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Cheap Seats: The NBA Player You’d Pay to See

Which NBA player would you pay to see? In this week’s Cheap Seats, the Basketball Insiders’ interns debate.

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss which NBA player they’d pay money to see:

Paul George

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin – these are some of the players NBA fans would definitely pay to see play. James is the NBA’s all-around best player, Durant and Anthony are two of the best scorers, Paul is the best point guard and Griffin is the most exciting dunker. But I’ll pass on these great players, and pay to see Paul George play.

George came out of college without much hype or fanfare surrounding him. In fact, George’s name was lost in a list of names that included Evan Turner, Wesley Johnson, Gordon Hayward, Al-Farouq Aminu and Xavier Henry. Four years later, Turner, the No. 2 pick, is on the trade block for the tanking 76ers, Johnson and Henry are on veteran minimum deals with the Lakers, Hayward is a solid piece in Utah and Aminu still cannot shoot consistently. George, however, has improved elements of his game each season, committed himself to being a defensive stopper and is now one of the 10 best players in the league.

George really made a name for himself in last year’s playoffs against the Miami HEAT. He was asked to slow down LeBron James; no big deal for the 23-year-old out of Fresno State, right? In Game One, after hitting an incredibly difficult three-pointer to tie the game, George let James blow by him for the game-winning layup. George did not go away quietly though. In Game Two, at the end of the third quarter, George managed to drive past James and throw down a monster dunk on Chris Anderson, who fouled him. George made his free throw and completed the three-point play. In response, James ran the ball down the court with five seconds to go and hit a long pull-up three pointer over George. LeBron said a few words to George, and the two exchanged a high five as they returned to their benches.

It was clear that George had earned the respect of the best player in the world. James would later say, “We’re just two guys trying to do what it takes to help our team win. He’s really good. He’s going to be a great one.” George would lead the Pacers to a win in Game Two, but the HEAT would win the series in seven games. Though the Pacers lost, it was a major step for the gritty team, and established George as their franchise player.

This season, George has cemented his status as an elite two-way player, a rare type of superstar in this league. He is the go-to player on offense, and is usually asked to guard the best wing player on opposing teams. Other players in the league who do this include James and… well, that is pretty much it. But remember, James was a high school phenom, he was always supposed to be one of the best players in the league. George was supposed to be solid, but never pegged as a potential superstar.

However, through hard work, and self-confidence, George has increased his scoring each year from 7.8 points per game, to 12.1, to 17.4, to 22.6 this year. After losing to the Pacers on November 20, 2013, Carmelo Anthony said, “He’s [gotten] a lot better offensively. All it takes is confidence in this league. I think George, that’s what he has right now, and it’s growing day by day, game by game, and you can see that when he’s out there on the court.” Anthony scored 30 points, but George held him to shooting just 10-28 from the floor. George managed to score 35, including nine of Indiana’s 14 points in overtime.

In his fourth year, George has taken the leap that other great players have taken. Compare the stat lines of these three players in their fourth year in the league:

Player A (PER 36): .457 FG%, .355 3PT%, .733 FT%, 6.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 turnovers, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks, 24.1 points.

Player B (PER 36): .440 FG%, .365 3PT%, .852 FT%, 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 22.3 points.

Player C (PER 36): .476 FG%, .319 3PT%, .698 FT%, 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 24.1 points.

These players are Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Paul George. Try to match these players with their stat line. You may get it right, but you may not, and that is what is amazing about George. In four years, he has managed to achieve similar levels of play to two of the best small forwards in the last two decades.

Player A is McGrady, who was an amazing player and could score the ball effortlessly. In McGrady’s fifth-year, he increased his scoring average to 29.3 points per 36 minutes. It is scary to think that George may be primed to make another leap in scoring similar to McGrady. What distinguishes George from McGrady, however, is that George is asked to be a lockdown defender in Indiana. In fact, many fans might think of George as a defender rather than an elite scorer. While George can score in a variety of ways, he commits himself to a team philosophy centered on defense. And it’s working. At 39-10, the Pacers have the best record in the league with George as their leader.

Player C is James. LeBron is an unbelievable talent, who may go down as the greatest player of all time. Similar to McGrady, LeBron was so highly regarded as a prospect that he skipped college and entered the draft straight out of high school. NBA rules now require players to spend one year in college before entering the draft. George spent two years at Fresno State, and was not the sort of prospect that would enter the NBA straight from high school anyway. Yet George can hold his own against LeBron statistically, and in a playoff series. With the Pacers and HEAT currently ranked atop the Eastern Conference, it is likely that George will get a second shot to out duel the best player in the league, which all NBA fans should look forward to.

Yes, George has struggled in early 2014 and shot 5-22 against the Portland Trail Blazers last night. It doesn’t matter. With roughly four minutes to go in overtime against the Blazers, George fought for an offensive rebound off a Danny Granger miss, and stole the ball from Robin Lopez, who had secured the rebound. George then missed an open three pointer, but got the offensive rebound and eventually would run baseline to get open for a dunk off a George Hill assist. Then, while up three, Indiana turned to George to seal the game. George smoothly took a step back jumper with 20 seconds to go and buried it.

This is why George is such a great player. Even when he isn’t scoring efficiently, he is still making plays defensively. This is not a criticism of players such as Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. They are almost unstoppable on offense. But neither player is considered a lockdown defender, and neither commits themselves to the defensive side of the ball like George does. George is not a better player than Durant, though he is arguably better than Carmelo. But this is not about paying to see the best player in the league. That title is held by LeBron James. This is recognizing the all-around elite play and commitment to defense that George displays, which many of the best players in the league never do. James is one of those few players, but he was expected to do that. George was not, and it makes him that much easier to appreciate as a player. As proof, George earned the Most Improved Player award last year, and could potentially win it again this season, which is a testament to his commitment towards improving his game.

Still need convincing that George is worth the price of admission? Then check out this dunk he threw down against the Clippers on January 18.

In a league that focuses mainly on scoring, Paul George commits himself to defense like only a handful of players have in recent memory. He is the number one scoring option, and the lockdown defender on the team with the best record in the league. George works harder on defense than he does offense, and that is what places him among the NBA elite.

That is why I would pay to see Paul George play.

– Jesse Blancarte

Stephen Curry

There are two players in NBA that are going to put fans in the stands no matter when or where they play, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors is ascending in that direction and may very soon have to be included in the must see category with James and Durant.

Curry doesn’t possess the size or athleticism of James or Durant, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA today. The strongest attribute in Curry’s game is his lethal jump shot. He can be absolutely deadly from beyond the arc.  As a catch and shoot player he is nearly unstoppable. What makes Curry’s’ shot so difficult to guard and so entertaining to watch is his lightning quick release. He needs only the slightest bit of room from his defender to have enough space to get his shot off.

What separates Curry from other great outside shooters, is his ability to create his own shot. Curry isn’t one of those shooters that can only score by running off screens to shake his defender or spotting up and waiting for his teammates to penetrate the defense and find him.

His jump shot may be his greatest strength, but it is certainly not his only strength. Curry’s ball handling is brilliant to watch, he is able to create space and find open shots off the dribble at will.  The Warriors also run a lot of high pick-and-roll sets with Curry at the top of the key, which leaves his defender in a very adverse position; if the defender decides to go over the screen to prevent the three Curry will dribble to the elbow and knock down a mid-range jumper, but if the defender cuts off the dribble Curry will step back and drill a three-pointer.  Once Curry finds a rhythm and has a feel for how he is going to be defended, he can start to fill it up quickly.  He is the type of player that can put up 10-15 points in a quarter without even breaking a sweat.  Curry this year has had games scoring 44, 43 and 38 points, and last season dropped 54 points on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

Maybe the most impressive way that Curry scores the ball is at the rim. He has an array of moves inside the paint and deft touch off the backboard. His ability to score at the rim is what makes him nearly impossible to defend.  There are not many players, if any, who at Curry’s size, have his ability to shoot from the outside and can drive down the lane and score over seven-footers.  He can finish with either hand in the paint and has mastered the floater.  Some of his finishes are awe-inspiring, and Curry is somehow able to consistently navigate through opposing big men and finish at the rim even when it seems he may be taking a very difficult shot.

As if Curry’s ability to score and handle the ball weren’t enough, he is becoming one of the better passers in the NBA. This season Curry is averaging 9.1 assists per game, which is good for second best in the league behind only Chris Paul. Curry draws a significant amount of attention from opposing defenses night in and night out, as he should, with much of the opposition’s defensive attention focused on Curry it allows him to find open looks for his teammates.  Being the deadly outside shooter that Curry is, oftentimes more than one player will come to contest his shot and similarly when he drives the defense knowing that he can score in the paint in a variety of ways will collapse. When either happens, it allows Curry to locate an open teammate for an easy look.

Curry is a supremely talented player; he can singlehandedly lead the Warriors to victory every night.  Any given game he can score 40 plus points and knock down three after three.  At the same time, he doesn’t force his shot. If the defense commits to stopping him, Curry will go out and drop 13 or 14 assists.  His combination of shooting, ball handling and passing is unmatched in the league today.  He uses all three of these strengths to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.  Curry has become one of the most entertaining players in the league, edging closer and closer to being included with Durant and James in the NBA’s can’t miss category when you have the chance to go see them play.

– John Zitzler

Anthony Davis

In just his second season in the league, Anthony Davis has made huge improvements in several statistical categories, and if he continues this pace, he’ll be on track to join elite company.

Davis already has more double-doubles in 41 games this season (23) than he did in 64 games last season (20). A big contributing factor to that is the Pelicans are relying on him more this season, as his minutes have jumped from 28.8 minutes per game last season to 36 minutes per game this season. The Pelicans are simply relying on Davis more this season due to the injuries that have plagued them. Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith have all missed games this season due to various injuries; there is no timetable for Anderson to come back, and Smith will miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery.

Through Davis’ first 41 games, he is averaging 20.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game, and should he continue that pace, he’ll be the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in the 1999-00 season to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game for an entire season.

Despite all of Davis’ improvements this season, he still wasn’t voted into the All-Star game during the original ballots, but given the injury to Kobe Bryant, Davis was announced as Bryant’s replacement in the game.

Part of what makes Davis so fun to watch is his 7’4 wingspan and ability to block shots. Davis currently leads the league in blocks with 3.24 per game, which is miles ahead of Serge Ibaka, the next closest player with 2.55 blocks per game. Davis has had 10 games with at least five blocks, including seven during his 22-point, 19-rebound effort against the Orlando Magic on Jan. 26.

Davis’ performance against the Magic is a perfect example of the challenge teams face when trying to plan against playing him. Davis used his superb athletic ability against the slower Magic bigs, a skill that is often only matched by a handful of bigs in the league. On one play in particular, Davis spent most of one possession guarding the basket, then E’Twaun Moore got the ball in the corner and attempted a shot, but Davis used his athletic ability to race out to the three-point line to block Moore’s shot and force the Magic into a shot clock violation.

“It’s hard to imagine getting much better than 20 and 10, but I think he can do it,” teammate Ryan Anderson told SiriusXM Radio.

The way Davis can run both sides of the floor is exactly why he is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Davis’ defensive play is almost reminiscent to that of Dwight Howard, when Howard won three-straight DPOY awards. The obvious difference to that argument is Howard’s bulk over Davis and the additional three rebounds per game Howard posted during his run. Conversely, Davis wins the blocks battle as Howard averaged 2.4, 2.8 and 2.9 blocks per game, respectively. Davis’ steals are also on target with Howard’s, as Davis is averaging 1.4 per game and Howard averaged 1.4 the final year he won the award. Those three years Howard won the DPOY award were arguably Howard’s best years of his career.

Davis isn’t like the average big man in the league, as his offensive possessions would indicate. According to Synergy Sports, Davis is scoring the bulk of his points on transition, cuts, pick-and-rolls and put backs. Due to Davis’ lack of bulk, his post-up possessions are at the bottom of his scoring options and isn’t something that he needs to rely on. Bottom line is Davis does most of his damage using his athleticism on transition and cutting toward the basket.

The fact that he’s not even done with his second season yet and is already posting these types of numbers is only going to solidify his place among the league’s best players in the coming years.

– Cody Taylor

Which NBA player would you pay to see? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

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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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