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NBA PM: Memphis Grizzlies 2017-18 Season Preview

The Memphis Grizzlies seem to be at a cross-road. Are two-star players enough in the West? We take a look at the situation in this season preview.

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For long-time fans of the Memphis Grizzlies, the 2017 off-season has been a bittersweet affair. Fan favorites have unceremoniously departed the team. Gone are the likes of Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. With them, a few more core pieces of the prime “Grit and Grind” days have departed. In their place, the Grizzlies will look to others, including a few reclamation projects, to step up and help fill the void.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

This season looks to be one of the more interesting seasons for the Memphis Grizzlies. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are gone. Their division, and conference for that matter, is deeper and while the league is shifting to small ball play, the Grizzlies are anchored by big man Marc Gasol.

While Randolph and Allen certainly are past their glory days, they take with them a specific gritty personality that Memphis had adopted over the years. Without that, the Grizzlies may head into this season without the edge that had made them the lovable underdog tough guys in recent postseason matchups.

As the league continues to change their point of attack from half-court ball to full-court ball, this may be the season it catches up to Memphis and leaves them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture.

4th place – Southwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

Every year, a few more folks pick this to finally be the season the Grizzlies fall of the playoff wagon – and every year, they get egg on their faces. Will this finally be the year a reduced version of Grit n Grind misses the second season? On the one hand, the roster is almost scarily thin once you get past stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. On the other, that always seems to be the case, and it never seems to stop the Grizzlies from eking out enough wins to get it done. I’ve got them slightly outside the playoff picture, but with no absolute certainty here given their history.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

They play the game for a reason, but it’s difficult to imagine the Grizzlies continuing to be the same team we remember them as without Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. After three years with the club, Vince Carter also followed Randolph to Sacramento, but the Grizzlies will resemble the team they have been so long as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol remain intact.

There certainly is a collection of young players on the squad that could amount to something—Andrew Harrison, Wade Baldwin and Deyonta Davis are a few—but it’s difficult to imagine the Grizzlies improving from last season. They are clearly two steps behind the Spurs and Rockets and will be pushed by a number of teams that they beat out to secure the seventh seed in last year’s playoffs. With the Northwest Division looking quite formidable, the Grizzlies are probably going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time, but that’ll largely depend on whether Chandler Parsons can give them meaningful contributions and whether or not David Fizdale can coach one or two of the youngsters up into becoming impactful players.

Anything is possible, sure, but expecting much from the Grizzlies this season may be a bit of a reach.

3rd place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Grizzlies are at a turning point this season. After years of being right there in the West, the Grizzlies opted to shed some of their older veterans and have taken some chances on players that have star-level ability but have not put together star-level careers. Combining some promising younger players with franchise anchors Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could be enough to swing the Grizzlies forward, but it could equally be the beginning of the end given the age of Gasol and Conley. The Grizz are a tough team to predict. They are well coached, have two underrated stars and a lot of promise on their bench, but none of that may mean anything in the West. The Grizzlies have done the hard part – they have two game changers. If any of the new faces or young guys they have invested time in turn into real players, the Grizz could be as good as they were a season ago. The problem is that’s not as likely as falling back given the volume of change and unknown.

3rd place — Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

Some of the players that best represented the heart and spirit of the Memphis Grizzlies departed this offseason. Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have all moved on, which leaves Mike Conley and Marc Gasol as the two major remaining players from the Grizzlies squad we have known for the last few seasons. Chandler Parsons is the team’s third most important player at this point, but he has struggled mightily with injuries over the last few seasons. The Grizzlies agreed to a four-year, max-contract worth roughly $94 million. That’s a huge amount of money for a player that just had his worst NBA season and seems unlikely to ever recapture his peak form. On the upside, the Grizzlies have taken a couple of fliers on players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans, hoping they can have a bounce back season. The Grizzlies usually find a way to outperform our preseason projections, but this year may be different. These isn’t much overall talent, JaMychal Green has yet to re-sign and the team is depending on several players with significant injuries or injury histories. With this in mind, it’s very possible Memphis misses the playoffs this upcoming season.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Marc Gasol

Marc Gasol continues to be an excellent player to build around. Count Gasol and point guard Mike Conley as the foundation for this team. Assuming Gasol continues his excellent play from last year, he will continue to be the focal point of the Grizzlies’ offense. Last year, Gasol averaged a career-high in points (19.5) and added three-point range to his game. This was the first year Gasol added the long distance shot to his arsenal on offense and the change came just in time to help a team that failed to get significant contributions on the perimeter from forward Chandler Parsons. Add in a career-high in assists (4.6) and Gasol stands out as the center piece of the offense as he can score from the inside, from three and as a facilitator for his teammates.

Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol

Tony Allen’s contributions on the defensive end will be missed. He never lit the league on fire with his shooting or scoring but he thrived on defense. In a recent interview, he revealed the origin of the “hustle and heart” and “grit and grid” ethos the franchise has thrived on the past few years (it’s an interesting story that involves former Grizzly Rudy Gay). With Allen gone, we can surely count Gasol as the key defensive player for the Grizzlies going forward (especially considering Gasol led the team in defensive win shares last season). Gasol is a surprisingly effective rim protector and will be counted on as a last line of defense whenever Memphis’ wing defenders lose track of their opponents. Gasol will need to stay in great shape (he just finished playing in the Eurobasket tournament) to stay mobile and keep up when opposing defenses drag him out to the perimeter on close outs and pick and roll action. Gasol may be getting up there in age, but he’s still one of the best defensive anchors in the league.

Top Playmaker: Mike Conley

Like Gasol, Mike Conley used last season to increase his offensive output and help push the team into the playoff picture. Conley upped his scoring average to a new career-high (20.5) — a huge five-point jump from the prior year. Not only did the team make the playoffs but Conley helped to vindicate the franchise after it re-signed the lead guard to a maximum extension, amounting to the largest contract in NBA history. With the team’s backup point guard situation up in the air, Conley’s play will be key if the Grizzlies are to be successful. Conley will have to be aggressive in creating shots for himself and his teammates since there are no other playmaking ball handlers that can be counted on for a variety of reasons – mostly health. With a strong handle and the ability to get to the rim, Conley is and will be largely responsible for creating easy scoring opportunities for his teammates this season.

Top Clutch Player: Mike Conley (Honorable Mention – Marc Gasol)

Count this category as a toss-up. Unsurprisingly, Conley and Gasol are the two easiest choices here. Both have virtually identical net ratings (+11.5 and +11.6, respectively) in clutch time, defined by nba.com as play in the last five minutes of a game within five points. Gasol has a strong ability to get his own basket in the post and can hit an open jumper anywhere on the floor. Although close, the nod goes to Conley as his usage percentage is much higher (35.3 to 24.5 percent) since he controls the ball more than anyone else on the team. Whether taking the shot himself or creating an open look for a teammate, Conley has the skill and experience to execute in high-pressure situations.

The Unheralded Player: JaMychal Green

Putting aside injury concerns (discussed below), the most pressing issue the team is currently facing is the contract status of restricted free-agent forward JaMychal Green. The team has been unable to sign the young big man to a multi-year deal up to this point. With the clock ticking to training camp, the chances of Green being signed to the one-year qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, increases. The promotion of the versatile big man to the starting line-up helped to modernize the team’s offense last season. Green stepped in to compliment Gasol with sufficient outside shooting and athletic versatility. For a team that is trying to cement its lineup for the short and long term, this situation is concerning. Fans should hope that ownership finds a compromise that recognizes the young big man’s abilities and contributions before possibly losing him down the road.

Best New Addition: Ben McLemore

The Grizzlies have to deal with a lot of turnover. Many old stalwarts are gone and a new era of Grizzlies basketball begins. The signing of Ben McLemore is the most important new addition to help jumpstart this transition. Unfortunately, McLemore broke a toe in the offseason that projects to keep him sidelined for the first few weeks of the season. The team should keep high hopes that the change in scenery and a new, more stable enviornment, can help the young guard come closer to reaching his potential. McLemore has seen his minutes and productivity dip the last two years. If McLemore produces somewhere close to his full potential, he can quickly become the third most important player on a team looking for contributors up and down the roster.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Grizzlies Medical Staff

The franchise is in flux and pressure will be on the Grizzlies to keep the trove of injured and injury prone players healthy for the team to have a chance to make it back to the playoffs. Grizzlies’ fans have to hope and root for the team’s medical staff to effectively monitor and treat multiple players closely. The most important player in this regard is Chandler Parsons, who has been limited by severe knee injuries for several seasons. Add point guard Mario Chalmers (recovering from an Achilles tear) and wing Tyreke Evans, who has struggled with kneed injuries, to the list of players the Grizzlies’ medical staff will have to keep a close eye on. If even a few of these players can make a full recovery and stay relatively healthy throughout the upcoming season, the Grizzlies suddenly become a much more dangerous team in the Western Conference.

2. Coach David Fizdale

As mentioned, the team has to deal with a lot of ongoing injury concerns. Without reasonable assurances that the above players can be relied upon on a day to day basis, the pressure will be on Coach Fizdale to steer the team with a steady hand as players shuffle in and out of the line-up and the team likely struggles to find consistent contributors outside of Conley and Gasol. Fizdale endeared himself to the larger NBA community during last year’s playoffs when he complained about the team’s treatment by the referees. In frustration, Fizdale listed his grievances and punctuated the rant with the line, “Take that for data.” The Grizzlies eventually went down to the Spurs in six games but the coach gained additional recognition and further cemented the support of his players and Grizzlies fans.

3. Chandler Parsons

Chandler was ineffective last season after being signed by the team to be the third cog behind Gasol and Conley. The hope is that with sufficient time and rehabilitation, Parsons can be effective once again. After a poor outing last season, expectations are reasonably lower for the veteran forward. With so much cap space tied up in his contract, his comeback would be a nice boost for a team that is looking for all the help it can get on the wing. When healthy, Parsons is a versatile forward who can stretch the floor, facilitate the offense and guard both wings and some bigs in certain situations.

4. Tyreke Evans

Tyreke Evans has experienced varying degrees of success over the years. However, Evans struggled mightily last season with lingering knee issues. Evans was ultimately traded back to Sacramento, where he had spent his first five seasons in the NBA. Now going into his ninth season, Evans is looking to regain his peak form. While playing fewer minutes last year, Evan’s numbers, per 36 minutes, remained on par with his overall career arc. This gives some indication that if Evans can stay relatively healthy, he can still be an above average contributor on a team that sorely needs depth.

5. Mario Chalmers

Chalmers has never averaged more than 10 points a season and has never made the short list of the league’s best point guards. However, he should be lauded as a key contributor in the HEAT’s multiple title runs and two championships. Chalmers stuck around after the departure of LeBron James and continued to carve out his own success. Chalmers eventually joined the Grizzlies in the 2015-2016 season. Although he played as the back up to Conley, Chalmers effectively ran backup point and put up some of the best per-minute numbers of his career. Unfortunately, his season came to an end with an Achilles tear in December of 2015. Coach Fizdale and the front office both have made clear that they monitored his recovery and, when asked, Chalmers indicated this is why he went back to his previous team. Fizdale and Chalmers have history going back to their shared Miami HEAT days. With the mediocre play of Wade Baldwin and Andrew Harrison last year at the backup point, Grizzlies fans should be rooting for a full recovery for Chalmers.

– James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Grizzlies have stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, triggering a hard cap when they used most of their Mid-Level Exception (MLE) on Ben McLemore, Rade Zagorac and Dillon Brooks (along with their Bi-Annual Exception on Tyreke Evans). Memphis still has $1.4 million left in their MLE. The roster has 15 guaranteed players, not including restricted-free agent JaMychal Green – who is still negotiating with the team.

At almost $105 million in salary, the Grizzlies aren’t close to the $125.3 million hard cap, even if Green does return. Before November, Memphis needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Wade Baldwin and Jarell Martin. Next season, the franchise does not project to have any cap room, given their sizable investments in Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Conley and Gasol are arguably in the peak of their respective primes. The two stalwarts share great chemistry and will rely on each other heavily this season. When healthy, these two are the foundation of the team, both on and off the court. The team has developed a reputation for hustle, defense and punishing teams with their post play. With Fizdale, the team will continue to shift to small ball play predicated on ball movement to keep up with the modern offensive trends in the NBA. While it’s not clear how far this team can go, with Gasol and Conley leading the charge, Memphis should have a shot of winning on most nights.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Youth and injuries. Outside of the team’s big two, there is a shocking drop off when identifying the team’s third best player. Parsons has the talent to be this player but what version of Parsons comes back is unclear. McLemore can step into this role, as mentioned, but has to overcome his offseason injury and reach his potential – something that isn’t necessarily a given. With the injury bug hitting the above players, as well as Chalmers and Evans, the team’s success is heavily reliant on players that are currently injured or injury prone. Reliability and consistent production will likely be hard to come by for the Grizzlies this season.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Does the franchise continue to build around Gasol and Conley (both already in their 30s), or take preemptive action and look to rebuild the roster through a trade of one or both of their stars?

This is a tough question, especially for the fans who just witnessed the Grit and Grind era quietly come to a close with many familiar faces departing. As constructed, it’s hard to envision this team ever competing with the league’s top teams, such as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Trading Conley and Gasol now could help accelerate a rebuilding effort, similar to what the Boston Celtics did with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The likelihood is the Grizzlies won’t trade their two best players, but it’s something that should at least be considered.

– James Blancarte

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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The Pressure Is On Anthony Davis

The Rockets’ and Clippers’ strong commitments to small-ball show that the Lakers’ opponents are zeroed in on stopping LeBron James. If the Lakers want their next title, Anthony Davis has to prove he can take over for a contender. Matt John writes.

Matt John

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LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of his generation and arguably of all-time. No matter how old he is or how many miles he has on those tires — 48,014 minutes total as of Feb. 20, good for eighth-most all-time among NBA players =- he is not to be underestimated. The Los Angeles Lakers know they have a window on their hands, but with LeBron on the wrong side of 30, they know that this window won’t be for too long. Unfortunately, so do their opponents.

This brings us to his partner-in-crime, Anthony Davis. Throughout LeBron’s era of dominance, he’s always had a Robin to his Batman. Dwyane Wade needed time to adjust to it. Kyrie Irving was so perfect for the role that he grew tired of it. Anthony Davis has embraced it since day one.

LeBron and AD have been as good as advertised. Together, the two of them possess a net rating of plus-10.3 when they share the court. They don’t actually run the pick and roll as often as we thought they would – LeBron only runs 26 percent of his plays as a handler while Davis has been the roll man for 13 percent of his plays – but when they do, it’s efficient.

LeBron’s effective field goal percentage as a pick-and-roll handler is 47.5 percent and draws and-1’s at 3.5 percent, which is pretty high for that sort of play. He ranks in the 67th percentile as a handler. Davis’ effective field goal percentage as a roll man is 61 percent and draws and-1’s at 4.9 percent. He ranks in the 72nd percentile as a roll man.

They may not run this in LA primarily because their old school play of playing big probably eats up the spacing. Since the Lakers have the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league, scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions, it’s not a problem at the moment. This might change in the playoffs, but we’ll get to that.

Something else to note is that Davis’ numbers have stayed relatively the same since going from New Orleans to LA. His scoring average has gone down just a tick, but that’s to be expected when you’re playing next to LeBron James. Davis’ rebounding numbers have taken a more noticeable dip, but having him play next to Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee probably has something to do with that.

He and LeBron have led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference. According to Tankathon, they have the 10th-easiest schedule for the rest of the season, so the odds are in their favor of finishing out on top. Of course, their elite production as a duo is about as shocking as Martin Scorsese’s movies getting nominated for Oscars.

The Lakers are expected to make their deepest run since the last time they won the title in 2010. Even if they are among the league’s biggest powerhouses, they’ll have plenty of competition along the way in the Western Conference. Without going into too much detail about who that is — because you probably already know who that is — let’s focus on the two competitors who have been making major shakeups since the trade deadline, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Both may have executed different trades, but both had the same goal in mind when they made them.

When the Rockets traded Clint Capela — their only traditional center that was playable — for Robert Covington, a two-way wing that they believed they could mold into a small-ball five, they traded their size for switchability and versatility. Not only that, they doubled down on their strategy by bringing in the likes of DeMarre Caroll and Jeff Green, two swingmen who have played some minutes at center in their career but very, very few.

When the Clippers traded Moe Harkless — who was doing just fine for them as their third wing — they opted to go for an upgrade at the wing spot instead of another big by trading him among others and a first-round pick for what’s likely to be a short rental of Marcus Morris. They could have used Harkless to get another big to combat the Lakers’ size, but instead opted to add more grit to the wing department. The deal also opened up a few more spots on the roster, but they too opted not for more size, but for another scorer in Reggie Jackson.

Acquiring those wings demonstrates that they have coined the exact same gameplan to taking down the Lakers should they face them in the playoff — slowing down LeBron James.

Slowing down LeBron is a strategy that just about everyone has been familiar with since 2003, but very few have been successful at executing it because, well, there doesn’t really need to be an explanation when it comes to the subject of LeBron James.

By doing everything in their power to make LeBron’s life miserable, they are in effect going to dare everyone else on the Lakers to beat them, and that starts with Anthony Davis.

We know how good Anthony Davis is, but we don’t really know how good he’s going to be when the stakes are higher. Davis’ numbers in the playoffs should hardly concern the Lakers’ faithful. He’s averaged 30.5 points and 12.7 points on nearly 53 percent shooting from the field. The one number that could be concerning is that those averages come from only 13 playoff games total.

Davis is hardly to blame for the lack of playoff success in his name. Injuries ravaged the Pelicans continuously, and the best players he’s played with in the postseason are Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Rajon Rondo. The numbers suggest he carries his weight.

He should have less weight to carry when and if the Lakers enter the playoffs, but because their competitors are doubling down on their small ball to make sure LeBron’s covered as tightly as possible, the pressure will be on Davis to keep it going.

Posting up against small lineups shouldn’t be an issue for Davis because he’s been efficient on post-ups this season. On a frequency of 22.8 percent, Davis has a points per possession (PPP) of 0.95 when posting up. Davis is averaging five points while shooting 47.8 percent from the field in the post up throughout the entire season. His efficiency in the post up ranks him in the 63rd percentile. He’s not Joel Embiid or even LaMarcus Aldridge in that area, but he’s reliable.

Still, time will tell to see if it translates in the playoffs. In the Lakers’ most recent game against the Rockets, we got our first sample of how LA will fare against Houston’s new scheme. LeBron struggled with it, putting up just 18 points on 8-for-19 shooting while turning it over six times. The switchability and intelligence that their defenders possessed made life difficult for him.

It was a different story for Davis. He had an excellent game. 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks because he dominated the very undersized center Houston threw at him. Despite that, the Rockets prevailed 121-111.

They were more than happy to let Davis dominate them as long as they took LeBron out of his comfort zone, and it worked. Games like that should make you want to keep your eye on this. Teams know that LeBron James is a nuclear weapon during the NBA playoffs. They have yet to see if Anthony Davis can be the same. If he can’t pick up the slack when LeBron is off his game, then that changes the ballgame.

Davis is an elite player. He has done a lot in his NBA career. He hasn’t had the opportunity to show that he can take over for a contender when the stakes are dialed to 11. When the playoffs arrive, we’ll finally see what he can do.

There shouldn’t be much doubt as to if Davis can do this. There should be much pressure as to if he’ll be able to do enough.

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NBA Daily: Picking Up The Pieces In Portland

The Portland Trail Blazers continue to fight for their playoff lives. Damian Lillard’s recent injury is just another obstacle that this team must hurdle to survive. Chad Smith looks at one player that may be emerging off of their bench just when they need it most.

Chad Smith

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The home stretch has begun, and most teams around the league are pushing for a better playoff seed.

The postseason begins in less than two months and many teams are just hoping that they are able to be part of it. That is the case in Portland, where the Trail Blazers find themselves on the outside looking in as they trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games for the final spot in the West. They also have four teams right behind them that are hungry for playoff basketball.

The story of the 2019-20 Blazers has been injuries. It began last season when they lost their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a devastating leg injury that he has still not fully recovered from. Zach Collins was more than ready to fill in, but he suffered a shoulder injury in their third game of the season and has been out since having surgery on it. The organization made a Hail Mary trade for Hassan Whiteside, who has actually played very well for them this season.

Rodney Hood had been a staple for Portland since they acquired him, but he was lost to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Desperation may have ultimately led them to sign Carmelo Anthony, but he has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the club. The trade Portland made with the Sacramento Kings was thought to have just been a cost-saving move, but Trevor Ariza has been an excellent fit with the first unit.

The latest setback came in their final game before the break when the face of the franchise suffered a groin injury. Damian Lillard has been having an MVP-worthy season, on the heels of what was one of the greatest playoff buzzer-beaters in league history. Fortunately, the injury was deemed mild, and he should only miss a few games. It may be cliché, but it has been the moniker for Portland all season: Next man up.

Early in the season, it appeared as though their 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons was going to have a breakout year. After putting up strong numbers in the first couple of months, he was seen as a highly sought after trade target. Simons has cooled off considerably since then, and it has been the play of their other second-year guard, Gary Trent Jr., that has turned some heads.

Appearing in just 15 games as a rookie last season, Trent Jr. has had more opportunities to show what he can do this year. Amid all of the injuries and movement in Portland, he has shown the ability to hit shots and defend. The sophomore swingman just turned 21 last month, but he has the maturity and understanding of a player with more experience.

A large part of that can be attributed to his father, Gary Trent, who was traded to the Blazers after being selected 11th overall in the 1995 draft. While he didn’t turn out to be an All-Star player, he did play for nine seasons and appeared in more than 500 games. His son may not end up being a star, but they both know this is an excellent opportunity for him to showcase his talents.

The former Duke product began his rise in the middle of January after putting up 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by another 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn’t slow down in the final handful of games before the All-Star break, either. He scored double-digits in four consecutive games against tough competition in Denver, San Antonio, Utah and Miami, where he shot 65 percent (20-for-31) from deep. Those final two games were against elite defenses, in which he put up 38 points while shooting 7-for-15 from downtown.

So far in the month of February, Trent Jr. has shot 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 12 points and 1.4 steals per game. Those are all solid numbers for a third-string guard, but now he will be relied upon more heavily in the absence of Lillard.

It will be interesting to see the adjustments that Terry Stotts makes without his superstar point guard on the floor. CJ McCollum will likely have a higher usage and handle the ball more than he has before. The Blazers struggle mightily with shot creation. While the veteran two-guard will be looked upon to provide play-making for this group, it will be up to guys like Trent Jr. to knock down open shots and make the correct reads and rotations on defense.

Stotts appears to be leaning on Trent Jr. more often — and for good reason. Both he and Simons played in all 15 games in January, with Simons averaging about one more minute per game. Trent shot 39 percent from deep compared to Simons’ 23 percent. What Stotts really likes is how Trent Jr takes care of the ball. In those 15 January games, he had just four total turnovers. He also played 36 minutes in one of those games and finished without a single turnover.

As good as Whiteside has been at protecting the rim, Portland remains one of the worst defensive teams in the league. It ranks 26th in opponent scoring and has the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Trent Jr. is much bigger than the aforementioned Simons. He is actually bigger than McCollum and Lillard. The size and length that he possesses allow him to guard multiple positions and really help create deflections.

In his role as an off-ball scorer, Trent Jr. just fits really well alongside the Blazer backcourt. Even when one of them is out, he has found a way to excel. Over his last 15 games, he is averaging 12.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from three-point range. They may need Trent Jr. to steal some minutes from the McCollum and Lillard, as they both rank among the top 12 in minutes per game.

Easing all of these injured players back into the rotation is going to be tricky. There will be some bumps and some hiccups along the way, but time is simply not on their side. They have just 26 games remaining, and several teams are fighting for that same spot. The good news for Portland is that only four teams have an easier remaining schedule.

A healthy Portland team is a dangerous playoff team. Getting Lillard back is paramount, but getting Nurkic and Collins back into the rotation with Carmelo and Whiteside would be monumental for this group.

A potential first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers would be tantalizing, to say the least. It will take some work for this team to get back into the playoffs, but then again, they have never backed down from a challenge.

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