By now, everyone knows the Portland Trail Blazers had a rough summer. Veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo and Steve Blake are gone. Youngsters like Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis among others were brought in. Portland will likely fall out of the top eight in the brutal Western Conference, but they’ve assembled an intriguing young core that complements (and can grow alongside) Damian Lillard, who is clearly the franchise player and cornerstone of this franchise. How long will it take for the Blazers to return to relevance? What should we expect from the team in this upcoming campaign?
Basketball Insiders previews the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2015-16 season.
There’s no way to construe the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency as a good thing, so this Blazers team that has won 50+ games in two consecutive years can go ahead and plan to take a step backward in 2015-16. Portland actually lost most of their starting lineup to free agency or trade over the summer, with Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum all suiting up for different teams this year. Damian Lillard is all that remains, and that means plenty of big minutes for younger players on the rise, like Mo Harkless, C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. The Blazers want to rebuild with players on the same career arc as Lillard, but that means loads of youth and loads of new faces. That kind of core needs time to grow and adjust, but they can still compete decently in a relatively weak Northwest Division.
3rd Place — Northwest Division
This summer was basically the worst-case scenario for the Blazers, but I like the way they bounced back from losing so many of their veterans. Rather than signing some quick-fix veterans who may have allowed Portland to compete for the eighth seed in the West, general manager Neil Olshey embraced a youth movement and brought in players who can complement two-time All-Star Damian Lillard for years to come. I love the additions of Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Moe Harkless among others. The Blazers will take a step back in the short-term, but I think rebuilding rather than retooling was the right long-term move for the franchise. Now, they have one of the better young cores in the NBA and should be back in contention in several years if all goes as planned. I have them finishing third in the Northwest Division, but the final three teams in the division are a toss-up since Denver, Minnesota and Portland are all sort of in the same rebuilding boat. My advice for fans in Portland: Be patient, and enjoy a monster season from Lillard.
3rd Place — Northwest Division
You don’t have to be a genius to figure that the Blazers are going to take a few steps back this season. Without LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum and Arron Afflalo, they immediately go from being a team that seemed to be one piece away from contending for it all to a team that is a major piece away from even being competitive in the conference. Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but let’s not spend too much time discussing whether or not I’m down on the Blazers. Instead, let’s ask ourselves the most important question: who’s going to be dead last in the Northwest Division? As I see it, the Thunder should cakewalk to the division title while the others will be fighting to remain relevant come Christmas time. Obviously, Damian Lillard is one of the top point guards the league has to offer, and to the front office’s credit, they have retooled their roster with a lot of young pieces that will grow with Lillard over the years. As a top flight organization and with a good front office, I expect the Blazers to once again rise toward the top of the Western Conference, but it’ll likely take them at least two to three years. At least. Godspeed to all my friends out in Rip City.
4th Place — Northwest Division
A before and after photo of the Trail Blazers’ roster from last season will be drastically different. Star players LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews left the team in free agency. Now, Damian Lillard, 25, and Meyers Leonard, 23, are the team’s veteran leaders. During Summer League Leonard said he was looking forward to building a new squad with Lillard. The Trail Blazers were early movers in free agency, quickly signing Al-Farouq Aminu. They also focused on their frontcourt by acquiring Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. Watch for Vonleh, who noticeably added muscle to his frame at Summer League, to improve from his rookie season. The acquisition of Mike Miller gives the young team a championship-winning voice in the locker room who can still knock down shots. This season will be a rebuilding one for the Trail Blazers after losing two of its top contributors.
2nd Place — Northwest Division
Brace yourselves, Blazers fans. Portland is in the process of descending from being a 50 win unit to a rebuilding franchise looking for a new identity. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Incoming talent includes Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Mike Miller and Maurice Harkless. That’s an awful lot of firepower to lose, so Blazers fans shouldn’t anticipate the team making a playoff run this season. However, on the bright side, we will get to see how All-Star guard Damian Lillard handles the pressure of being the man.
4th Place – Northwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard
This is a no-brainer, as Lillard is one of the best offensive players in the entire NBA. Last season, he averaged 21 points, which ranked 13th-best among all NBA players and fourth-best among point guards. He finished the season fifth in total points (1,720), as he managed to play in all 82 games for the third consecutive year (meaning he hasn’t missed a contest since entering the NBA). The 25-year-old point guard can score from all over the floor and seemingly has unlimited range. In fact, last season Lillard set the NBA record for most three-pointers made through the first three seasons of a player’s career with 599 makes – beating out the previous mark of 545 held by Klay Thompson. The advanced numbers also show what an offensive force Lillard was last year, as he finished fifth in the NBA in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (5.0) and seventh in the NBA in Value Over Replacement player (5.2). Keep in mind, all of these numbers were posted last season while being Portland’s second option on offense behind LaMarcus Aldridge, who attempted 3.2 more shots per game than Lillard. Expect Lillard’s offensive numbers to further increase now that he’ll get more touches with Aldridge gone.
Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu
With Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez gone, this was a tough category since we have no idea what to expect from these new-look Blazers on defense. However, Aminu gets the nod here because of the impressive numbers he put up last year with the Dallas Mavericks. The last time we saw Aminu, he was playing the best basketball of his career in the first round of the playoffs against the Houston Rockets. In that series, he averaged 11.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, two steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from three-point range – despite coming off of the bench in three of the five playoff games. As you can see, Aminu can impact a game with his rebounds, steals and blocks. He’s versatile and disruptive on the defensive end. Over the course of the entire 2014-15 campaign, he averaged nine rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks per-36 minutes. He also had the highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus of anyone on Portland’s roster (2.93), ranking 25th in the NBA last year. And at just 24 years old, it’s possible Aminu will continue to improve, especially since he’s expected to take on a much bigger role in Portland than he’s had in the past.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard
Once again, this one isn’t particularly hard to figure out. The Blazers will only go as far as Lillard takes them, and there’s no question he’s the best playmaker on the squad. Last year, he averaged 6.2 assists per game and finished 12th in the NBA in total assists (507). This year will be a bit of a challenge for Lillard, especially as a playmaker, since he’ll no longer be surrounded by the talented veterans who made his life as a point guard easier. The assists may not be as easy to come by since his supporting cast isn’t as reliable. Instead, he’ll be tasked with helping this young core improve and putting them in situations to succeed. But Lillard should still excel since he’s one of the game’s best floor generals, who makes everyone around him better.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard
We try not to continually bring up the same player in these previews, but Lillard is just so important to this team and he has to get the nod here. Not only is Lillard the top clutch player on the Blazers, he has arguably become the best crunch-time player in the NBA in recent years. Rather than writing about all of his outstanding game-winning or game-tying shots, just watch this video:
The Unheralded Player: Moe Harkless
In covering the league out of Orlando, I’ve spent a lot of time around Harkless and I can’t wait to see what he does with the Blazers. With the Magic, he was never used correctly by Jacque Vaughn and eventually just fell out of the former head coach’s rotation (without giving any clear-cut reason to Harkless or the media). This change of scenery is exactly what Harkless needs, and I believe he can develop into a contributor for Portland. He’s still just 22 years old and I believe he’ll fit in well with the Blazers’ young core. He needs to be a bit more assertive, but I think that will come with more playing time and increased confidence. The fact that the Blazers gave up literally nothing (a late second-round pick that will never be conveyed) to land Harkless from the Magic shows just how unheralded he is.
Best New Addition: Noah Vonleh
This label could’ve went to a number of players since the Blazers embraced a youth movement this summer, bringing in Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless among others. While I think Aminu may have the biggest impact in the 2015-16 season, I believe Vonleh is the best new addition because he has the highest ceiling of all the players acquired. Remember, just last year he had scouts drooling over his game and he was the ninth overall pick in the draft. He still has a ridiculous amount of potential (he just turned 20 years old yesterday) and all of the physical tools to be a very special player in the NBA. His rookie season was underwhelming due to injuries and a limited role, but he’ll have every opportunity to succeed in Portland.
Who We Like
C.J. McCollum: No player benefits more from this summer’s roster shake-up than McCollum, who will now be thrust into a huge role and may even emerge as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Lillard. The 24-year-old played very well during the final month of the regular season last year, and then lit up the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs (scoring 77 points in the series’ final three games). This could be a breakout year for McCollum, and he knows it. He recently spoke to Basketball Insiders about how he’s preparing for his increased role by watching a ton of film and working hard in the gym every day.
Neil Olshey: As previously mentioned, I like the route that Olshey took this summer. Embracing a youth movement was smart and he did a good job stockpiling young players who complement Damian Lillard and will develop on the same career trajectory as the Blazers’ All-Star. Some of the trades he pulled off were impressive too, like getting Moe Harkless – the 15th overall pick in 2012 – for literally nothing. It’s hard for any general manager to bounce back from losing a star like Aldridge and four out of five starters, but Olshey did a great job bouncing back and making nice moves. The team will take a step back in the short-term, but Olshey has set the franchise up nicely for the future.
Meyers Leonard: Like McCollum, the departure of so many key players gives Leonard the chance to shine. Last year, he played well, averaging 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 15.4 minutes per game. And, like McCollum, he elevated his play in the postseason, averaging 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 66.7 percent from the field and 76.9 percent from three-point range (on 2.6 attempts per game). Leonard will have to compete for minutes with newcomers like Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis in the frontcourt, but he could have a big year for the Blazers. And keep in mind, he’s still just 23 years old so his best basketball is obviously still ahead of him.
Ed Davis: Speaking of Davis, he may be one of the more underrated players in the NBA. Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers somehow landed Davis on a minimum contract and he overplayed his deal by averaging 8.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 assists in 23.3 minutes per game, while shooting 60.1 percent from the field. He was one of the few bright spots on a terrible Lakers team last season. Fortunately for Davis, he finally received the type of contract he deserves this summer, inking a three-year, $20 million deal with Portland. Much like in Los Angeles, Davis will play whatever role is asked of him, do the dirty work in the paint and put up quietly impressive numbers. Basketball Insiders chatted with Davis about joining the Blazers earlier this summer and he has said he’d love to finish his career in Portland, so it’s clear the relationship between player and team is off to a great start.
In most of these previews, we’ll talk about a team’s 2014-15 stats, but those simply aren’t applicable for the Blazers. You can throw the numbers out, because this team is completely different than last year’s squad. Without seeing this specific group play a game together yet, the two strengths that immediately jump out are point guard play and their youth.
Having Lillard is huge for this team, since this is the golden age of point guards in the NBA and it’s a whole lot easier to compete when you have a great one. Lillard has been fantastic in his first three NBA seasons, and he should only get better in his fourth year as he steps into a more prominent role with the Blazers.
Another strength for this team is their flexibility. They have just $47,879,873 in guaranteed commitments for this year and $36,169,518 in guaranteed commitments for next season. That means they’ll have a ton of cap room to work with. They can use this to sign players or to pick up assets through trades. Portland did this earlier this offseason, when they agreed to take Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller off the Cleveland Cavaliers’ hands, and picked up two second-round picks for facilitating the deal. The picks help Portland, and the deal helped the Cavaliers because they got a traded-player exception for Haywood (which they have one year to use in a trade before it expires) and were able to dump Miller’s contract. The Philadelphia 76ers have been very successful in using their flexibility to pick up assets in trades, and Portland can do the same thing as their young team develops.
The team’s biggest weakness is going to be their inexperience. As I’ve said, I like that they went young rather than trying to go for the quick fix and finish eighth or ninth in the West. But expecting this young group to win a lot of games just isn’t realistic. The Blazers have 14 players who are 25 years old or younger on the roster, which is third-most in the NBA behind only the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers. Those young players give the team a core to develop as well as flexibility going forward, but these players are inexperienced and many will be asked to step into much larger roles than they’ve played in the past. Lillard is the only sure thing on the team, which is somewhat scary. But it also means there’s plenty of opportunity for young players to step up and establish themselves in Portland.
The Burning Question
How quickly will the Blazers be able to turn things around?
It’s going to take some time for Portland to be a playoff team again, especially in the brutal Western Conference. As previously mentioned, the Blazers have a ton of young guys on this team. They will need to develop those players and have them reach their full potential before we’re talking about Portland competing at a high level again. However, the Blazers do have something that a lot of young, up-and-coming teams don’t and that’s a superstar. Damian Lillard could significantly accelerate their rebuild and it’ll be exciting to see what he can do as the main attraction in Portland. With all of the young talent on the roster (and some top picks likely coming in the next few years), this could be a team that is very good a few years down the road when all of their young guns are hitting their stride at the same time.
NBA Daily: An Elite Generation Takes Aim At The Postseason Greats
Even without LeBron James in the playoffs, there are plenty of historical narratives worth keeping an eye on — from steals to blocks, there’s plenty up for grabs.
When LeBron James missed out on the postseason for the first time in 14 years, he left a massively large hole in the proceedings. After all, James had dragged his squad to the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons, dating back to his inaugural season alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh down in Miami.
Without James, in a way, the playoffs seem just a little bit emptier.
But it goes past his hulking status as a legend or his ability to dominate the headlines throughout the work week — literally, his box score is a standstill, collecting dust for once. James already owns more postseason points than anybody in NBA history with 6,911. That’s more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, more than Kobe Bryant and more than Michael Jordan — all by the age of 32.
Unsurprisingly, James is also the active leader in nearly every other category as well — games, minutes, field goals, rebounds, assists and steals.
The absence of James and a few notable other leaves the 2018-19 playoffs in an intriguing position in terms of the historical ladder. But since James cannot extend his absurd statistical bounties this spring, here are the players worth watching into the second round and beyond.
Of note, without James, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Dirk Nowitzki on the floor this postseason, Pau Gasol (136) is highest-ranking active games leader. Trailed by Kyle Korver at 133, it’s a small testament to their sticking power in an ever-changing NBA landscape.
Not far behind that pair is Kevin Durant, who will presumably pass Kevin Garnett, James Worthy and Reggie Miller for 37th all-time in postseason minutes at some point in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Durant’s name, naturally, will be popping up far more than just that.
Field Goals — Kevin Durant
1,265, 20th all-time
1. LeBron James, 2,457
10. Tony Parker, 1,613
14. Dwyane Wade, 1,450
44. Russell Westbrook, 834
48. Stephen Curry, 815
Regardless of how Durant’s championships in Golden State resonates person-to-person, there’s no denying that the 6-foot-9 finisher is a crash course with history. At 30, Durant just continues to rise up the ranks and his free agency decision this summer suddenly looms large. Just as the rest of the categories reflect, these year-after-year deep Warriors runs can do wonders for your postseason standings — but Durant seems willing to give that all up. Still, outside of his first playoff berth in 2009-10, Durant has only failed to splash more than 140 field goals in just one other season.
During the Warriors’ championship-winning run in 2018-19, Durant dropped an absurd 212 buckets on 48.7 percent from the floor. Should he just tally a more human total in this current postseason pace, he’ll be knocking on the door of the top ten. Hell, even if Durant leaves Golden State come July in free agency and his field goals per playoffs revert to a more sustainable number of around 150, it’ll only take another three seasons before he’s challenging the likes of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Durant is destined for greatness, the only question now is how high he’ll go.
Three-Pointers — Stephen Curry
395, 1st all-time
3. LeBron James, 370
6. Klay Thompson, 308
11. Kevin Durant, 273
14. James Harden, 240
15. Kyle Korver, 237
20. Danny Green, 194
Yeah, so, Curry owns the three-point line already — that’s well-established.
Just last week, Curry became the NBA’s all-time postseason leader in made three-pointers by passing Ray Allen during Game 1 against the Clippers.
Also, relevantly, Stephen Curry is only 31 years-old.
At this rate, his record has a legitimate chance to become untouchable by the time Curry retires. Saying that Curry is a fire-flinging marksman almost states nothing at this point — but what he’s done in the span of four years would’ve been borderline unimaginable 10 years ago. Along with three championships, Curry has tallied 98, 80, 72 and 64 made three-pointers over the previous four postseason runs.
For comparison’s sake, neither Ray Allen nor Reggie Miller ever passed 60 made threes in a single postseason during their Hall of Fame-worthy careers.
Needless to say, the gulf between No. 1 and No. 2 could be unfathomably deep in a few years’ time — if not for the efforts of Klay Thompson, his co-Splash Brother.
Over those same four seasons, Thompson has been nearly as prolific as Curry has been. Knocking down 57, 98, 41 and 67 made three-point totals, Thompson has flown to No. 6 on the charts in no time. Of course, Curry and Thompson benefit from playing close to 20 games each postseason — just as James has for the last decade — but these are prime sharpshooters simply showing off.
Even if Thompson makes a modest 40 three-pointers per postseason this year and next, he’d swiftly pass Allen and James for second on the ladder. Unless proceedings take a surprising twist this summer, Thompson and Curry may have another half-decade of elite play left in Golden State’s backcourt.
Which is to say, basically: Say goodbye to any and all three-point records — both in the regular and postseason — as these two are going to smash them all to pieces — if they haven’t already.
Total Rebounds — Pau Gasol
1,246, 37th all-time
6. LeBron James, 2,122
23. Dirk Nowitzki, 1,446
29. Dwight Howard, 1,315
53. Kevin Durant, 1,025
61. Draymond Green, 942
Gasol has slowed down as of late, but he’s still near the top of the rebounding ladder for now. The Spaniard has been dealing with an ankle injury since he joined the Milwaukee Bucks in March, but he likely won’t feature all that much once he returns either. With Brook Lopez handling most of the center minutes, it’s unlikely that Gasol does too much damage here. He’s on the backend of his career and hasn’t played meaningful postseason minutes since 2016-17, where he tallied 75 rebounds over 365 minutes and 16 games for San Antonio.
Unless there’s an injury, Gasol can reasonably snag a few spot-minute rebounds here and there to pass Kevin McHale (1,253) and Dan Issel (1,255) for 35th all-time. If the Bucks reach the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s certainly a chance Gasol could pass Artis Gilmore this postseason, but don’t expect much fanfare in either case.
Elsewhere, much like Thompson, the Warriors’ length four-year chases have sent Draymond Green skyrocketing up the standings too. Green has put up 166, 190, 135 and 180 tallies over that interval, so another run like that would place him around Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in the low 40s for the most all-time postseason rebounds. For a second-round selection, Green’s contributions have already left an indelible dent in NBA history with no foreseeable end in sight.
Assists — Chris Paul
815, 25th all-time
3. LeBron James, 1,687
5. Tony Parker, 1,143
13. Rajon Rondo, 981
20. Dwyane Wade, 870
31. Russell Westbrook, 746
41. James Harden, 597
42. Draymond Green, 593
43. Stephen Curry, 592
51. Kevin Durant, 518
This list is popping with recent activity, full of vibrant playmakers and game-changing court visionaries. James, Parker, Rondo and Wade decorate the top of the ladder, however, the next generation is approaching fast.
Paul, who deserves to be in the conversation for the best point guard of all-time, sports a career playoff average of 8.8 assists over 93 games. Of course, his numbers have taken a slight hit since he joined up with the ball-dominant James Harden but Paul can leapfrog a bevy of legends this postseason alone.
If the Houston Rockets play in 15 games again and Paul averages five or so assists in that stretch, he’d finish on par with Clyde Drexler at No. 19 all-time. In matching Drexler, Paul would pass John Havlicek, Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Julius Erving and Dwyane Wade — so, obviously, that’s not bad company to keep at all.
Paul’s ability to reach even higher will depend on his health and role next to Harden, but his Hall of Fame legacy is already cemented without question.
Steals — Chris Paul
201, 24th all-time
1. LeBron James, 419
14. Dwyane Wade, 273
24-T. Rajon Rondo, 201
30. James Harden, 181
31. Russell Westbrook, 180
35. Andre Iguodala, 174
40. Draymond Green, 169
45. Stephen Curry, 160
48. Kawhi Leonard, 149
Paul’s aforementioned legacy is furthered thanks to his long-time ball-swiping prowesses — today, the 33-year-old finds himself on the verge of joining another elite group. During the Rockets’ Western Conference Finals run in 2017-18, Paul snagged 30 steals. If Paul were able to replicate those totals for the remainder of this postseason and all of the next, he’d have enough to pass Karl Malone for No. 16 all-time in postseason thefts. Again, Paul’s recent injury history makes it a tough area to predict — but as long as he’s playing, his team has a chance to win.
The presence of Andre Iguodala is an exemplification of his impressive career too, particularly so given his recent multi-round trips as a member of the Warriors. Iguodala, 35, has only missed the postseason once since 2007 — albeit playing in just one series clips typically — but he’s been a springtime staple this era. Over Golden State’s historic four-year journey, Iguodala has snatched away totals of 25, 29, 14 and 21 steals, respectively.
If he were to manage another 20 or so this postseason, he’d rank close to the top 25 in postseason steals — all in all, a fantastic achievement for the well-liked veteran.
Blocks — Serge Ibaka
255, 10th all-time
14. Dwight Howard, 234
15. Pau Gasol, 233
16. LeBron James, 232
25. Dwyane Wade, 175
35. Kevin Durant, 156
37. Draymond Green, 152
44. Al Horford, 138
Saving the best for last is Serge Ibaka, the NBA’s active leader in postseason blocks. That’s right: Not James, not Gasol, not Howard — Serge Ibaka. The 6-foot-10 brick wall has slowed down from his elite days in Oklahoma City, but he’s still consistently climbing the historical ladder. Ibaka hasn’t missed the playoffs since his rookie year in 2008 and he’s featured in 10-plus games in every postseason since 2009. Back in the Thunder’s heyday, Ibaka swatted away a whopping 52, 59, 33 and 42 shots over a four-year period.
North of the border, Ibaka’s postseason tallies have been far more muted — still, he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank. With Toronto looking like an Eastern Conference Finals contender, Ibaka has a real chance of reaching 20 blocks this time around. Should Ibaka do so, he’d be right on the tail of Kevin McHale and Julius Erving for ninth and eighth all-time in playoff blocks. Although Ibaka is extremely unlikely to reach the Hall of Fame himself, his place as one of basketball’s best shot blockers is practically set in stone.
James’ departure — along with the massive holes left by Nowitzki and Wade — have given this postseason a completely different feel. But even if onlookers can’t watch LeBron further many of his categorical leads, there are plenty of other narratives worth paying attention to. Given Curry and Thompson’s elite long-distance shooting, Paul’s high-ranking steals and assists totals and Durant’s overall dominance, that means that every game — whether in the first round or the Finals — has historical implications.
Which NBA legend will be passed next? Kobe Bryant? Michael Jordan? With this group of stat-stuffing future Hall of Famers, almost nothing is off the table.
NBA Daily: Is Now the Time for the Houston Rockets?
Houston pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink last year. Shane Rhodes analyzes whether the Rockets are now ready to advance to the NBA Finals.
In what may be the best eventual series of the postseason, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are expected to go head-to-head in the second round.
Both teams are almost certainly looking forward to their postseason rematch — to show which team is truly dominant over the other. Both the Rockets and Warriors, for the most part, have made easy work of their first-round adversaries; while the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, may play hard, neither have the personnel to contend with the NBA’s most talented teams. Meanwhile, both Houston and Golden State have subjected the NBA to a season-long offensive clinic, and their postseason performance thus far has shown that neither team has lost much, if any steam.
But, over the last few seasons, the Rockets have had one goal (beyond the obvious Larry O’Brien Trophy), one obsession: unseating the Warriors dynasty.
“It’s the only thing we think about,” General Manager Daryl Morey said last season. They were meticulously built to defeat the beast that Golden State has become in recent years.
And now, Houston may have its best chance to topple a giant.
While some may argue otherwise, the Rockets are a better team than they were a season ago. Not only are they healthy — Chris Paul was lost to injury in the midst of their Conference Finals series last season — but their defense is better. Even James Harden, voted Most Valuable Player a season ago and in line for another this season, has significantly improved, both as an offensive weapon and as a defender.
Houston went through multiple regular season stretches that were rife with injuries. Paul missed 17 straight games midseason, while Clint Capela missed 15 of his own around the same time. But now, there are no major injuries, and the Rockets are actively trying to avoid them: P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, amid two blowouts, have seen their time on the court dip from a season ago, while Paul is on pace to finish with a career low in postseason minutes player per game (30).
A dose of early season adversity seems to have hardened the Rockets mindset quite a bit as well; while they were somewhat carried by Harden’s historic offensive effort, it put the roster in a position where they needed to grind out some ugly wins on the defensive end and it has made them better in the long run. Tucker, an already versatile defensive weapon, has proved even more capable this season while Capela and Paul are their usual stout selves.
As for Harden, who has looked to be in the best shape of his career, he has become even more valuable for the Rockets than he was a season ago. He has proven a stout defender, both on the perimeter and in the post, en route to career-high two steals per game (good for second in the NBA this season).
Offensively, his shot volume has increased dramatically, but he has remained surprisingly efficient, shooting 36.8% and 44.2% from three and the field, respectively, on 13.2 threes (a career high) and 24.5 shots per game (also a career high). But he has developed more than his three-point stroke. While Harden has made art of the stepback three, he has improved on his ability to draw fouls; Harden was the first since Allen Iverson in the 2005-06 regular season to average at least nine free throws made and 11 free throw attempts per game (again, both career highs for Harden). While he is often criticized for his style of play, he has used it to put the Rockets in a position to win big games time and time again.
What may be the best news for Houston, however, is that, through two games, Harden has averaged his lowest postseason minutes played since he was in Oklahoma City. Harden, as have the Rockets in recent years, has tended to run out of gas come postseason time — an entire season playing as physical as he does would leave anyone drained. So, the quicker the Jazz are dealt with, and the more rest the Rockets are afforded, the better.
It could certainly prove a fool’s errand to predict the Warriors demise, but there are causes for concern this postseason.
DeMarcus Cousins, who played a major role with the team upon his return this season, is likely out for the postseason after he tore a quad muscle. Not only does his absence remove one of the Warriors’ biggest chess pieces, but it gives other teams a matchup they can exploit. Even hobbled, Cousins would have been a superior option to Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell.
The team recently sustained a historically bad loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who overcame a 31-point deficit to steal a game at Oracle Arena, as well. While Golden State punched back — and punched back hard — in the next game, it goes to show that any team, even the Warriors, are prone to take their foot off the gas when they feel comfortable.
And, perhaps the biggest distraction this Warriors group has faced, the future of Kevin Durant has hung like a dark cloud over the team for much of the season.
Now don’t take this the wrong way — short of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green calling it quits after the Clippers series, the Warriors will be far from a pushover. But, they appear to be vulnerable, for the first time in a long time.
The Rockets already had them on the ropes last season. If they can take advantage now, Houston may very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.
NBA Daily: The Spurs’ Reign is Alive and Well
The promise from some of the Spurs’ young talent has shown that the rumors of San Antonio’s death were greatly exaggerated, writes Matt John.
It’s time for what is called a mea culpa.
Around this time last year, this writer wrote an article detailing why it appeared the Spurs’ dynasty was approaching its demise. Manu Ginobili was on his way to retirement, Tony Parker was not the player he once was, and Kawhi Leonard appeared on his way out. After being predictably defeated in five games by Golden State in the first round and losing the aforementioned players the following offseason, it seemed like the end of a glorious era.
But it wasn’t. The Spurs’ dynasty is far from dead. San Antonio may not have the same household name on the roster like a Duncan or Leonard or a Robinson as of now. What they do have presently is a promising foundation of talent that should keep the team in the conversation for the next 5-10 years.
That much is clear when you see the All-Star caliber players that they have in their arsenal. LaMarcus Aldridge put up yet another fantastic stat line for the Spurs, averaging a near 20/10 on 52 percent shooting despite having fewer touches than last season. Even at 33, Aldridge continues to prove that he’s still one of the most offensively polished bigs in the game.
Then there’s DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs have embraced DeMar’s natural mid-range game while also helping him succeed more in other areas than he ever has before. DeRozan put up his most efficient field goal percentage – 48.1 – since his rookie season, and averaged career-highs in both rebounds (6) and assists (6.2) per game. He may not have made the all-star team, but this season was DeRozan’s best as an all-around player.
There is also the Spurs’ well-oiled rotation full of players who know their roles. Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and Jakob Poeltl all do their thing. Who would have guessed that Rudy Gay – a player who had a reputation for putting up empty stats – has been an effective backup wing for San Antonio? Yet another example in a long line of evidence that Gregg Popovich can make do with anyone in the NBA.
But this isn’t about the star veterans or the role players that the Spurs have molded. This is about the young talent who should be able to keep the Spurs in contender status. First, there’s Derrick White.
If you hadn’t heard of Derrick White leading up to the playoffs, you’ve probably heard of him by now.
White has exploded on the national stage since the playoffs began, averaging 23 points on 68 percent shooting from the field despite shooting only 23 percent from three, with his most recent scoring outburst against Denver being the standout, putting up 36 points on 71.4 percent shooting from the field. His performance has easily made him this postseasons breakout star.
Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to the Spurs all season then you’ve probably known about White all along.
After losing Tony Parker to free agency and Dejounte Murray to injury, many wondered where the Spurs were going to turn to run the point. Sure they had Patty Mills but he fit snugly in the second unit. White didn’t get the call immediately, but when he did, the Spurs threw him to the wolves.
White was thrust into the starting lineup when they inserted him into the rotation. White wasn’t awful when he got those minutes, but he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. His first two months into the season, White averaged 6.3 points on 43/30/80 splits. But then January came.
White tore it up in January, putting up 15.3 points on 60/47/75 splits while putting up 4.2 rebounds and nearly four assists per game. By doing this, it appeared Derrick was more than just a player to use in case of emergency. Both the Spurs and White were on the right track before a heel injury knocked him out for a few weeks. While he came back sooner than expected, Derrick was never able to replicate his play from January.
Now, it appears White has his mojo back, and at the absolute perfect time too.
And it’s not just about his contributions on offense. Defensively, White has proven to be pretty pesky. Derrick ranks behind only Chris Paul in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 1.59. The Spurs defense is also a minus-3.8 defensively when White is on the floor, third among active rotational players behind only Poeltl and Gay.
Nobody’s saying that White is a franchise player, but the 24-year-old has excelled in his expanded role for San Antonio. If he’s to keep the franchise relevant as they transition away from the Kawhi Leonard era, he’ll need as much help from other young starlets as he can.
Enter Dejounte Murray
Murray was originally believed to be the Spurs’ prized young prospect when the season began. Murray was a jack-of-all-trades point guard for San Antonio. At 6-foot-6, he was a tenacious defender – he made the All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team last year in just his second year – and was aggressive on the boards, corralling 5.7 rebounds per game.
Dejounte was believed to be pretty raw offensively given his youth, but with a bigger role on the team, many believed there was more for him to build off of. That was until he tore his ACL during a pre-season game. After losing Kawhi, Danny Green, and Kyle Anderson, the Spurs’ defense could not afford to lose its expected best player on the defensive end.
The Spurs clearly managed to do fine without him, but their defensive rating dropped all the way down to 111.2, which ranked 19th in the league. Had Murray been able to play, that rating probably would have gone up as well as where the Spurs were seeded.
With his body type and the Spurs’ love for versatility, Murray should be a welcome addition to the team next year when he comes back healthy. After the expectations that were placed on him, Dejounte should be extra motivated to show the world that he is part of the Spurs’ next generation of young talent.
Now that he has another young piece to play off of, both he and White should give San Antonio a strong two-way backcourt that the team hasn’t seen in all its years of glory. These two may very well bring the Spurs back to the promised land. Just not in the way that previous Spurs have done so.
Many believed that the Spurs were finished after they traded one of its all-time players in Kawhi. We should have known better knowing what Pop can do.
Should Murray and White pan out, the Spurs’ expiration may not be brought up again until the 2030’s.