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NBA Daily: Dwyane, Dirk and the Next Torchbearers

After saying goodbye to Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki this week, Ben Nadeau examines the legacies of three legends and where they may end up in the all-time pantheon.

Ben Nadeau

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The NBA Playoffs are finally here, but at what cost?

This week, the community said goodbye to two certain Hall of Famers — Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki.

Beyond their cemented statuses as adored fan favorites for nearly 20 years, the pair also boast an insane amount of professional achievements. Wade finishes his career with the 23rd-most points in NBA history, while Nowitzki closes with the sixth-highest tally at 31,560 — and, importantly, not a single active player in sight. Their statistics back up their cases well, but if that weren’t enough, they share four championships, two Finals MVPs, six All-NBA First Team selections and a whopping 27 All-Star appearances.

Of course, Nowitzki was also the runaway winner for MVP in 2007, handily defeating Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant.

On Wednesday, both Wade and Nowitzki closed their books with memorable moments. In San Antonio, home of Nowitzki’s long-time bitter rivals, the Spurs put together a tribute that moved the German star to tears. Despite losing a step at the age of 40, Nowitzki turned back the clock in his last two games, posting 30 points before dropping 20 points and 10 rebounds during the finale. For Wade, fans and allies alike flocked to the Barclays Center to wish the guard a warm-hearted farewell in Brooklyn.

LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony all witnessed Wade drop his first triple-double since 2011 — a fifth over in a storied 16-year career — relishing in their best friend’s swan song and encore performance.

This marks the near-end of an era in the NBA and their retirements come sharply in the well-missed footsteps of Manu Ginobili, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and other recent legends. The season-long goodbye tours for Dwyane and Dirk didn’t feel hackneyed as their emotional moments — like commissioner Adam Silver naming both as special additions to the All-Star Game — felt deserved and earned.

But irreplaceable as they may be, somebody else new will need to take their mantle as idolized father figures and record-chasing future Hall of Famers. Aside from the obvious and not-quite-old-enough — hello, Kevin Durant — here’s where things stand headed into 2019-20.

Honorable Mentions

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James’ legacy in the pantheon, even if he suddenly decided to quit tomorrow morning, will never be in question — this much is already clear. The ever-reliable James is fourth in scoring all-time with just Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left to pass for the elusive top spot. All things considered, health dependant, James will likely reach this summit, along with too many other records to count. It’s not just his bucket-getting prowesses that’ll be on display either as James is already 10th in assists with 8,662 and, as the cherry on top, owns 1,937 steals — good for 17th-best. In conversations about the absolute greatest player of all-time, James’ inclusion is one of the first two or three names on the shortlist.

LeBron James is masterful — but you already knew that. In an ideal world, he’ll be playing long into his forties as well.

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Like James, Durant is headed straight to the top too.

36th in points and 25th in three-pointers made, Kevin Durant — whether in Seattle, Oklahoma City or Golden State — has been a bonafide scoring machine. Durant has averaged an ungodly 27 points per game over his first 12 NBA seasons and shows no sign of slowing down either. His Warriors-related championships remain a polarizing topic, but the record books will only remember the result, not every detail of his ever-winding journey.

If Durant averages just 22 points per game for the next six years, he’d find himself knocking on the door to the top five scorers in league history. Durant has only scored less than 25 points once in his career, notched way back in his rookie year of 2007-08. So, yeah, love or hate him, Durant is here to stay, smash some records and lock himself into all-time legend status.

Carmelo Anthony, Free Agent

Although it’s possible that the now-forgotten Carmelo Anthony could make a comeback next season, the odds remain stacked against him. In 2018, it took just 10 games before the Rockets tossed him aside as his iso-heavy style of play didn’t mesh with Houston’s uptempo Harden-fueled juggernaut. Following months of flirtations with the Lakers, Anthony sadly stayed on the sidelines and without a franchise for the remainder of the campaign.

At the time of his release, Anthony was tallying 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds on 40.5 percent from the field — so it’s hard to believe that the Hall of Famer’s career has come to such a jarring halt, but that might be the harsh reality.

If this the end of the line for Anthony, he’ll march into retirement as the 22nd-best scorer of all-time, an achievement placed proudly alongside his status as one of basketball’s top Olympians.

The Contenders

Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks

The list of veterans that could ably take the torch from Wade and Nowitzki, both statistically and popularly, is varied — but it must start with Vince Carter. As of now, it’s expected that Carter will return for his 21st campaign, despite a diminishing role over the years. Although the former high-flying dunker has been offered spot minutes on legitimate contenders year after year, Carter has opted for mentoring position on growing rosters. When the prodigious talent does eventually return, he’s still an unlikely candidate to rise too far up the all-time totem pole.

Regardless, a two-nation farewell tour would suit the eloquent and often show-stopping Carter, a walking highlight reel even at the tender age of 42.

Should Carter duplicate his recent 562-point season (7.4 PPG), he’d finish with right around 26,000 on the career — a total that would push him past both Alex English and Carmelo Anthony, but fall short of Kevin Garnett’s 20th-place ranking. While ursurping Jason Terry for fifth in three-pointers made is certainly still in play — only 53 behind — Carter has the potential to be jumped by both Jamal Crawford and James Harden in 2019-20.

Of note, Carter is 47th in steals and 78th in assists all-time.

Despite his achievements both above the rim and overseas, Carter’s legacy would take an even grander leap if he rode off into the sunset with a ring of his own.

That much, however, remains to be seen.

Dwight Howard, Washington Wizards

It’s been a bumpy road for the often-maligned center but his impressive resume will put him in position to become a first ballot Hall of Famer. It goes without saying, but Howard does not own the strongest outward-facing reputation amongst fans these days. No matter how you feel about Howard, statistics are unavoidably cold and the once-league-wide fan favorite still ranks him highly. After beginning the year on the injured list, Howard played in just nine games before he require what would eventually become season-ending surgery.

Still, it’s the worst ailment of Howard’s career by a longshot and he’ll be a strong candidate to pick right back up where he left off. Even if Howard averages just eight boards per contest over a 60-game clip for the next five years, he would cruise into the top seven for all-time rebounds. Indeed, that estimate feels slightly unfair, admittedly, as Howard had never tallied less than 10 rebounds per game until this season — again, in only nine opportunities, he put up 9.2 boards — and has only played less than 60 games in two of his other 14 seasons.

Reaching the 15,000-plus rebound plateau would put Howard in elite company and in the conversation with Tim Duncan, Elvin Hayes, Artis Gilmore, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Additionally, Howard owns a puncher’s chance of reaching the top ten in blocks to boot, a reflection of a rim-protecting presence that once won him three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year honors.

At just 32 years old, there’s plenty of time left for Howard to cement his place as an all-timer — just don’t expect many teary-eyed goodbyes in visiting arenas.

Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

Last but not least, there’s Chris Paul, ball-wizard aficionado.

Even if his career ended today, Paul would still be considered one of the best point guards of all-time — that sentiment is hardly up for debate. His awards case, if it’s not already overflown, is comprehensive and far-reaching at the same time. Paul has earned All-Star Game honors on nine occasions and was selected for the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team eight and nine times, respectively. Furthermore, the 6-foot court general has led the NBA in assists during four different seasons, while he outpaced everybody else for steals in six instances.

Basically, when healthy, Paul is a well-oiled machine of the best variety.

Unfortunately, that’s been his Achilles heel as of late and it may just cripple his attempt at snagging the title of best-ever at his position. Paul has played 58 games in back-to-back seasons and he’s already 33 years old — so it’s fair to ask how much longer he’ll play at an elite level. Given that his assists have dropped with the MVP-worthy rise of James Harden, Paul’s odds of catching John Stockton’s nearly-untouchable assists record of 15,806 are next-to-none. But it’s all gravy from here on out for Paul, who will finish his Hall of Fame-worthy career in the same breath as Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.

If that wasn’t enough, Paul only needs 392 steals to pass Michael Jordan for third all-time. For a stellar guard that’s finished with under 100 steals in a season just twice, that’s like playing with house money. Whenever Paul does say goodbye — with or without a championship ring on his finger — you can bet that the country will roll out the red carpet to celebrate basketball’s high-level orchestrator.

Ultimately, the loss of Wade and Nowitzki will sting, thanks in part to their strong community ties, statistical achievements and overall cultural influence on the game. Replacing them will be difficult, if not nearly impossible, but there are more than a few worthy candidates to consider. As Carter, Howard and Paul continue to climb the leaderboards alongside James and Durant, the league is clearly in safe and secure hands.

Eventually, however, all great careers must come to a close — for now, let’s just hope there’s a tiny break in Father Time’s unrelenting march toward mortality… ‘cause we’re all out of tears for now.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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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 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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