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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:

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.

Brad Stevens says Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward should be fully cleared by Aug. 1

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Everyone watching the Boston Celtics in the playoffs kept thinking the same thing: Add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into this lineup next summer and — bang — instant contender.

That leads to the question: Just where are Irving and Hayward on their recovery tracks? Glad you asked.

That’s a good sign for the Celtics. And for fans of good basketball.

One word of caution: Progression when adding stars into a system is not necessarily linear. Or, to put it more plainly, throwing superstars who need the ball in their hands into the mix comes with its own set of adjustments and challenges, things do not always go smoothly or as planned. There could be some fits and starts as the Celtics figure things out next season. (And that’s not even getting into the Kawhi Leonard rumors, which are legitimate but also a long way from reality as of today.)

If you were going to trust one coach to figure it out and get guys to buy in, Brad Stevens would be your guy. The Celtics are rightfully going to enter next season as the bar to clear in the East (free agency depending). Just don’t expect things to go smoothly from day one, because that’s just not how basketball or life work.

Michael Porter Jr. says his injury situation “got exaggerated a lot”

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If healthy, Michael Porter Jr. might be as talented as anyone in this draft. He’s a 6’11” wing or small ball four who can shoot from the NBA three-point line and has the athleticism to get up and down the floor then finish with authority.

But health is a concern. There was the back injury which forced a microdiscectomy surgery that forced Porter to miss all but three games last season. Back injuries in big men are tricky things and can linger. Then last week there was an off-again-on-again workout and medical evaluation with the pause due to a hip issue. Was that soreness tied to the back issue?

In an interview on ESPN radio, Porter played down the injury concerns.

Former Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., who had issues with his hip and back, said Monday that he’s “feeling great” and wouldn’t dismiss the idea of working out for teams this week ahead of Thursday’s NBA draft.

“It’s a possibility,” Porter said on The Will Cain Show on ESPN Radio. “I feel good. … I got evaluated. I let the doctors come in and do all their tests on me. I’m feeling good. I think the teams are comfortable, but I might get a couple workouts in.”

As for last week’s hip issue.

“It was just a little sore, so I told [my agent] my hip was kind of sore and he just wanted to shut it down for a couple of days,” Porter said. “And then people took that and kind of ran with it, saying, you know, my hip was injured, I couldn’t get out of bed. … None of that was really true. I was just sore and I wanted to take a couple of days off. So that’s all that was.”

Porter is the mystery man in this draft — and those guys always seem to rise and have someone fall in love with them. It’s hard to imagine Porter going lower than eighth, but he has been linked to teams as high as the Kings at No. 2.

Porter is the kind of player that some team lower in the draft may fall in love with and be willing to trade up to the top five to snag him. The health is the question. An NBA front office member who has seen Porter’s medical reports described them to NBC Sports as “fine.”

There are also concerns about Porter’s grit and toughness. He has the reputation of having been insulated and having been a bit of a diva, what happens when he gets to an NBA team where he is not the first (and, at first at least, maybe not the second) option. What happens when he has to play more of a role and have it not be about him and his touches? Teams are asking about that.

Despite the concerns, there will be a team taking him in the first half of the lottery. It could be a home run. Or… that’s what makes the draft interesting.

Report: As expected, Jamal Crawford declines $4.5 million player option with Minnesota

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Jamal Crawford wants a bigger payday, and after a solid season scoring 10.3 points per game for Minnesota last season, he might get it despite a tight market. That’s why what happened on Monday was expected.

Crawford opted out of the final year of his contract with the Timberwolves, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jamal Crawford has declined his $4.5 million player option for next season and will become a free agent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, will become one of the top reserve scorers on the open market after facing Monday’s deadline to decide on his option.

The concern for teams is that Crawford is 38 and already showing some decline in his skills and game. Crawford can still be productive, but teams will be leery of offering more than two years guaranteed on his contract. And for a guy who comes off the bench — even a three-time Sixth Man of the Year — teams are not going to spend big.

Crawford may also just be looking for a new team chemistry and role, something at this stage in his career he should be able to get.

Enes Kanter’s father sentenced to 15 years in jail in ongoing political dispute

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The dictatorial Turkish government has issued an arrest warrant for Knicks big man Enes Kanter because he is an outspoken opponent of Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter is not foolish enough to go home to be arrested (and likely tortured), he may never see his homeland again.

Kanter’s family had to disavow their son and his beliefs. That apparently was not enough. Kanter’s father, Mehmet Kanter, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison in Turkey for “membership in a terror group,” the country’s official news agency reported Monday.

Enes Kanter believes to be a politically motivated attempt to go at him. Kanter released this statement.

The Turkish government’s shots at Kanter are not new. Last summer the Turkish government revoked Kanter’s passport while he was abroad, forcing American diplomats (with some help from the NBA) to step in and prevent him from being sent back to his native country and arrested.

All of this is because Kanter is a follower of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkish president Erdogan — who is essentially a dictator now, and runs a country where human rights abuses are rampant — blames Gulen for masterminding a failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, and used that as an excuse for a crackdown and consolidation of power.

Using or dividing family members to try to gain political advantage or make a political statement is abhorrent, anywhere it happens. Unfortunately, Kanter is caught in the middle of it and there is little he can do.