It’s easy to get caught up in searching for the next big thing — and in the NBA, it happens all the time. Between the long-awaited arrival of Ben Simmons and the immediate impact of Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Lonzo Ball, among others, it’s been difficult to catch your breath. While this June’s prospective rookies are poised to burst onto the scene, there are plenty of 2017 draftees still looking for their breakthrough as well. Whether they had to deal with lingering injuries, crowded rotations or the G-League, here are six second-year players that should improve by leaps and bounds this upcoming season.
Luke Kennard, Detroit Pistons
Many were disappointed when the Pistons selected Kennard with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but after a strong end to the season, it looks like the franchise has big plans for the silky shooter. In March, the training wheels came off Kennard and he produced admirably for the playoff-less Pistons. Over 19 contests, the former Blue Devil averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those along the way. Even more recently, Detroit had planned to deploy Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee pushed back those plans for now.
Despite his fluctuating minutes as a rookie, Kennard still made 1.1 three-pointers per game at an impressive 41.5 percent clip. In his final season at Duke in 2016-17, Kennard tallied 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from downtown — so there’s precedent here for the 6-foot-5 guard to join the upper echelon of shooters sooner rather than later. Versatile enough to play three positions, Kennard can flexibly move across the perimeter on both offense and defense — what else could you want from a 22-year-old?
One year later, it’s clear that Detroit is enamored with Kennard, and his role could grow even larger following the arrival of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year.
Malik Monk, Charlotte Hornets
In terms of last year’s stacked rookie class, Malik Monk’s false start may have been the most frustrating. Excelling as one of the NCAA’s best scorers, Monk averaged 19.8 points on 39.7 percent from three-point range in his lone season at Kentucky. Deservedly, Monk soared toward the top of draft boards and it was even a surprise when he dropped to Charlotte at No. 11 overall, where fans saw a budding backcourt partner for franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker. Instead, Monk dealt with a few lingering injuries and struggled to get consistent minutes under former head coach Steve Clifford.
All in all, it’d be tough for Monk not to clear his rookie season numbers — 6.7 points, 1.4 assists — but he could absolutely blow them out of the water. Once Monk was freed from rotational hell in March, the streaky shooter settled in and averaged 16.4 points on 42 percent from three-point range — an optimistic sign that the 6-foot-3 shooting guard had begun to turn the corner. Unfortunately, a fractured thumb ended Monk’s stint in Las Vegas this summer after just one game, but should be ready for the season opener. Either way, the Hornets and their bloated payroll will absolutely lean on the second-year assassin in hopes a permanent breakout this fall.
Semi Ojeleye, Boston Celtics
Back in July, Basketball Insiders’ Spencer Davies wrote about how the Celtics’ recent second-round gem plans to build off his successful rookie season. But beyond his strong perimeter defense — an absolute must in Brad Stevens’ rotation — a clear opportunity exists there as well. With Gordon Hayward firmly back in the mix, Ojeleye can focus on honing his craft as the backup small forward. In 15.8 minutes per game last season, Ojeleye averaged just 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds — but he’s the type of high-energy, high-effort competitor that could carve out a sizable role in Boston.
As a key member of a freakishly athletic second unit that’ll likely include Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis, the Celtics will have the chance to suffocate their opponents once more. Certainly, Ojeleye’s 34.6 percent from the field will need work, but his length and flexibility make him an intriguing project under Stevens’ tutelage. Over five summer league games, Ojeleye notched 12.4 points and 4.2 rebounds on 43 percent from the floor — numbers that the Celtics would gladly take from their 23-year-old stopper.
Jordan Bell, Golden State Warriors
It’s tough to envision a 13-game starter for the back-to-back champions as a true breakout candidate — but here we are. With DeMarcus Cousins rehabbing well into the winter as he recovers from an Achilles tear, Bell will get the lion’s share of minutes at center for the foreseeable future. Given his hyper-athletic shot-blocking presence, Bell is the perfect fit for the Warriors’ already-historic scoring side. As a rookie, Bell averaged 4.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and a block in only 14.2 minutes per game, but those will all conceivably rise in year two.
Bell, of course, will be a restricted free agent next summer and he’ll be well-chased no matter what happens in 2018-19 — but he could obviously push any prospective payday far higher.
The 6-foot-9 center won’t be tasked with any heavy scoring demands, but as long as he can admirably switch in the pick-and-roll, change shots on defense and catch alley-oops, he’ll be a mainstay in the rotation. Just before Christmas, Bell notched 20 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and one block on 9-for-13 from the floor, fully exhibiting his potential as a highly-efficient contributor. With Zaza Pachulia and David West both moving on this offseason, Bell is one of the league’s most likely breakout candidates.
Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
For most of the players on this list, they’re potential-laden prospects just looking for an expanded role — but Dillon Brooks had all that and a bag of chips from opening night. After starting in a staggering 74 games for the lottery-bound Grizzlies as a rookie, Brooks will now try to improve on an impressive start to his career. Brooks, who believes he’ll be one of the class’ best players when it’s all said and done, averaged 11 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 28.7 minutes per game. As of now, his place in the starting lineup is still yet to be determined, but the retained J.B. Bickerstaff will be pleased to slot Brooks in wherever he’s needed.
Although Brooks will likely never be a superstar, he’s already thrived in a variety of roles for Memphis. From defending future Hall of Famers like Paul George to sharing playmaking responsibilities alongside Tyreke Evans, Brooks has done a little bit of everything for his new franchise. Like the aforementioned Kennard, Brooks took on a bigger scoring responsibility toward the end of the season and responded with a bang. During the Grizzlies’ final six games in April, Brooks tallied a heady 20.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists — or, in other terms, All-Star-worthy numbers.
Of course, the healthy return of Mike Conley Jr. — as well as the additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Omri Casspi and Kyle Anderson — means the scoring load won’t fall on Brooks like that too often anymore. Still, Brooks’ versatility, fearlessness and sticky defending will afford him some major opportunities to take the next step in 2018-19.
Isaiah Hartenstein, Houston Rockets
Once upon a time, Hartenstein was projected as a potential first rounder, but he fell to the Rockets at No. 43 overall, where he’d spend an entire season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers — Houston’s G-League affiliate. Following his upgraded efforts in Las Vegas — 10.3 points, eight rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game — Hartenstein quickly signed a three-year deal this offseason. Although Clint Capela has the center position on lock, Hartenstein will only have to outpace Nene Hilario and Zhou Qi for playing time in the Rockets’ three-point heavy system.
Over 38 contests for Rio Grande, Hartenstein averaged 9.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks on 34.3 percent from three-point range. At 20 years old, Hartenstein is raw but his game certainly fits into the modern, unicorn-obsessed mold for an athletic big man. Naturally, Hartenstein is still a work-in-progress, but his portfolio of work over the previous year proved to be enough reason for the Rockets to commit a tiny portion of their future to him.
Every season, eyes are fixated on the new and exciting rookie additions — but we must not forget about the late bloomers either. From lottery selections like Kennard and Monk to second-round grinders like Ojeleye, Bell, Brooks and Hartenstein, the potential sophomore year breakout is always something worth eagerly monitoring. Each situation is fluid and unique, often dependant on injuries, rotations and other mitigating in-season factors — but these are six ready-to-go candidates that could steal the show in 2018-19.
NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th
Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?
As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.
Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.
Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.
The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.
Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.
So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?
Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.
The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.
Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.
Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.
As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.
In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.
Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.
In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.
And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.
As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.
But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.
NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses
With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.
It’s official: basketball is back.
It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.
But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.
In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.
Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.
So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?
The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.
But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.
Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.
It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.
Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.
An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.
But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?
But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.
With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.
And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.
Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.
And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.
They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.
It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.
Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.
Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.
But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.
The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.
Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.
At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.
And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.
NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts
Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.
It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.
We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.
“Defense? What’s that?”
Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.
It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.
Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high
Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good
There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.
In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.
In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.
Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.
What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.
Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions
Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.
Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:
- An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
- One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
- A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
- A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)
Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.
Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.
About That Last Spot In The West
Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.
Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.
The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.
It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.
After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.
Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.
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