Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Trail Blazers had to lock in premier backcourt, right?

2 Comments

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Calls for the Trail Blazers to break up their Damian LillardC.J. McCollum backcourt reached a fever pitch last summer. Portland had gotten swept in the previous two first rounds. The latest loss came as the No. 3 seed – the highest seed ever to get swept in a four-game first-round series.

But Trail Blazers president Neil Olshey held firm on keeping Lillard and McCollum together.

Those guards rewarded Olshey’s faith. Lillard hit an incredible series-winning 3-pointer against the Thunder in the first round. McCollum made several big shots against the Nuggets in the second round. Portland reached its first Western Conference finals in nearly two decades.

If keeping Lillard and McCollum, why other than for a season like that?

So, the Trail Blazers are doubling down. They extended Lillard (four years, projected $196 million) and McCollum (three years, $100 million) this summer.

Lillard’s super-max extension offer was nearly fait accompli once he qualified. It would’ve just been untenable to tell the franchise player he’s not worth that investment. Lillard is everything Portland could ask for – an elite player who works tirelessly to lift everyone around him. When designated-veteran-player extensions were designed, players like Lillard came to mind.

But I can’t shake the feeling not even he will live up to this deal. The salaries are so high and run from his age 31-34 seasons. And they don’t even kick for another two years. It’s so difficult to predict how Lillard will be playing in 2021, let alone 2025. If this doesn’t work with Lillard, it’d be a referendum on the whole super-max system. But maybe the system is that flawed.

Extending McCollum, who also had two years left on his deal, was less of an imperative. He just couldn’t feel as entitled to an extension offer. Maybe the price will be fair, though. It certainly isn’t outrageous. But like with Lillard, I don’t feel great about guaranteeing McCollum so much for his age 30-32 seasons.

This what happens when teams succeed, though. The Trail Blazers feel good about what they accomplished last season (as they should). They want to keep it going. Olshey and coach Terry Stotts also received contract extensions.

But the principals will have plenty of change around them.

Portland lost its entire postseason starting frontcourt. Al-Farouq Aminu (Magic) and Enes Kanter (Celtics) left via free agency. The Trail Blazers also traded Maurice Harkless to upgrade from Meyers Leonard to Hassan Whiteside.

Whiteside should help at center with Jusuf Nurkic still injured. But small forwards are generally more valuable than centers, which is why I disliked that trade for Portland – even with a couple surprisingly good moves to replace Harkless at small forward.

The Trail Blazers somehow got to trade Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore and re-sign Rodney Hood with the taxpayer mid-level exception(1+1, $11,721,900). But Bazemore and Hood skew more toward shooting guard on the positional spectrum.

Portland also drafted forward Nassir Little No. 25. I was lower than most on him, but even I thought getting him there presented good value. Still, he’s a project.

Another forward, Mario Hezonja (1+1 minimum), brings some raw skill. But he was available at the minimum for a reason.

I’m not sure how much Anthony Tolliver and Pau Gasol have left in the tank, but at one-year minimum deals, it’s worth finding out. Still, this is not a reliable big-man rotation.

Nurkic should help once he gets healthy. He was playing so well before getting hurt last season, which make Lillard’s and McCollum’s playoff accomplishments even more impressive. Those two led Portland with their top teammate sidelined.

Yet, context can also go the other way. The Trail Blazers advanced through the easier side of the Western Conference playoffs then got swept by the Warriors in the conference finals. With a different draw, Portland could have gotten eliminated early once again.

Of course, that didn’t happen. We know only what did happen.

The Trail Blazers flourished last postseason then, in the aftermath, had the sensible-looking, expensive offseason that typically follows a deep playoff run. I’m just not sure they’ll be better long-term for it.

Offseason grade: C

Warriors owner Joe Lacob: We won’t tank

Former Warriors forward Harrison Barnes
Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Warriors are an NBA-worst 12-43. Stephen Curry will eventually get healthy. Klay Thompson will eventually get healthy.

This is Golden State’s best opportunity to secure a prime draft pick.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob, via Mark Medina of USA Today:

By the way, we’ll try to win every game. I’m not really about, ‘Let’s lose every game so we can get the best pick.’ You try to do that, you’re messing with the basketball gods. So we don’t believe in that.

Former Warriors executive Travis Schlenk (now Hawks general manager) admitted to tanking in 2012. Golden State had to convey its first-round pick if it didn’t land in the top seven. So, the Warriors traded their consensus top player, Monta Ellis, for an injured Andrew Bogut. Golden State lost 17 of its last 20 games, kept its pick and drafted Harrison Barnes.

The basketball gods were so mad, the Warriors went to the playoffs the next seven seasons and won three championships and two other conference titles.

Of course, Golden State will tank, which I define as any decision made – at least in part – to improve draft position through losing.

Management won’t instruct players not to give full effort. But tanking will show up in numerous other ways. The Warriors will be cautious with Curry’s and Thompson’s returns. Young players will get more minutes. If necessary, Steve Kerr might “experiment” with odd lineups not conducive to winning. Players often see these approaches, realize where the team is headed and lose focus late in lost seasons. That leads to even more losing.

Don’t get mad at Golden State for tanking. Hate the system that rewards it.

Though feel free to send a little animosity toward the Warriors for acting holier than though while tanking like everyone else does in a similar position.

Report: Kyrie Irving likely to miss an ‘extended period’ after shoulder procedure

Kyrie Irving
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kyrie Irving injured his shoulder earlier this season, opted against surgery, missed 26 games, returned, injured his knee then aggravated his shoulder.

It might be time for that shoulder surgery.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends Irving’s season. The Nets are looking forward to pairing Irving and injured Kevin Durant next season.

This latest setback raises questions about Irving’s ability to stay healthy and productive. We shouldn’t assume Durant will ever return to his elite form, either. But at least Brooklyn has major upside with such talented players.

Even they don’t get an opportunity to take advantage this season, the Nets (25-28) will likely still make the playoffs. Spencer Dinwiddie will take charge at point guard, just as he did with Irving previously sidelined.

Brooklyn will visit Boston on March 3. Celtics fans were salty about Irving missing the Nets’ previous trip to Boston. I doubt that changes if Irving doesn’t face his former team in a couple weeks.

But Irving and Brooklyn are looking at the bigger picture after a significant injury like this.

Is Brandon Ingram worth a max contract? Will he get one?

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Brandon Ingram has made the leap to become an All-Star player this season. His jumper has become a weapon — another success story for Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson — and his ability to get to the bucket was never in question. Now he’s averaging 24.9 points per game and is shooting 40 percent from three (up from 33 percent the first three years of his career).

Will that get him a max contract this summer? Does he deserve one?

It depends on who you ask. From Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

Most executives believe Ingram isn’t worth a max contract, which makes his future difficult to predict.

“I wonder if [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] will hardball [Ingram] and say, ‘Get an offer,'” one executive asked. “Where is he getting it from?”

Another exec went the other way, suggesting Griffin could offer Ingram a full max to ensure he couldn’t take a short-term deal elsewhere, cementing him as the No. 2 option alongside Zion Williamson.

“Securing the extra year and not allowing him to sign a two-plus-one with someone is worth it,” the executive said. “Is the few million less you might save really worth the extra year?”

There are a number of struggling teams in need of talent that could step in and try to poach Ingram with a two-year max offer this summer: The Hawks, Hornets, Knicks, and Pistons all have the cap space and a fit.

Whether they will make that offer — possibly tying their hands in the 2021 free agent market — remains to be seen. Ingram is an All-Star averaging an efficient 24.9 points per game this season, he has real value, but max contract value? I’ve had sources this season tell me they expect he’d get the max but he wasn’t quite on that level.

Do the Pelicans see him as a max player?

They didn’t last summer. After the trade from the Lakers (which sent Anthony Davis to L.A.), Ingram didn’t get a max contract extension offer from New Orleans and told NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman he would “absolutely not” have signed for less. The Pelicans were hesitant to extend Ingram because he was coming off a season-ending injury — blood clots in his arm — that could linger, plus how well would he pair with Zion Williamson. Ingram had no hard feelings about it.

“I understood everything that went on with the contract and everything, because they wanted to know if I was going to be extremely healthy, if something was going to come back,” Ingram told NBC Sports. “Once I figured out the reason why they didn’t want to do the extension, we didn’t go any further with it. I knew it was not going to be the number we wanted.”

Ingram has stayed healthy, and the Pelicans are +7.3 points per 100 possessions when Ingram and Williamson are on the court together (small sample size alert). Ingram has more value to the up-and-coming Pelicans than he does any team trying to sign him away, meaning the Pelicans likely match any offer.

The question remains, will that offer be a max? Ingram expects it to be, but the rest of the league is undecided.

Nikola Jokic says he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Leave a comment

For November, Nikola Jokic averaged 15.8 points per game, with a below-league-average 51 true shooting percentage and hitting 23.6 percent from three.

In February, Jokic is averaging 27 points a game with a 66.3 true shooting percentage and is knocking down 35.3 percent of his shots from three.

The difference? He admitted he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season, thanks in large part to an improved diet. Look at what Jokic said to ESPN over the All-Star break.

“I think I didn’t shoot it that well in the first [part of the season], my shots were always off and short and I was a little bit overweight.”

He then went on to say he has dropped 20-25 pounds.

It was pretty obvious to observers that, despite playing for Serbia at the World Cup (where his team beat Team USA), he had shown up to Nuggets training camp heavy. Jokic is so skilled that even heavy he was a good player, but he was not the elite center the Nuggets need to be a threat.

He is back to being that Jokic now, looking like an All-NBA player who deserves some MVP ballot consideration — and the Nuggets need that version of him.

Denver comes out of the All-Star break as the two seed in the West, but only 3.5 games separate seeds 2-5. Denver has a tougher remaining schedule the rest of the way than any of the other teams in that mix, slip up a few games and the Nuggets could start the playoffs on the road.