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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.

Report: Rockets’ Bruno Caboclo violates quarantine, must remain in room 10 days

Rockets forward Bruno Caboclo
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Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and 76ers star Joel Embiid expressed doubt about players following the NBA’s protocols in the bubble.

See Rockets forward Bruno Caboclo.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Players first arriving at Disney World is one of the most perilous times in the NBA’s plan. A player leaving his initial quarantine with coronavirus could undermine the whole operation.

The league has no practical choice but to be strict.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Luc Mbah a Moute didn’t arrive with the rest of the Rockets in Orlando. This makes four players who are behind in their ability to build chemistry and train with their teammates. At least Caboclo is just four days away from being four days away – major progress for him.

Houston has already clinched a playoff spot. But there’s some danger of slipping to the No. 7 seed and facing the powerful Clippers in the first round. So while they don’t have the most urgency for the seeding games, the Rockets are playing for something in the seeding games.

Lakers star LeBron James: #FreeWOJ!!

Adrian Wojnarowski
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Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley sent out a press release complaining about the NBA’s list of approved social-justice messages for jerseys.

ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski replied to the email, “F— you.” (Wojnarowski did not censor the first word.)

Wojnarowski apologized. ESPN condemned his behavior and, according to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post, suspended him two weeks.

Several NBA players have publicly supported Wojnarowski:

Lakers star LeBron James:

Clippers guard Lou Williams:

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray:

Heat big Bam Adebayo:

Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie:

Kings forward Harrison Barnes:

Pacers center Myles Turner:

Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver:

Wizards wing Troy Brown Jr.:

Trail Blazers guard Jaylen Adams:

LeBron’s message is particularly notable.

Obviously, he’s the NBA’s biggest star. His words carry weight.

Wojnarowski also has a long history of harshly criticizing LeBron. Here are just a few examples.

But if he can get over The Letter from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, LeBron can probably get past anything written about him.

Report: Brooklyn near deal with Lance Thomas for restart

Lance Thomas Brooklyn
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Still rounding out their roster for the NBA restart in Orlando, the Brooklyn Nets have reached out to bring back veteran forward Lance Thomas.

Thomas, who went through training camp with Brooklyn but was cut right before the season, will sign as a substitute player for Brooklyn, reports Alex Smith with SNY.TV.

Thomas is an eight-year NBA veteran who spent the last four of that with the Knicks. He can play the three or a floor-spacing small four, with New York using him more as a power forward in recent years. He’s averaged 5.2 points per game in his career and is known more as a good player to have in the locker room and guy who can soak up 15-20 minutes a night and not hurt a team. Brooklyn had Thomas in at training camp and liked his fit, but they didn’t have a roster spot for him.

They do now. Three Nets players — Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, and Taurean Prince — tested positive for the coronavirus and will not be at the Orlando restart. Wilson Chandler opted out of playing. All four of them can be replaced by substitute players for the remainder of this season, so the Nets signed Jamal Crawford, Michael Beasley, and Donta Hall. Thomas rounds becomes the fourth member of that group. (Note: The Nets cannot sign players to substitute for Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant because they are out due to injury; substitute players are only for players missing due to coronavirus issues.)

Thomas will be a free agent this offseason.

Lance Thomas and Brooklyn enter the bubble in Orlando as the seven seed in the East.

Like LeBron, Anthony Davis also to wear own last name on jersey in Orlando

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Anthony Davis will wear his own name on the back of his jersey when the Los Angeles Lakers return to action.

Davis confirmed his decision Sunday in a conference call from Orlando, where the Western Conference-leading Lakers are beginning team workouts.

Davis and LeBron James both declined to choose a social justice message to replace their names on the back of their jerseys during the NBA restart.

Davis, a seven-time NBA All-Star, said he was “torn between” choosing from among the 29 approved messages and sticking with his name.

“For me, I think the name ‘Davis’ is something I try to represent every time I step on the floor,” he said. “I just think my last name is something that’s very important to me, and also social justice as well. But (I’m) just holding my family name and representing the name on the back to go through this process … and people who have been with me through my entire career to help me get to this point, while still kind of bringing up things that we can do for social injustice.”

James said he decided to forgo a social justice message because the available options didn’t “resonate” for him or his particular feelings about the movement. James would have liked to choose his own slogan, but wasn’t angry that it wasn’t allowed.

Both James and Davis have been outspoken about social justice causes in the past, although the younger Davis is less vocal than James.

The Lakers open play in Orlando on July 30 against the Clippers.