Are the Portland Trail Blazers destined for mediocrity?

6 Comments

The Portland Trail Blazers stood pat during Thursday’s trade deadline. Well, mostly. The team decided to send project big man Noah Vonleh to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for … hold on, let me look it up. Milovan Rakovic. Or that is to say the team traded for the rights to the Serbian pro, although Blazers GM Neil Olshey says Rakovich won’t ever suit up for the team.

The move allowed the Trail Blazers to move under the luxury tax for this season and avoid their first strike toward the luxury repeater tax which looms large over NBA front offices. Important, but not exciting or the stuff that inspires passion from NBA fanbases.

Despite the hopes of many Blazers fans, Olshey’s role at the deadline was less deal-maker and more comptroller. Portland didn’t add any kind of talent to their roster, even after franchise cornerstone Damian Lillard spoke with team owner Paul Allen to get an assurance the team was looking to contend soon.

So the question is whether the Blazers have a plan to hoist themselves above their competition, or if they’ll simply remain in the middle of the pack out West before their wick burns to the tab?

Olshey himself tried to explain his strategy to NBC Sports Northwest as the team headed into the trade deadline this year. The Blazers GM outlined three main paths they wanted to follow: grab a temporary rental, add a big-time contributor, or cut below the luxury tax line. They weren’t able to do the first two, so they did the next best thing and saved Allen a significant chunk of change by offloading Vonleh.

Olshey lobbied hard for Portland’s decision to tread water, rightfully downplaying the idea that the team needed to make a change to the Lillard – CJ McCollum backcourt. That’s fine, but where Olshey sold the hardest was in the need for patience, telling NBCSNW, “This is Year 3 of what’s supposed to be a three to five year rebuild”.

That last part is a little harder to swallow, mostly because it rewrites the post-LaMarcus Aldridge history of the Blazers. In truth, Portland made the playoffs in spite of a slow start to the 2015-16 season, beat a decimated LA Clippers team in the first round, and greatly exceeded expectations. That shortened Olshey’s teardown around Lillard and McCollum.

The team then signed Evan Turner and inked Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard to new deals. The addition of Jusuf Nurkic at the deadline last year was supposed to be the last major piece to fall into place as the Blazers took around a season-and-a-half on a short rebuild. Even if they planned on spending all of 2018 shoring up their chemistry, Olshey’s supposed five-year plan was tossed out the window after they beat LA in 2016 and was further accelerated by nabbing Nurkic.

But things soured as 2017-18 began. Harkless wasn’t playing much, although he’s improved recently. Leonard is a bench fixture. Nurkic has been wildly uneven, and Turner’s fit with the team is tenuous at best. All that and a heavy cap burden hasn’t left room for improvements as Blazers fans wring their hands and Olshey plays the role of zen master publicly.

Olshey told NBCSNW that you can’t force trades that aren’t there, and that’s true. It’s also harder to get anyone to pick up the phone when the pieces you have aren’t of any interest to your contemporaries, a position Olshey finds himself in now.

So where does Portland go from here, at the bottom of the playoff seedings and with a palpable-if-deniable urgency surrounding the team? Lillard and those around the Blazers downplayed his talk with Allen, but it was a reminder that the clock is ticking for him (Lillard is 27 and turns 28 in July) and this rebuild. Portland needs to get better under a salary crunch and that’s without even considering Nurkic’s contract situation this summer, or the fact that they’re also slated to lose one of their most productive big men in Ed Davis because they just can’t afford him.

Turner’s contract is an albatross and escalates to a whopping $18.6 million during the 2019-20 season. It’s near impossible for Olshey to move him as Turner doesn’t shoot the 3-pointer well, he drives but doesn’t draw that many fouls, and when he does drive it’s often in a weaving, horizontal fashion that allows help defenders to dig down and then recover on Portland’s shooters, hurting the Blazers’ chances to fire away from deep.

The answer is for Olshey to find the kind of trade he’s yet to pull off in Portland: a big one.

The Trail Blazers GM has been efficient, his transaction roster filled with guys like Robin Lopez, Aminu, and Davis. But Portland could very well be headed for long-term mediocrity if Olshey isn’t able to find his way out of Turner’s contract, or come up with a big trade that moves multiple pieces. That could mean biting the bullet and offering up useful players — Aminu or Nurkic come to mind — or parting with more draft picks than they like.

Lillard has remained steadfast in his dedication to the team, but the summer of 2021 is a long way off and when his contract expires who is to say he won’t want to head somewhere else if the Blazers are unable to slip out of their current salary troubles? Remember, you could pose the same question about McCollum, and both guards have mega deals that will only continue to squeeze Portland’s salary space as the years go on.

Right now the Blazers are winning, and their record in 2018 is a far sight better than their 2017 showing. No matter how the season ends, or how much they talk up four straight years of playoff appearances, if the Blazers want to move to the next level it will be up to Olshey to finally pull the trigger and find a deal come June that clarifies the future in Portland.

J.J. Redick says he hopes to play four more years in NBA

Pelicans guard J.J. Redick
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

This past season in New Orleans, J.J. Redick averaged 15.3 points and shot 45.3% from three, played solid defense, and stayed healthy enough to get into 60 games. At age 36, he didn’t show signs of slowing down.

How much longer can he keep that up? Redick told Mark Medina of the USA Today he hopes to play four more years.

“I realized this year I want to keep playing as long as possible. My goal is to play four more years. Year 18. That’s my goal. I’ll play to 39. Then my offseason, I’ll turn 40 and then I can walk away at that point. That’s my goal. We’ll see. The body has to hold up. But we’ll see.”

Redick is meticulous and intense with his conditioning, with his routine to take care of his body, although as we all age sometimes that is not enough. Father time wins every race. Redick, however, is in a good spot to hold him off for a few more years.

His skills as a shooter and floor spacer undoubtedly will be in demand, plus he is the kind of player GMs want in the locker room of a younger team like New Orleans. Redick had to put in a ton of work to transform his body and his game to go from collegiate star at Duke to his current role in the NBA. He’s professional about preparation and taking care of himself — exactly the kind role model for young players that GMs want.

Which will get him paid for another four years, if he wants it.

Heat says they need faster start in Game 4 against Celtics

Heat Celtics
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The formula that the Miami Heat had backed themselves into using throughout this postseason wasn’t exactly ideal.

They were losing almost every first quarter, and winning almost every game anyway.

It’s not a sustainable plan, and the Boston Celtics finally showed that in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals when they pulled off a wire-to-wire win over Miami, not letting the Heat put together their typical comeback. Game 4 of the East title series — with Miami still leading 2-1 — is Wednesday, and the Heat are insisting that there will be more urgency at the beginning.

“I think we’ve just got to start off better,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t think we started off anywhere near where we’re capable of. I think we dig ourselves a hole and try to fight back out of it. I think going into this next one, it’s up to the starting five to come out with a great start.”

Before Game 3, Miami was 8-0 in the playoffs when trailing after the first quarter — after going 10-16 when put in that position during the regular season. In the 36 minutes of first-period action against the Celtics, the Heat have led roughly one-sixth of the time.

Butler is 1 for 6 in 29 first-quarter minutes in the series. Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic are a combined 10 for 19; the rest of the Heat in first quarters against the Celtics are 11 for 46. Boston has won the first quarters by a combined score of 88-68, shooting 54% to Miami’s 32%.

“Certainly, it would help to be able to get off to a good start,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But you have to play good basketball more consistently when you get to this point in the conference finals against a quality opponent.”

Another wild stat is this: Boston has outscored Miami 50-18 from 2-point range in first quarters so far in the series. And yet, somehow, the Celtics still need a win on Wednesday to even up matters — or fall into the dreaded 3-1 series hole.

“Obviously, you know that when a team lost its last one, you’re going to get a great shot,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But you expect a great shot every time. We’re going to have to play our best game in Game 4, and then after Game 4 is over, we’re going to have to play better than that in Game 5. That’s kind of the way it works.”

The teams have had three full days off since Game 3, a quirk in the schedule to allow the Western Conference finals matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets to catch up; the Lakers and Nuggets were to play the third game in their series Tuesday night.

Not that this one needs explaining, but Miami’s chances go up considerably in this series if the Heat find a way to win Game 4. The Heat are 11-0 in series where they lead 3-1, and 9-9 in series where it’s tied 2-2 after four games. The Celtics haven’t successfully overcome a 3-1 deficit since the 1981 East finals.

LeBron James has “zero comment” on L.A. County Sheriff, speaks on violence

LeBron violence
AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been no stranger to outlandish acts and putting himself in headlines since taking office. Most recently, he and his department were sued by Vanessa Bryant over photos from the site of the plane crash that took Kobe’s life.

Last week, the controversial Villanueva decided to drag the most popular athlete in Los Angeles into his headlines, challenging LeBron James to double the reward for the person who shot two Sheriff deputies who were sitting in their car. It was a clear dig at LeBron’s stances against police violence around the nation, and Vanessa Bryant had slammed Villanueva for it on social media.

LeBron, after the Lakers’ loss to Denver Sunday night, refused to play Villanueva’s game, saying he has “zero comment” on the Sherrif. However, LeBron did speak on police violence.

“I’ve never in my 35 years ever condoned violence. Never have,” LeBron said. “But I also know what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong… I’ve seen a lot of counts firsthand of a lot of Black people being racially profiled because of our color. And I’ve seen it throughout my whole life.

“And I’m not saying that all cops are bad because, I actually, throughout high school and things of that nature, and I’m around them all the time, and they’re not all bad. But when you see the videos that’s going on and you can see all over the — not only my hometown but all over America — you continue to see the acts of violence toward my kind, I can’t do nothing but to speak about it and see the common denominator.

“But not one time have I ever said, ‘Let’s act violent toward cops.’ I just said that what’s going on in our community is not OK, and we fear for that, and we fear for our lives. It’s something that we go on every single day as a Black man and a Black woman and a Black kid, a Black girl. We fear. We fear that moment when we’re pulled over…

“But I do not condone violence toward anyone — police, Black people, white people, anyone of color, anyone not of color — because that’s not going to ever make this world or America what we want it to be.”

LeBron’s too smart to be dragged into Villanueva’s game, which is more about the Sherrif trying to distract from issues around himself.

LeBron has put his money where his mouth is on social justice issues, forming an organization to work to register minority voters and work against voter suppression nationwide.

Attacking Jamal Murray sparks Nuggets, who hold off Lakers for Game 3 win

Leave a comment

Down 0-2 to a LeBron James team, the Denver Nuggets’ backs were against the wall.

The Los Angeles Lakers learned — like the Jazz and Clippers before them — that the Nuggets have a couple more gears when their season is threatened.

Jamal Murray attacked from the opening tip, set the tone for Denver, then when the Lakers made it interesting late, stuck the dagger in the Los Angeles.

“I didn’t have any doubt we were going to show up tonight,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said postgame. “The reason I didn’t have any doubt is we won six straight elimination games…

“For some reason, this team loves the bubble.”

Denver pulled away from the Lakers in the second quarter and held on at the end to take a 114-106 win in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers still lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 Thursday night.

Murray was the best player on the floor in Game 3, scoring 28 points, dishing 12 assists, grabbing eight rebounds, and forcing the Lakers’ defense to adjust to him.

“When you look at these three series we’ve played so far, he’s starting to get the respect from the other teams, and they’re game-planning, they’re blitzing him, they’re double-teaming.”

Both Denver and the Lakers came out attacking the paint early: The teams combined for 56 first-quarter points, and they scored 34 of them in the paint (60.7%)

In the second quarter, however, the Lakers started settling for jumpers while the Nuggets kept attacking. Denver went on a 15-2 run to start the quarter — with Nikola Jokic on the bench — and Denver went on to dominate the next two quarters, leading by as many as 20.

The Nuggets got a big night from Jerami Grant, who had career playoff hight 26 points. Jokic added 22 plus 10 rebounds.

Meanwhile, the Lakers could not get jump shots to fall. Los Angeles was 6-of-26 from three (23.1%), and worse, they scored 12 points on 24 spot-up shot attempts (stat via Synergy Sports).

LeBron James did his part — a triple-double of 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists — and Anthony Davis added 27, but the Lakers defensive energy, and with that transition buckets, were not there.

Until the fourth quarter.

The Lakers got much more physical and aggressive defensively, and the Lakers went on a 19-2 run, which included six straight Nuggets turnovers at one point. The Lakers went to a zone defense that flummoxed Denver.

Eventually, Murray and Jokic righted the ship. Denver stretched the lead back out and got the win. After the game, the Lakers to a man said they needed to bring that fourth-quarter energy all game on Thursday.

One thing talked about after the game was Murray’s elbow to LeBron.

“I don’t think it was blatant. I don’t know his mindset, but I don’t think he did it on purpose,” LeBron said postgame.

The other thing talked about postgame — now we have a series.