CJ McCollum

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Utah has talent, but how far can they go without a superstar?

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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.

Everybody is hot on teams in the Western Conference this year. The Los Angeles Clippers have several superstars. LeBron James finally has Anthony Davis with the Lakers. The Denver Nuggets are back and as deep as ever. The Houston Rockets are trying something new with Russell Westbrook. The Portland Trail Blazers have revamped much of their roster. That’s not left much room for the Utah Jazz, one of the favorites to dominate the regular season this year.

But the Jazz, who are moving forward with Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Ed Davis to go with much of the same team they fielded last year, are a team without a superstar. Depth and cohesiveness will be the weapon that Utah tries to wield against its rivals in West this season, and based on the personalities in play, there is real hope they can do just that.

At the core of this hope is one of the league’s best defenses. According to Cleaning the Glass, Utah was first in the NBA in opponent points per possession, effective field-goal percentage, and offensive rebounding rate. The Jazz were also stingy when giving up shooting fouls, and that perhaps made up for some of their inconsistencies on offense.

In 2018-19, Utah was a decent enough 3-point shooting team and a great squad at attacking the rim in terms of percentage. But the Jazz struggled on corner threes, where they took the second-most shots of any team in the NBA. This was coupled with some of the issues in how the Jazz offense ran. With Ricky Rubio at the helm — and in one of his better years, no less — the team lacked a dynamism at times when they needed it most. Without a team effort, it was often difficult for Utah to get something on the board in critical situations.

That’s the same worry that will present itself this season. Both Conley and Davis are great players, but they aren’t the type that will take over a game consistently in clutch moments. The hope is that Donovan Mitchell will be more comfortable in a role he filled last season, playing off the ball as a combo-guard much in the vein of CJ McCollum.

At age 23, there is lots of room to grow for Mitchell. Hyped as a rookie, opinion has started to turn on the Jazz third-year player. Last season for Utah, Mitchell failed to curb his turnover issues. He also didn’t create offense based off of his usage percentage in a way that was more efficient and it had been as a rookie. Mitchell shot 37 percent from 3-point line last year, which was in the 67th percentile for his position according to Cleaning the Glass. It will be massively helpful if Mitchell can continue to grow his game from beyond the arc this season.

Mitchell is more athletic and explosive than some of the other combo guards we’ve seen come through the NBA as of late, and the real question will be whether he can put aside his first instinct and play smarter next year. Jazz fans are hoping for just that, and perhaps having an older mentor in Conley will help push him in the right direction.

To that end, there are some interesting players on the Jazz roster that clash with the idea that this is a “team only” squad. Emmanuel Mudiay, Dante Exum, and Jeff Green are all players who can attack and play outside of the scheme of normal, boring Quin Snyder offense.

Of course, Utah’s strength will still be its team-oriented style. Joe Ingles is now paired with Bogdanovic in the frontcourt, and that should boost the Jazz 3-point shooting numbers significantly. Last year for the Indiana Pacers, Bogdanovic shot a whopping 52% on all corner threes. He also shot 42% on threes in total, and that should boost the Utah offense as both Conley and Mitchell create opportunities on the drive.

In this same concern is the idea that Conley, a significant upgrade over Rubio, can actually shoot the 3-pointer. The former Memphis Grizzlies star is a 37% career 3-point shooter, far better than Rubio’s mark of 31%. That should stretch the geometry of how opposing defenses try to contain Utah, and give everyone on the floor more opportunities to score efficiently.

The Jazz are a team without a superstar, and that’s cause for concern in today’s NBA. Utah’s defense will once again be great — Rudy Gobert will see to that. But when we talk about lacking stars, we’re really asking questions about a team’s ability to create outside of a team perspective. If the Jazz are going to pick a year to test the team-first theory, this would be the one to do it in the Western Conference. Utah should still be a favorite to make it into the playoffs, but how deep they will go will depend on if their new additions can galvanize in time to withstand attacks from opposing rivals.

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum not planning to use load management this year

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Many teams, including the Los Angeles Clippers, will be planning to rest their stars over the course of this regular season. The term “load management” entered our lexicon last season thanks to Kawhi Leonard, and both he and newest teammate Paul George will likely sit during regular season games so they are fresh for the postseason.

But some teams know they won’t have that luxury.

In a story posted by Joe Freeman of The Oregonian, both Damain Lillard and CJ McCollum said that they know they will not have the luxury of resting during the regular season. Instead, the Portland Trail Blazers guards expect to have to fight tooth and nail to stay in the Western Conference playoff race.

Via The Oregonian:

We’re not some big super team,” Lillard said. “So I don’t think we have the luxury to sit out, especially with how competitive the West is going to be.”

Added McCollum: “The race in the Western Conference is extremely tight. I don’t know if we can afford to Kawhi it, so to speak. You’ll Kawhi your way out of the playoffs.”

The Blazers are at sort of a weird spot in the NBA hierarchy. They reached the Western Conference Finals last season, but Jusuf Nurkic is injured and they basically swapped out their entire wing rotation over the course of the summer.

Folks are expecting Portland to either miss playoffs or be very good, with not a lot of room to land in between. That means that both Lillard and McCollum will need it to be on it each and every game.

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.

Kobe Bryant on best NBA duo: ‘I think it matters what they put around those two guys’

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James Harden and Russell Westbrook. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Eventually there will be Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, plus Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

The NBA is stacked with elite duos that are NBA contenders, and figuring out which twosome will fit best together has become part of making a prediction for who will win the NBA title.

Kobe Bryant was asked that in an interview by ESPN and he went another direction (hat tip Hoop Rumors).

“It doesn’t matter. I think it matters what they put around those two guys, and then what is the offensive and defensive system they’re going to be executing. You could have marquee names and put those marquee names together, and guess if they could play together or not, but it ultimately comes down to what system do you have them in and how does that affect the rest of the guys.”

He’s right. The Warriors had a big three but do they win without Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, solid bigs, and everyone there buying into Steve Kerr’s system? LeBron and Irving in Cleveland needed Kevin Love and J.R. Smith (pre-meltdown mistake) to win in 2016. The big three of LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh had Ray Allen and other guys to hit big shots, plus they lost before they all bought into Eric Spoelstra’s system. The Spurs won five rings with Tim Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili but always were the ultimate system team under Gregg Popovich.

It’s why a lot of pundits lean toward the Clippers when looking at the coming season — this was a 48-win, hard-to-play-against team well coached by Doc Rivers last season before Leonard and George showed up. But, will the Clippers be the same team and play with the same passion this season? Do the Lakers have the guard play needed to contend, and can Frank Vogel get them on the same page (can he keep his job)? Do the Rockets have the depth after their starting five? Will any of those teams fully buy into the coach’s system?

What makes this NBA season so fascinating and wide open is that every team has plenty of questions, there is no juggernaut. But next June, we may be talking less about the best duo and more about what Kobe said — which supporting cast and system worked best?

NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Players 45-41

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here is the link to players 50-46. These are players 45-41 on our list.

45. Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram is about to embark on a season that will tell us a lot about his future, about where he and his game will be when he turns 26.

Ingram — all skinny arms and legs, with potential he is trying to figure out — has been the poster child for the phrase “development is not linear.” There are stretches of games he looks like what the Lakers hoped to get in their No. 2 pick, a top-two scoring option for an NBA team. Then there are times you forget he is even on the court. His role kept shifting in Los Angeles — from being the first scoring option to trying to play next to LeBron James (something a lot of players have struggled with over the years) — making it especially hard to figure out who Ingram is, exactly. Maybe a fresh start in New Orleans will help Ingram find his game.

Let’s hope Ingram is healthy and on the court in 2024 — he missed the end of last season with Deep Vein Thrombosis (more commonly called blood clots). If it’s recurring it can end his career (as it did with Chris Bosh among others). Ingram had surgery and the prognosis has been favorable, he’s expected to be able to continue in the NBA, but a lot of teams (the Pelicans included) will want to wait and see what happens this season before offering a long-term contract (Ingram is a restricted free agent next summer).

Those teams also will want to see how Ingram reacts to his new home and team. Will it be another year of a slow start with Ingram coming on in the second half? Last season his second-half surge started when he began to show much better decision making about when to try to finish at the rim vs. when to kick out and find teammates. On a new team, one that wants to get out and run, will that improved decision making — as well as finishing at the rim — continue?

Consistency of doing these things well has been the issue in Ingram’s career. He needs to be more consistent shooting the three, on the boards, and defensively. He’s got the potential to do all of that very well, but it just hasn’t consistently come together for him yet. If he gets it all together this ranking will be too low, but our panel was not convinced he will find that consistency. He hasn’t done it so far.
—Kurt Helin

44. Jarrett Allen

Jarrett Allen is old school — and we’re not just talking the Afro (although that is sweet). It’s his game and persona. Allen is a center who wants to play in the paint on offense and hang back and protect the rim on defense, plus he will crash the glass. He’s not trying to step out to the arc, or get the ball and face-up, instead he’s going to set picks and roll, catch and score around the rim, grab boards, and on defense try to shut down anyone who is looking to attack. Allen also comes with old-school competitiveness and work ethic. He’s a quiet leader and an old soul. A throwback in the best of ways.

All of that has made Allan one of the anchors for the Nets, part of what lifted Brooklyn to the playoffs last season. Allen, in two seasons, became part of the Nets’ foundation that attracted Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Just how good can Allen ultimately be?

Very good if you ask anyone with the Nets. Former teammate Ed Davis thought Allen could become a $100 million player. Allen’s game and athleticism put his ceiling incredibly high.

To reach that ceiling, he has to become more physical and maybe stretch out his ability to score a little. One of the biggest knocks on Allen is he gets outmuscled inside, which in a conference with Joel Embiid (who is not going anywhere in the next five years) and even Brook Lopez, can be an issue. Allen looked stronger at Summer League, but that’s Summer League. He has to show it against the men of the NBA. Also, Allen took 68 percent of his shots in the restricted area and 90 percent in the paint last season, and while he is efficient at those if he can stretch it out it would be a boost.

Does Brooklyn believe in Allen? They just gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $40 million contract. While a lot of that is political (Jordan is one of Durant’s best friends), it’s a shot across the bow of Allen, who is going to have to prove he deserves to be the starter and the guy getting big minutes. Allen will do that, how soon is the question. This season? In a few? When he can prove it and get close to his ceiling will determine if Allen can get all that money Ed Davis thinks he should get paid.
—Kurt Helin

43. Victor Oladipo

Victor Oladipo – who was widely dismissed as insufficient return for Paul George – flourished early in the 2017-18 season. It was certainly enough to force reconsideration of the Pacers-Thunder deal. But it was still a small sample, not enough to conclude Oladipo had actually become a star and wasn’t on just a blip of a hot streak.

“I think this is who I am,” Oladipo said.

He spent the rest of the season proving it. Oladipo became an All-Star and ran away with Most Improved Player.

He’ll have to prove himself again. This time, he’ll get far more benefit of the doubt.

Oladipo has played like a star just a season and a half. He’s missed half of last season with a quad injury that could cause him to miss a significant chunk of next season, too. There’s no guarantee he reverts to peak form, let alone remains this good at age 32.

But Oladipo’s competitiveness, work ethic and tenacity are inspiring. Of the NBA’s go-to-scorer guards, none defend like him. He developed primary skills like shooting and ball-handling without losing his edge. Oladipo is easy to support, and he’ll have plenty of backers in this next stage of his career.
—Dan Feldman

42. CJ McCollum

CJ McCollum assuaged a lot of the fears Portland Trail Blazers fans had about him this postseason. When teams keyed off on Damian Lillard, McCollum was there to pick up the slack, continuing to pressure opposing defenses until they relented in defeat. The year culminated for McCollum during his Game 7 performance against the Denver Nuggets. He scored 37 points, sealing the game with a step-back jumper from the left elbow with 11.4 seconds left that was very Michael Jordan-esque.

So, now what?

McCollum just signed a new contract with the Trail Blazers that will keep him in Portland through 2023-24. At age 27, it seems likely McCollum will continue to get better on defense. We have already seen improvement this very postseason by running mate Lillard, who was one of the more effective point guard defenders.

Five years from now, Lillard and McCollum might not be paired up together. But the NBA is a place where not every star guard who can score 20 a night deserves his own team. That’s how you end up with a league of Devin Bookers.

McCollum is a worker, and more importantly, has a mentality that he is a top dog. Lillard or not, McCollum will try to get the rest of the league to recognize his undeniability, and the only way to do that is to get better on D. I’d expect big changes in the next 24 months.
—Dane Delgado

41. R.J. Barrett

I said this before the draft. I said this to Knicks fans after the draft. And I’ll say it again right here. In October of 2018, the 2019 NBA Draft was the RJ Barrett draft. He was the consensus projected No. 1 pick. He was the consensus Preseason National Player of the Year in college basketball. He was the guy that we all thought every franchise in the NBA would be tanking for the chance to draft.

And all he did during his one and done season with Duke was average a cool 22 points, seven boards, and four assists, a stat line that we haven’t seen anyone post since Penny Hardaway did is as a junior in 1992. Penny was a 21 year old playing in the GMWC. RJ was an 18 year old playing in the ACC.

That’s impressive.

I’ll add this: I also understand why there are people who question what RJ’s fit will be at the NBA level. There are legitimate concerns about his jumper. He’s left-hand dominant. He has not proven to be a lock-down defender. He’s ball-dominant, and he might not be good enough to play on the ball in the NBA. But after talking with people around the Duke program and that know RJ, I think that it is worth noting that he’s wired the way that Kawhi Leonard is and Kobe Bryant was. He’s uber-competitive. He has that alpha in him. And, most importantly, he is a worker. He may not end up having the potential to be a superstar in the NBA, but I do think he is the kind of person that is going to find a way to maximize every skill and physical tool he has. Put another way, I’m betting on RJ hitting his ceiling because I’m betting on that human being finding a way to figure it out.
—Rob Dauster