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NBA PM: Bobcats Ready for Playoff Push

The Charlotte Bobcats have exceeded all expectations this season and are now determined to secure a playoff spot … Carmelo Anthony and James Harden named Players of the Week

Alex Kennedy

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Bobcats Ready for Playoff Push

The Charlotte Bobcats weren’t supposed to be in the Eastern Conference’s playoff hunt in mid-March. After all, this team isn’t too different from the dreadful squads that had lost 120 of 148 games over the last two seasons – aside from the addition of free agent Al Jefferson and the hiring of Steve Clifford, the team’s third head coach in three years. Significant progress wasn’t expected in Charlotte. If anything, they might improve their record by a few wins, which seemed like a bad thing since it would hurt their chances of landing a potential franchise-changing prospect at the top of the 2014 NBA Draft.

However, the Bobcats have exceeded all expectations this season thanks to the tremendous play of Jefferson, the extraordinary coaching of Clifford and the impressive development of Kemba Walker. The team is currently 29-34, which puts them in the East’s seventh seed. Sure, the conference’s abysmal competition has certainly contributed to Charlotte’s turnaround, but the on-court product has really improved as well. The Bobcats have been playing particularly well as of late – they’ve won seven of their last 12 games and have quality victories over the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

Coming down the stretch, the Bobcats are fighting for one of the final seeds in the East along with the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers among others. If Charlotte is able to secure a playoff berth, it’ll be just the franchise’s second postseason appearance in their brief history. The other playoff trip came back in the 2009-10 season, when Larry Brown coached Gerald Wallace, Stephen Jackson, Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler among others to a first-round sweep at the hands of the Orlando Magic.

This Bobcats team didn’t make many personnel changes in recent years, but Clifford has certainly brought upon a culture change. The players are much more prepared than in the past, and everyone on the roster has bought in and accepted their role. Concepts have been simplified and priorities have been shifted, with previously ignored things like transition defense now a main focus. Charlotte had ranked dead last in the league in nearly every defensive statistic last season. Now, the Bobcats rank seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions (101.6), seventh in opponent field goal percentage (.444) and fifth in opponent points per shot (1.17).

Clifford deserves a ton of credit for the team’s transformation and should be a legitimate candidate for the Coach of the Year award (although it will probably go to Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek). However, the Bobcats wouldn’t be in this position without the exceptional play of Jefferson and Walker. Both men have really elevated their games this season, turning Charlotte’s offense around with their ability to create their own shots as well as thrive in the pick-and-roll.

“You have to give them credit,” Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown said of Walker and Jefferson after a recent loss to the Bobcats. “Kemba does a great job with the ball.  He doesn’t play with it.  He comes off the pick-and-roll and goes at the big guy, which kind of gets you going on your heels. The big guy has to make a decision, ‘Do I continue to retreat or do I step up?’  He made some big shots because the big guy retreated a couple of times and he made some great passes, right on target to Al Jefferson at the right time. You have to just give both of them credit.”

Jefferson is averaging 21.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 blocks in 33.9 minutes. This has been one of the best seasons of Jefferson’s NBA career, as reflected by his 22.79 PER (ranked 14th in the NBA) and his 11.1 estimated wins added (ranked 16th in the NBA). He’s also shooting 50 percent from the field.

“He’s gone from a guy that was thinking score-first to now making a ton of plays,” Clifford said of Jefferson. “The first time I met with him back in the summer, I made an edit of pick-and-rolls to watch with him so that we could start to lock in on things.  The first thing he said to me was, ‘Why don’t I make more passes?’ Instantly you like him because his concern is why he’s not throwing more passes.”

Walker is averaging 17.8 points, 5.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 35.8 minutes. He’s shooting 40.5 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from three-point range. Walker’s 16.95 PER is above the league average, and his maturation as a facilitator, decision maker and leader has been evident. The scariest thing about Walker is that he’s just 23 years old, so his best basketball is still ahead of him.

“At times I draw a lot of attention, and whenever I draw the second defender, I know someone is open,” Walker said. “I’m just finding my teammates and those guys are making shots.  It’s about me having confidence in those guys and that’s all it is.  They’re making shots, they’re running with me and I’m trying my best to find them.”

Alongside Jefferson and Walker, Charlotte has received significant contributions from surprising role players like Gerald Henderson, Josh McRoberts, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gary Neal, Ramon Sessions, Cody Zeller and Chris Douglas-Roberts among others. On paper, the roster doesn’t read like a playoff squad, but that’s just a testament to the job Clifford has done and the team’s impressive chemistry that has allowed the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Prior to a recent game, Clifford had Bobcats owner Michael Jordan speak to the team about their playoff push. Jordan, a six-time champion and five-time MVP, motivated the group, which is now feeling very confident as their playoff battle comes down to the wire.

“I asked our owner to come speak to the guys today before the game,” Clifford said of Jordan. “He was the one that gave the pregame speech and he talked about what it takes to play in significant games.  I think with 20 games left, it’s time to start talking about the playoffs and not just qualifying for the playoffs but getting our team game and individual games ready for the playoffs.”

“[He said to] just keep going,” Walker said. “He told us he was proud of us, of how we’ve been playing on a daily basis and how hard we’ve been working all year, and he told us to keep pushing.  Don’t stop.  This is not where we want to end.  We’re not satisfied and we’ve just got to keep going.”

“The playoffs started for us about two or three weeks ago,” Jefferson said. “I remember coach said at the beginning of the season, when you’re in a situation where you’re at the point in the season where you’ve got 20 games left and you’re in that playoff picture, you’re pretty much there.  Today, with 20 games left now, we’re right there.  So now we’ve got to turn it on and keep it on from here on out.  All the way from two weeks ago to now, from here on out we have to be focused and locked in like the playoffs have started.  We’ve got to get to the point where he shouldn’t have to call timeouts to correct us on something we discussed at shoot-around.  That’s all about growing and that’s all about getting better, the things that Michael (Jordan) was saying before the game.  We’ve got to continue to grow and be professional on the next level.  We can’t be satisfied.  Where we’re at right now, it’s a long way from where we were two years ago, and we want to continue to get better.”

This season has been a tremendous step in the right direction for the Bobcats, and they’ve timed their return to relevancy perfectly as it will coincide with their 2014-15 transformation back to the Charlotte Hornets. It would’ve sounded crazy several months ago, back when the East was thought to be more competitive, but now it’s seeming more and more likely that Charlotte will make the playoffs and officially end their multi-year run of despair.

Anthony, Harden Named Players of the Week

The New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden today were named NBA Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week, respectively, for games played Monday, March 3, through Sunday, March 9.

Anthony led the Knicks to a 3-1 week behind averages of 29.0 points (third in the conference), 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.75 steals (fifth in the conference). Anthony also averaged the fourth-most minutes in the East, at 38.7 mpg. He connected on three-or-more three-point field goals in all four contests, and tallied three steals in three-of-four games. Anthony tallied 33 points and added five rebounds, five assists and three steals during the Knicks’ 118-106 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 5.

Harden led the Rockets to a 4-0 week, which included wins over the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers. He averaged 30.3 points (second in the league), 6.8 assists (seventh in the conference) and 2.50 steals (tied for third in the conference). Harden, who collects his second consecutive Western Conference Player of the Week honor, capped his week with a 41-point, 10-rebound effort in which he also added six assists and six steals, as Houston topped Portland 118-113 in overtime on March 9.

Other nominees for the Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week were Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson, Charlotte’s Al Jefferson, Denver’s Ty Lawson, Golden State’s David Lee, Los Angeles Clippers’ Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Lakers’ Jodie Meeks, Miami’s LeBron James, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, Phoenix’s Gerald Green, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Washington’s Trevor Ariza.

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

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NBA Daily: The Rich Getting Richer In LA

How will Paul George’s return from off-season shoulder surgeries affect the current state of things in Clipper Land? Chad Smith examines.

Chad Smith

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Paul George spurned the Los Angeles Lakers, not once but twice. The Palmdale, California kid grew up as a fan of the other team in town, the Los Angeles Clippers. Tomorrow night, he will make his debut for the franchise as one of their best players.

To say the Clippers were the laughing stock of the league for most of their existence would be a massive understatement. The tables have turned, and now the five-time All-NBA forward is part of a team favored by many to win the NBA championship.

Paul has been limited to non-contact drills for the last couple of months, and he has had enough of it.

“I’m tired of rehabbing,” George told reporters after practice. “It sucks.”

Following offseason surgery on both of his shoulders, the star forward has been chomping at the bit to make his return. Fortunately for the Clippers and their fan base, they won’t have to wait long.

According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, George will make his season debut against the New Orleans Pelicans. With Kawhi Leonard’s load management and the recent injury to Landry Shamet, the addition of George couldn’t come at a better time for Los Angeles.

On top of that, the Clippers are finishing up a brutal seven-game stretch on the schedule. Those were games against Utah, San Antonio, Utah, Milwaukee, Portland and Toronto. They visit Houston tonight and travel to New Orleans for the second night of a back-to-back.

The Clippers currently rank 24th in three-point shooting, which is another area where Paul can dramatically help them improve. He has always been an underrated player in that department, but showed last season just how good of a spot-up shooter he can be. Even when he is not the one shooting the ball, there will be plenty of opportunities that open up for his teammates when he drives to the basket.

Paul has always been one of the premier defensive players in the league. His prowess on that end of the floor has put him in the conversation as one of the best two-way players in the game. Pairing the four-time All-Defensive player with Kawhi and Patrick Beverley is going to give opposing teams nightmares.

Working his way into 5-on-5 scrimmages, he would find himself playing against Kawhi’s team. Not only was he up for the challenge of guarding the two-time NBA Finals MVP, but he relished the opportunity.

Despite his eagerness to return to action, Paul is cognizant of the big picture. He has been through this before, at a much more frightening level. After fracturing his right leg in a Team USA scrimmage in 2014, Paul missed essentially the whole season in 2014-2015. He played the last eight games of the season with the Indiana Pacers, but it gave him great perspective. Paul stressed the importance of what pressure to put on himself, and what to avoid.

One thing Doc Rivers shouldn’t have to be concerned with is Paul adjusting his game. He has went from a young role player to an All-Star in Indiana. He averaged a career-high 28 points per game in Oklahoma City playing alongside a ball-dominant guard in Russell Westbrook. He has shared the spotlight before, and things will be no different playing with “fun guy” Kawhi.

The most mesmerizing part about the pairing of Kawhi and Paul is that they were nearly teammates in Indiana. The Pacers drafted the six-time All-Star 10th overall in 2010. A year later, they had the opportunity to select and keep Kawhi, but opted to trade him to San Antonio for local product George Hill. One major reason why Indiana made that move was that the franchise felt they were already solidified at the position with Paul.

The bond is already tight with George and his other Clippers teammates. This past Sunday, Fresno State retired Paul’s No. 24 jersey after he spent two seasons as a Bulldog. Several Clippers players showed up to surprise him, including team owner Steve Balmer. It was already a moving moment for Paul, but having his guys on hand to share the ceremony with him made it even more special.

The 29-year old forward averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals last season in Oklahoma City, where he finished third in the MVP voting. With LA’s elite role players already established, George should be able to find his groove within the team before their game on Monday, where he will face his former Thunder teammates.

The big question will be how much will Kawhi and Paul play together? With the ability to always have one superstar on the floor at all times, Doc Rivers will have plenty of options. Should Kawhi continue to rest throughout the season, Paul should be able to handle the load as long as he is healthy. His seven games of scoring at least 40 points — including a 47-point triple-double against Portland last year — should be sufficient evidence of that.

Versatility is a strong suit for LA when it comes to rotations. The lineup to start the game could be drastically different from that which closes the game. When fully healthy, they can go big or small, shifting Paul between the shooting guard or power forward positions. With Shamet likely missing some time, Paul may spend a lot of time at the guard spot. That could arguably be the best five-man defensive lineup in the league with Beverley, George, Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Ivica Zubac.

With George returning to the floor, LA will now have both of its dynamic duos intact. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played incredibly well for the Lakers so far this season.

Should Kawhi and Paul fulfill expectations, the Battle of Los Angeles may, in fact, reward the winner with a trip to the Finals.

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NBA Daily: Blazers’ Early-Season Struggles Cause For Lasting Concern

The Blazers are 4-6, and facing a rash of injuries. As the schedule gets tougher, is Portland at risk of falling way behind in the playoff Western Conference playoff race?

Jack Winter

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ silver lining has little to do with them.

The expectation coming into this season was that as many as 13 teams in the Western Conference could compete for the playoffs, propelling the number of victories needed to advance to the postseason into the high 40s. Three weeks into 2019-20, the number of teams good enough to vie for a playoff berth is smaller than anticipated. The Phoenix Suns have ascended to respectability and perhaps more, but the Golden State Warriors have been left for dead while the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans struggle.

The West is strong, of course, but maybe not so strong that a handful of objectively quality teams will be left on the outside looking in at the postseason come April.

Some expected Portland to stand a tier above that fray coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals. But any chatter that said this team was more likely to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end than hope for lottery luck was always misguided. At the crux, it was optimism reflecting last spring’s matchup-dependent outcome that ignored changes sapping them of both depth and continuity.

Less than a month into the NBA calendar, it’s not quite time to panic. Still, with Portland at 4-6 and narrowly escaping an overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, it might be time to readjust season-long expectations in the Rose City – especially given the Blazers’ upcoming schedule and rash of injuries.

Seven of Portland’s next eight games come on the road. Half of them are against teams that made the playoffs last season, including a lone home tilt versus the stoic Toronto Raptors. Merely going .500 over that stretch would be a major accomplishment for the Blazers given how they’ve fared against inferior competition thus far.

It took an extra period for them to beat the Hawks, playing without John Collins, at Moda Center, while the anonymous Warriors earned their first victory after Stephen Curry’s injury versus Portland last week. Not even a career-high 60 points from Damian Lillard, who’s reached yet another peak in the early going, saved the Blazers from a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets, who, too, are still trying to find themselves.

All of which begs the question: Just where will Portland sit in the standings when the schedule gets more palatable? Plus, the more important one: If the Blazers continue struggling over the next two weeks, will injuries prevent them from making up the necessary ground for a seventh consecutive playoff berth over the season’s remainder?

Outside of Lillard, there’s an argument to be made that Zach Collins is Portland’s most indispensable player. No roster in basketball with real postseason ambitions is lighter on forwards than the Blazers, while Hassan Whiteside’s overall lethargy and struggles to integrate offensively add to his value as a part-time center.

Collins is sidelined until March after undergoing surgery on his dislocated left shoulder. Jusuf Nurkic should make his season debut around then, too, but there’s no telling how effective he’ll be after spending nearly a full year away from the game. Any hopes he’ll immediately regain the high-impact two-way form that made him Portland’s second-best player last season should be quelled. More likely is that Nurkic will take time to fully re-acclimate to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, serving as not much more than a replacement-level player until next fall.

In the meantime, the Blazers are relying on Whiteside and Skal Labissiere in the middle, waiting for Pau Gasol to get healthy enough to play spot minutes off the bench. Lillard has already chastised Whiteside for his lack of urgency as a roll man, and it’s clear to anyone who watched Portland last season that Whiteside leaves much to be desired as a screener — a deficiency that’s plagued him throughout his career.

The Blazers, per usual, rank toward the top of the league in ball screens, despite Whiteside consistently failing to make contact with the primary defender – let alone swallow them at varied angles like Nurkic.

Whiteside has flashed more comfort as a passer from the high post and elbows in Terry Stotts’ system but is still ill-equipped to make plays in space when teams force the ball from the stars in pick-and-roll play. Labissiere, while better than Whiteside, leaves much to be desired in both regards, too. Gasol would certainly help, especially given his threat as a pick-and-pop shooter. But it’s indicative of just how thin the Blazers find themselves upfront that a 39-year-old who hasn’t played since March could give them a lift offensively.

Portland quietly finished third in offensive rating a year ago, only behind the juggernaut Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Stotts’ team currently ranks ninth in offense, scoring just over five fewer points per 100 possessions than last season. While offense is down a bit league-wide, there are signs the Blazers’ relatively slow start on that end will persist.

The franchise talked a big game throughout the preseason about prioritizing pace, a newfound emphasis that’s yet to manifest itself in more transition opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass. But the Blazers rank top-10 in pace regardless, mostly on the strength of taking a higher share of their field goal attempts in the first two seconds of the shot clock than any team in basketball. The problem? Their effective field goal percentage on those shots is 45.8 percent, fourth-worst in the league.

Portland has been just average on the offensive glass after finishing second in offensive rebound rate last season and they’re tallying over 50 fewer passes per game despite replacing Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the rotation with superior playmakers. Anfernee Simons has lived up to the hype in his first season playing regular minutes, but Stotts should probably scrap lineups that include neither of his star guards, especially considering his team’s lack of scheme familiarity. The Blazers’ offensive rating without Lillard and CJ McCollum on the floor is 86.2, a putrid number hardly guaranteed to improve even when factoring in the sample size.

The bright side? Three of Portland’s losses were decided in the game’s final moments, and none of them have come by double-digits. The Blazers are a few fortuitous bounces away from weathering an early-season injury storm and emerging from their first 10 games with a winning record.

But context is crucial — especially in a Western Conference playoff field that remains overcrowded — and it renders Portland’s start concerning. Other than an inevitable shot-making improvement from McCollum, who labored throughout last season before coming alive in the playoffs, just how will this team take meaningful strides not just leading up to Thanksgiving, but over the season’s duration?

It would be foolish to count Portland out entirely. Stotts and Lillard deserve every benefit of the doubt, and their teams enjoy a long track record of playing their best basketball during the second half of the season. But dreams of the Blazers being title contenders have faded entirely and faith in their presumed status as a surefire playoff team seems to be eroding in the immediate future – if not longer.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Northwest Division

This week, Basketball Insiders starts its division-by-division “Biggest Disappointments” series. Matt John kicks it off by taking a look at who that would be from the Northwest Division.

Matt John

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A couple weeks ago, Basketball Insiders started a series looking over who were some of the biggest surprises so far in this young NBA season. This week, we’re changing it up a bit by taking a look at some of the biggest disappointments. To start this off, we’re looking at the Northwest Division.

It’s funny how over the last few years, the biggest disappointment coming out of that division, and possibly in the entire NBA, has been Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins’ odd regression over the last few years has made the NBA public lose their faith in him as a player, so much that, when this season started, he was seen as nothing but a young bust that Minnesota was burning oodles of cash to have on its roster.

It looks like Wiggins listened to the haters because he’s been playing like a man possessed this season. Averaging almost 25 points a game on 46 percent shooting from the field would qualify as career-highs for him. Even as a playmaker, he’s made some strides as his 3.1 assists at the present time is also a career-best. The Timberwolves have come down to earth since their hot start, but at least Andrew’s doing his part.

This is relevant to a certain degree. For a while now, the man they called “Maple Jordan” was called a disappointment because his career trajectory was falling — and falling fast. Now, it looks like he’s restored some of the hope he once had. Much like Wiggins over the last two years, the following disappointments in the Northwest have time to pick up the pieces, but for now, they have been rather underwhelming in these first three weeks.

The Nuggets’ Suddenly Unproductive Offense

It sounds weird, doesn’t it? The Nuggets currently sit at 7-2, they’ve beaten some good teams in the last week or so – Philadelphia and Miami – and last year, their offense was one of the best in the entire league. That was evidenced by them having the sixth-best offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions.

It gets even weirder knowing that nothing really changed for the Nuggets over the summer roster-wise. The only noteworthy additions to this team were Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. Those guys really shouldn’t make Denver worse – which they haven’t – and could still add another dimension to the team. Besides them, the Nuggets overall have the same construct they did last year, so what’s different?

In a nutshell, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have not performed as well as they had been expected to. As a result, they now have the 23rd-ranked offense in the league, scoring 103.6 points per 100 possessions. In order to figure out how it got this way, we need to take a look at who’s responsible.

Let’s start with Nikola Jokic. In this ever so strange subplot of weird, it may be the weirdest to rag on the Joker considering he’s coming off of two consecutive buzzer beaters over the Nuggets’ last two games, but the point still stands- Jokic has not started the year off well.

In nine games, Jokic has averaged 16.7 points on 44/24/73 splits to go with 9.3 rebounds and 6 assists. When you compare those numbers to the ones he put up last year, a.k.a. the ones that got him All-NBA First Team Honors, that’s a drastic decline. Jokic at the top of his game is the most offensively polished big in the league. The Nuggets have managed to win in spite of his struggles, but they can’t expect to keep doing so if he can’t recapture the player he was last season.

Then, there’s Jamal Murray. Murray hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t shown much improvement since last season. Jamal was just given a fairly wealthy extension over the summer, so this lack of progress is a little troubling to watch.

Averaging 18.8 points on 45/37/85 splits are good numbers for a fourth-year player, but next year, Murray’s not going to be on a rookie contract. He’ll be making just a tick less than $30 million next season. Those are numbers you pay for a guy who can put up 25-30 on any given night. Jamal’s done that at times, but as yet to show extensive consistency.

The Nuggets still going at it strong because their defense has improved by a fair margin. Allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions has made them good for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. As disappointing as the offense has been, Denver has to be feeling good about its chances since the team’s still been able to win in spite of struggles.

CJ McCollum’s Regression

The Portland Trail Blazers altogether are kind of a mess right now — although it isn’t entirely their fault. Zach Collins’ shoulder injury just three games into the season is a massive blow to a team that was already pretty thin in the frontcourt. Besides Hassan Whiteside, they are relying on Skal Labissiere to give them minutes at the five.

To compensate for the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, they are relying on the likes of journeymen like Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja to fill in at the three and four positions. The all-around downgrade in their frontcourt has definitely played a part in the team starting out 4-6.

Their struggles have come from the offensive end, as their offensive rating has gone from 114.7 (fourth overall last season) to 108.9 (11th currently). The new guys probably have something to do with that, but the biggest culprit might just be CJ McCollum’s slump.

McCollum’s still putting up solid numbers, averaging almost 20 points per game, but that’s coming on some of the worst percentages he’s put up since playing a larger role in Portland, putting up 39/31/89 splits. McCollum has the third-highest net rating on the team, as the Blazers are plus-12.4 with him on the court, but one can’t help if those stats are skewed from playing a lot of minutes with Damian Lillard, who is off to the best start of his career.

The duo shares a net rating of plus-7, but when you compare CJ’s net rating with some of his other teammates to Dame’s, they don’t look as promising.

CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside: plus-1.7
Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside: plus-6.4

CJ McCollum and Rodney Hood: plus-0.8
Damian Lillard and Rodney Hood: plus-6.4

CJ McCollum and Kent Bazemore: minus-2.9
Damian Lillard and Kent Bazemore: plus-1.9

CJ McCollum and Mario Hezonja: plus-5.6
Damian Lillard and Mario Hezonja: plus-10.1

Knowing McCollum’s reputation as a scorer, this should get better as time goes on, but how much time is what Portland has to keep in mind. The Western Conference has been unforgiving since the dawn of time, so if CJ and the Blazers continue to struggle, that can come back to bite them when they try to get good seeding in the playoffs.

Portland’s goal this season was to exceed last year’s extended playoff run. For that to come to fruition, they can’t afford to have their other elite scorer struggle from the field for too long.

Utah’s Continued Offensive Stagnancy

Yes, the theme of this has centered around offensive struggles, and yes, you can call this cheating since this writer brought up the Jazz’ woes on that end two weeks ago, but it’s still worth talking about because nothing has changed for Utah.

Three weeks into the season, they have the 27th-best offensive rating, scoring, 102.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s even worse remembering that last season, they had the 15th best offensive rating, scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions. Their offense certainly got in the way of their playoff chances then, but at least it was mediocre as opposed to bad.

This writer doesn’t want to say what he’s already said about Utah’s continued woes on offense. Instead, let’s take a look at one of the Jazz’s big wins over the weekend against Milwaukee. Everyone should remember Bojan Bogdanovic’s one shining moment.

Like any buzzer-beater, it’s always so thrilling to see plays like that happen. Not just because the Jazz beat a tough foe, but because it was such a beautifully drawn play to get arguably their best shooter wide open. So where do their offensive woes factor into this? Well, let’s take a look back at where the game was with 1:30 to go.

A Donovan Mitchell jumper put the Jazz up by eight with less than 90 seconds to go. Coming back from a three-possession game to win with that little time is near impossible. Yet, the Bucks were a Khris Middleton traveling call from pulling it off. They did this because Utah’s offense failed to put the game away.

In 88 seconds, missed free throws, costly turnovers and bad shots on Utah’s part got Milwaukee to close the gap. Not only had Utah lost the lead, but the team was also in jeopardy of losing the game. They may have won the game anyway, but they should not have been in danger of losing that game.

What’s more alarming is that the Jazz can’t afford to make those mental mistakes when facing opponents as tough as the Bucks. They won’t have to worry about facing Milwaukee in the playoffs unless they meet in the NBA Finals, but Utah’s going to have its hands full with other Western Conference competitors.

Like Denver, they’re still going strong regardless of their offensive woes, but they can’t have these problems if they want to go the distance.

Apologies if these disappointments all sounded the same, but honestly, there haven’t been that many disappointments in the Northwest Division. Utah and Denver are doing about as well as we thought they’d do. Minnesota is currently exceeding expectations. Oklahoma City is right where we thought they’d be. The only team that has somewhat disappointed is Portland, and that might not have been the case if Zach Collins wasn’t hurt — or Jusuf Nurkic for that matter.

And just because they’re disappointing now does not mean that will be the same by the time 2020 starts.

There’s still plenty of time for everyone’s outlook to change for the better. Just ask Andrew Wiggins.

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