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NBA AM: Was Loss to 76ers Good for Blazers?

The Blazers were blown out by the 76ers, but it seems that loss was the wake-up call Portland needed.

Alex Kennedy

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Was Portland’s Loss to Philadelphia Beneficial?

On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers were destroyed by the Philadelphia 76ers, 114-89. For the 76ers, who have an NBA-high 38 losses, it was just their fifth win of the season and by far their best game. In fact, the 25-point win was the Sixers’ largest margin of victory since the 2013-14 season. Five Sixers players scored in double figures and rookie Jahlil Okafor led the way by dominating Portland’s frontcourt with 25 points (on 12-16 shooting from the field) and 10 rebounds.

LillardSmith1A blowout loss to the worst team in the NBA can destroy a team’s confidence, kill all of their momentum and lead to finger-pointing. But rather than fracturing the team, the loss to Philadelphia had the opposite effect on the Blazers. The group took the loss as a wake-up call, coming together as a group, acknowledging that they weren’t doing the things that led to their earlier success and responding well to constructive criticism from their coaches.

In the following game, the team was refocused and locked in against the Washington Wizards. They were determined to get a big bounce-back win on the road to rid the horrible taste of defeat to the NBA’s worst team from their mouths. They executed on Monday and got the much-needed victory over the Wizards, 108-98.

After the win, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts expressed how proud he was of his young team.

“They are high character guys, they are very competitive, they bounce back, they are pretty resilient,” Coach Stotts said. “I have always been pretty proud of how we compete.”

Several Portland players admitted that the Philadelphia loss caused them to take a step back and accept some harsh truths about how they had been playing and approaching games.

“[We were] pretty frustrated with how we played,” Meyers Leonard said of the loss to Philadelphia. “We just really thought about it more, not from a basketball side, but just how you approach the game and how you have to respect each team.”

After the loss to the Sixers, the coaching staff told the players that they had been looking like a completely different team and getting away from the things that made them so successful this season. After the Philly loss, the players were extremely receptive, acknowledged their mistakes and vowed to turn things around.

“[They told us] that we weren’t ourselves,” Damian Lillard said of the coaches’ message. “Everything that we had been doing up to that point, we stopped doing. They weren’t sure why. It wasn’t just one thing or two things. It was so many things. It was just like, ‘We know better and there is no excuse for it.’”

The Blazers’ offense (which is currently ranked eighth in the NBA, scoring 103.3 points per 100 possessions) had been struggling; their 89 points against a dreadful Philadelphia defense made that clear. The team’s defensive intensity was lacking as well, which had been a problem for quite some time but was discussed after Saturday’s loss.

“I thought the staff handled it very well,” Mason Plumlee said. “It wasn’t a situation where they said, ‘Flush it, forget about it.’ We addressed some things and then guys were really locked in coming into this game [against Washington]. We played with energy from the jump and we competed. … Coach made some good points. I thought guys came back really well.”

When asked what changed from the Philadelphia game to the Washington game, Plumlee didn’t hesitate: “The energy. It was just a [different] mindset defensively.”

By putting the Philadelphia loss behind them quickly, Portland can get back to focusing on trying to make the playoffs. They have exceeded all expectations this year and are currently 19-25, which puts them just a half game out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Lillard was happy to see the Blazers move past the previous loss and get an important win over a talented Wizards team.

“It was huge,” Lillard said. “We were playing well. Then we come out against Philadelphia and we stink it up. [Against the Wizards], we had our minds right, guys came in prepared and we locked in on the scouting report.”

No team wants to lose to the tanking Sixers, especially in embarrassing fashion. Some teams faced with Portland’s scenario may have imploded, with blame getting tossed around and tension developing between players. That can be the start of a downward spiral.

Instead, for the Blazers, it seems this particular loss was beneficial and may actually help them in the long run. The embarrassing beat-down at the hands of the league’s worst team snapped them out of a lull they had been in and the coaching staff – realizing that the players were receptive – used it as an opportunity to confront the team about some of the issues that plagued them.

Now, if all goes as planned, the Blazers can return to playing to their full potential.

Oladipo Must Embrace Sixth-Man Role for Magic

Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo recently sprained his knee and missed Monday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks. But prior to the injury, the 23-year-old was putting up some his best stats of the season.

VictorOladipo_Inside33Over the last five games, he averaged 20.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.8 steals. After struggling with his shot for some time, he had finally found his stroke – shooting an impressive 53.7 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three-point range.

The problem is that Oladipo’s impressive numbers haven’t translated to wins for Orlando. During that five-game stretch in which he posted those solid numbers, the Magic were 1-4. This season, Orlando is 6-11 with Oladipo in the starting lineup compared to 13-7 when he comes off of the bench.

The offense doesn’t seem to flow as well when Oladipo is on the floor and while his shooting has been better lately, he is still hitting just 40.5 percent of his field goals on the season. Those struggles are part of the reason why head coach Scott Skiles adjusted the starting lineup to include Evan Fournier and Channing Frye, both of whom can spread the floor for fellow starters Elfrid Payton, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic.

While Oladipo has said all of the right things on the record since being moved to the bench, his body language has been poor and it’s pretty clear he’s upset with the demotion.

He had viewed himself as the Magic’s star player, which was understandable since he was the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and arguably the best player in the top 10 of that class. After his early success in the NBA, he was anointed by the team as the face and future of the Magic franchise.

The move to the second unit had to come as a surprise to him. He entered this season with All-Star aspirations and now finds himself not even starting, which has to be a humbling experience for him.

It’s also worth noting that this is Oladipo’s first time playing for an NBA coach who doesn’t mince words and isn’t afraid to call out players publicly. Former head coach Jacque Vaughn was very much a players’ coach and would rarely speak negatively about his team. Skiles, on the other hand, has been very critical of his players at times and benched entire lineups if he doesn’t like their effort or level of production. Skiles, a former point guard, demands a lot from his guards and Oladipo is still adjusting to his new coach’s system.

Oladipo has now come off the bench for 20 games and he is averaging 13.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.3 steals on the season. He also continues to provide solid perimeter defense for Orlando, which has really helped the Magic. Oladipo’s effort on that end of the floor coupled with Skiles’ defensive schemes have the team playing much better defense this season.

Recent injuries to Payton and Fournier forced Oladipo back into the starting lineup, but it seems like he’ll return to the bench once the team is at full strength. He needs to completely buy in to his new role rather than worrying about starting.

If Oladipo embraces being a reserve and continues to put up solid numbers, he could very well be in the mix for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He has the talent and will get enough touches to be a legitimate candidate for the award. However, he must help Orlando win games and let the game come to him a bit more. Critics point out that he isn’t producing within the flow of the offense and, at times, tries to do too much. But this is likely because he’s trying to win his starting job back, which is understandable for a young player who has never been benched in his career.

At the end of the day, Oladipo needs to do what’s best for the team and accept his role as team’s sixth man as long as Skiles plays him there. Until he fully embraces it, the Magic will likely continue to struggle. They have currently lost three straight games and dropped seven of their last 10 contests. This has caused them to fall out of the playoff picture – to the ninth seed – in the highly competitive Eastern Conference.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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