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Fixing the Memphis Grizzlies

Ben Dowsett breaks down the Memphis Grizzlies’ present and future after an injury-riddled season.

Ben Dowsett

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Whether they were true title contenders or not, what happened to the Memphis Grizzlies this year doesn’t seem fair. An unreal succession of injuries detonated what was already a strange season in progress, robbing us all of the yearly pleasure of watching Grit and Grind give some title contender headaches in the early rounds. Marc Gasol turned 31 a couple weeks before foot surgery suddenly gave a very imposing feel to the four expensive years left on his contract after this season. Every depressing element was set against a backdrop of Mike Conley’s impending unrestricted free agency, and thrown into sharper focus suddenly Saturday morning with news of Dave Joerger’s dismissal.

In all honesty, the injuries may have obscured the unfortunate truth that this team was playing with house money all year long. Even while healthy, with point differential indicators pegging them as a non-playoff team, the win-loss results they managed painted them as one of the statistically “luckiest” teams in league history, a theme that held through the full 82 games: The Grizzlies became just the third team since 1946 to post an SRS rating (point differential adjusted for strength of schedule) at or below negative-2.0 while still winning at least half of their games.

Memphis was just 16th in the league for defensive efficiency even before Gasol’s injury, a big departure from recent years and a worrying warning light with a similarly anemic offense still struggling to break league average. The Grizzlies were once again in the league’s bottom third for attempts and accuracy from beyond the arc, not a surprise given a total lack of marksmanship in the perimeter rotation outside of Conley and Matt Barnes. Stifling defense wasn’t propping up a more old-fashioned attack built on Gasol and Zach Randolph bullying teams from the elbows.

Entering a summer that is unpredictable enough on its own, the Grizzlies are at something of a crossroads after a strange end to the year and the Joerger bombshell. Let’s break down a few of the biggest themes vital to their future.

The Big Picture

Were it not for this franchise’s resiliency over the last half decade or more, the more prescient vultures among us might already be starting to circle above Memphis in anticipation.

Randolph turns 35 in July, and his value in the modern NBA is diminishing along with his body. Gasol was having his worst year in several before he went down, struggling to make his usual defensive impact. The Grizzlies relied heavily on guys like Barnes, Tony Allen, Mario Chalmers and Lance Stephenson at various points this year, and the fact that Barnes’ potential departure legitimately damages their wing rotation is very worrying.

Worse yet, the future doesn’t look too bright. GM Chris Wallace has exactly zero blue chip youngsters or recent draftees in house, with 2014 first-rounder Jordan Adams and his 263 NBA minutes (due in large part to injury this year, to be fair) over the course of two seasons serving as their recent draft headliner. Adams was infamously taken one pick ahead of burgeoning Jazz guard Rodney Hood, a move Joerger wasn’t shy about reminding folks he was against at the time, and 2015 selection Jarell Martin isn’t blowing anyone away.

There isn’t too much help on the way, either. Their 2016 playoff berth ensured Memphis will keep their pick this year rather than sending it to Denver, but Wallace could quickly be wishing they’d sacrificed four ugly losses to the Spurs and missed out on the postseason entirely. The pick is just 17th after a lost coin flip, and Memphis keeping it this year means it becomes just top-5 protected next year.

A healthy Gasol keeps this team too solid for a tank job anywhere near that disastrous, but likewise isn’t enough to carry a playoff team on his own. A worst-case scenario sees the Grizzlies send a Denver a pick in the six-to-10 range in a 2017 draft that many league insiders consider much stronger than the 2016 class. If they manage to keep things afloat and stay in the playoffs for the next couple years, they’ll lose their 2018 first round pick as well (to Boston, protected top-12).

Such a bare cupboard doesn’t make things any easier on Wallace, who is already facing an uphill climb to continue a run of six straight playoff appearances. A coup in summer free agency – never likely for even the biggest markets, nearly impossible in places like Memphis – seems like their only faint hope for getting out of a very dreary position in the league’s middle, with little young talent coming up the pipe to take the mantle and few draft avenues available in the next couple of seasons.

The fallout from Joerger’s firing has already begun, and isn’t making the destination any more attractive. Reports Saturday blamed internal discord and Joerger’s desire to discuss a move to another team (the second time in three years he’s asked for said permission), and were followed by even stranger indications that Wallace himself had secured his own approval to discuss a front office vacancy in Sacramento. The wheels are already possibly falling off from a talent standpoint, and a similar fate for the front office could signal impending catastrophe.

All of these circumstances don’t make Memphis the easiest sell at the moment, which is relevant because their most important agenda item this summer rests in large part on their salesmanship.

The Conley Conundrum

Conley’s unrestricted free agency has been the elephant in the room all year long, and with good reason. He’ll command a max salary somewhere as the top point guard on the market, an inconvenient reality for Memphis during a summer when all but a handful of teams can open up max room.

Conley has commented on his desire to see the right pieces put in place around him, but his own situation limits the team’s flexibility here more than one might assume – and might torpedo it altogether if he isn’t cooperative on the timing.

If the Grizzlies pick up Stephenson’s $9.4 million player option (a choice they must make by June 29, before free agency begins) and retain all their other contracts, they’ll sit right around $60 million already on the books before a Conley deal if they renounce their rights to guys like Barnes and Chris Andersen as expected.

Being at or below the $60 million mark with a cap projected over $90 million seems great, but this is where Conley himself comes in: His own $14 million cap hold counts against the team’s books until he’s signed in Memphis or somewhere else, nearly slicing their available free agency dollars in half. If Conley stays home and does management a solid by waiting on his own deal, it will allow the Grizzlies to play the market before signing him over the cap using their Bird rights – but even then, they’d have well under a max slot available to draw talent.

There are methods available to open up larger chunks of room, but all carry risks to one degree or another. The most straightforward in theory would be declining Stephenson’s option, but this avenue reveals how startlingly weak the Grizzlies are on the wing – moving on from Lance without any clue whether they’d be able to find a wing on the market could leave Carter, Adams and Tony Allen as the team’s 2-3 rotation if they strike out, a terrifying possible outcome. The timing on Stephenson’s player option combined with a huge lack of perimeter talent makes this a less preferable option.

Much simpler would be cutting ties with Carter or JaMychal Green, both of whom are on contracts that don’t guarantee until January 2017 and can be waived without penalty any time before then. Green is young and cheap enough to keep, though, and stretching Carter only yields another $3 million or so after some cap gymnastics.

The Grizzlies could also look to dump Brandan Wright’s $5.7 million somewhere if they needed that bit of space to get them over the top on a signing, and could do the same with Carter or even Adams if it came down to it. They’d better have some cheap depth options in mind in free agency if they take any of these routes, though – sacrificing any of the names listed above without a replacement coming back drops the number of rostered Memphis players as low as seven or eight depending on a few other fringe decisions.

Even if they’re able to carve out the flexibility, the Grizzlies are running uphill trying to add talent. They’re competing with 25 other teams for the top names, all of whom have similar or greater cap maneuverability. Gasol, an aging Randolph, a chance at Conley and a bunch of role players and replacement level guys aren’t a core that inspires awe in the top prospective free agents, particularly with the knowledge that one major signing eats up most or all of their available room.

It could be panic time in a hurry if Conley does leave. Maybe he’ll be kind enough to do it early in the process and let them use the vacated space to chase a max guy before all of them are off the market. However, even if that scenario arises, the chances are mighty low that a true impact player looks at this roster and sees his best option in such a crowded pool. The Grizzlies could be stuck with the unwanted scraps after the big boys pick all the good meat off the bone.

Team brass would have to strongly consider broaching the subject of trading Gasol and entering a true franchise rebuild in that scenario. There’s virtually no conceivable combination of mid-tier free agents attainable under Memphis’ available space who could make this roster sans Conley anything more than a fringe playoff contender at the very best, and we’ve already covered their limited draft and youth capital.

There’s a real chance Gasol would spend his final few productive NBA years dragging one of the worst supplementary rosters in the league to just enough wins to avoid the very top of the lottery, but nowhere near enough to compete. Big Spain loves Memphis and they love him right back, but a mutually beneficial move would have to at least be mentioned if things go really badly this summer. There are surely those in the “title or teardown” camp who would even prefer this avenue to Conley re-upping in Memphis – there’s a valid argument that returning Conley still leaves them well behind the true contenders barring a perfect additional string of events this summer.

However, even that sort of painful teardown wouldn’t be simple. Gasol has a 15 percent trade kicker attached to his deal, which would be at least a moderate disincentive to nearly any team in negotiations (the Grizzlies have to pay the extra dollar amount, but the incoming team has to absorb the new, larger number on their cap sheet). The Grizzlies would also find themselves miles below the cap floor, and would have to fill at least some of that gap with guys who didn’t threaten the rebuild by carrying them to enough wins to land their 2017 pick outside of the top five and force them to send it to Denver. They could accomplish some of this, plus help restock the draft cupboard if they took on an albatross salary or two in exchange for some picks, but these kinds of contracts become rarer by the minute in this new cap environment. It’s painful to consider for the Memphis faithful, but could be a reality of their situation.

The team’s immediate playoff chances drop to slim if Conley bolts, and their title aspirations with this group slide to nil barring a Kevin Durant-level miracle in free agency. It’s really not an exaggeration to say his choice may decide the fate of the franchise for the next several years.

Other Targets

The Grizzlies can still offer Conley more years and larger annual raises than any other team (whether he’ll want the years is another question), and things aren’t quite so bleak if they’re able to retain him – provided he waits, of course. Unless he takes a big hometown discount, forcing Memphis to sign him before they’ve acceptably rounded out the rest of the roster in free agency will virtually eliminate their ability to do so.

Assuming this happens, quality wings should be far and away the highest priority. The Grizzles could use a suitable backup for Conley, unless they think Bryce Cotton or Xavier Mumford are up for it, but the market here is more robust and easier to navigate with a cheaper budget. Real, NBA-caliber shooters on the perimeter are a massive area of need, and bonus points if any of them can defend multiple positions well or run some secondary pick-and-roll.

Here’s the thing, though: These guys are tougher and tougher to find in a league that puts a premium on them. All the top candidates are out of Memphis’ price range unless they’re willing to roll some pretty huge dice by declining Stephenson’s option, a massive gamble that one of a handful of max-level swingmen would even give the Grizzlies a meeting.

Eric Gordon should be a top target among “safer” options – a guy with plenty of talent (including shooting) who could reconcile a disappointing career if he could ever stay healthy and consistent is exactly the type of bet the Grizzlies should be willing to take. Memphis should give Joe Johnson a call if he shows any desire to leave Miami after their playoff run, and could inquire about a guy like Arron Afflalo if he turns down his player option in New York. Gerald Henderson has done a solid job in Portland this year, and Leandro Barbosa could be within Memphis’ price range as a combo guard to both back up Conley and play some wing minutes.

Whether any of these moves would be enough to pair with the incumbents and take another shot at the West is a tough question to answer. However, if we are being honest about Memphis’ current situation, the answer is “no” within most conceivable outcomes.

That isn’t reason enough alone to give up on Conley and break out the drills for the rebuild, of course. Winning an NBA title is a ridiculously low-probability event, and even more so for teams in these kinds of markets. The past six years are an unquestioned success for this Memphis franchise even without a conference final appearance, and they’d only need a couple lucky dominos to fall their way to eclipse it.

A fall from grace is just a couple wrong turns away as well, though, and seemed to become more likely with Saturday’s news. We’re a few months away from finding out which direction Memphis is moving in.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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NBA

The Pressure Is On Anthony Davis

The Rockets’ and Clippers’ strong commitments to small-ball show that the Lakers’ opponents are zeroed in on stopping LeBron James. If the Lakers want their next title, Anthony Davis has to prove he can take over for a contender. Matt John writes.

Matt John

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LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of his generation and arguably of all-time. No matter how old he is or how many miles he has on those tires — 48,014 minutes total as of Feb. 20, good for eighth-most all-time among NBA players =- he is not to be underestimated. The Los Angeles Lakers know they have a window on their hands, but with LeBron on the wrong side of 30, they know that this window won’t be for too long. Unfortunately, so do their opponents.

This brings us to his partner-in-crime, Anthony Davis. Throughout LeBron’s era of dominance, he’s always had a Robin to his Batman. Dwyane Wade needed time to adjust to it. Kyrie Irving was so perfect for the role that he grew tired of it. Anthony Davis has embraced it since day one.

LeBron and AD have been as good as advertised. Together, the two of them possess a net rating of plus-10.3 when they share the court. They don’t actually run the pick and roll as often as we thought they would – LeBron only runs 26 percent of his plays as a handler while Davis has been the roll man for 13 percent of his plays – but when they do, it’s efficient.

LeBron’s effective field goal percentage as a pick-and-roll handler is 47.5 percent and draws and-1’s at 3.5 percent, which is pretty high for that sort of play. He ranks in the 67th percentile as a handler. Davis’ effective field goal percentage as a roll man is 61 percent and draws and-1’s at 4.9 percent. He ranks in the 72nd percentile as a roll man.

They may not run this in LA primarily because their old school play of playing big probably eats up the spacing. Since the Lakers have the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league, scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions, it’s not a problem at the moment. This might change in the playoffs, but we’ll get to that.

Something else to note is that Davis’ numbers have stayed relatively the same since going from New Orleans to LA. His scoring average has gone down just a tick, but that’s to be expected when you’re playing next to LeBron James. Davis’ rebounding numbers have taken a more noticeable dip, but having him play next to Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee probably has something to do with that.

He and LeBron have led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference. According to Tankathon, they have the 10th-easiest schedule for the rest of the season, so the odds are in their favor of finishing out on top. Of course, their elite production as a duo is about as shocking as Martin Scorsese’s movies getting nominated for Oscars.

The Lakers are expected to make their deepest run since the last time they won the title in 2010. Even if they are among the league’s biggest powerhouses, they’ll have plenty of competition along the way in the Western Conference. Without going into too much detail about who that is — because you probably already know who that is — let’s focus on the two competitors who have been making major shakeups since the trade deadline, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Both may have executed different trades, but both had the same goal in mind when they made them.

When the Rockets traded Clint Capela — their only traditional center that was playable — for Robert Covington, a two-way wing that they believed they could mold into a small-ball five, they traded their size for switchability and versatility. Not only that, they doubled down on their strategy by bringing in the likes of DeMarre Caroll and Jeff Green, two swingmen who have played some minutes at center in their career but very, very few.

When the Clippers traded Moe Harkless — who was doing just fine for them as their third wing — they opted to go for an upgrade at the wing spot instead of another big by trading him among others and a first-round pick for what’s likely to be a short rental of Marcus Morris. They could have used Harkless to get another big to combat the Lakers’ size, but instead opted to add more grit to the wing department. The deal also opened up a few more spots on the roster, but they too opted not for more size, but for another scorer in Reggie Jackson.

Acquiring those wings demonstrates that they have coined the exact same gameplan to taking down the Lakers should they face them in the playoff — slowing down LeBron James.

Slowing down LeBron is a strategy that just about everyone has been familiar with since 2003, but very few have been successful at executing it because, well, there doesn’t really need to be an explanation when it comes to the subject of LeBron James.

By doing everything in their power to make LeBron’s life miserable, they are in effect going to dare everyone else on the Lakers to beat them, and that starts with Anthony Davis.

We know how good Anthony Davis is, but we don’t really know how good he’s going to be when the stakes are higher. Davis’ numbers in the playoffs should hardly concern the Lakers’ faithful. He’s averaged 30.5 points and 12.7 points on nearly 53 percent shooting from the field. The one number that could be concerning is that those averages come from only 13 playoff games total.

Davis is hardly to blame for the lack of playoff success in his name. Injuries ravaged the Pelicans continuously, and the best players he’s played with in the postseason are Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Rajon Rondo. The numbers suggest he carries his weight.

He should have less weight to carry when and if the Lakers enter the playoffs, but because their competitors are doubling down on their small ball to make sure LeBron’s covered as tightly as possible, the pressure will be on Davis to keep it going.

Posting up against small lineups shouldn’t be an issue for Davis because he’s been efficient on post-ups this season. On a frequency of 22.8 percent, Davis has a points per possession (PPP) of 0.95 when posting up. Davis is averaging five points while shooting 47.8 percent from the field in the post up throughout the entire season. His efficiency in the post up ranks him in the 63rd percentile. He’s not Joel Embiid or even LaMarcus Aldridge in that area, but he’s reliable.

Still, time will tell to see if it translates in the playoffs. In the Lakers’ most recent game against the Rockets, we got our first sample of how LA will fare against Houston’s new scheme. LeBron struggled with it, putting up just 18 points on 8-for-19 shooting while turning it over six times. The switchability and intelligence that their defenders possessed made life difficult for him.

It was a different story for Davis. He had an excellent game. 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks because he dominated the very undersized center Houston threw at him. Despite that, the Rockets prevailed 121-111.

They were more than happy to let Davis dominate them as long as they took LeBron out of his comfort zone, and it worked. Games like that should make you want to keep your eye on this. Teams know that LeBron James is a nuclear weapon during the NBA playoffs. They have yet to see if Anthony Davis can be the same. If he can’t pick up the slack when LeBron is off his game, then that changes the ballgame.

Davis is an elite player. He has done a lot in his NBA career. He hasn’t had the opportunity to show that he can take over for a contender when the stakes are dialed to 11. When the playoffs arrive, we’ll finally see what he can do.

There shouldn’t be much doubt as to if Davis can do this. There should be much pressure as to if he’ll be able to do enough.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Picking Up The Pieces In Portland

The Portland Trail Blazers continue to fight for their playoff lives. Damian Lillard’s recent injury is just another obstacle that this team must hurdle to survive. Chad Smith looks at one player that may be emerging off of their bench just when they need it most.

Chad Smith

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The home stretch has begun, and most teams around the league are pushing for a better playoff seed.

The postseason begins in less than two months and many teams are just hoping that they are able to be part of it. That is the case in Portland, where the Trail Blazers find themselves on the outside looking in as they trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games for the final spot in the West. They also have four teams right behind them that are hungry for playoff basketball.

The story of the 2019-20 Blazers has been injuries. It began last season when they lost their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a devastating leg injury that he has still not fully recovered from. Zach Collins was more than ready to fill in, but he suffered a shoulder injury in their third game of the season and has been out since having surgery on it. The organization made a Hail Mary trade for Hassan Whiteside, who has actually played very well for them this season.

Rodney Hood had been a staple for Portland since they acquired him, but he was lost to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Desperation may have ultimately led them to sign Carmelo Anthony, but he has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the club. The trade Portland made with the Sacramento Kings was thought to have just been a cost-saving move, but Trevor Ariza has been an excellent fit with the first unit.

The latest setback came in their final game before the break when the face of the franchise suffered a groin injury. Damian Lillard has been having an MVP-worthy season, on the heels of what was one of the greatest playoff buzzer-beaters in league history. Fortunately, the injury was deemed mild, and he should only miss a few games. It may be cliché, but it has been the moniker for Portland all season: Next man up.

Early in the season, it appeared as though their 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons was going to have a breakout year. After putting up strong numbers in the first couple of months, he was seen as a highly sought after trade target. Simons has cooled off considerably since then, and it has been the play of their other second-year guard, Gary Trent Jr., that has turned some heads.

Appearing in just 15 games as a rookie last season, Trent Jr. has had more opportunities to show what he can do this year. Amid all of the injuries and movement in Portland, he has shown the ability to hit shots and defend. The sophomore swingman just turned 21 last month, but he has the maturity and understanding of a player with more experience.

A large part of that can be attributed to his father, Gary Trent, who was traded to the Blazers after being selected 11th overall in the 1995 draft. While he didn’t turn out to be an All-Star player, he did play for nine seasons and appeared in more than 500 games. His son may not end up being a star, but they both know this is an excellent opportunity for him to showcase his talents.

The former Duke product began his rise in the middle of January after putting up 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by another 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn’t slow down in the final handful of games before the All-Star break, either. He scored double-digits in four consecutive games against tough competition in Denver, San Antonio, Utah and Miami, where he shot 65 percent (20-for-31) from deep. Those final two games were against elite defenses, in which he put up 38 points while shooting 7-for-15 from downtown.

So far in the month of February, Trent Jr. has shot 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 12 points and 1.4 steals per game. Those are all solid numbers for a third-string guard, but now he will be relied upon more heavily in the absence of Lillard.

It will be interesting to see the adjustments that Terry Stotts makes without his superstar point guard on the floor. CJ McCollum will likely have a higher usage and handle the ball more than he has before. The Blazers struggle mightily with shot creation. While the veteran two-guard will be looked upon to provide play-making for this group, it will be up to guys like Trent Jr. to knock down open shots and make the correct reads and rotations on defense.

Stotts appears to be leaning on Trent Jr. more often — and for good reason. Both he and Simons played in all 15 games in January, with Simons averaging about one more minute per game. Trent shot 39 percent from deep compared to Simons’ 23 percent. What Stotts really likes is how Trent Jr takes care of the ball. In those 15 January games, he had just four total turnovers. He also played 36 minutes in one of those games and finished without a single turnover.

As good as Whiteside has been at protecting the rim, Portland remains one of the worst defensive teams in the league. It ranks 26th in opponent scoring and has the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Trent Jr. is much bigger than the aforementioned Simons. He is actually bigger than McCollum and Lillard. The size and length that he possesses allow him to guard multiple positions and really help create deflections.

In his role as an off-ball scorer, Trent Jr. just fits really well alongside the Blazer backcourt. Even when one of them is out, he has found a way to excel. Over his last 15 games, he is averaging 12.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from three-point range. They may need Trent Jr. to steal some minutes from the McCollum and Lillard, as they both rank among the top 12 in minutes per game.

Easing all of these injured players back into the rotation is going to be tricky. There will be some bumps and some hiccups along the way, but time is simply not on their side. They have just 26 games remaining, and several teams are fighting for that same spot. The good news for Portland is that only four teams have an easier remaining schedule.

A healthy Portland team is a dangerous playoff team. Getting Lillard back is paramount, but getting Nurkic and Collins back into the rotation with Carmelo and Whiteside would be monumental for this group.

A potential first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers would be tantalizing, to say the least. It will take some work for this team to get back into the playoffs, but then again, they have never backed down from a challenge.

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