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NBA Daily: Grading the Offseason – Portland Trail Blazers

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the Portland Trail Blazers.

David Yapkowitz

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We’re moving right along this week with our “Grading the Offseason” series here at Basketball Insiders. Next up on our list is the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers have an interesting team. Over the past few years, there’s no question that they’ve been one of the better teams in the tough Western Conference. But they’ve also been one of those teams that are clearly good enough to make the playoffs, but not quite at the level where they can make any serious run once they get there.

That could quite possibly change this upcoming season. With the injuries and departures to the Golden State Warriors, there is no longer a true top tier favorite to win the West. There are a couple of teams that have positioned themselves to potentially make a serious playoff run and the Blazers are one of them.

The West is as wide open as it’s ever been in the past several years. Here’s a look at how the Blazers have managed this offseason.

Overview

Overall, the Blazers’ 2018-19 season should be considered a very successful one. Not only did they get their first playoff series win in three years, but they also outlasted a very talented Denver Nuggets team in seven games in the second round, and made it to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in almost 20 years.

Although they were eventually swept by the Warriors, they still had a very good year. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum continued to cement themselves as one of the elite backcourts in the NBA. Lillard made his fourth All-Star appearance, and McCollum was for sure a borderline All-Star.

The Blazers also saw solid development from Zach Collins who was their lottery pick from a year ago. Collins turned into an integral part of the rotation as an athletic and outside shooting big man who can thrive in today’s game.

Their midseason acquisition of Rodney Hood from the Cleveland Cavaliers also paid off. Hood was solid throughout the playoffs, including a playoff career-best 25 points in a Game 6 win over the Nuggets. They were able to re-sign Hood this summer, who showed flashes of regaining the form he displayed at times in Utah.

Offseason

The Blazers began the offseason with a couple of minor, but still decent moves. They signed veteran big man Anthony Tolliver as well as Mario Hezonja.

Tolliver has carved out a niche in the league as a three-point shooting big man, and he’s also a quality veteran to have in the locker room. While his numbers were down a bit in Minnesota this past season, he still shot 37.7 percent from three. He should provide the Blazers with a solid presence off the bench.

Hezonja, on the other hand, was a former top lottery pick who has never lived up to the hype that surrounded him when he was drafted. He spent a year in New York last season after moving on from Orlando where he showed flashes of inconsistent potential.

Later on in the season, however, when the Knicks set him loose for a few games and let him run the team, he turned in some of the most impressive numbers of his career. For a team that needed some additional wing depth, he’s not too bad an option. At the very least, on a minimum deal, he’s a low-risk, high-reward type signing.

A few weeks ago, the Blazers made another free agent signing, bringing in Pau Gasol. The veteran big man and former All-Star had a couple of injury-plagued seasons recently, but if he is healthy, he can make a difference. Sure, he is pushing 40 years old, but Gasol remains one of the smartest big men in the league and is still a good playmaker. He won’t be asked to do too much in Portland, just to provide a veteran presence and be a steady contributor off the bench.

The Blazers’ big offseason moves, however, came in the form of trades.

As part of the trade that sent Mo Harkless to the Los Angeles Clippers and Meyers Leonard to the Miami HEAT, the Blazers acquired Hassan Whiteside.

Whiteside had a bit of a down year last season, but he is still one of the NBA’s better defensive anchors in the paint and one of the top rebounders. With Jusuf Nurkic likely out for the first half of the season as he rehabs from injury, Whiteside will have the opportunity to regain some of the form that earned him a near $100 million contract a few summers ago.

When Nurkic eventually returns from injury, the Blazers will have a very formidable big man rotation with Nurkic, Collins, Gasol and Whiteside.

The Blazers also traded Evan Turner and his big contract to the Atlanta Hawks for Kent Bazemore. Turner did provide the Blazers with another ball-handler and playmaker off the bench, but Bazemore is a more effective scorer. While not the defensive presence that Al-Farouq Aminu was, Bazemore should be able to come in and perhaps start at small forward right away.

In the draft, the Blazers selected Nassir Little from North Carolina. Little was a very highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He only spent one year at UNC where he wasn’t really used properly. He is still a raw player but has a lot of talent. Little probably won’t get many minutes right away and will spend a lot of time in the G League.

The Blazers used one of their two-way contract spots on Jaylen Hoard from Wake Forest. Hoard is also a very intriguing prospect in the mold of a big wing. He almost assuredly won’t see any NBA court time, and barring injuries, will spend all season in the G League.

PLAYERS IN: Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little, Jaylen Hoard (two-way contract).

PLAYERS OUT: Evan Turner, Mo Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Jake Layman

What’s Next

As mentioned before, the West has no clear cut favorite to make it to the Finals the way the Warriors have been the last several seasons. The Blazers are among a few teams that could have a legitimate shot at having a big playoff run.

One of the things the Blazers appear to be depending on is development from their young wing players. With the departures of Harkless and Aminu, there are some holes in the Blazers; wing rotation. That’s where Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. come in.

Neither player saw any meaningful minutes last season as rookies, but they both had very strong showings in the Las Vegas Summer League. Simons can step in and be a scorer off the bench, while Trent is a great shooter.

Should both those players emerge as dependable rotation players, the Blazers could end up with a formidable team — a team capable of playing with anyone in the West.

OFFSEASON GRADE: B

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NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance

The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.

Jack Winter

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Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.

But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.

But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.

The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.

But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.

These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.

Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.

Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.

The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.

That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.

Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.

The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.

Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.

For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.

Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?

It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.

Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.

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NBA Daily: Four Playoff Teams That Won’t Return

Making the playoffs is hard, and staying there is even more challenging. Revisiting last year’s postseason, there are four teams that could find themselves without a chair once the music stops at the end of this season. Chad Smith writes.

Chad Smith

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Forecasting tomorrow’s weather can be difficult. Trying to predict the outcome of an 82-game schedule for all 30 NBA teams can be just as hard. The playoffs are the goal for every franchise as the regular season gets set to tip-off next week. Every year, there are both surprising and disappointing teams that will shake up the playoff picture.

Despite all of the offseason movement throughout the league, the majority of teams that made the postseason last year should return. Other teams are on the rise and have their sights set on being one of the eight teams from their respective conferences. Here are four teams — two in each conference — that could find themselves on the outside looking in after mid-April, as well as the teams that will replace them.

Detroit Pistons

Detroit had an outstanding season a year ago in large part because of Blake Griffin’s best season as a professional. The star forward spent a lot of time adding to his game last summer, and it showed during the regular season. Griffin carried the Pistons to the No. 8 overall seed, but they were swept after he went down with a knee injury that he tried to battle through.

Role players weren’t enough to prevent the sweep, but some of them showed promise for the future. Both Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown are trending upward, but the talent outside of the starting five could leave them with not enough star power to replicate the success of last season, especially if Griffin ever goes down again. Detroit will be competitive on a nightly basis, but the additions of Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, and Joe Johnson likely won’t be enough for them to return to the postseason.

Replacement: Miami HEAT

Jimmy Butler’s arrival in South Beach will get most of the attention, but it is the subtle moves that Pat Riley made this summer that should really improve Miami’s odds of returning to the playoffs this year. Tyler Herro was drafted No. 13 overall and the rookie should get minutes on a roster in which shooting and spacing are both needed. Better, Meyers Leonard will also help in that area and should make an immediate impact on offense.

Despite the loss of Josh Richardson, the presence of Butler will be felt on both ends of the floor. He may be a headache at times, but he has proven over the course of his career to be a hard worker and an elite finisher when things get tight. A healthy Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters, along with the continued improvement of Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo, should be the combination that puts the HEAT back into the playoffs.

Orlando Magic

Similarly to the aforementioned Pistons, the Magic realized their success after their big man had a monster season. Nikola Vucevic averaged career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and effective field goal percentage. Orlando relied heavily on its rotation over the course of the season, which resulted in the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. After taking Game 1 on the road, the Magic lost four in a row to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors.

Unless a few players take that next step in development, this could be a regression season for the Magic. In particular, Jonathan Isaac needs to make a big leap in his third season. Al-Farouq Aminu adds to a stingy defense that ranked eighth-best last season. Aaron Gordon could be the X-factor for Orlando if it isn’t Markelle Fultz. The ultra-athletic big man had somewhat of a down year in terms of expectations. If he can have a bounce-back season, the Magic could possibly squeak their way back in.

Replacement: Chicago Bulls

Simply put, injuries devastated the Bulls last season. The head coaching change was rocky, a decision that took its toll on an extremely young team. With those things behind them, Chicago is primed for major progression this year. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are both capable of having monstrous breakout seasons. The duo is a part of a talented frontcourt with Otto Porter Jr., who looked impressive and averaged 18 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per contest over his 15 games for the Bulls last season.

The backcourt should be much improved as well, as Zach LaVine is finally healthy and the addition of Tomas Satoransky should prove helpful. Coby White gives the team an interesting young offensive weapon that will definitely push the pace and allow the young Bulls to thrive in transition. Veteran forward Thaddeus Young will add valuable stability and experience that should bring everything full circle in the Windy City.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Expectations quickly changed for the Thunder after their promising duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George was traded away. Their future looks extremely bright with talented young players and future draft picks. Steven Adams flourished at center for quite some time, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been showing his budding potential in the preseason as well.

Despite all of this, don’t expect Oklahoma City to just roll over. That is not in Chris Paul’s DNA and all of the players on that roster want to compete. Youngsters like Hamidou Diallo and Terrance Ferguson are intriguing adds to the rotation, suddenly afforded more playing time. The veteran point guard already has excellent chemistry with offensive weapon Danilo Gallinari. If they were in the Eastern Conference, this would be a playoff team — but the West, unfortunately, is just absolutely loaded.

Replacement: Los Angeles Lakers

After missing out on the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season, LeBron James is hungry. He and Anthony Davis could be the most dynamic duo this season should they both stay healthy. That will be the key for them, without a doubt. The role players surrounding them are a good enough supporting cast to get them into the postseason.

Like most teams with LeBron, this roster could look much different towards the end of the season. The buyout market likely will provide them with significant pieces needed to get them to their peak later in the year. A championship may be lofty expectations for the Lakers this season, but a return to the playoffs after a seven-year hiatus is a fair benchmark for this group.

Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard may have single-handedly destroyed an organization in the playoffs last year, but he might not have the opportunity to play more than 82 games this season. He and CJ McCollum are an elite one-two punch, but Portland is a far cry from the team that made it to the Western Conference Finals. The team brought in Hassan Whiteside to fill Jusuf Nurkic’s spot as he continues the rehab on his broken leg. Kent Bazemore is a quality addition, but guys like Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja don’t figure to move the needle.

Losing underrated role players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard will ultimately hurt them. Anfernee Simons is oozing with potential, but how the second-year guard fits into the rotation is a mystery at this point. While most other teams made sizeable additions to their roster this summer through the draft or free agency, the Blazers didn’t exactly do themselves any favors in the tough Western Conference.

Replacement: New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans could absolutely have the biggest season turnaround this year. After making the deal with the Lakers, New Orleans has dramatically reshaped its roster around All-NBA guard Jrue Holiday. The addition of Zion Williamson will seize all of the eyeballs, but David Griffin has seamlessly put together an incredibly impressive roster of talent.

Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart should thrive in a system outside of Los Angeles. The trade to acquire Derrick Favors was arguably the best low-key addition of the summer. JJ Redick was a home run. The Pelicans also seem to have struck more gold in the draft with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and big man Jaxson Hayes. New Orleans has sensational depth at nearly every position, and it will be up to Alvin Gentry to put it all together. Not only will the Pelicans be fun to watch, they should be able to claim one of the final playoff spots in the West.

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The European Duo Appears Ready To Roll

Jordan Hicks takes a look at the Kristaps Porzingis-Luka Doncic pairing in Dallas, how they got to the Mavericks and what can be expected this upcoming season.

Jordan Hicks

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The Dallas Mavericks definitely have the most enticing European duo in the history of the NBA. Sure there was Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, but Ginobli is from Argentina and we all know they were led by Tim Duncan. Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitski were short-lived, besides, Nash is Canadian so they technically wouldn’t qualify. Okay, the list of relevant European teammates isn’t huge, but Porzingis and Doncic definitely top the list.

It’s not just their basketball skills that vault them to the top, but the combination of their youth, size and overall IQ on the court. Doncic just had what could be considered the greatest rookie season in the history of the NBA. Kristaps Porzingis was named an All-Star by his third season, where he averaged 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks before it came to an abrupt end via an ACL tear. It’s not likely he returns to All-Star status this upcoming season, as it’ll be his first year back from injury and he’s now in a Western Conference that – if you haven’t checked the papers recently – has quite a bit more talent than the East. Either way, the Porzingis-Doncic duo is going to be incredibly fun.

The Porzingis to Dallas trade was likely the biggest blockbuster of last year’s deadline. There had been rumblings leading up to it, so it wasn’t exactly shocking, but considering the path he was headed down towards Knicks’ legend status, it still seems crazy that Kristaps will be wearing a different uniform this upcoming season.

Just how did he end up with Dallas?

Porzingis and the Knicks seemed more-or-less like a match made in heaven. He had a solid rookie campaign, improved the following season, then was named an All-Star reserve by year three. He was booed the day he was drafted by many New York fans but was beloved within six months. Had he avoided injury, there’s a very high chance he would have stayed with the Knicks through at least his first six to seven years — but the ACL tear was definitely the first domino to fall.

Because of the timing of his injury, Porzingis’ rehab would take almost a year-and-a-half to complete, which left him missing the rest of the 2017-18 season and the entirety of the 2018-19 season. He held a meeting with Knicks officials in January 2019 and was quickly traded thereafter. It’s hard to tell exactly why Porzingis wanted out, but two things can be pointed to.

First off, the Knicks are just a really bad basketball team and have been for quite some time. Unless they surrounded Porzingis with boatloads of talent, they likely weren’t even headed to the playoffs, let alone a championship.

Secondly, the Knicks clearly had a plan after trading Kristaps to open up enough room for two max spots in preparation for the ensuing free agency period. Had they relayed this to him? Did they make him feel like they wanted him out so they could go after different players? The truth may never come out. Unfortunately for the Knicks, they whiffed big time in free agency, and trading Porzingis ended up looking like a really bad move.

Despite all that happened in the offseason, Porzingis is now a Maverick and he’s being paired with the second most exciting up-and-coming player in today’s league (sorry, Luka, Zion Williamson already has you beaten out). The only rookie to ever exceed Doncic’s nightly averages of 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6 assists? Oscar Robertson back in 1960 when he was 22 years old. Doncic played his rookie season in the NBA at just 19. Crazy to think, but even LeBron James didn’t put up a similar stat line.

Luka does many things on the court incredibly well. He’s an apt shooter, elite playmaker, solid defender and strong rebounder. He knows how to run an offense to an extremely high level, but is very capable of playing off-ball as well. Keep in mind — he was the EuroLeague MVP at just 18 years old. That is likely the best league in the world outside the NBA, and he was dominating it while being the same age as a high-school senior in America.

With both Doncic and Porzingis in Dallas, their success boils down to how well their play will fit.

Doncic seems to be at his best when he’s running the offense at the point guard position, and Porzingis has excelled as a traditional four. What makes Kristaps so valuable in today’s NBA is the fact that he’s 7-foot-3 and comfortable playing the four, the five and, at times, even the three. He shot just below 40 percent from three before going down a year-and-a-half ago, and his length makes up for any speed he loses to guarding a smaller position. It’s not to say he isn’t athletic, but even if a player can get around him to the basket, Porzingis is incredibly skilled at getting back to the rim and deflecting any layup attempts off the backboard. That’s partially why he was averaging nearly 2.5 blocks per game before he went down.

Doncic should be able to get Kristaps the ball wherever he likes it on the court. Whether it be for a spot-up three-pointer or down near the rim via a lob, Porzingis’ presence on the court should be able to boost Doncic’s nightly assist average to near double-digits.

When Luka and Kristaps share the court together, it’s going to look like a defensive unit’s worst nightmare. Both of these players do things well at literally every area of the floor. They both can shoot the three. They both can get around defenders and finish at the rim. They are very talented with their backs turned to the basket, and they are both high-level passers. Doncic definitely has Kristaps beaten in that department, but Porzingis definitely isn’t a slouch.

Any way you look at it, Dallas has their franchise cornerstones locked-in for the foreseeable future. They inked Porzingis to a new max deal in the offseason and Luka will likely follow when he’s up for extension in two seasons. The roster still needs to mature and they need at least one more solid piece to get them to the playoffs in the loaded West, but Luka and Kristaps will definitely entice some free agents next summer.

Dallas likely won’t make the playoffs this season barring a big move at the trade deadline, but there’s zero doubt that they’ll at least be able to make some noise. The NBA world awaits the official commencement of the European duo, and if all goes to plan, there’s no telling what they can eventually accomplish.

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