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Do Blazers have chance at Western Conference Finals again this year?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Portland Trail Blazers have several new wing players, and a new face at center. It’s a time of transition here in Oregon, and last year’s the Western Conference Finals team isn’t even guaranteed a spot back in the postseason in a 2019-20. But after media day on the eastern bank of the Willamette river on Monday, sights are set high in Rip City. Speaking to reporters in the first official media access of the season, Damian Lillard said that the team’s focus is to win a championship.

Meanwhile, the question Lillard should be asking is whether Portland will be able to return to the Western Conference Finals.

Despite the Golden State Warriors losing Kevin Durant to the Brooklyn Nets and Klay Thompson until 2020, the best team out west is still a formidable opponent. Portland’s Western Conference Finals rival from last season packs a powerful punch. Meanwhile, the rest of the conference has bolstered their rosters in anticipation of Golden State’s fall.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are now members of the Los Angeles Clippers, Anthony Davis is finally on the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz have gotten stronger, and the Denver Nuggets are year wiser. Portland, meanwhile, finally swapped out its poorly shooting wing players for… well, we don’t know yet.

Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood will now fill the bulk of the minutes at the 2 and 3 spots for Terry Stotts. They take over for Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, whose up and down performances have annoyed Blazers fans for years.

The only problem is that both Bazemore and Hood had poor shooting years season, and there’s not much evidence to suggest they can play above the average from where Portland needs them most. Both Hood and Bazemore are not exceptional shooters from above the break, which is where Aminu and Harkless were most needed for the Blazers the past few seasons.

In favor of both of these players is context. With the way clear, Hood gets a shot to be the man with Portland after re-signing. He’ll get a full year in Stotts’ system, and may be aided by additional pace, which Portland has already started practicing. Bazemore, meanwhile, said at media day that the situation with the Atlanta Hawks was not ideal last year. Without being too transparent about it, Bazemore made it known that it wasn’t always easy to give a full effort for the Hawks.

The hope is that with more rangy, athletic wings, Portland will be able to capitalize on what Bazemore and Hood bring to the table. It also might behoove Stotts to place them in the corners more often.

Both players have shown a propensity to shoot from the edges, which might make sense for a Horns-heavy system like the one Stotts runs. Lillard and CJ McCollum are hard-driving guards, and extra passes to the corners might be the best way to utilize both players as shooters. Past data shows each shoot better there than anywhere else on the 3-point line.

But there is still the issue with Hassan Whiteside. Jusuf Nurkic will be out until 2020, and in the meantime Whiteside is his replacement. Portland utilized Nurkic in a high-post passing role last season, one where he excelled. The former Miami Heat big man has talked up his ability to share the rock in practice already, but the numbers are not in his favor. Last season for the heat, Whiteside did not total double-digit assist to any of his Miami teammates through the course of the year. Statistically, Whiteside is one of the worst assist percentage centers in the NBA.

This is without considering Whiteside’s main knock: that he’s a stat-chasing shot blocker and not much else. Much has been made over the past few seasons with the Heat about his on/off numbers, and how his individual defensive presence doesn’t actually translate to team efficacy. That’s a real concern, but counteracting that maybe the fact that Whiteside is in a contract year.

This will be the last season of a 4-year, $98 million deal that Whiteside signed in 2016. He’s still just 30 years old, and looking for at least one more big payout. A season where he proves he can be a team player — and that he’s coachable — is in Whiteside’s best interest. That could very well be the thing that tips the scales in Portland’s favor as they hope for a career performance out of him. That, and he apparently gets along with Lillard quite well.

The Blazers are going to miss Aminu (although not his groan-inducing air balls from beyond the 3-point line). He was Portland’s best individual defender, and a reasonable enough team defender. The Blazers were better with him on the floor than without no matter what. Trying to fill his gap with third-year big man Zach Collins at the four position will be a challenge, particularly because Collins is a natural center. But like many teams in the West, the Blazers’ main issue is that they have a lot of new faces. In times of large change over, the best measure of success is team culture, star leadership, and coaching acumen. Portland has all three in spades.

The question about whether Portland can return to the Western Conference Finals is sort of silly at this juncture. It’s October, and the teams haven’t even played a game yet. But the Blazers’ run to the final conference playoff series of the year in 2019 was extremely unlikely as it was. Who is to say it couldn’t happen again? This team rode Enes Kanter past Nikola Jokic for god’s sake.

Lillard and McCollum are just reaching their peaks, and are two of the most formidable scorers in the NBA. Lillard made real strides on defense last season, particularly in the playoffs. If they can both play above their prior performances, they could make up for what they lost on the wing in Aminu. To that end, Bazemore and Hood are no slouches on defense, either.

Portland will look much different as they take the floor this season. But there has been perhaps too much negative talk about the individual parts that they added over this summer. Those who watch the Blazers know that this organization is one that coagulates around its superstar in Lillard. Everything outside of that is secondary.

And with how last season went — including Lillard’s wave goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder organization as we know it — who are we to doubt his leadership?

The Trail Blazers may not be a Western Conference Finals team this year. But nobody knows how this new West is going to shake out, and a team with the kind of consistency and starpower that they have in Portland has as good a shot as anyone.

Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu not expected to be back for Magic when games restart

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Jonathan Isaac was having a breakout season for Orlando. He had become a go-to defensive stopper for the Magic, a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He was going to get All-Defensive team votes this season and looked like a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. (On offense he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests, but he is still a project.)

He hyperextended his knee and suffered a bone bruise in January, but it looks like neither he nor veteran Al-Farouq Aminu (torn meniscus) will be on the court for the Magic when games restart in July, reports Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel.

Injured forwards Jonathan Isaac (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee) most likely will not be healthy enough to return…

“Not a whole lot of news there,” [Magic president of basketball operations Jeff] Weltman said when asked about the possibility of Isaac or Aminu returning. “As always, we’re going to wait and see how they respond to rehab. They’re both working very hard.

“There’s a difference of being healthy and then being safely healthy. It will have been a long, long time since those guys played and you know organizationally that we’re never going to put our guys in a position where they’re exposed to any sort of risk of injury. So that being said, we’ll just continue to see how they progress.”

Put plainly, the risk is not worth the reward. Isaac is a key part of what the Magic want to build in the future and they do not want to push him too hard to return for this handful of games.

Come July, the Magic will head down the street to the Walt Disney World resort complex in Orlando as the eighth seed in the East with a 5.5 game lead over the ninth-seeded Wizards (who will not have John Wall back). If Washington can close that gap to four games or fewer during the eight “seeding games,” then there will be a two-game play-in series between the teams, with the Magic just needing to win one of the two to advance (assuming they are still the eight seed).

After that, it’s on to the first round of the playoffs and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Isaac’s defense would be helpful against Bradley Beal and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Magic are thinking bigger picture.

Winning percentage will determine final seedings in NBA restart; regular tiebreakers used

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Heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando, the Trail Blazers are the nine seed in the West, followed by the Pelicans and Kings. All three of those teams are 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed, however, Portland gets the nine seed because it played two more games than either New Orleans and Sacramento, went 1-1 in those two games, and that gives Portland a slightly better winning percentage (.439 to .438).

That winning percentage matters because it’s how the league will determine seeding in a situation where teams have played a different number of games, reports Tim Bontemps of ESPN.

In practical terms, this may not matter much.

In the West, if Portland and New Orleans both went 8-0 in the seeding games then winning percentage would play a role with the Blazers getting the higher seed. However, that scenario is highly unlikely. More likely is wins and losses in Orlando will decide this and other tiebreakers (New Orleans beat Sacramento in their one head-to-head meeting, but our projected schedule for those teams has them playing twice, so the head-to-head tiebreaker is still up in the air). Because of how the records shake out, tiebreakers are irrelevant to Portland — it will not tie any teams, winning percentage will decide their seed.

In the East, winning percentage is irrelevant for the playoff chase — either Washington gets within four games of Orlando hand forces play-in games for the final playoff spot, or it doesn’t and Orlando is in.

Eight teams not headed to Orlando considering mini-camps, summer games to help players

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Nine months is a long time to go without playing a basketball game.

That’s what the eight teams not going to the NBA season restart in Orlando — Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Minnesota, and New York — face. And for all of those teams except the Warriors, developing young players to be the future core of the franchise is their goal, and no games from March to December will set that effort back.

Which is why the teams are talking about “mini-camps” — think college spring football — with two teams at least playing each other during those camps, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Among the front-office ideas presented to the NBA, sources said:

• A combination of voluntary and mandatory workouts for two weeks in July.
• Regional minicamps in August that include joint practices for a period of days and approximately three televised games.

Those teams also want other “voluntary” team workouts and to start their training camps for next season earlier than the teams headed to Orlando.

The NBA isn’t going to grant teams everything on their wish list, but there should be some allowance for organized mini-camps and scrimmages/exhibitions. This would be particularly important to New York (and maybe Chicago), where a new coach will be installing a new system and trying to start a new culture.

Those eight teams missed out on 17 or so “meaningless” games with their season put on hold, games that would have meant something in terms of developing young players and giving guys key minutes. The league should — and almost certainly will — take steps to allow those off-season camps and scrimmages, helping teams get their player development programs back on track.

Gregg Popovich’s powerful statement: ‘Our country is in trouble and the basic reason is race’

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As protests continue across the nation — sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, but really the culmination of decades of systemic and, sometimes, overt racism across the United States — NBA voices have spoken up. Players, coaches, and staff have done more than take to social media, they have participated in and led marches across the nation, and put their money where their mouth is.

One of those voices is Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

He had spoken to Dave Zirin at The Nation, and on Saturday he released a powerful video statement through the Spurs.

Popovich has been at the forefront of NBA voices willing to speak out on social issues and criticize President Donald Trump. Popovich’s voice carries a lot of weight, both as a leader of men, and as a former Air Force officer who underwent intelligence training and specialized in Soviet studies.

In addition to coaching the San Antonio Spurs, Popovich will coach the USA Basketball team in the Tokyo Olympics, now set for July of 2021.