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.
Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble
Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.
Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.
We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.
This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando. We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).
One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.
With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.
Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option
Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.
But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA
Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.
Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA
VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.
So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option
It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.
But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.
But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.
The Known Commodities
Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA
While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book.
Making A Case
Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA
Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.
Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.
Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA
Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.
Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA
Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.
On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.
If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.
Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA
Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season. And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.
The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.
To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.
But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.
Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.
NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th
Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?
As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.
Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.
Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.
The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.
Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.
So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?
Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.
The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.
Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.
Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.
As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.
In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.
Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.
In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.
And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.
As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.
But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.
NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses
With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.
It’s official: basketball is back.
It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.
But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.
In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.
Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.
So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?
The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.
But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.
Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.
It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.
Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.
An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.
But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?
But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.
With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.
And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.
Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.
And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.
They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.
It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.
Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.
Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.
But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.
The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.
Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.
At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.
And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.