unload Allen Crabbe for what amounted to a trade exception — albeit a large one — after signing him to a restricted free agent deal last season and failing to find a trade partner for him last year. The Blazers did draft Caleb Swanigan and Zack Collins. They also signed Archie Goodwin and Anthony Morrow. Portland failed to find a way to entice Carmelo Anthony to Rip City via a trade.

FIVE QUESTIONS THE BLAZERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Can the offense take some of the load off of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? Lillard struggled with a nagging foot injury last year and indeed it was McCollum that ended up being the more important Blazer to Portland’s success. However, before Nurkic arrived in Oregon the Blazers were an easy team to scout on film.

Gone from this roster are two of last season’s biggest minutes guys — Mason Plumlee and Allen Crabbe. It’s possible that the Blazers have gotten rid of some of the duplication in both services and experience level, which could benefit their younger players with some structure. They have decided to commit to both Evan Turner and Moe Harkless, and having their roles defined could be easier for this team. With room to grow into their respective positions, several Blazers will be looked upon to provide more and take the load off of Lillard and McCollum.

2) Can Jusuf Nurkic play the entire season? This seems like an issue that folks in Portland are just too scared to broach, whether it be because of the team history or just the fact that they enjoy Nurkic so much.

The big man came over in a trade from the Denver Nuggets last year and played in just 20 games for the Blazers before bowing out due to an injury. Nurkic played most of the season approaching 300 lbs, and running in the Trail Blazers offense perhaps took its toll.

Much of media day in Portland was about the weight and eating habits of the players, Nurkic included. He has slimmed down some and that should help him come through the season with a bit more durability. However, the dark cloud hanging over Portland is not just one that’s filled with rain. I think Nurkic has to be able to play in 65 or more games this season for the Trail Blazers to have a chance in a Western Conference that is even tougher than it was last year.

3) Will the Blazers be any good on defense? This has been the question that has plagued the Blazers basically every season in Terry Stotts’ coaching tenure with the team, save for 2014-15. Portland was an abysmal squad on defense of last season, ranking just 24th the defensive efficiency.

Nurkic should help them a little bit and so too should a fully healthy an of Al-Farouq Aminu. Lillard and McCollum appear to have fully developed as much as they reasonably can on that side of the ball (and considering their expenditures on offense). It will be the rest of the team and the bench that will need to rotate in to make up for their deficiencies.

Terry Stotts said during media day that there are not any big shifts planned on defense for the upcoming season. Instead, we are looking for some defined roles to come out of Portland along with a fully healthy squad that has had more time playing together. Getting Ed Davis back into the big man rotation won’t hurt either.

Much like the title hopes of the Houston Rockets, the Trail Blazers’ playoff hopes will remain dependent on whether or not they can perform on the defensive side of the ball.

4) Will this be the last season of the Dame/CJ pairing? Uppity Blazers fans have been losing their mind asking this question for going on three years now. In fact, before Nurkic was traded to Portland, much of the discussion in Portland was around which of these two players they should swap. Indeed, most fans believed that McCollum was the player to trade, often being floated in the fan theories for then-Sacramento Kings big man at DeMarcus Ccousins.

But Portland GM Neil Olshey has a soft spot for McCollum, and he needed to give him and Lillard a full two seasons to play together as legitimate, dual superstars after McCollum won MIP in 2016. This season will give us the answer once and for all whether this tandem can be relied upon to lead this team. Again, it could come down to whether this team is fully healthy, but I don’t believe the Blazers would move McCollum until next summer. If management gets full season of healthy play out of this roster and they still are not great on defense, McCollum could be a move that happens.

Oh, and get it out of your head that Olshey is ever going to trade Lillard, Blazers fans. You remember how long you yearned for a star player at the point guard spot? Now you have a franchise one, you’re not going to swap him out and downgrade.

5) What is Evan Turner’s role on this team? Turner was abysmal for Portland during 2016, and he had only really started to figure it out after the turn of the new year before he was injured. After Portland lost out on Chandler Parsons and a few other free agents that summer, Turner was the panic move. He is certainly overpaid, but the whole idea of having him on the roster is to take away the ability of an opposing defense to trap Lillard and McCollum off the pick-and-roll.

Granted, Turner does do that somewhat and he now has more time dealing within this offense. No, Stotts’ offense is not tailored to Turner’s strong suits, but then again I’m not sure which kind of modern NBA offense is. Turner works best when he works his way to a specific spot on the elbow and not much else.

That can be a real weapon, and using him more in the pick-and-roll is a good idea. He will be more comfortable with his teammates this season even if he’s not a threat to shoot himself.

All that being said, it remains to be seen whether or not Turner can simply take some of the pressure off of Lillard and McCollum or elevate his game to another level within the confines of this offense. Like it or not, Portland’s success this season will rely on Turner as perhaps the fourth or fifth most important player on the roster.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

0 Comments

The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
0 Comments

Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
0 Comments

In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
Matteo Marchi/Getty Images
0 Comments

“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.