The Trail Blazers don’t need to panic … yet

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The Portland Trail Blazers had a rough summer. The team didn’t have the cap room to sign any big time free agents, nor were they part of any major trade that would have landed them a rotation player or a draft pick. Allen Crabbe, matched on an RFA deal in 2016 as future trade spec, went to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for an exception the team could use.

Debits and credits aside, the team’s talent is still significant enough to weigh heavy compared to the team’s mediocre 6-6 record.

The team got off to a rough offensive start, particularly when it came to star Damian Lillard. Last season, Lillard sat second row behind C.J. McCollum as the former battled a nagging foot injury. He looked sluggish and uncomfortable; unbalanced.

Although fully healthy for 2017-18, Lillard hasn’t been his normal self. He’s shooting worse from the field, less frequently and nearly six percent worse from 3-point range, and his value over replacement player has plummeted.

More importantly, Lillard’s free-throw attempts have skyrocketed. Watching Portland games looks like a few seasons ago, with Lillard constantly going to the rim and launching his body toward the stanchion, to hell with the consequences. It feels like it’s a reaction from having to force the offense, something that doesn’t come naturally under Terry Stotts.

This could have something to do with Jusuf Nurkic.

The Bosnian big man — hailed all too quick by Blazers fans over the summer as the savior — has looked sloppy over the first month of the season. Turnovers, poor shooting nights, and getting muscled by both the Marc Gasols and Tyson Chandlers of the NBA has not hung well on him. The amount of awkward, backwards-facing hook shots from Nurkic have been … unbecoming.

That’s to say nothing of his defense, which has too often looked like this:

https://twitter.com/memgrizz/status/928126843953090561/

Nurkic is playing at replacement player-level for the season thus far. Stotts benched him for nearly the entire fourth quarter on Friday against the Nets, likely because of his recent shortcomings.

Al-Farouq Aminu‘s absence due to injury has poked a hole in the extremely thin armor of Portland’s defense. He’ll be back from his ankle issue soon enough, but even the resurgence of guys like Ed Davis (playing masterfully, I should add) can’t make up for the lack of progression from guys like Maurice Harkless and the aforementioned Turner.

Even with a Big 3 they hope to grow together, Portland just isn’t deep enough to compete with the upper echelon in the Western Conference. The Blazers’ bench is filled with developmental talent and guys who can do one thing OK at an NBA level. What they need are two or three who can do a few things each — that’s the difference between contenders and challengers.

The situation is made even worse when you consider that two of the Blazers’ most important players, Aminu and Davis, are on deals that combined total $3.5 million less than one year of Turner. Say what you will about the contracts of Harkless and Meyers Leonard, but much of Olshey’s lauded frugality has been rendered null by Turner’s deal.

There’s no doubt some in Portland will preach patience, and that this team needs time. These folks are right across the aisle from the fans who have been screaming for the team to trade McCollum for DeMarcus Cousins for the better part of the last three seasons.

Even adding a third piece like Nurkic at his peak doesn’t help the fact a team led by McCollum and Lillard — the team’s core, in place for multiple seasons now — will need better defending and shooting on the wing from both starting and bench units.

This is the unpleasant counter to the argument that Nurkic’s performance last season over 20 games was going to lead to some kind of Disco Stu-esque chart of unconstrained success. Portland’s flaws are what they are. They needed a player to provide what Nurkic gave them last year, but that didn’t mean they could fail to address their remaining gaps.

To wit, Lillard has seemed to be more effective on defense, and some early numbers suggest he’s headed in the right direction. He passes the eyeball test too — he’s closer on closeouts, and free from the camp he used to set up on the hips of opposing, screening big men.

McCollum, for his part, has built on the successes of last season. He’s been the most impressive Blazers player this season, playing more minutes, shooting more 3-pointers, and scorching the nets at 52% from deep. While Lillard is still the franchise player and the one hitting game-winning 3-pointers, the fact is that McCollum has instilled more confidence for those watching heavy minutes of Portland basketball.

Other positives include Caleb Swanigan, who is destined for rotation or starters minutes over the next three seasons. That’s not only a good value for the team but an opportunity for Olshey to jettison his unhealthy attachment to Noah Vonleh either by trade or by dodging his extension. Harkless is still useful. Davis is back to being a complete headache for just about every NBA big man.

It feels privileged to slice apart a team like Portland in this way. This is a squad with talent, solidly in the middle of the Western Conference. But their standing isn’t a complete surprise, especially for those who inoculated themselves against “Nurkic Fever”.

Whether fans in Oregon like it or not, Nurkic’s diminished play and the hamstrung nature of the Blazers roster — now led by Turner’s contract with Crabbe gone — has shown that the team hasn’t made much of a leap in their first full season with renewed hope.

Olshey just signed a new contract in August, which makes sense for the team given his drafting ability and trade prowess. However, heading toward the holidays and 2018 the team sits roughly where it has since 2015 after separating from LaMarcus Aldridge — that’s with Lillard and McCollum’s stars shining brighter over that time.

While I prefer to defer to the adage of you can’t make trades that aren’t there, the salary on this roster begs the question of what Olshey has the guts or the freedom to do in the coming two seasons. Eventually, the conversation in Portland has to go from preparation to execution, and 2017-18 feels like the season to see that leap and define that path.

If we’re having this conversation come the 2018 trade deadline, we might finally get those drastic steps some Blazers fans have been calling for. For now, we’ll have to wait and reserve our panic for Portland.

Watch Embiid score 47, lift 76ers past Jokic, Nuggets 126-119

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid won the battle of MVP candidates with 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to seven games with a 126-119 win over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award over the last two seasons. Both are among the top candidates for MVP as this season hits the halfway mark, although Embiid was not named among the All-Star starters from the Eastern Conference.

“I’m used to it and it’s not the first time,” Embiid said. “I think it’s more of a motivation to go out there and try to win the whole thing. That’s the only way that I’ll get that respect.”

Jokic gave Embiid a nod for his play.

“He’s really talented,” Jokic told the Denver Post of Embiid. “Really shifty.”

James Harden had 17 points and 13 assists, and Tobias Harris scored all 14 of his points in the second half after being shut down by Denver’s defense in the first half.

“We were able to figure some things out and get some stops,” Harris said. “Guys stepping up and making shots was huge for us to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter to try and make something happen.”

Jokic had 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists for Denver, which has lost three of its last four games. Jamal Murray chipped in 22 points and Michael Porter added 20.

“We turned it over and they just turned up the pressure on us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They got to the basket way too easy with their attack mentality. And we just got way too careless with the basketball.”

Embiid has scored 40 or more points nine times this season and 35 times in his career. In addition to the All-Star snub, Embiid was also given a $25,000 fine by the NBA on Friday for an on-court demonstration after-basket celebration during Wednesday night’s win over Brooklyn.

“Let’s keep offending Joel by fining him and not putting him among the All-Star starters,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said sarcastically.

The Nuggets began the day with the second-best team field goal percentage at 50.7% and tops in 3-point percentage at 39.5%. In the first half, they overwhelmed Philadelphia’s perimeter defense, shooting 65.9% (29 for 44) from the floor and 10 of 17 (58.8%) from beyond the 3-point line. The hot shooting helped the Nuggets to a 73-58 lead at halftime.

Embiid started to take over toward the end of the third quarter, putting together a 16-point quarter on 5-of-6 shooting that keyed a 14-0 run that allowed the Sixers to close within 99-98 early in the fourth.

In the final quarter, Philadelphia wore down a Nuggets team playing the final game of a three-game, week-long trip. P.J. Tucker– who had switched defenively to Jokic and slowed him down in the second half- followed a Harden missed 3-pointer with a tip-in with over a minute left to stretch the lead to five. Embiid then hit a 3-pointer to restore an eight-point lead.

“I’ve always like to think I am a closer and I am,” Embiid said. “Taking the last shot or taking a last second shot with the clock ticking is fun for me. I love getting into those types of possession where you have to make the plays. That’s where you find out who is who and who is made up for those kinds of moments.”

Report: Myles Turner agrees to two-year, $60 million extension with Pacers

Indiana Pacers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Take Myles Turner off the trade market.

After months of negotiations, the Pacers and Turner have agreed to a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This has since been confirmed by other sources.

Turner — back playing his natural center spot this season with Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento — is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. He has been one of the keys to a surprisingly good Pacers team this season.

That $60 million contract extension number can be a little misleading. Turner was already making $18 million this season, but because the Pacers are $24.4 million under the salary cap, they can do a re-negotiation and extension with the big man, giving him a $17.1 million bump right now (to a total of $35.1 million for this season) and extend off of that for two years, the first at $20.2 million and the second at $19.9 million, according to Shams Charania.

There had been a lot of trade interest in Turner, going back to last summer, most prominently with the Los Angeles Lakers in a swap that would have sent Buddy Hield and Turner to the West Coast for Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks. That draft pick compensation kept the deal from getting done (the Pacers wanted two unprotected first-rounders).

NBA refutes viral Reddit post claiming conspiracy to pad Jaren Jackson Jr.’s stats

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors
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Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a defensive monster since coming back from foot surgery, something obvious by the eye test but backed up by impressive stats: 3.1 blocks and a steal a game, opposing players are shooting 44% on shots he contests and when he is on the court the Grizzlies have. 106.8 defensive rating (which would be best in the league by more than three points). He is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year right now.

That led to a conspiracy theory post on Reddit about how the Memphis scorekeeper is padding Jackson’s stats, calling his numbers fraudulent. The post went viral — we all love to think we’re in on something nobody else knows — and has gotten to the point some Las Vegas sportsbooks have taken down Defensive Player of the Year betting.

The conspiracy theory does not hold water. At all.

The NBA pushed back on that theory by reminding people that all NBA stats are audited in real-time by someone watching the video in Secaucus (rebound or blocked shots being changed during a game is not uncommon because of this).

“In order to ensure the integrity of our game statistics, auditors, independent of the statisticians on-site, review all plays and stats decisions in real-time during NBA games,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank told NBC Sports. “If changes are necessary, they are made at that time or following a postgame review. All of the plays questioned in the post on Memphis games were scored consistently within the rules set forth by the NBA statisticians manual.”

Reddit has now labeled the post “Misleading.”

Another Reddit user compiled videos of the alleged stat padding incidents called out in the post, but watching them proves the NBA’s point that these were correctly assigned. For example, Jackson gets credit for steals on tipped balls, which is how steals are calculated. The video showed that many fans don’t understand the rules and definitions of what constitutes a steal or a block.

On a more fundamental level than that, the NBA now has gambling and fantasy sports partners — if there was stat padding, those entities would be on it and the first to call out the league. The league’s statistics are big business — you can bet on the number of blocks or rebounds that Jackson or other players will get — and those gambling and fantasy entities also watch the games closely.

But we’ll be talking about this conspiracy theory again when NBA awards season pops up, because people want to believe, even in the face of evidence proving they are wrong. Not that we needed basketball to teach us that lesson.

 

Report: Nuggets might consider Bones Hyland trade for defensive help

Denver Nuggets v Milwaukee Bucks
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A year ago, it felt like the Nuggets had found their long-term backup point guard in rookie Bones Hyland, a guy who could be part of the rotation when Jamal Murray returned. Except, in his second season, Hyland hasn’t taken a step forward — although his play has been better and more aggressive in recent weeks — and free agent Bruce Brown has shown he can play some backup one (even if he is more of a combo guard).

That has the Nuggets considering trading Hyland if they can get defensive help, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

After his name was discussed in trade conversations around last June’s NBA Draft, Denver begun gauging the trade value of second-year guard Bones Hyland, sources said…. While Hyland has two years remaining on his rookie deal, in anticipation of Brown’s next payday [Note: He is expected to opt out and test the market], plus Hyland’s upcoming second contract, has the tax-conscious Nuggets considering their options in the backcourt. Occasional clashes between Hyland and head coach Michael Malone’s old-school mentality have also been a factor in Denver’s trade dialogue, sources said.

In exchange for Hyland, the Nuggets have expressed an interest in defensive-minded frontcourt players, sources said, and will search for a player plus a first-round pick.

Brown has played his way to a bigger contract than the $6.8 million player option he has for next season, but the Nuggets are already big spenders and not looking to go deep into the tax (Nikola Jokic’s extension kicks in next season at about $46.9 million a year to start, and both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will make north of $33 million next season). It is possible the Nuggets let Brown walk and keep Hyland, still on his rookie contract and set to make $2.3 million next season, partly for financial reasons. Hyland is averaging 12.4 points per game and shooting 38.5% from 3, but he struggles defensively (which is where the clashes with Malone come in).

Denver has a chance to win the West this season and defense is what will decide if that happens — if the Nuggets can land another wing/forward defender, they may jump at it and worry about the backup one spot next summer. However, finding that player in a high-priced seller’s market may prove the biggest challenge — several teams are looking for that same kind of defensive help.