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2015-16 New York Knicks Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the New York Knicks’ 2015-16 season.

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The New York Knicks had big aspirations last season, only to fall incredibly short. After posting one of the franchise’s worst season in its storied history, the Knicks landed a couple of promising talents in the 2015 NBA Draft and re-stocked the roster with some interesting complementary players. The Knicks’ free agency was far from star-studded, but the players the Knicks added might end up being better fitting long-term pieces than many expected when the floor fell out from under the team last season. If everything works out as expected, the Knicks could find themselves in the hunt again.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 New York Knicks.

Five Thoughts

I’m in a no-win situation as it relates to the New York Knicks. If I give them a prediction that some deem overly optimistic, I will be accused of being a “homer” by some of my fellow scribes. If I am too harsh on them, rowdy and unruly fans that I encounter will give me an earful. What can I do other than speak the truth, then? Here it goes: Phil Jackson wasn’t brought to New York City to sign guys like Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo. Glen Grunwald could have done that and I’m pretty sure Donnie Walsh could have as well. Phil Jackson was brought to New York to get guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe or Draymond Green to buy into and thrive in the triangle. So let’s just be honest here and say that the caliber of the individual pieces that Jackson brought in this summer was “underwhelming,” to say the least. Still, though, that doesn’t mean that the Knicks will be worse off for it. Traditionally, if there is one thing that has haunted this franchise, it has been their propensity to swing for the fences rather than hit a single, bunt a guy to second base and drive him home on another hit. This summer, Jackson and general manager Steve Mills hit a few singles and are hoping for the grand slam next summer. This season will be about restoring the team to respectability, qualifying for the playoffs and beginning to assemble a team and a cast of characters that actually has a chance to compete for something meaningful in the NBA. At the end of the day, whether or not they are successful will depend on Carmelo Anthony and how he has recovered from his ailments. Even if Anthony is less than 100 percent, though, it is difficult to imagine the Knicks winning less than 20 games. And, if things break right—if Kristaps Porzingis is the real deal and if Derrick Williams can find his mojo—I think somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 wins is realistic. It’s difficult to imagine the Knicks making the playoffs this coming season, but even more difficult imagining the Philadelphia 76ers topping them in the Atlantic Division again, so I’ll put the Knicks in at four.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

This was a tough summer for New York since they missed on all of the marquee free agents that they were pursuing. With that said, they did add some veterans such as Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Kyle O’Quinn, Derrick Williams, Sasha Vujacic and Kevin Seraphin along with drafting talented prospects Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant. Getting Carmelo Anthony back at full strength should really help them as well. There’s no question that this team is more talented than last year’s Knicks squad and they will almost certainly improve their win total. But as far as making a huge leap and becoming a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, I just can’t see it happening. The East has a lot of talented teams this year and I don’t think New York can finish in the top eight. I’m excited to see what Porzingis can do and I really loved that draft pick because I think he has star potential, but it’s going to take time for him to become a difference maker since he’s very raw. I think this will be another down year for the Knicks, although I am expecting them to show progress from last year’s awful campaign.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

Must give credit where it’s due. Knicks team president Phil Jackson had a very respectable summer increasing the talent level in New York. The addition of Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn and Kristaps Porzingis is definitely an upgrade over last year’s supporting cast. But the Knicks’ hopes of leaving the Eastern Conference basement and making a legitimate playoff run rests on the health of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who hobbled through 40 games last season. The playoffs are not out of question for this group, but it’s far from a certainty. The team will need several favorable turns in the road to get there, but for Knicks fans at least there’s the hope of potentially being in the mix at season’s end.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

It probably isn’t a good thing that Knicks fans are talking more about their chances at landing Kevin Durant next summer than they are the actual upcoming season, but that’s a testament to a really cruddy, hangover-inducing 2014-15 season that left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths. The team absolutely is better this season, however, thanks in large part to underrated free agency acquisitions like Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez, and Carmelo Anthony will be healthy too, which of course is the biggest reason for hope in New York this year. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis was a controversial selection that probably won’t pay immediate dividends but shows real promise long-term, and other additions like Jerian Grant, Kyle O’Quinn and Derrick Williams round out an obviously improved roster that should contend for the playoffs again in 2016.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

The return of a healthy Carmelo Anthony could help dig the Knicks out of the division hole they fell into last season. The addition of first round pick Kristaps Porzingis will give the team more options and versatility. The rookie can spread the floor and also gained weight over the summer to fight for position. After a disappointing 17-win season, there is nowhere for the Knicks to go but up. They could surpass the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers in the divisional standings.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jessica Camerato

Top of The List

Top Offensive Player: Carmelo Anthony

Not merely the best offensive player on the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony is arguably one of the best offensive players on the planet when healthy. Durability will obviously be a major concern heading into this season, as his 2014-15 campaign was cut short by a major knee survey. However, ‘Melo is already back in the gym practicing, so there is optimism he should be ready to roll by the start of the regular season. Because of the injury and recent struggles by his Knicks, we may forget just how dominant Anthony is when at the top of his game. The all-around, individual numbers Melo posted in 2013-14 were incredibly impressive. Anthony became the first player in over a decade to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game throughout a full NBA season. He was also remarkably efficient on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, he became just the fourth player in NBA history to average over 27 points a night while shooting above 45 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 82 percent from the free-throw stripe. The other three members of that incredibly exclusive club are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.

Top Defensive Player: Robin Lopez

Improving on the defensive end of the floor was clearly a priority for Phil Jackson this summer. The Knicks handed Lopez a $54 million contract in July, making him the second-highest paid player on the team. Not much of an offensive threat, New York is paying Lopez to clog the paint and protect the rim. During his two years in Portland, his defense at the rim was stellar (in 2013-14, only Roy Hibbert held opponents to a lower field goal percentage on shots attempted within three feet of the basket). The Knicks ranked second-to-last in rebounding last season, so they will rely on Lopez to clean up on the defensive backboards as well. Lopez is known for his aggressive box-outs and physical play, which have been sorely lacking in New York.

 Top Playmaker: Jerian Grant

Phil Jackson assumed he had adequately addressed the Knicks’ need at point guard in his first major move as team president, when he traded Tyson Chandler to Dallas and got back Jose Calderon. However, Calderon struggled mightily last season (due in large part to nagging injuries) and his numbers – including his assist totals – dipped significantly. This past June, the Knicks traded back into the first round in order to acquire Jerian Grant out of Notre Dame. Grant is a big (6’4 with a 6’7.5 wingspan) and athletic guard that should be able to contribute immediately on both sides of the ball. In addition to being a solid scorer, Grant is also a gifted passer with impressive court vision. Grant spent a five years in college and dished out a total of 690 assists during his Notre Dame career, which was more NCAA assists than the first 15 picks in the 2015 draft combined. Asking him to play heavy minutes early on may be asking too much too soon, but if Calderon can’t return to form, New York will have to rely on Grant to effectively facilitate the offense.

Top Clutch Player: Carmelo Anthony

Excluding games ‘Melo missed due to injury, one would be hard-pressed to find a single ‘clutch’ FG attempted by a Knicks player other than Carmelo Anthony since the day he arrived in New York. Throughout most of his career, Anthony had been one of the NBA’s better clutch scorers. And during his first couple of seasons as a Knick, Anthony knocked down a number of game-winners. However, Melo was remarkably ineffective in big spots in 2013-14 (he was 0-for-8 on shots with 10 seconds or less in the fourth quarter or overtime when trailing by one possession or tied) and misfired late in games last season as well. It was commonly believed that Anthony was worn down by the massive minutes he was forced to play, and had little left in his legs in fourth quarters. The hope is that fewer minutes and more creative offensive sets will allow ‘Melo to regain his reputation as one of the NBA’s best closers.

 The Unheralded Player: Kyle O’Quinn

The signing of O’Quinn didn’t garner much buzz in NYC, but the under-the-radar acquisition could pay dividends in both the short- and long-term. A native New Yorker (born and raised in Queens), O’Quinn was a second-round pick by the Orlando Magic in 2012. Coming out of Norfolk State, he played sporadically over his first three NBA seasons in Orlando, but performed relatively well when given extended minutes. O’Quinn’s career per-36 minute averages (13 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks) suggest he has a chance to be a valuable rotation player. He is versatile enough to give the Knicks minutes at both the power forward and center spots. He possesses limited athleticism in his bulky frame, but has a high-intensity motor and brings relentless energy on a nightly basis.

Best New Addition: Kristaps Porzingis

The Knicks hadn’t had a draft pick inside the top-five since they selected Kenny “Sky” Walker in 1986. And with next year’s draft pick already traded away, the Knicks simply had to hit on their 2015 lottery pick. While the selection of Porzingis is undeniably risky due to the scary downside inherent in taking a skinny, unproven, foreign-born player, the vast upside is also irrefutable. Porzingis possesses an incredibly rare skill set for someone his size. He moves remarkably well and fluidly from baseline-to-baseline. This is noteworthy because lateral quickness is imperative for big men hoping to survive defensively in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. Offensively, he dunks forcefully, yet makes it seems effortless. Still, the most impressive skill Porzingis brings to the table is his feathery touch from the perimeter. Kristaps has a flawless form that would be impressive from a shooting guard, let alone a guy measuring in at 7’1. At his size, he’ll be able to effortlessly launch uncontested jumpers from all over the floor. At just 19 years old, he hasn’t yet even scratched the surface of his vast potential. If the Knicks are going to return to respectability at some point in the future, it will be because Porzingis develops into a star.

– Tommy Beer

Who We Like:

1. Phil Jackson – Jackson’s first year on the job was a disaster. The Chandler/Calderon trade backfired and the Knicks’ 2014-15 campaign was epically, historically awful, as the Knicks lost a franchise record 65 games. However, Phil bounced back with a solid offseason this past summer. He avoided chasing a “quick fix” approach and seems to be content to patiently and prudently re-build the roster. He didn’t land a stud free-agent, but he also didn’t clog the Knicks’ cap, allowing the franchise to remain flexible going forward.

2. Kevin Seraphin – Like Robin Lopez, Seraphin will supply the Knicks with some needed rim-protection. Seraphin also possesses a promising offensive arsenal. In today’s changing NBA, he’s one of the NBA’s rare big men who look to score on the low block with his back to the basket. Like Kyle O’Quinn, Seraphin has posted impressive per-minute averages in his brief NBA career. Over his last two seasons, Seraphin averaged 15.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per-36 minutes. He’s still a bit raw, and a propensity to foul too frequently has been a hindrance, but the upside is promising.

3. Lance Thomas/ Lou Amundson – Very little went right for the Knicks last season, but Jackson and coach Derek Fisher were very happy with the effort and attitude that these two journeymen brought to the team when they were added to the roster in February. Fisher and Jackson have emphasized the importance of changing the culture within the organization. Amundson and Thomas both obviously made a very positive impression on the Knicks’ coach and front office, as both were re-signed and brought back into the fold. These two role players may not see much playing time during the regular season, but they can still certainly have a positive impact on the team by the way they practice and prepare on a daily basis. With an infusion of youth on the roster, it is important to surround those youngsters with veterans who can teach rookies how to be pros.

4. Kyle O’Quinn – The Knicks’ best value signing of the summer will likely end up being O’Quinn. The best aspect of the deal from a New York perspective is that the Knicks were able to lock-up O’Quinn for the next four seasons. With the salary cap set to spike upwards of $90 million by next season, being able to sign quality contributors to affordable contracts that extend four years into the future is how smart teams maximize value. This will likely be viewed as a smart gamble by Phil Jackson, as there is potentially a terrific payoff, yet very little risk involved. Consider this: In 2017-18, when the salary cap will purportedly jump up to $108 million, O’Quinn (who will then be 27 years old) will account for just 3.7 percent of the Knicks total cap space. If O’Quinn becomes even a decent role player in New York, that contract will return astonishing value.

– Tommy Beer

Strengths:

It’s hard to find a substantial strength on a team that went 17-65 last year. The good news is the team should be significantly better next season. Hopefully, Carmelo Anthony, the face of their franchise, will return at full strength. And, as noted above, Jackson did a solid job of rounding out the roster by bringing in an exciting and promising mix of young talent and proven commodities. This summer, New York added four players who are 25 or younger and measure in at least 6’8. The Knicks didn’t have any such young bigs on their roster last season. It may take some time for the team to mesh and for chemistry to develop, but if ‘Melo can play to his capabilities and the new pieces perform up to expectations, New York has the talent to at least stay in the playoff race for most of the season.

– Tommy Beer

Weakness:

There are obviously major issues on both sides of the ball that need to be addressed. The Knicks were at or near the bottom of the barrel in a wide variety of statistical categories last season. New York finished 29th in the league in Offensive Efficiency (they scored the fewest points in the league) and 28th in Defensive Efficiency. They were also 29th in rebound rate. And while the lack of talent was certainly the primary culprit, Derek Fisher appeared in over his head at times during his first season as coach. This year he’ll have to prove he can develop into a quality NBA head coach.

– Tommy Beer

The Burning Question:

Can the Knicks compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference?

Despite having upwards of $28 million to spend on free agents this past summer, Phil Jackson and the Knicks failed to lure a superstar to NYC. Yet, due to the salary cap spiking next year, the Knicks will once again have plenty of cap space for Phil to spend in order to secure a superstar. Eventually, signing role players will only get the organization so far. In order to take that next step, they need to bring in max-level talent. And in order to greatly improve their chances of convincing an elite superstar to sign, the Knicks have to show they are on the cusp of turning the corner. Would a significant step forward in 2015-16 entice a top-tier FA to come to NYC?

On the flip side of the coin, if the Knicks struggle mightily again in this upcoming campaign, might Jackson and company consider committing to a full and complete rebuild, which would involve trading Carmelo Anthony at the February trade deadline or the following offseason? This upcoming season could determine which direction the franchise ultimately heads in going forward.

– Tommy Beer

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Portland Trail Blazers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Portland Trail Blazers could end up almost anywhere in the West – their outlook is that unclear. If they can’t be elite, could this be the end of the road for this roster? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Trail Blazers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Portland Trail Blazers surprised many last season when they ended up with the third best record in the Western Conference behind only the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a New Orleans Pelicans team that was probably a bit better than their record and sixth place finish indicated.

Despite that, the Blazers should feel good about themselves. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Sure they may not be on the same level as the Rockets or Warriors, but after that, the West is seemingly wide open. And with a little luck, maybe an injury here or there, anything can happen once the postseason rolls around.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Portland Trail Blazers are a really good team. But being really good in the Western Conference just doesn’t get you very far, unfortunately. Like the Utah Jazz, Portland is a dangerous team that could beat just about anyone on any given night. But I don’t see this year’s team being able to push the elite Western Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are explosive and continue to improve. The Blazers’ role players, like Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic, are solid. The team even has some interesting prospects, such as Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Having said that, I think the front office needs to try and make an honest assessment about this team’s ceiling and decide whether it’s time to be aggressive and start making some serious changes to the roster. It’s odd saying that since this is a really good team. However, the goal for Portland is a championship, but I just don’t see this roster having a real shot at that.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Blazers won 49 games last year and return a very similar roster, yet many are picking them to finish outside the playoff picture in the West – and it’s not that crazy to imagine. The conference is just that tough. Last year’s team was pretty similar to the year before: They had one remarkable run in the mid-spring period (a 13-game winning streak from just before the All-Star break through the middle of March), then were roughly .500 the rest of the year. They’re always a threat to explode offensively with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt, but it seems pretty clear this group has a limited ceiling that falls well below championship level. It’s also one Portland has a lot of money committed to even beyond this season. Is this the year the Blazers seriously consider making some big moves and resetting things if they aren’t in the hunt among legitimate contenders?

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Blazers have to do something. They may have a fine roster. They may have some excellent players. They may be well-coached. Unfortunately, they just don’t have enough. After suffering that embarrassing postseason defeat, the Blazers didn’t really do anything to improve their team. They are capable of making the playoffs and maybe could win a playoff round if everything goes their way. However, that’s as high at their ceiling gets and that’s if everything goes their way. Seriously, does anyone think they can actually compete with the Warriors or the Rockets? Are they even better than the new-look Lakers? If they don’t change things for the better, then the Blazers may approach the dreaded “treadmill team” label.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

It was a quiet offseason for the Blazers, who are coming off a solid season that abruptly ended in the playoffs against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. The tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is still one of the best one-two punches in the league today. Jusuf Nurkic is continuing to grow and build chemistry with his teammates going into year three with Portland. The loss of Ed Davis will impact the bench unit, but Zach Collins will have an opportunity to expand his role. Guys like Wade Baldwin and Jake Layman could see more floor time as well. While there won’t be a regression, Terry Stotts and company will need to fight tooth and nail in a tough Northwest Division to secure a postseason berth in the Western Conference.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

This has to be the year, right? It has to be the year the Blazers break through and become an elite team or management and ownership has to break it up, right? The Blazers have two elite level guards and a gob of money tied up into the rest of the roster. They have a good but not great head coach, so it either has to click and start to happen or leadership has to make bold changes. Let’s be real, the Blazers have tried to be aggressive, not only in trades but in free agency, so this team isn’t a product of sitting on their hands. But as West has gotten tougher and more developed, the Blazers haven’t necessarily kept up, so it has to happen now and there is a sense the Blazers get that. On paper, this arguably should be the best team in the Northwest Division, it’s just not assured they will be.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

To this point, Damian Lillard has blossomed into arguably a top-ten player in the league. He can score from anywhere on the floor. He’s got unlimited range and is very difficult to stop when he’s attacking the rim. Last season, he averaged 7.4 free throw attempts per game which he converted at a 91.6 percent clip, both career-highs.

The 26.9 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting were both the second-highest marks of his career. At 28 years old, Lillard is right in the prime of his career and a true star. He’s capable of exploding and having a huge scoring game on any given night. Many other teams in the NBA would love to have a player of that caliber. As long as Lillard is in Portland and producing at this level, the Blazers should remain competitive.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Al-Farouq Aminu has quietly become the best defensive player on the Blazers roster. He’s a long and athletic wing who can slide between forward positions defensively as well as take on the challenge of staying with some guards. Aminu was a big part of Portland’s strong defense last season. He’s good at transition defense, and he’s good at recovering and helping out when the guards get beat off the dribble. As the season went on, Portland had one of the better defenses in the league and Aminu was a major part of that.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

There isn’t much that Lillard can’t do on the court, and as it stands, he’s their best when it comes to running the offense. As explosive as he is at scoring the basketball, he can be just as deadly carving up a defense and creating opportunities for his teammates.

The 6.6 assists per game that Lillard dished out last season were the second-highest in his career. This was with not having too many offensive options to work with outside of McCollum. The Blazers were last in the NBA in assists per game, largely due to that fact, but Lillard made do with what he was given. He still managed to turn other guys into offensive threats. The Blazers are going to need much more of that this upcoming season.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

With the game on the line and a big shot needed, one could argue that you’d be comfortable with the ball in McCollum’s hands. He can create his own offense and is also a dead-eye shooter from anywhere on the floor. But overall, when a big play is needed for the Blazers, you’d still want the ball to be in the hands of Lillard.

Lillard’s ability to score is unparalleled on the team. He’s more adept than McCollum at getting to the rim in crunch time situations and thus, able to get a better look at the basket or draw contact and get a couple freebies. And when he inevitably draws the defense, his playmaking enables him to set someone else up for a big play.

The Unheralded Player: Al Farouq-Aminu

Al-Farouq Aminu may have emerged as the Blazers best defensive player, but he also might have just become their third best player behind Lillard and McCollum. He doesn’t draw much media and national attention, but he contributes in many different ways that help the Blazers win games.

Since entering the league, he’s improved his offense tremendously. He was always a solid defender, but his offense, in particular his shooting, was a weakness of his. This past season, he knocked down a career-high 36.9 percent of his attempts from three-point range. He also took a career-high 4.9 attempts per game. He’s their perfect 3&D guy. He’s also one of the best rebounders on the team, especially on the defensive glass. He can guard multiple positions. For the Blazers to continue to take leaps in the West, they’ll most certainly need Aminu.

Best New Addition: Seth Curry

The Blazers had a couple of weaknesses last season, bench depth and outside shooting. They’re hoping that Seth Curry can address both of those issues. Sure he owns the distinction of being Steph Curry’s brother, but he’s become a solid NBA player in his own right. He missed all of last season due to injury, but if he’s healthy, he’ll provide Portland with exactly what they need.

During the 2016-17 season, the last in which Curry played, he averaged a career-high 12.8 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent shooting from the three-point line. The Blazers guard off the bench role was filled by Shabazz Napier last season. Napier did an admirable job but he’s now off to Brooklyn. Curry can help fill that void with a capable ball-handler off the bench. He may even see time in the lineup with either one or both of Lillard and McCollum.

– David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Zach Collins

Portland’s lottery pick from a year ago, Zach Collins was thrown into the lineup as the season went on, and he showed vast improvements. He and Ed Davis became an effective big man tandem off the bench. He’s got range out to the three-point line and he is an effective defensive player. It got to the point where he was sometimes finishing games over starting center Jusuf Nurkic. He allowed Portland to feel comfortable letting Davis walk and allowing Collins to be the primary big man off the bench.

2. Anfernee Simons

It’s tough to envision Anfernee Simons getting minutes right away this season, but there’s no denying the oozing potential he has. For a playoff contender like the Blazers, a draft pick like Simons is a huge gamble. Portland has major playoff aspirations and someone like Simons isn’t going to be ready to contribute now. But his long-term outlook is what intrigues Portland. He is very gifted athletically and he’s already a good shooter. In Summer League, he showed off an ability to create his own shot. If his development goes well, Portland could end up with one of the best players of the 2018 draft.

3. Gary Trent Jr.

His fellow rookie Anfernee Simons might not be able to contribute right away, but Gary Trent Jr is a little more NBA ready. For a team that often lacked bench production, Trent can definitely help in that regard, even as a rookie. Physically, Trent is better adapted to the NBA grind than the slight Simons. He also gives the Blazers some much-needed perimeter shooting. In a recent survey of NBA rookies, Trent was voted by his peers as one of this rookie classes best shooters and most likely to be a draft steal. If he can come in and contribute, the Blazers bench might be very much improved.

4. Caleb Swanigan

A year ago, Caleb Swanigan had a very impressive summer league. He played sparingly for the Blazers this past season, but due to some roster departures, he’s going to be counted on to provide production off the bench. He’s a decent passer for a big man and he can score in the paint. He’s more of a traditional big man, which seem to be a dying breed in today’s NBA, but perhaps with his passing, he can make an impact on the court. With Davis gone, the other bigs on the bench such as Collins, Jake Layman and Myers Leonard, are all better suited to the changing game. But this is going to be an important training camp for Swanigan to prove that he should get a chance to help the team.

– David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Defense. The Blazers turned into one of the better defensive teams in the league last season. Sure neither Lillard nor McCollum would be confused for All-Defensive players, but even that didn’t matter too much. Jusuf Nurkic is a decent shot blocker, and Collins showed great defensive potential. Aminu is an incredibly underrated defender. And then there’s the enigma known as Moe Harkless. He can either be very good, or non-existent. He’s got the tools to be a superb wing defender. If they want to continue their ascent in the West, they’re going to need to continue to be a good defensive team.

– David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

Outside shooting and reliable bench production were two of the Blazers main weaknesses last season. Three of their main contributors from last season’s second unit, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis all signed elsewhere. They’re hoping that a few new roster additions, as well as some internal development, can help alleviate that. Based on the development he showed throughout the season, Collins appears ready to take another step forward. Trent and Curry will help with outside shooting. They’re going to need a couple of these guys to really step up and contribute if they hope to keep afloat in the West.

– David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Blazers continue to take a step forward and become an elite Western Conference team?

Sure the Blazers grabbed a top-four seed in the West last season, but they might be skirting around dangerous territory. Looking at their roster, they might be floating around the NBA’s dreaded no man’s land. That is, a team not bad enough to benefit from a lottery pick in the draft, but not good enough to make any serious noise in the playoffs. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt, and that definitely counts for something. But after that, it can get a bit murky. Their depth isn’t on par with some of the other elite West teams. They’ve got some guys capable of filling those roles, but it’s still a question mark. They’re probably good enough to keep their hold on a playoff spot, but it most likely will be a lower one than where they finished last season.

– David Yapkowitz

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Report: Jimmy Butler Asks For A Trade

According to Shams Charania, Wolves forward Jimmy Butler has asked to be traded.

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Jimmy Butler has requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, league sources tell me and @JonKrawczynski. Butler has given Minnesota a list of one-to-three teams with whom he’s open to signing extension, in anticipation of trade.

Source: Shams Charania, via Twitter

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New Orleans Pelicans 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans have all the parts to be a very, very good NBA team. The problem for New Orleans is they have struggled to get and stay healthy, which has derailed them in previous seasons. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year’s regular season ended in a flurry. A large number of teams spent the last few weeks of the season jockeying for positioning in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race. In the end, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. As it turned out, the first-round matchup was a smashing success as the Pelicans were able to smother the Blazers’ star backcourt on their way to a four-game sweep. Unfortunately, the Pelicans then ran into the unstoppable buzz saw that was last year’s Golden State Warriors team.

Notably, last year’s team withstood the midseason loss of DeMarcus Cousins. That loss was mitigated by the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, who was effectively rescued and revived in New Orleans. In the offseason, the franchise watched Cousins leave to join the Warriors and Rajon Rondo leave to join the Los Angeles Lakers. In the meantime, the Pelicans have undergone some roster tinkering as they look to solidify their standing as a playoff team and pick up where they left off.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a terrible injury, the New Orleans Pelicans finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league behind Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Boogie is gone for good now, though, and The Brow has a new partner in Julius Randle and a returning Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. The overshadowed loss for Alvin Gentry will be Rajon Rondo’s playmaking ability, but they’re counting on Elfrid Payton to fill the void as one of the top under-the-radar signings in the league. Considering the way they played in the postseason and that Davis is a top three superstar in the league, it’d be hard to see too much of a regression. The bad news, however, is that NOLA plays in a Western Conference with plenty of competition.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

At least among playoff hopefuls, the Pelicans might have the largest range of projections and expectations across the NBA landscape. There are some who believe that losing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, even despite Cousins’ Achilles tear that looks to keep him out for much of the upcoming season, is too big a blow and the Pelicans will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Then there are those who look at their post-Cousins injury splits and wonder whether the team wasn’t slightly better without him anyway. Julius Randle is an excellent acquisition who can fill at least some of Boogie’s previous roles, and the Pels will be banking on more seamless lineups around Anthony Davis at the five to help offset the ostensible talent loss they took in the offseason. They’ll be one of the league’s most interesting windows into how fit and talent coexist – or don’t.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Pelicans actually started to look like the team they were supposed to be. The issue for them has never been about talent. The roster has been loaded with the talent. The question was durability and consistency. The Pelicans broke through last season and with some solid additions this offseason it’s hard not to believe the Pels will get right back after it. The problem for New Orleans is the West is tough and as we saw last season the difference between home court in the playoffs can come down to two or three games. The Pelicans are easy to like, mainly because Anthony Davis is such a special player. But it’s also easy to see that if the Pelicans don’t get aggressive right out of the gate, the specter of him being unhappy and wanting out starts to become real.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

While DeMarcus Cousins is an elite center, I think moving Anthony Davis to the center position and plugging Julius Randle into the rotation will mostly address Cousins’ departure. Randle is a nice addition to the Pelicans’ roster and should fit in nicely alongside Davis and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. While I like a lot of the talent on the Pelicans’ roster and the reclamation projects of Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor, I am concerned that even a few injuries could quickly derail the Pelicans. They are already limited on the wing, especially at small forward, and are relying on a few guys who are playing out of position and/or have past injury concerns. I am hoping the Pelicans will continue to surprise us as they did at the end of last season, but there are a few red flags heading into the season.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

No surprise here. Davis has everything you can want in a superstar. He is talented, has unbelievable length, is athletic and has the basketball intelligence to dominate consistently. Even better for New Orleans, Davis is the homegrown superstar that has nearly maximized his potential and should be an MVP candidate every year should he play up to his abilities. These past two years Davis has been averaging over 28 points per game and has been astounding on the offensive end. Last season, Davis took and made career-high numbers in three-pointers, which made his offensive game even more dynamic. Simply put, this offense revolves around Davis, a trend which should continue this season.

Top Defensive Player: Jrue Holiday

Jrue Holiday is the lead defender for the Pelicans. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus ranking, among point guards Holiday is fourth in the league and, according to NBA.com, is top-15 in the league in defensive win shares. Holiday’s role on the team is of course not as a defensive specialist only. Last year saw Holiday make the transition from point guard to more of a combo/shooting guard role. Whether guarding opposing shooting or point guards, Holiday has the physical tools and awareness to execute the Pelicans’ defensive schemes effectively. So long as the team is able to find an adequate replacement for Rondo at the lead guard position, Holiday should be able to continue in this role, which he thrived in last season on both ends of the court.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

My prediction is that Holiday will initially work on the ball and serve as the placeholder as the Pelican’s top playmaker. Holiday averaged six assists a game last year on his way to a career season. But part of his success came due to a purposeful transition to the shooting guard position. Now Rondo is gone and Holiday will hold this place until Elfrid Payton can show that he is ready to take over as the team’s lead guard.

Payton goes into his fifth season needing to prove he can become the player the Orlando Magic had originally envisioned years ago and take over Rondo’s role. Payton remains a below average offensive scoring threat, unable to hit outside shots with great consistency, but Rondo was able to succeed with similar shortcomings. In fact, Rando really thrived when Cousins went down, allowing Rondo to have the space and freedom to use his creativity to penetrate and operate in the lane. Now Cousins and Rondo are gone and the table is set for Payton to take over.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

The nod again goes to Davis. It’s not typical for a frontcourt player to take the mantle of top clutch player but Davis is not a typical player. According to NBA.com’s clutch time data, Davis has a very high net rating in clutch time, indicating a strong impact on both offensive and defensive net rating (much higher than Cousins), as well as strong shooting percentages. Davis’ strong clutch play is aided by his outside shooting, strong court vision and adept ball handling for a big man. When the game goes into crunch time, Davis should have the ball in his hands.

Unheralded Player: Frank Jackson

Die-hard Pelicans fans are excited for and rooting for Frank Jackson to make some inroads at the point guard position. Jackson was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Dwayne Bacon. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of New Orleans and for good reason. He has yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball after inking a multiyear contract with the Pelicans last year. However, that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for Jackson, who has tremendous athletic abilities and high upside potential. Whether Jackson can handle point guard responsibilities is an unanswered question. Additionally, Jackson now has veteran Jarrett Jack slotted ahead of him in the rotation. Jack agreed to terms on a deal with the Pelicans earlier this week.

Best New Addition: Julius Randle

Rondo’s departure, unlike that of Cousins, was more of a surprise for the franchise. However, it did allow the team to sign Julius Randle. Although technically a free agent signing, Randle and Rondo swapped places almost as if the teams had actually executed a trade. The Pelicans are thrilled to have Randle and he is poised to play a very significant role with the team.

Randle is under contract at roughly nine million a year for the next two years, although the second year is a player option, which is significant. With multiple expected suitors next offseason, this season may ultimately serve as an extended tryout for the next free agent market. Randle showed steady progress year-to-year in Los Angeles and many Lakers fans were sad to see him leave. He proved himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in transition and is a handful down low because of his quickness, agility and strength. That same strength serves him well as he can be a tenacious one-on-one defender when locked in and has demonstrated this against the Pelicans when matched up with Davis in the past.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jahlil Okafor

The Jahlil Okafor experience continues. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year, Okafor started nearly every game he played in, averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Of course, that play came in the middle of “The Process” and didn’t translate to winning basketball. Now, after some tough seasons, Okafor is fighting to prove that he still belongs in the league. Okafor comes to the Pelicans as an afterthought after failing to find his footing in Brooklyn. New Orleans has a loaded frontcourt that doesn’t have a lot of extra minutes. With lower expectations, Okafor can contribute in spot minutes and step up should anyone ahead of him go down with injuries. Indications are that Okafor is eager to play with and learn from Davis and likes the city of New Orleans, as well as the franchise. Look for the Pelicans to give Okafor a chance to prove his worth when the opportunity presents itself.

2. E’Twaun Moore

Among the weaknesses the Pelicans have to overcome is the lack of viable options at the small forward position. E’Twuan Moore solidified his hold on the small forward position last year in part due to the unavailability of Solomon Hill. Despite being undersized and a more natural fit at shooting guard, Moore stepped up to meet his team’s needs. With Holiday thriving at the two, Moore’s projected place on this team is at small forward. Moore helps spread the floor with his three-point shooting and is a capable scoring threat overall. At 6-foot-4, Moore will most often be at a size disadvantage on defense but handles it reasonably well. Hill is slated to return but is likely to back up the Moore due to his poor outside shooting. Unless the Pelicans make a move, expect Moore to continue to play heavy minutes at small forward.

3. The Randle and Mirotic Frontcourt Combo

Randle and Mirotic are a tremendous pair of frontcourt players to pair with Davis. However, with Randle’s player option, both players are essentially free agents after this upcoming season. The franchise will work to feature both prominently while giving Davis as much support as possible. Davis and Mirotic already showed great synergy on the court together last season and at times scorched opposing defenses. Davis is a good shooter and should provide the spacing Randle needs to be aggressive on the move and in the post. Randle might also be able to handle the ball at the high post the way Cousins would at times, which can be difficult for opponents to stop. The biggest question left is how well the team will manage when Randle and Mirotic share the court without Davis anchoring the defense?

4. The Front Office

The Cousins situation was not a simple one. Once Cousins went down with the Achilles tear, it made re-signing him very difficult as he had been expecting a max offer. New Orleans’ front office deserves credit for not overpaying an injured Cousins on a long-term deal that could soon become an albatross.

The front office had been quite vocal and much more confident about keeping Rondo, however. To replace these two, the front office acquired Randle and Payton. Couple that with last season’s trade for Mirotic and it’s clear the team has done some quality retooling going back to last season. Should these new acquisitions work out, the franchise may succeed with their number one priority: keeping Davis happy as he heads toward free agency. Unfortunately, Randle, Payton and Mirotic can leave after this season as free agents, so the pressure will be back on the front office to make the appropriate moves to prove to Davis that he is in good hands with New Orleans.

– James Blancarte

STRENGTHS

The talent and leadership of Davis and Holiday.

Last year’s playoff run demonstrated that Davis and Holiday are more than able to run this team together. Rondo was a guiding presence as well, but this team knows that Davis and Holiday set the tempo and are the leaders of this squad.

Also, the frontcourt could be dynamic if Randle, Mirotic and Davis generate some chemistry together. Defense will be an issue but their collective offensive talent could be trouble for opponents.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Point guard and small forward.

As mentioned above, the Pelicans need Payton to fill the role Rondo occupied and take the next step in his career, especially since Holiday is the team’s best option at shooting guard. Jackson looms as a high upside player that might one day threaten Payton for the starting role but it’s unlikely he is ready to take on a major role. Jack should provide some stability but it’s not clear how much he has left in the tank. Simply put, Payton needs to step up in a big way this season.

While Moore has filled in admirably at the three, small forward is still not a position of strength for the team. There is talk of Mirotic possibly playing at the three as well. While this might work in limited situations, Mirotic lacks the footwork and mobility to effectively defend opposing small forwards consistently. Any future roster moves should revolve around these two positions.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is the agent swap for Anthony Davis an ominous warning sign?

Davis recently parted ways with his prior longtime agent and speculation is that he will be signing with Klutch Sports. Yes, the same Klutch Sports associated with LeBron James. That’s more than enough information to make any Pelicans fan somewhat nervous. So far, officially, the franchise is not fretting about Davis wanting to move on and have put out the message they are not concerned. Looking at Davis’s contract status, it’s easy to see why. Davis remains under contract for at least two years with a third-year player option at nearly $29 million. In addition, the Pelicans can also offer a significantly larger contract than any other team. The franchise, as mentioned above, has made moves to stay competitive while bringing in younger talent that can grow on the same timeline as Davis and Holiday. Assuming those moves work out reasonably well, the Pelicans shouldn’t worry too much about Davis. But the Pelicans’ front office is on the clock and needs to show Davis that he’ll be able to compete at the highest levels if he stays in New Orleans long-term.

– James Blancarte

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