Where do Blazers, Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts go from here?

3 Comments

The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was a similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.

Kemba Walker sets NBA record with 19 made 3-pointers in first three games

Getty
1 Comment

MIAMI (AP) There was a stretch last season spanning four games when Charlotte’s Kemba Walker missed 16 consecutive attempts from 3-point range.

That seems unfathomable now.

Walker might have been the surprise of the NBA’s first week by averaging 35.3 points per game, a big number fueled by making 19 shots from 3-point range – more than any player in the league has connected on in the first three games of a season. So in a year when Walker insists he won’t be speaking about his looming free agency, his numbers are doing plenty of talking.

“I always felt that I’ve been always put under the radar,” Walker said. “Underrated, of course.”

That might be changing.

Walker understands there’s a direct correlation between stardom and winning. He’s been an All-Star, he’s probably going to get a monster contract next summer, he played in two NCAA Final Fours at Connecticut and led the Huskies to the 2011 national championship. But if he’s going to reach the level of NBA respect that he’s perpetually seeking, it’s going to take more than 3s.

He’s going to need W’s as well. Walker has played in 537 games with the Hornets, and his team has won only 211 of them. That’s not all his fault, not even close, but Charlotte needs to be better if Walker’s stock is going to soar to that super-elite level.

“It comes with wins,” Walker said. “I know I’m in a small market and things like that, but at the end of the day, I just go out there and I try to do what I need to do to win. That’s really it.”

So far, so good.

The Hornets are 2-1 after an eventful stretch to start the season – rallying from 20 points down only to lose by one to Milwaukee, rolling past Orlando by 32 and then wasting a 26-point lead before hanging on to beat Miami by one point Saturday night. Walker delivered the game winner against the Heat, getting a foul call with a half-second left and making a free throw for a 113-112 victory.

“Our team starts with him,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “He controls the game, but he also understands that he needs trust in his teammates. When he misses a shot, I want him to take the next one.”

That’s been the message Borrego has been hammering into Walker’s mind for weeks.

That’s also been part of the teachings of Walker’s new backup.

Tony Parker‘s influence on Walker cannot be underestimated. Parker won four NBA championships with San Antonio before signing with the Hornets this summer, and he has been part of more wins – 1,001 and counting, including playoffs – than all but six other players in league history. Having Borrego telling him to shoot more, having Parker offering him a different view of the point guard position, it’s all played a role in Walker’s confidence soaring.

“Tony’s helping me read the game in a whole different light,” Walker said. “What to look for, what not to, he’s amazing with that kind of stuff. It’s an honor to have him around.”

The Hornets are 2-0 so far on their current four-game road trip, the first time they’ve started a multigame swing away from home with consecutive victories in two years. They go to Toronto on Monday, and Walker says his approach for that game and every other that awaits this season won’t deviate much.

“Just go out there and leave it all on the court,” Walker said. “That’s all I’m trying to do. And I think that’s where the respect comes from, the way I play each and every night. That’s my number one goal, regardless of if I have zero or if I have 30, I’m going to go out there and leave it all on the floor.”

More AP NBA: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NBA and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Three Things to Know: Trae Young is legit, people. Just ask the Cavaliers.

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Luka who? Trae Young blows up with 35 points, 11 assists. Fun bit of trivia courtesy Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated: Since 2000, name the two rookies who have put up at least 35 points and 10 assists in a game. Answer: Stephen Curry and LeBron James.

Now, add Atlanta’s Trae Young to the list. He dropped 35 points and 11 assists on the Cavaliers to get the Hawks a win (and Lloyd Pierce his first W as an NBA coach).

After a “meh” game against the Knicks to open the season then a solid one against the Grizzlies, Young lit up the Cavaliers (and torched their rookie point guard Colin Sexton). Young has shown an impressive catch-and-shoot touch already, but Sunday night he showed off what a threat he can be using the pick-and-roll. Young used his impressive handles to create space for his shot, or to get into the lane and then create for others. More than just scoring, he’s showing an ability to command the game, which is impressive for a one-and-done rookie.

It’s early, and Young is going to have a lot more ups and downs his rookie season, but this was a promising outing. Young and the Hawks have a soft opening to the season on the schedule and it will give him a chance to gain some confidence early.

Next up is the rookie showdown with Dallas and one Luka Doncic (the guy he will forever be linked to because of the draft night trade, fair or not). They won’t be matched up on one another, and it’s too early to draw genuine comparisons, but it’s worth watching.

2) Russell Westbrook is back, put up a near triple-double, and even that couldn’t get the Thunder a win. Everyone tuned into this game expecting one thing: Iman Shumpert to go off and score 26 points and leading the Kings to a win. Am I right?

Westbrook, in his first game back since having surgery to clean up his knee in the offseason, scored 32 points, and 12 rebounds and eight assists, and shot 13-of-23 overall — a very Westbrook night. While there were a few moments of rust, he looked like vintage Westbrook.

OKC still lost, at home, to the Kings, 131-120.

The Thunder are off to a 0-3 start and there are two key reasons why. One is that they cannot knock down threes — they were 9-of-39 against the Kings (23.1 percent) and on the season are shooting 23.9 percent from deep (worst in the NBA). They are taking more threes than a season ago (36.3 a game, top 10 in attempts in the league) but the shots just aren’t falling. The Thunder were not a prolific three-point shooting team last season, but they hit 35.4 percent and their shooting should improve this season.

The second, and larger, issue is their defense has been average, and at times awful. They struggled to slow the Kings, who put up 34 points in three of the four quarters, and on the season the Thunder are allowing 110.5 points per 100 possessions, which is middle of the pack in the league (for a team expected to be top 10 like last season). They really miss Andre Roberson on that end of the floor, and he’s likely not back until December.

It’s far too early to say either of those stats are trends — the Thunder should have one of the better defenses in the league by the end of the season — but they are off to a slow start, and it’s costing them wins, which in the deep West is not ideal.

On the other side of the ball — the Kings have looked solid this young season. The kids are alright. They played Utah tight in the season opener, fell to the Pelicans and now have beaten the Thunder. De’Aaron Fox is averaging 20.3 points and 7.7 assists per game, Willie Cauley-Stein is playing for that contract averaging 18.7 points and 7 rebounds a game, Buddy Hield is knocking down shots, Marvin Bagley is finding his way, and Shumpert went off against the Thunder. The young core in Sacramento is taking a step forward this season, and it’s something to watch.

3) NBA could have, should have come down harder on Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo. By now we’ve all read the stories and watched the video out of Saturday night’s fight at the Laker game. Now, we’ve seen the suspensions come down: Four games for Ingram, three for Rondo, and two for Chris Paul.

Adam Silver has been lighter on punishment of players for these incidents than his predecessor David Stern, and that continued here. Ingram’s four games — costing him $158,817 in salary — is the longest the league has handed out for fighting since 2012 (Metta World Peace), but if the league wanted to send a message that throwing punches is verboten, they needed to come in with a heavier hand. Especially considering we are not out of the first week of the season.

The biggest surprise to me was Rondo — spitting in another player’s face is unacceptable. The league needed to do more. (And don’t try to sell me the mouthguard/unintentional line, that’s just spin, Rondo meant to do it). The only suspension that felt right was CP3, and I’m with D’Antoni in that I don’t know what else anyone expected him to do.

The Lakers get hit harder by this — while we get to see more Lonzo Ball they don’t have the depth to replace Rondo and Ingram easily, and their games are harder (Spurs, improving Suns, then the hot Nuggets).

Physical fights with actual punches are rare in the NBA, but when they happen I’m not sold this was near enough of a deterrent. We’ll see if this situation was a one-off or if we see more of these incidents.

Mike D’Antoni on Chris Paul suspension: ‘What is he supposed to do?’ (VIDEO)

Getty
9 Comments

The NBA suspended Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul along with the Los Angeles Lakers’ Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram on Sunday.

It was the opinion of the league office that all three players should be suspended for their role in a fight that took place on Saturday night between the Rockets and the Lakers at Staples Center.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni took exception to Paul’s suspension, saying that he thought it was “not equitable” that Paul had to face suspension.

The NBA determined that Rondo indeed did spit in Paul’s face, or at least in the direction of him, directly preceding Paul’s eye poke on Rondo. That kicked things off into full force, and it devolved from there.

Via Twitter:

All the suspensions were fairly weak. Ingram got just four games for his initial instigation and giant, loping punch toward Paul. Rondo received three games for spitting on Paul and landing punches. Paul received two games for punching Rondo.

It’s unlikely that anybody was going to be happy with the result of the discipline just because of the bad blood involved. However, the league made comment about the suspension afterward, with the NBA’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe taking to television later on Sunday.

VanDeWeghe’s explanations don’t satisfy me, and they certainly wouldn’t if I were a Rockets fan. Guys going chest-to-chest and having tensions rise as one thing. Spitting at somebody is another. It’s a level of actionable disrespect that directly influenced and raised tensions during the incident.

Ingram looked childish for shoving James Harden, but his punch came after Rondo got Paul wound up by spitting on him. It’s hard for me to understand how Rondo didn’t get a matching sentence with Ingram at the very least.

For reference, Carmelo Anthony was suspended for 15 games in 2006 after he clocked a player on the New York Knicks during a fight as a member of the Denver Nuggets. Given that precedence, something approaching double digits for both Ingram and Rondo seems like it would have been more appropriate.

Juancho Hernangómez bats game-clinching block to beat Warriors (VIDEO)

Getty
1 Comment

We all knew the Denver Nuggets were going to be exciting this season, but nobody expected them to come through with this kind of statement result this early.

On Sunday as the Nuggets took on the Golden State Warriors, a tight game in Colorado lead to a drive by Stephen Curry in the closing seconds that could have won the defending champions the game.

Instead, Juancho Hernangómez became a Denver legend.

Via Twitter:

It was a serious block by Hernangómez on Damian Jones.

Denver beat the Warriors, 100-98, moving the Nuggets to 3-0 on the year and giving Golden State its first loss of the season.