Nikola Jokic

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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.

Nuggets confident in core, prove it with Jamal Murray’s max extension

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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.

Seven players – Klay Thompson (Warriors), Jimmy Butler (Heat), Kemba Walker (Celtics), Kawhi Leonard (Clippers), Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks), Ben Simmons (76ers) and Jamal Murray (Nuggets) signed max deals this offseason. Another two – Kevin Durant (Nets) and Kyrie Irving (Nets) – signed contracts that can become max deals by incentives.

Of those nine plyers, only one has never been an All-Star:

Murray.

A year before necessary, Denver bet big on its top young guard, giving him five-year max deal that projects to be worth $170 million. I think Murray will be worth it. I’m even more confident he would’ve drawn max offer sheets in restricted free agency next summer. But I’m not convinced the Nuggets should’ve paid him so much before gathering another year of evidence.

Murray (No. 15 on our list of top 50 players in 5 years) is just 22 and highly talented. He scores all over the court. But a lack of foul-drawing limits his efficiency, and his playmaking responsibilities are eased by Nikola Jokic. Murray just hasn’t played like a max player yet.

The big plus to signing Murray early: The Nuggets locked him in for five years rather than risking matching a shorter offer sheet. They’ve improved four straight years and were the youngest team to win a playoff series last season. They want to keep this going.

Denver added to its young core by trading a top-10-protected first-round pick to the Thunder for Jerami Grant. His ability to defend small forwards, among other positions, will be welcome. So will his cutting around Jokic.

For now, Grant will share minutes at power forward with Paul Millsap, whose $30.35 million team option the Nuggets astutely exercised. Both will be free agents next summer. Denver can use both as leverage against each other when determining then how to proceed.

I’m not convince Bol Bol will ever stick in the NBA, but I love the value of trading for the No. 44 pick to get him there. I rated him No. 14 on my board because of his incredible upside. He adds a little more promise to a team that already had plenty.

The good-and-young Nuggets didn’t have a huge offseason. They didn’t need one.

Offseason grade: C+

Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook fit the pieces together? Will that be enough?

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This story tips-off 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.

“We’ll figure it out. Everything isn’t necessarily going to be smooth at first, there are going to be ups and downs, and that’s part of an 82-game season. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’ve caught a rhythm and everybody is on the same page going into the playoffs.”

That was a very rational sounding James Harden, echoing the mantra of his coach (for now) Mike D’Antoni: Great players figure out how to play together.

Harden enters this season paired with the third superstar who was going to help him bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Houston. First, there was Dwight Howard, an experiment that dissolved like Skittles in water. Then came Chris Paul, where the team had success but ran into the juggernaut of Golden State.

Now it’s Russell Westbrook — and from the moment the trade to land him went down, the questions about “how is this going to all work?” started to pop up.

We heard those same questions a couple of years ago: How are Harden and CP3 going to fit together on offense, they both need the ball in their hands? The answer turned out to be “very well, thank you” — the Rockets had one of the top two offenses in the league both seasons CP3 wore red. Both players had high usage rates but learned how to play off one another.

Can Harden and Westbrook — friends since high school who have played together before — find a fit that makes the Rockets even better?

Will that even be enough to lift Houston above the rest of the deep and very talented West?

There are no easy answers.

ABOUT THAT FIT…

The fit questions with Westbrook and Harden on offense focus on two key areas: Usage and three-point shooting.

Harden and Westbrook have been two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA in recent years (this is very different than when they played together on the Thunder years ago). Harden had a usage rate last season of 40.47, the second-highest in NBA history — behind Westbrook from two years ago. With Paul George on his team last season Westbrook’s usage rate came down to 30.9, still 10th highest in the NBA.

Harden also is the most isolation-heavy player in the NBA, with 48.7 percent of his possessions being in isolation last season (via NBA.com player tracking). Westbrook was ninth on that iso list.

Both players are used to having the ball in their hands and working without much help, so how is this going to work?

Probably better than people think. Eventually. As Harden said, “there are going to be ups and downs.” But one thing we will see is Houston getting the ball more to Westbrook to push the ball in transition — Chris Paul slowed the Rockets down the past couple of seasons (against D’Antoni’s instincts). Westbrook will speed them up, pushing from end-to-end and being a force of nature. And, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out recently, it’s easy to picture Harden being the trail man on those plays and stepping into wide-open threes.

“I think we’re going to get back to transition being more of a weapon for us,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told the Houston Chronicle. “That was something Mike did very well his first year for us. Mostly because we were an elite halfcourt team, we got away from it. With a weapon like Russell in transition, you have to use it.”

Also expect D’Antoni to stagger the minutes for Westbrook and Harden a decent amount, making sure they each get their time to shine.

All that said, Harden is a much, much more efficient scorer in the halfcourt. When both stars are on the court and the play settles down, it would be a mistake by Houston to take the ball out of Harden’s hands. He is the best scorer in the league right now, with an unstoppable step-back, and he’s an elite playmaker for others. He wins games getting buckets and the Rockets need to let him keep doing that.

Maybe the most interesting thing to watch is D’Antoni’s impact on Westbrook’s shot selection.

Houston launches more threes than any team in the league, and players who go there and see D’Antoni’s flashing green light universally see an increase in attempts (usually by more than 20 percent). The past two seasons, Westbrook has averaged 4.8 three-point attempts per game, hitting 29.3 percent of them. Do the Thunder want him taking more threes?

Also, Westbrook took as many midrange shots per game as the Rockets entire team last season. Westbrook took 4.9 shots a game between the paint and the three-point arc (and he shot a dismal 31.8 percent on them), the Rockets as a team averaged 4.8. Those are not shots the Rockets want and you know they are going to encourage Westbrook to take the rock all the way to the rim and attack. He should, and try to start drawing fouls at a high rate again. If that results in a bump in efficiency for Westbrook, it’s good for everybody.

The bottom line: Harden and D’Antoni are right, star players tend to figure it all out. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant did, with neither taking a big step back in usage rate. It’s been the same with other stars, including Harden and CP3. Westbrook can’t become a spectator when he doesn’t have the ball (as has been an issue at points in the past), but on offense expect the Rockets to figure it all out and be one of the top three offenses in the NBA.

WILL THAT BE ENOUGH TO WIN A TITLE?

This is the bigger question, and it rests on depth and defense.

Houston can roll out a closing five of Westbrook, Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela. That’s impressive. Few teams can put a better five on the court.

After that… things are less impressive. Austin Rivers is a solid backup point, and they have Danuel House and Gerald Green on the wing. Backup center, Tyson Chandler. Backup at the four, Gary Clark. Things get thin along the front line, and really once that first five is off the court this team is far less of a threat. Injuries can undo any team with title aspirations, but the Rockets, in particular, are not well equipped to be without one of their key guys for a lengthy stretch.

That’s another reason to expect D’Antoni to stagger Harden’s and Westbrook’s minutes during the regular season — he will want the offensive punch. Also expect some load management for the Rockets’ stars, even though neither is a fan of resting when healthy.

The bigger title question: Can this team defend well enough to win it all with Harden and Westbrook on the court a lot together in the playoffs?

The Rockets were 17th in the NBA in defense last season, although they were much better — 4.8 points per 100 possessions — better after the All-Star break (after assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik got them back in shape, but he’s in New Orleans now). Harden is a better defender than his reputation, he has quick hands and can get steals, but he’s not great on ball, and off-ball his focus can wander. Westbrook, for all his athleticism, also has a lot of defensive lapses and the Trail Blazers went at him at points in the playoffs a year ago.

Tucker is a quality, physical defender, and Capela can protect the rim, but can the Rockets slow down the West duos of LeBron James/Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard/Paul George, or even Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray? Nobody is going to stop those duos — just like nobody is going to stop Westbrook and Harden — but the teams that can best slow the other top duos down in the playoffs will have the best shot to advance. That’s where it’s hard to see the Rockets as elite.

Can Westbrook and Harden figure out how to play together and become an offensive force? The smart money is they do.

Is that going to be enough, or will the Rockets remain the second or third best team in the West? That is the real question, and Houston fans may not like the answer.

Team USA clinches worst-ever major-tournament finish with loss to Serbia

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Serbia talked big (“If we meet, may God help them“) then celebrated little.

This is how far Team USA has fallen.

The United States’ 94-89 loss to Serbia on Thursday ensures the Americans will finish seventh or eighth in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – their worst-ever finish in a major event. Their previous low was sixth in the 2002 World Championship.

Team USA will face the Czech Republic-Poland loser Saturday in the seventh/eighth-place game. The consolation end of the consolation bracket will provide no consolation. USA Basketball operates on a gold-or-bust standard, and this edition fell way short.

At least the Americans prevented greater embarrassment by making Thursday’s final score respectable. They fell behind by 25 points in the first quarter, appearing listless and heading toward a historically lopsided loss.

Kings forward Harrison Barnes (22 points) and Celtics guard Kemba Walker (18 points and eight assists) played far better than in yesterday’s loss to France. But they weren’t nearly good enough.

Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (28 points, shooting 7-of-14 on 3-pointers and 3-of-3 on 3-pointers) starred for Serbia. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (nine points, seven assists and no turnovers) dictated the game at his own pace.

This matchup was highly anticipated – just not here. Team USA and Serbia were expected to be top medal contenders. Instead, both fell in the quarterfinals.

Though facing major questions going forward, the United States still qualified for the 2020 Olympics as a top-two World Cup finisher among teams from the Americas. (Semifinalist Argentina is the other.) In a much deeper Europe, Serbia – which will finish fifth or sixth – didn’t crack that region’s top two.

Europe produced four teams in the top six – semifinalists Spain and France plus Serbia and the Czech Republic-Poland winner. The Americas’ third team was 13th-place Brazil. Another five European teams also finish ahead of Brazil – Czech Republic-Poland loser, Lithuania, Italy, Greece and Russia.

So, Team USA took the far easier route into the 2020 Games. The Americans didn’t even have to beat Serbia, which must secure one of four remaining spots in a qualifying tournament next year.

A rematch in Tokyo is far from assured. But a sequel between these potential-powerhouse teams could hold far more significance than Thursday’s game.

It’d be hard to hold less.

Argentina upsets Serbia, will face Team USA-France winner

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Serbia looked like Team USA’s prime threat in the FIBA World Cup.

But if the Americans beat France in tomorrow’s quarterfinal – no easy task itself – they will avoid Serbia.

Argentina upset Serbia, 97-87, in another quarterfinal Tuesday. Now, Argentina will play the United States-France winner Friday.

The Argentinians were confident and cohesive – traits they showed in their earlier giant-killing days. If the U.S. caught a break not having to face Serbia, it’s not much of one. Argentina (6-0) is dangerous.

Without players like Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni, Argentina might not be as talented as before. But this is also far from Team USA’s best roster.

Facundo Campazzo (18 points, 12 assists and three steals Tuesday) has proven to be a real sparkplug. Luis Scola (20 points) is still humming. Argentina shot 60% on 2-pointers and 44% on 3-pointers.

Serbia’s top NBA players – Nikola Jokic (16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists), Bogdan Bogdanovic (21 points) and (Nemanja Bjelica (21 points) – played well. But not nearly well enough. Serbia was too sloppy with the ball, too content to force bad shots and too lax defensively.

After winning its first four games (over Angola, Philippines, Italy and Puerto Rico) by more than 40 points per game, Serbia has lost two straight (to Spain and now Argentina). Now, Serbia will play for fifth place – a disappointing finish in a tournament it entered with medal expectations.