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2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview

Will the Trail Blazers improve enough to contend with the West’s elite this season?

Basketball Insiders

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Damian Lillard’s series-clinching three-point shot put the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. However, in the Conference Semifinals, they received a stiff reminder about how far they still have to go from the San Antonio Spurs on their way to a championship.

With a young core and an improved second unit, the Trail Blazers hope to be better prepared to take on the West’s elite.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers.

Five Guys Think

Two years ago, LaMarcus Aldridge was intimating that he’d do precisely what Kevin Love just did and leave what was then a pretty uninteresting Blazers team for greener pastures somewhere else. Now, however, the grass is plenty green right where Aldridge is, thanks to an exciting first-round win in last year’s postseason and a roster that’s pretty flush with talent. Damian Lillard is an All-Star now, and with good role players like Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews, Dorell Wright, Robin Lopez, Steve Blake, Chris Kaman and C.J. McCollum, they’re deeper than they’ve been in years. The Western Conference is a tough place to live, but these young Blazers are champing at the bit to get back out there and give their title hopes another go.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

-Joel Brigham

The Portland Trail Blazers were one of the league’s surprising teams in 2014 and should once again flirt with 50 victories and a playoff berth. At the top of the lineup are All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge driving the success. Aldridge was nearly out of the door a year ago, but the team’s direction has the veteran forward saying he’d like to retire with the organization.  The 2014-15 campaign will be a big one for the franchise in regards to its future makeup. Aldridge, center Robin Lopez and guard Wesley Matthews will all be unrestricted free agents next summer. Forward Nicolas Batum will be a free agent in 2016. So while the club is basking in its recent success, if the team struggles you have to keep in mind their front office might have to pull off some moves to prevent a mass exodus.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

The newly acquired Chris Kaman will add something to a Trail Blazers team that has been capably led by stalwart Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The major concern for the Blazers will be one that often affects overachieving young teams—the want of more. Often, after young players experience some level of success, they tend to want more: shots, money and recognition. With Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez each entering the final year of their contracts, Blazers fans should only hope that the group collectively continues to be as cohesive and unified as they were last season. C.J. McCollum opened eyes up during Summer League play in Las Vegas, so whether he gets more minutes and opportunity—and whether he thrives—is a storyline worth keeping an eye on out in Rip City. Out in the Northwest Division, though, as long as Aldridge and Lillard remain healthy, it will be the Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder battling for the division crown while the other three teams are left fighting for scraps.

2nd place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

I jumped on the Portland bandwagon when they drafted Damian Lillard, as I was a big fan when he was at Weber State. However, he has exceeded all expectations in his first two seasons in the NBA, mine included. He’s already an All-Star and All-NBA player, which is incredible. The Blazers went from being a rebuilding lottery team to having one of the better one-two punches in the league in Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and they should remain a playoff squad as long as those two players are there. We saw what Portland could be when these players are clicking last year in the postseason when they upset the Houston Rockets in the first round. Portland didn’t make any drastic moves this offseason, but they really didn’t need to. Bringing back the same pieces was smart, as their chemistry will be good and they clearly have the talent to be an elite team in the Western Conference.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

For the second straight summer the Trail Blazers had a quiet, but very efficient summer. This team’s starting five is set, but last year they were exposed for their lack of a bench in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs. By adding Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, they solidified one of their two most important bench positions with guys who are proven to be capable starters. With their most pertinent needs addressed and a young core that is poised to improve off of the great experience they gained last year, few teams in the West should be feared the way they Trail Blazers are. As long as they stay healthy, it’s not out of the question that they could top the Oklahoma City Thunder and win the Northwest Division.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge. While point guard Damian Lillard has received a lot of the headlines, it is forward LaMarcus Aldridge who is the unquestioned top offensive producer for the Blazers. Aldridge was criticized early in his career for his lack of toughness, commitment to rebounding and ability to bang in the post. In his eighth year with three straight All-Star appearances, Aldridge has shredded those critiques to become one of the top power forwards in the NBA (if not the best). Aldridge is a mismatch nightmare against nearly every opponent he faces. His offensive versatility includes the ability to stretch defenses with his silky-smooth mid-range jumper, a variety of polished post moves and the strength and athleticism to overpower opponents. This unique skill set helped Aldridge continue improving his offensive production every year of his career once again with career-high averages of 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds per game and a team-leading PER of 21.8. Although Lillard and forward Nicolas Batum figure to become more involved on offense this year, the Blazers will still run the offense heavily through Aldridge as their go-to scorer.

Top Defensive Player: Nicolas Batum. Head coach Terry Stotts has made a commitment to including Batum more often in the offense since coming to Portland thanks to his unique skill set. The one skill Batum has been relied upon since coming to the Blazers as a 20-year-old rookie is his ability to play lock-down defense. Batum is one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA thanks to his 6’8′ frame, 7’1′ wingspan and great lateral foot movement. Since his rookie season, Batum has been tasked with guarding the best player on the opposing team whether it’s bigger forwards like LeBron James or Kevin Durant or even some of the elite point guards such as Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker. Batum has effectively limited the stars of the NBA to earn his best defensive rating of his career last season at 106. Batum has the ability to stuff the stat sheet on a nightly basis thanks to his defensive versatility, averaging .7 blocks, .9 steals and a career-high 7.5 rebounds per game. While Batum’s role on offense is expected to grow this season, fans can expect Batum to step up against the best player on the opposing team and pepper the stat sheet on both offense and defense.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard. Since coming to the Blazers as a rookie out of Weber State, Lillard has been given the keys to run this team and create plays on offense. Lillard was selected to his first All-Star game last year in just his second season by averaging 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and .8 steals per game. With his career-high scoring and electric offensive play last year, Lillard announced himself as one of the elite guards in the NBA. Not only has Lillard increased his offensive production, he has also developed a more complete grasp of the Blazers’ offense. Lillard is the spearhead to Stotts’ offensive game plan, creating opportunities with his incredible speed and athleticism. In an offense that requires hitting open shots when available, Lillard is in a great situation with shooters like Wesley Matthews and Batum surrounding him as well as Lillard being unafraid to take the open shot himself. To go with his elite speed and athleticism, Lillard has also improved his three-point jumper to 39.4 percent on nearly seven attempts per game. Lillard’s threat as a three-point shooter makes him nearly unguardable at moments and opens up offensive opportunities for his teammates drastically with his ability to drive, shoot, draw fouls or pull up for a mid-range shot. Lillard will be counted on along with Aldridge to be the top offensive producers this season, but also will be in charge of keeping his teammates involved and the offense balanced.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard. Not only is Lillard the top playmaker for the Blazers, he has also displayed the ability to hit the clutch shot repeatedly in his short career. Everybody remembers his amazing series-winning, last-second three against the Rockets last year in the playoffs to push the Blazers past the first round for the first time in 14 years. However, Lillard really has been clutch since coming into the NBA and the stats show it. According to NBA.com, of the top 25 players in clutch field goal attempts for the regular season last year, Lillard finished with the second highest FG percentage at 47.3 percent, trailing only LeBron James (48.4 percent). Lillard was equally clutch when it came to hitting shots from afar; 44.2 percent of them came from three-point range, which ranks second among players in the top 25 of clutch three-point attempts last season. It’s safe to say Lillard is unafraid of the big moment and has proven to be the best option in late game situations. Expect Lillard to continue having the ball in his hands at the last second and don’t be surprised if he continues to hit game-winning shots.

The Unheralded Player: Robin Lopez. With Aldridge and Lillard getting all the attention, even some of the most attentive Blazers fans forget what a huge presence Robin Lopez has been since coming to the team last year. The 7’0 center was brought on with limited expectations. However, Lopez immediately stepped up as the starting center and became a defensive force for the Blazers. After being limited in his career by injuries, Lopez managed to remain healthy throughout the season and averaged career-highs 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as well as 11.1 points per game. Lopez has also brought toughness to the front court with his defensive presence and focus on controlling rebounds. More importantly, Lopez’s presence allows Aldridge to move back to his natural position of power forward and gives him more options to attack offensively. In the past, Aldridge was forced to play center due to injuries and personnel, which limited his ability on offense and matched him up against bigger players. Lopez is definitely under-the-radar in terms of his production and his important role on both offense and defense. While Lopez may not be the center of the future that fans hope for, he’s the perfect fit for the team right now.

Best New Addition: Steve Blake. In what will be his third stint with the Blazers, the team signed point guard Steve Blake to add depth and a veteran presence to the Blazers’ backcourt. With limited cap space, the Blazers were not able to make a big free agent splash, so they managed to get a player they are comfortable with and knows the organization in Blake. Blake will assume the back-up point guard role from Mo Williams, who left in free agency, as well as run the offense for a young Blazers bench. While Blake may not have the offensive potency that Williams showed, he is a calming veteran presence who can run the offense effectively, play pressure defense, not turn the ball over and hit the three-point shot. Blake will be a huge influence on the young Blazers’ guards like C.J. McCollum and Will Barton as well as bring toughness off the bench that will be needed in late-game situations and in the postseason. For his price and potential impact, Blake is the best addition to the Blazers this offseason.

– Kyle Cape-Lindelin

Who We Like

Neil Olshey: Blazers GM Neil Olshey came to an organization starved for the playoffs and a team that was decimated by injuries to their young stars. Olshey quickly rebuilt the Blazers to a playoff team with the help of established players like Aldridge, Batum and Matthews while adding a star in Lillard through the draft. After a series of fired GMs, it seems apparent the Blazers found their man to manage the roster. Expect Olshey to continue to develop and add to the core going forward, even though he has already assembled a talented contender.

Terry Stotts: Stotts was hired as the head coach three years ago and has completely revamped the team’s offense from the Nate McMillan era. Going from one of the slowest paces and low-scoring offenses run by McMillan, Stotts has evolved the offense into one of best. Averaging 106.7 points per game, which ranked fourth in the NBA, and an incredible offensive rating of 111.5, which ranked second in the NBA, Stotts has shown he’s one of the best offensive coaches in the NBA. Stotts has made this offensive transformation by allowing freedom to his stars Aldridge and Lillard as well as giving opportunities to players like Matthews and Batum thanks to an emphasis on moving the ball, feeding the post and shooting open three-point shots. Stotts appears to be the ideal coach for the Blazers this season and moving forward.

Wesley Matthews: While Batum may be the best and most versatile defender on the Blazers, Matthews is definitely the heart of the team on defense. Matthews has developed great defensive chemistry with Batum to create one of the best perimeter defensive duos in the West. Matthews’ toughness fires up the entire team and he’s always willing to take the big shot to electrify the team. Matthews has grown into a regular scoring threat as he enters his sixth season by posting a career-high 16.4 points per game on .441 percent shooting from the field. A true, blue collar player, Matthews does all the little things including playing solid defesnse, mentoring young players as a leader and stepping up to hit big shots that the Blazers will need this upcoming season.

Will Barton: Third-year guard Will Barton emerged as a spark plug of offensive energy last season from a bench that was heavily criticized for its lack of production. Barton uses his electrifying athleticism and shooting stroke to put up points in a hurry. While Barton has struggled with consistency since entering the NBA, the Blazers hope another year of seasoning and focus on development will push Barton to become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who is an offensive threat off the bench.

C.J. McCollum: Second-year guard C.J. McCollum was hampered by a foot injury that caused him to miss 44 games last season as well as losing minutes to veteran Mo Williams off the bench. However, with Williams’ departure and McCollum being fully healthy, expect his role to increase this year as the team searches to find an offensive spark off the bench. McCollum’s ability to create his own shot and his strong shooting stroke along with increased minutes should prove that he can be the answer to the Blazers’ troubling bench production.

– Kyle Cape-Lindelin

Strengths

The Blazers’ strengths have definitely shown through the last two seasons under Coach Stotts on offense. The Blazers’ incredibly effective offense relies on their great three-point shooting and offensive versatility. Thanks to the team’s stars in Lillard and Aldridge, they have two go-to players on offense who can take over a game. However, the Blazers stay balanced by running the offense through the post, moving the ball, attacking the hoop and hitting open shots. Another key strength for the Blazers is their match-up ability on defense. Led by Batum and Matthews, the Blazers can match up with some of the best perimeter attacks in the NBA. Meanwhile, the size and presence of Lopez allows him to match up with some of the elite big men while Aldridge can hold his own on defense with this great size, athleticism and length. The Blazers will continue to rely on hot shooting and riding their stars in Aldridge and Lillard to get the Blazers back to the playoffs and try to become an elite team in the West.

– Kyle Cape-Lindelin

Weaknesses

While the Blazers are attempting to address their depth issues by putting faith in the development of their young players, the Blazers still have major issues once their starters take a rest. As their bench relies on young players who are still struggling with consistency, the Blazers routinely lost leads and were forced to over-play their starters last year. Veterans like Kaman and Blake may help, but it’s still a concern. With Stotts being forced to ride his starters to win games, it could also create another problem that Blazers’ fans know all too well: injuries. If the Blazers lose any of their starters, it could be a major blow to the team and with so little room for slippage in the West. The Blazers could go from battling for home court to fighting to even make the playoffs. Another weakness that hurt the Blazers last season was being too predictable on offense. Too often, the Blazers fell into a habit of jacking up three-point shots or trying to force feed Aldridge. The Blazers will need to be injury free this year, remain in a consistent, balanced offense attack and hope their young players develop into quality production off the bench to keep them from dropping off in a loaded Western Conference.

– Kyle Cape-Lindelin

The Salary Cap

The Trail Blazers are hard-capped at $80.8 million after using most of their $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception on Chris Kaman and their $2.1 Bi-Annual Exception on Steve Blake.  With 15 guaranteed players, the Blazers aren’t near the hard cap, or even the $76.8 million tax threshold.  Diante Garrett has a contract guaranteed for just $30k while Darius Morris and James Southerland have no guarantees.  Barring a trade or a buyout with another player, the trio aren’t likely to make the team but may represent the Blazers in the NBA D-League once cut.  The Blazers still have $505k of their MLE remaining, but given that’s less than the $507,336 rookie minimum contract – it isn’t enough to sign a player before the season.  Joel Freeland and Victor Claver are both eligible for extensions (until Halloween), otherwise they’ll be restricted free agents next summer.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

Best Case

57-25

I consider the Blazers more likely to regress because so many of their players had career years, but some are still young enough to improve, especially on defense.  That is where all the slack is for the 16th-ranked team on that end, and improvement there will likely be needed to offset regression on offense for a squad that benefited from a lot of career years a season ago. In this scenario, Lillard improves significantly on defense (which happens for a lot of third-year players), while Batum also gets even better on that end, building on his all-tournament performance at the World Cup.  Batum has the length and athleticism to be an All-NBA caliber defender, but his upright stance and wavering intensity have prevented it.  Lillard also improves his distribution and finishing at the basket. Aldridge and Matthews prove that their shooting a year ago was no fluke, and Coach Stotts is able to cobble together an effective bench rotation from Kaman and the young bigs.  Blake plays well enough to avoid the wrath of Portland basketball Twitter, which has reviled seemingly every Blazers’ backup point.  Most importantly, the Blazers continue to have near-perfect health.

But even if everything goes as well as it can, this was a 52-win team a year ago by point-differential, so 57 wins seems like the ceiling.

Worst Case

46-36

The crazy good health run ends, as the Blazers regress to the mean.  If Lillard or Aldridge miss significant time, they really have no adequate replacement for either who has proven capable of playing big minutes at this point.  The squad goes a little colder from three-point range, and a great offensive squad regresses to merely good even when healthy.  Coach Stotts proves unable to improve the defense (he has never presided over a great defense in his head-coaching career), which regresses slightly.  Teams below Portland like Golden State, Memphis, Phoenix, Dallas, and New Orleans all improve, and the Blazers end up with a winning record but out of the playoffs.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Can the Blazers stay healthy enough to reach elite status in the West?

While the Blazers were able to remain largely healthy for most of last year (and more importantly, the end of the year), the Blazers have a sad history of seasons being derailed by injury. With their lack of depth, any major injury to not only their stars Lillard and Aldridge, but any of their starters could be catastrophic to their playoff chances. The Blazers proved to be one of the best teams in the West when healthy and confident last year. But with no room for error in the West, Stotts will need to manage his starter’s minutes and hope the young player are ready to contribute consistently to the team in order for them to reach the next level of the playoffs.

– Kyle Cape-Lindelin

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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