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NBA Daily: Portland Trail Blazers Face Several Challenges This Offseason

The Portland Trail Blazers are looking to bolster their roster this offseason but face several challenges, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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With the NBA Finals having come to a quick end and the Golden State Warriors parade behind us, most NBA fans have already moved on to contemplating how their favorite teams can improve this summer (with some dreaming of the possibility of adding LeBron James).

However, James has been linked to a handful of teams, which does not seemingly include the Portland Trail Blazers. With the Trail Blazers presumably removed from the James free agency drama, the franchise arguably has its best chance to improve its long-term outlook with the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft. It is easy to forget due to the length and drama of the NBA’s postseason but the Trail Blazers were the third seed in the NBA’s Western Conference with hopes of making a deep run. Of course, the Trail Blazers found themselves surprised and outmatched by an aggressive New Orleans Pelicans team, which led to a 0-4 sweep.

This disappointing loss and the repeat success of the Golden State Warriors demonstrated the need for, among other things, more talent at the wing position. The Trail Blazers go into the draft possessing their own pick (24th overall) and the need for some combination of shooting, shot creation and defense from the wing. The most promising wing prospect, Michael Porter Jr., will certainly be off the board, yet there are plenty of other prospects the team should have an eye on. The Blazers recently held pre-draft workouts, which included Oregon forward Troy Brown, USC guard De’Anthony Melton and Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie among others. Other wing prospects in the Trail Blazers’ range might include Boise State shooting guard Chandler Hutchison, Creighton shooting guard Khyri Thomas and Cincinnati small forward Jacob Evans.

Any wing that would be selected, assuming he could contribute rather quickly, would help bolster a rotation that includes forwards Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner, each of whom had varying levels of success throughout the year. With the cap issues mentioned below, it is foreseeable that backup rotation guard Shabazz Napier will not return, making the need for a productive rookie out of this class increasingly necessary.

The biggest obstacle for the Blazers, aside from determining who they might choose in the draft, is that they are well over the salary cap for the foreseeable future. As it stands, the team’s two most productive players are also its top salary earners — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, respectively. To date, the franchise has resisted breaking up its star backcourt duo. Assuming no drastic move is made, the team would do well to select one of the more defensively capable wings that the team is often linked to (such as Okogie, Evans, Thomas and Melton) in order to add more defensive impact alongside the team’s star guards.

With little cap flexibility and a stated desire to bring back restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic, the team finds itself in a crunch. After the team’s playoff elimination, Nurkic publicly stated that he wanted to return but that he also wants to be paid what he believes he is worth. Recent reports state that the team is going to allow Nurkic to test the open market as a restricted free agent and will elect to match any offered salary. In essence, the team will allow the market to dictate Nurkic’s salary, which is virtually guaranteed to be less than a full max offer. Count big man Ed Davis (unrestricted free agent) as another productive player the team would like to bring back on a reasonable contract.

If Nurkic doesn’t like any potential offers, he could gamble and opt to take the team’s qualifying offer and hope that further improvement would likely result in better offers next offseason. Assuming Nurkic returns with a new contract at a much higher rate (he made just under $3 million last season), the team may be forced to unload salary to stay under the luxury tax. Likely candidates include forward Evan Turner (around $18 million guaranteed each of the next two seasons) and center Meyers Leonard (roughly $11 million in each of the next two seasons). Each player has flashed the ability to be positive contributors, but too often Turner and Leonard are unable to provide enough production to justify their respective annual salaries.

Unloading an undesirable contract usually comes at a cost. Depending on how unfavorable a contract is, the cost for a team to take on an overly burdensome contract is often a first-round pick. For reference, the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to part ways with the former second overall pick D’Angelo Russell in order to entice the Brooklyn Nets to take center Timofey Mozgov and his contract.

Finally, there remains the more remote possibility that the team would quietly engage in discussion around one of its two stars. A recent rumor involves a trade that would be built around the exchange of McCollum and Cavaliers big man Kevin Love. The supposed purpose of such an exchange would be a bid to entice James to return to the Cavaliers. However, whatever Portland opts to do this offseason, it will face a series of challenges that could have significant consequences next season and beyond. One obvious need is on the wing, which they can seek to address on draft night. But there is more work to do beyond that, which the front office is well aware of.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Down But Not Out, Kemba Walker Must Seize His Moment

Shane Rhodes breaks down what Kemba Walker can do to help the Celtics rebound from back-to-back losses to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s been a long and winding road back into the spotlight for Kemba Walker.

In 2011 with the University of Connecticut, Walker set the world on fire as he led the Huskies on an improbable run: an 11-game stretch that culminated in a Big East title and a National Championship. Dubbed “Cardiac Kemba,” he played his best when it mattered most — and was expected to do the same in short order at the NBA level.

Of course, things don’t always go as expected. Walker was drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats, now the Hornets, and, in eight seasons of futile basketball, made the postseason just twice, his efforts constantly thwarted by the poorly constructed roster around him.

But now, nearly a decade later and with a new team, Walker is once again set to take center stage in his first extended postseason trip.

And, to advance, the Boston Celtics need him to truly seize the moment and recapture some of that magic.

To his credit, Walker has had a strong postseason already — but it has become evident that the Celtics need more from him if they are to advance. In their first round sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers, Walker averaged 24.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and was remarkable in the clutch. In their first two against the Toronto Raptors, it was more of the same: a Game 1 blowout, with a shot from Walker to slam the door on Game 2.

However, Game 3 ended in arguably the most demoralizing way possible. Game 4, meanwhile, was just plain ugly for everyone, Walker included.

Boston is now faced with a best-of-three set against the defending champion Raptors, with a pivotal, must-win Game 5 on the horizon. Luckily for the Celtics, the key to victory isn’t some critique buried in the game film or lost in Toronto’s smothering defense.

In fact, it’s staring right at them; this may be Jayson Tatum’s team — and he has certainly led the way this postseason — but it’ll be up to Walker to push the team beyond Toronto and across the series’ finish line.

But what could Walker do to turn the tide? It’s simple: hunt for his shot and assert himself in Boston’s offense.

Walker can’t be faulted for deferring to Tatum when they share the floor. Who could? The third-year wing has proven himself a bonafide star, one certainly worthy of deferring to in most instances. That said, it’s hard to argue against the fact that, when Walker is getting his shot off, the Celtics are just a better team.

In the 26 games this season (regular and post) in which Walker either didn’t play or had fewer than 10 field goal attempts, the Celtics sat at a positive but uninspiring 16-10.

But when he took 10 or more shots? That 16-10 record skyrocketed to 40-16, good for a nearly 60-win pace over a regular 82 game schedule.

The presence of an aggressive Walker should benefit everyone, not just his own personal box score. Walker can leverage his shot to keep defenses honest against Tatum, who has been consistently doubled by Raptor defenders, and open up more space for Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward (upon his return from an ankle injury suffered against the 76ers) and others to make plays off the ball. Unless the goal is to watch the offense nosedive on a regular basis, it is imperative that Walker, as the only player outside of Tatum that can generate his own shot on a consistent basis, stays aggressive during those periods when Tatum is on the bench. Doubly so when Brown and or Hayward join him on the sideline.

For those that haven’t been paying attention, none of that is what happened in Game 4. In what was, by far, Boston’s worst game of the postseason, Walker launched just nine shots in over 40 minutes, a fact he deemed “unacceptable” before he vowed to be more aggressive going forward.

Of course, Walker can take that mentality and apply it to the other side of the ball, too.

Marcus Smart is the team’s defensive poster child. But Walker has proven an invaluable, if not unheralded, defender in his own right. Despite his 6-foot stature, the diminutive point guard has lightning-quick hands and has shown a willingness to take a charge — Walker was seventh (18) in the regular season in charges draw, while he is fourth (4) so far this postseason — or dive onto the floor for the loose ball.

Walker is willing to put his body on the line if it puts the Celtics in the best position to win the game — that type of effort, that resilience is contagious. And if he can continue to put forth an impressive effort on that end, it might just give Boston an advantage in what should prove a chippy final three games to the series.

Had Hayward not severely sprained his ankle in the first round, we would be looking at a much different series between Boston and Toronto — the onus of their success at this critical juncture certainly wouldn’t have fallen solely on Walker’s shoulders.

But Hayward isn’t here, while Tatum and Brown can only do so much on their own. For now, it is up to Walker to be that difference-maker that the Celtics so desperately need — and this series may just prove his defining moment. If he can reach out and grab it, “Cardiac Kemba” could push the Celtics to a whole new level.

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