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Trail Blazers gambling that youth, shooting can keep them afloat

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On paper, and from a distance, it doesn’t appear that the Portland Trail Blazers have become much better over the summer. The largest contract for a new player that general manager Neil Olshey handed out was to Seth Curry for $2.8 million. Hoping to find a veteran either by trade or with the mid-level exception, the Blazers instead will move forward with young, cheap talent to bolster a roster built around a core that looks awfully familiar.

So the question both in the Pacific Northwest and around the league is this: What is Portland’s plan, exactly?

Assists and creating 3-point shots was Portland’s biggest issue, and in theory this is exactly what the Blazers have tried to address with their limited financial input this offseason.

Coach Terry Stotts saw his team ranked sixth or higher in terms of of 3-point attempts every season under his reign until 2016-17. The past two seasons, Portland has dipped to 10th and then finally 19th this last year. Olshey tried to remedy this shooting issue — caused in part by teams keying on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum but also thanks to inconsistent play by Blazers wings — by bringing in veteran talent.

Olshey has said that he was unable to secure shooting on the wing either via the TPE from the Allen Crabbe trade with his mid-level exception, having targeted six players but being outbid for all of them.

Having struck out, Olshey quickly moved to plan B: duck the tax, and try to get less experienced shooting on the cheap.

With his limited means, the Blazers GM drafted Gary Trent Jr. then signed Curry and Nik Stauskas. They were added to a core of Zach Collins, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jusuf Nurkic, all anchored around Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner will return as a non-shooting ball handler, acting as the primary point guard for the bench.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Gary Trent Jr. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Putting this roster into play assumes a couple of things. First and foremost is that Portland will be able to enact an offensive scheme that allows some of their more limited players to thrive with purpose.

There should be some cause for hope in Rip City given how good Stotts is at doing this sort of thing. Stotts turned Mason Plumlee into a high-post passing genius in 2016, and made Allen Crabbe a valuable shooter despite holes in his developing game.

Let’s also set aside health in this conversation about Portland. I’ve heard a lot about how the Blazers have been the recipients of good health over the past couple of years, but that overlooks significant and untimely injuries to players like Harkless, Nurkic, Lillard, and Turner that have reduced the team’s effectiveness. There is this murmur out west that the Blazers are due for an injury and teams like the Denver Nuggets are finally going to be healthy, and I just don’t buy it.

Portland’s injury concerns are thus: Curry didn’t play all of last season with a leg injury, and Harkless is still recovering from last spring’s knee surgery. Anything outside of that is just anxiety.

The real pitfall for Portland is the idea of having to integrate new, young players to a scheme that desperately needs to breathe in order to maximize its star players. Collins is set for a big new role with Ed Davis gone, and we don’t know if he’s up for the challenge given how well he played with the veteran, particularly on defense. It’s likely that Stotts will need to play Meyers Leonard as a shooter within his scheme, and that opens up the possibility for further defensive inequities.

The Blazers were a good defensive team last season, ranking 8th in defensive rating and notching the second-best mark in that statistic during Stotts’ career in Portland. The Blazers know this, too. Apparently, they spent much of the first practice during Tuesday — up to 75% of it, according to Collins — working on defense.

The reality of the season in Portland is not held in the hands of the rest of the Western Conference getting better. Golden State was always going to top things out, and the Rockets are the most likely pick to finish second. Everything below that is up to chance, health, and chemistry. The Trail Blazers have the benefit of bringing back very good players, and the continued success of the team will rest in the gamble that Olshey has made in moving toward youth while trying to save cap space.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.