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Memphis Grizzlies 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Memphis Grizzlies have embraced the full rebuild, which could make the upcoming season brutal to watch, but necessary to restart the franchise around the promising young guys on the roster. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Memphis Grizzlies have finally closed the door on the “Grit and grind” era after trading away franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley over the past year. The Grizzlies drafted one future star in Jaren Jackson Jr last year, and look to have nabbed another in Murray State’s Ja Morant. Both will need time to find their way in the NBA, which seems to suit the Grizzlies just fine as they seem to have fully embraced the rough road of a rebuild.

Let’s take at a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s been a long, long time since the Grizzlies had an opening night that didn’t feature Mike Conley Jr. or Marc Gasol on the roster. Over a decade, in fact. The era of Grit-N-Grind is over with, and now it’s the kids’ turn to take over. Continuing a rebuild that began with the upstart Jaren Jackson Jr., rookie sensation Ja Morant should provide us with plenty of exciting moments. Fellow first-year addition Brandon Clarke looks as prepared as anybody to contribute right away as well. We’ll see if Taylor Jenkins is the right man for the job in Memphis, as he’s got a responsibility to uphold to bring this fresh roster together.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Grizzlies didn’t turn a corner as quickly as the Pelicans did, but they made a lot of progress. They now feature two franchise cornerstones in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. and some pieces they’ll look to learn more about in 2019-20, including Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson and Tyus Jones. While Andre Iguodala is a great piece both on and off of the court, he recently let it be known that he prefers a release to finish out his career with a contender. It’s hard to know what the Grizzlies season will look like, but it will be considerably worse if they let Iguodala walk for nothing in return. There isn’t nearly enough established talent to make a playoff push, but the Grizzlies are in a good place – just not necessarily for 2019-20.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Grizzlies officially moved on from the Grit and Grind era. They’re ushering in a new beginning with some intriguing young players. Jaren Jackson Jr. was a darkhorse candidate for Rookie of the Year. They now get pair him up with Ja Morant, one of college basketball’s best playmakers. They’ve got a few other young guys in Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton who could also help make up the new core. There should be some exciting basketball in Memphis, albeit a lot of losses. New head coach Taylor Jenkins is getting his first head coaching opportunity so it’s going to be a learning season for everyone. Expect a team that plays incredibly hard, but won’t win many games.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

I have been critical of some deals that Memphis Grizzlies have made and failed to make in the past. I have no such criticisms for the Grizzlies this offseason. Memphis made several significant deals that are detailed more throughout this season preview, so I will focus on a few moves I particularly liked. Memphis finally traded point guard Mike Conley and ended up with a better package than I would have expected considering Conley has an early termination option for the 2020-21 season. Ja Morant was the right choice with the No. 2 overall pick, in my opinion. Trading Julian Washburn to the Golden State Warriors for Andre Iguodala and a 2024 first-rounder was a great move. That draft pick may end up being quite valuable depending on how the next few seasons go for Golden State. Also, Memphis has Iguodala on the roster and could eventually trade him for a nice return assuming a contender is willing to pay that price. Jae Crowder is on a value contract and can be flipped for more assets. Signing Tyus Jones is a nice addition. Even trading C.J. Miles for Dwight Howard and buying out Howard saved money. Simply put, Memphis made smart moves, added young talent, acquired future assets, rebalanced the roster and made the most of their tools this offseason.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Grizzlies have a lot of up-side youth. That bodes well for the future, but not much for the upcoming season. Head coach Taylor Jenkins might be the most unproven guy we’ve seen in awhile land a top job in the NBA. This makes him more likely a placeholder through the rebuild than the future of the franchise, which will likely make this season tough to watch as not only will the players have to learn on the job, so will the head coach. This season looks to be a throw away season focused on developing the young guys, and while that’s good for the long-term, in the short term the Grizzlies are in for a tough season.

5th place – Southwest Division.

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Grizzlies cycled through multiple trades this offseason, including the deal sending Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz. The team has a high payroll but currently stands at roughly $3.2 million under the NBA’s luxury tax threshold of $132.6 million. The issue for the team is roster space, with 16 players under standard NBA contracts.

Both Bruno Caboclo ($300,000) and Ivan Rabb ($371,758) have sizable partial-guarantees. If the Grizzlies want to keep the two developing players, they’ll need to shed a total of three fully-guaranteed contracts to make room. That could mean Andre Iguodala (though reports say the team has not explored a buyout and expects the forward to report to camp), Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee. If not, someone else has to go, unless Caboclo and Rabb don’t make the cut.

The Grizzlies also have to decide on team options for Josh Jackson, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Grayson Allen before November. The franchise still has its $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception available, along with multiple trade exceptions (the largest at $7.7 million for Conley), but roster space and avoiding the tax may limit any significant additional spending. Memphis is hard-capped at $138.9 million after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Tyus Jones.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jaren Jackson Jr.

The offense in Memphis will run through the versatile big man. Jackson’s unique combination of size, agility, and length is the perfect fit in today’s NBA. He can stretch the floor, as he made 51 three-pointers last season at a respectable 36 percent clip. He can block shots, handle the ball like a guard, and has showcased some impressive post moves.

While Jackson will continue to develop his game, he is also entering his sophomore season in the league. Teams will now be game-planning for him, and he will need to make adjustments and learn how to combat defensive schemes designed to slow him down. He can score from many areas on the floor, and Memphis will desperately need that this season.

Top Defensive Player: Kyle Anderson

Anderson is not the flashy name that comes to mind when you think about tough defenders in the league. However, his deceptive speed and athleticism can be used to his advantage, and his high basketball IQ always has him in the right spot on the floor. Despite playing just 43 games last season, he nearly led the team in steals and was top-five in blocks per game for the Grizzlies. He ranked 33rd in the league in defensive real plus-minus a year ago.

Memphis does not have the one standout high-level defender, but they do have a great collection of defensive talent. Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas are outstanding rim protectors. They also added three excellent defenders this offseason in Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Brandon Clarke. It remains to be seen how much if any, Iguodala plays for Memphis, but Crowder is a great defender that can guard multiple positions.

Top Playmaker: Ja Morant

It will take some time, but this will ultimately be Ja Morant’s show. Rookies typically need time and experience before they can become the focal point of the offense, even on a bad team. For Morant, that will mean utilizing Jackson and relying on him to finish plays and bail them out when the offense bogs down and becomes stagnant.

The No. 2 overall draft pick from this summer will be a high-level pick-and-roll player almost from the start. The front office has surrounded him with a smorgasbord of quality role players. The key for Morant will be finding his comfort zone and figuring out the game. It took time for Trae Young in Atlanta, but he eventually settled in and flourished. Ja will be given ample time and opportunity to get to that point, so patience will be key with him.

Top Clutch Player: Dillon Brooks

The Grizzlies do not yet have a player they feel comfortable with taking over late in a close game. Fortunately for them, they do not necessarily need someone like that right now. Their young roster does not have many guys that have played in big games or shined in monumental moments. Iguodala would fit the bill here, but it is unlikely that he plays the entire season in Memphis. Crowder has hit some big shots in his career, but if they need someone to create and go get a bucket, Brooks has the confidence and the ability to make something happen with the ball.

Josh Jackson is an interesting candidate here as well. Jackson was hot and cold in Phoenix, and Memphis sees him as an intriguing project right now. It will be interesting to see how he slides into the rotation, and what role they want him to fill this year. Jackson and Morant could very well be this guy for Memphis as well, but Brooks will want the ball at the end of close games.

The Unheralded Player: Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones joins a team where he will fit in nicely as a top-level backup point guard. Playing that same role in Minnesota, Jones will be an excellent replacement for Delon Wright for the Grizzlies. Jones has an extremely high basketball IQ and rarely turns the ball over. Last year Jones posted a 6.9 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best in NBA history.

Jones does not gamble much and exhibits excellent court vision. He had career-high marks in points, assists, and rebounds per game last season with the Timberwolves. The 23-year old guard is entering his fifth season in the league and will be a steady rock for Morant to lean on during his rookie campaign.

Best New Addition: Ja Morant

There were several nice additions that the Grizzlies front office was able to land this offseason. Several new role players are going to shape this franchise over the coming years. After winning the Summer League championship and MVP honors, Clarke has already been dubbed as the steal of the draft. Their first pick this year is still the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Despite the truckload of players that Memphis added, Morant is without a doubt their best new piece. The keys to the franchise belong to him and Jackson, who are both still very young. Jackson is still 19, and Morant just turned 20 last month. The future is bright is Memphis, but they will have to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

– Chad Smith

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jaren Jackson Jr

What is there not to love about this kid? He already possesses so many skills and has a solid head on his shoulders. He has already gotten a great feel of the modern NBA. Last season he was either hitting three-pointers (142 attempts) or working inside (389 attempts around the rim) while anchoring the defense. He had the lowest defensive rating among rookies last season and knows how to get to the free-throw line.

2. Ja Morant

Most superstar players in the NBA are great at many things, but elite in one area. For Morant, his elite skill is his passing. His supreme court vision and passing ability were on full display at Murray State. The young point guard is much more than just an athlete. His ability to create off the dribble and get his teammates open shots is something coaches dream of. Morant’s ceiling is incredibly high, and he will be given plenty of time to develop.

3. Jae Crowder

Every team needs a veteran leader, especially one that is willing to sacrifice and lead by example. Crowder is willing and able to lay it all out on the line. He will guard the best offensive player, dive for loose balls, and do whatever it takes for his teammates. Those traits are what help teams gel and genuinely care for one another. Both Crowder and Valanciunas will be key factors in how quickly this team learns the nuances of the game.

4. Dillon Brooks

After playing in all 82 games during his rookie campaign, Brooks only managed to play in 18 games last season due to injury. Brooks has a strong build and can be a very good defender at times. His shooting has not been outstanding (44 percent his rookie year), but he is arguably the Grizzlies’ best effective shooter. With the attention on Jackson and Morant, Brooks could have some excellent open looks this season.

– Chad Smith

STRENGTHS

After finally moving on from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the young Grizzlies are on their way up. The team will be moving at a much quicker pace, which is something Memphis hasn’t experienced in quite some time. They ranked 30th in pace last season and 26th in attendance. You can bank on both of those numbers improving this year, as they will boast one of the more exciting young duos in the league. They are oozing with young talent at nearly every position.

There is also something to be said for having strength in numbers. A team like the Rockets have the star power in the starting lineup, but their bench is almost non-existent. The Warriors ran into trouble in the Finals last year after injuries depleted their roster. The Grizzlies have an extremely deep team, with a bunch of parts that all work very nicely together.

– Chad Smith

WEAKNESS

These guys are babies. The Grizzlies have the seventh-youngest roster in the league and are going to rely on the growth and emergence of essentially two teenagers. They are more than that obviously, but they are going to experience some growing pains, and they will have to figure it out in a gauntlet of a Western Conference. Fortunately, they have some quality veterans like Iguodala and Crowder that they can lean on, but their time in Memphis may be short-lived.

The Grizzlies will desperately need to improve their overall shooting, as they were 27th in offensive rating and dead last in points per game last season. In terms of three-point shooting, they ranked 27th in threes made and 25th in three-point percentage. The addition of Crowder and the return of Brooks should help there, but they do not have a strong and consistent three-point shooter.

– Chad Smith

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will Taylor Jenkins be graded in his first season as Head Coach?

All of the buzz surrounding Memphis is how their young duo will look. With so many roster moves and potential buyout deals and draft picks, it is easy to overlook the new Head Coach of the organization. While it is Taylor’s first lead role, he certainly brings some valuable coaching experience with him.

Jenkins spent last season as an assistant coach under Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee. Before that, he was with Budenholzer in Atlanta for five years, where they made it to the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals in addition to three other playoff appearances. In 2013, Jenkins guided the Austin Toros (Spurs G League affiliate) to the Semifinals.

It will be interesting to see the rotation that Jenkins goes with, with so many bodies on the roster. There are some unknowns as well, with guys like Clarke, Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson, Bruno Caboclo, De’Anthony Melton, and Miles Plumlee. They need to figure out who can play, and who cannot. The best way to make that determination is with playing time on the court.

The players are going to be learning on the job, and so will their coach. The relationship between the two is going to be vital in terms of the growth and success of the organization. This is going to take time, but the Grizzlies seemingly have everything lined up to be a real contender in the foreseeable future.

For Jenkins, his grade will be determined not by how many meaningful basketball games they win, but by how he can develop his young cornerstone players.

– Chad Smith

 

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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?

Ben Nadeau

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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.

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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.

Shane Rhodes

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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?

Philadelphia 76ers

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.

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NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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