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NBA PM: Minnesota’s Defense Has Been A Disaster

The Timberwolves have plenty of talent but have failed to construct a competent defense.

Jesse Blancarte

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When you hire Tom Thibodeau and give him the freedom to build a roster that features some of his favorite players, like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, it’s fair to expect that he can develop a pretty solid defensive team. However, despite having a talented roster, along with Butler and Gibson, the Timberwolves are ranked dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency.

More specifically, the Timberwolves are giving up 114 points per 100 possessions to their opponents, which is almost four points worse than the 29th worst defensive team in the league, the Indiana Pacers.

There are a few possible explanations for this. First, Minnesota has played the Golden State Warriors twice and the San Antonio Spurs once so far this season, which means they’ve played against top-10 offenses in three of their first five games. Secondly, Jimmy Butler missed the team’s last two games as he’s been dealing with an upper respiratory issue. Butler is the team’s best perimeter defender and likely the team’s best overall defender as well.

The problem is that the Timberwolves are a complete disaster defensively when Butler isn’t on the floor and the team’s core players seem to keep making the same mistakes they made when in their rookie and sophomore seasons.

“This is not the tendency of a Coach Thibs team,” Pierce said. “So it’s a little concerning. I have to get on my young players, they have to really step up. Karl-Anthony Towns, this was the year everybody said he’s going to be an all-star, maybe Andrew Wiggins can be an all-star. You don’t have to have great defensive talent to be a great defensive team. Thibs usually implements a great defensive system where (if) you follow the system, you’ll be fine. And I don’t know that they’re following it.”

“(Minnesota’s struggles are) solely on those (players),” McGrady said, “and they’ve got to be committed.”

Karl-Anthony Towns is already an incredible offensive player but has been alarmingly ineffective on defense this season. Whether it is confusion in executing Thibodeau’s defensive schemes, miscommunication on the court with teammates or simply not giving full effort, Towns has consistently given up easy points to opponents and has not been the defensive anchor Minnesota is in desperate need of.

For his part, Towns is aware that his performance so far this season has fallen short of expectations.

“I’ve just got to be better all around, everywhere,” Towns said. “I’m not my best right now. I’m not, and it hurts. So I’ve got to go back to the drawing board and find a way to play better. I’ve got to be more of a factor, and I’ve got to find ways. The team looks at me for a lot and right now in my opinion, I’m not delivering. I’ve got to find ways.”

What is a bit concerning is that Towns has not zoned in as directly on addressing his defensive effort as one might expect given how ineffective he has been on that side of the court this season. After Minnesota’s loss to the Detroit Pistons earlier this week, Towns again mentioned that he needs to improve in all areas, not just on defense.

“I ain’t no quitter, I’m a competitor,” Towns said after the game in the Pistons’ new Little Caesars Arena. “I compete at the highest level every single night, regardless what the outcome is. I’ve got to be better. I’m motivated. I’ve got to take that next step, not only as an offensive-defensive player but as a leader.”

Towns is too physically gifted to not at least be a passable defensive player. His size and mobility at the center position should allow him to effectively guard opposing big men in the post, rotate to defend the rim from the weak side and guard players away from the basket well enough to deter opposing guards and wings from attacking the rim off the dribble. So far this season, Towns has been unable to do each of those things consistently.

Similarly, Wiggins has struggled to play disciplined defense as well. While his one-on-one defense has been solid at times, his execution within the team’s defensive schemes and rotations has been inconsistent. The hope was that playing with Butler would help improve Wiggins’ defensive skill set, but it appears that process may take longer than many had hoped.

In response to a question about Shabazz Muhammad’s early season struggles, Thibodeau gave a response that he has been giving regularly so far this season when asked about his team’s inconsistent play.

“We have to have an understanding if you’re not shooting well, you can still play well,” Thibodeau said. “There are other ways to contribute, and so that’s what he has to do. He has proved he’s more than capable offensively. Right now, the ball is not going in for him. But there are other things he can do that can help us and that’s what we need him to do.”

To be fair to the players, there have been times through the first few games where Thibodeau failed to adjust his game plan even when it was clear it wasn’t working. For example, against the Pistons, Thibodeau was sending three to four of his players to hit the offensive glass, leaving his team exposed in transition any time they failed to secure the rebound. The Pistons were outrebounding Minnesota and routinely took advantage of the lack of defenders in the open court. Thibodeau never addressed this, which hurt the team throughout the night.

The season is still very young and there’s plenty of time for Minnesota to turn things around. But there’s no sugarcoating how bad their defense has been so far this season. From poor execution, inconsistent effort and a refusal to make in game adjustments, the Timberwolves are failing to put together a competent defense. If Thibodeau can’t figure out how to address this issue, it won’t matter how much offensive talent his team has assembled over the last few seasons.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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When Is The Sample Size Big Enough?

A couple of weeks into the season, Matt John looks into some of the surprises so far and asks how long will it take until these unforeseen wrinkles can be considered more than just flukes.

Matt John

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*Small sample size

That’s always the disclaimer we media folk have to include when we take offer opinions or analysis early on in the season. The reason is justifiable. A lot can change between now and when the season comes down the homestretch that we can’t say that the success or lack thereof surrounding either a team or a player will continue in the long-run.

But there comes a time when the “small sample size” is no longer a factor in how the NBA season has turned out. At that point, the early subplots that no one saw coming can be considered something more than just a fluke. Now that the 2019-2020 season has entered the double-digit mark, we’re starting to see things take shape a bit, and the excuse “small sample size” is beginning to fade.

For now, it’s still too early to come to any drastic conclusions, but, for some of these early-season surprises, we need to ask: how long do they need to keep doing this until they’re taken seriously? Some probably will take longer than others, but the end result is still the same. That being said, let’s begin.

How long until Boston is considered an elite team?

The cliche answer has been “When they upgrade their frontcourt.” However, that’s going to be very difficult for them to do with their salary situation and they currently have the league’s best record in spite of a supposedly weak big rotation.

Boston hasn’t lost a game since falling in their season opener to Philadelphia and are currently on a nine-game winning streak. According to ESPN’s Relative Percentage Index, they’ve had the 18th-toughest schedule so far, so they haven’t exactly been facing the top teams on a nightly basis. However, in that time, they’ve beaten some of their toughest competitors in the East, such as Milwaukee and Toronto, as well as blown out other quality teams like San Antonio on the road.

They currently have the best offensive rating in the entire league, scoring 114.3 points per 100 possessions. Before they gave up 133 points to Washington the other night, they also had the seventh-best defensive rating, giving up 102.1 points per 100 possessions. Those 133 points they gave up can be alluded to them not having their two best defensive bigs – Daniel Theis and Robert Williams III – and Gordon Hayward.

At some point, the Celtics are going to lose again. At some other point, they’re going to go through a slump. For now, all they’re doing is proving that they shouldn’t be counted out. At full-health, they may have the most well-rounded offense headed by Hayward, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They’ve maintained a solid defense without Al Horford and Aron Baynes – sans against the Wizards – because of how they’ve managed their center rotation of Theis, Williams, Enes Kanter and, at times, Grant Williams.

If that isn’t enough, their 9-1 start is the best they’ve had since 2007-08, the last season they won the NBA title. Boston hasn’t established itself as the team to beat like their predecessor did at that time, but they have exceeded expectations enough that they shouldn’t be written off against the likes of Milwaukee or Philadelphia.

There was some temptation to ask the same question about the reigning champions, but instead, more focus should be put on their unquestioned, newly-appointed alpha dog.

How long until Pascal Siakam is in the running for MVP?

This writer already dove into how Siakam has proven himself to be a superstar in the early parts of the season. A week or so later, nothing has changed. Instead of starting with him, let’s start with Toronto.

Coming into the season, the Raptors already had enough personnel on the defensive side of the ball that even without Kawhi, they still should have been a great, possibly even elite team on that end. Offensively, there was supposed to be a significant dropoff with Leonard gone. So far, there has been some decline on that end, but not nearly as significant as originally feared. Defensively, they’ve been even better when you compare their defensive rating to last season, which has in part sparked their 8-3 start.

Let’s not kid ourselves here. Pascal Siakam’s evolution into a lead guy has kept Toronto among the best in the league. If you don’t believe that, look at his net-rating. The Raptors are plus-19.3 with him on the floor, and that’s not skewed because of how good he’s been one side. On both sides, he has been Toronto’s most effective player.

The Raptors are plus-12.5 offensively and minus-6.8 defensively when Siakam is on the floor. Offensively, he tops everyone on the roster while defensively, he’s third behind Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, neither of whom play close to the number of minutes that Pascal does.

Siakam’s numbers have come down a bit since his hot start – surprising no one – but they’re still about as fantastic as Toronto could have hoped for. He’s scoring 27.2 points a game on 49/37/82 splits as well as averaging 9.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists. If that doesn’t scream out “elite all-around player,” then what does? More importantly, those numbers are getting the Raptors’ positive results.

Think of it this way. If Toronto had the same Pascal Siakam from last year, they’d probably be somewhere between average and good right now. They’ve started this season firmly in the elite tier because of their fourth-year man taking another step in his career. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and James Harden are probably going to garner the most MVP buzz, but Pascal’s impact should not be slept on.

How long until we realize that Cleveland’s not blowing it up?

Spencer Davies already wrote about how Cleveland has been a fundamentally solid team thus far this season on Wednesday. If you want a more thoroughly detailed look on why the Cavaliers are not as bad as people may have thought coming in, take a look.

It’s amazing how much different a team can look when their circumstances change for the better. Their best player has a clean bill of health. They have a head coach who knows how to run the ship. Their young guys are one year older and wiser too. A lot of their guys are on expiring deals, which means they’ll be playing their hearts out all season.

All of those factors have added up into the Cavaliers being a little more competitive than we may have anticipated. The Cavaliers are 4-7 because Kevin Love is playing more like his old self, Collin Sexton has taken some great strides this year, and Tristan Thompson is having a career year. With John Beilein running the show, we’re seeing not a greater, but a grittier team in “The Land.”

So why are outlets still putting Kevin Love in trade scenarios? Why are they labeling Tristan Thompson as a buyout candidate? Why are they still saying Cleveland’s best option is to start over?

There’s no need to tear apart something that, at the present moment, is proving itself to be promising. Haven’t we seen from Boston, Brooklyn and Utah over the last few years that if you have something good in the works, you should see where it takes you?

By no means are the Cavaliers a great team. They definitely have room for improvement on both ends of the floor. They’re mediocre, but *mediocre* is still better than *bad*, and this roster has the potential to improve in significant ways.

What’s getting overlooked is that they have both expiring deals and draft assets that can be used to acquire someone really good value on the trade market. Good character guys like Marcus Morris could probably be had, and who knows what stars could become available?

Cleveland could blow it up, but what are the odds that they get someone as good as Kevin Love in a trade? What are the odds that they’ll not only win the lottery but also get a franchise cornerstone there too? We’ve seen Cleveland possibly be the luckiest team ever with the ping pong balls, but the only superstar they grabbed in that time was Kyrie Irving.

The Cavaliers are nowhere near the team they were when LeBron was around, but they have the building blocks for a new era of good basketball. For now, they don’t have to go anywhere near the reset button.

How long until Andrew Wiggins is pegged as a “future star” again?

Have we ever seen something like this happen in the history of professional basketball? Or even professional sports?

Two years ago, Andrew Wiggins was supposed to be a franchise player in waiting. Less than a month ago, he was a bust. Since the start of November, he’s played some of the best all-around basketball of his career. Because of that, it seems that hope for Wiggins’ future is slowly being restored.

Many believed the Minnesota Timberwolves consisted of Karl-Anthony Towns and not much else coming into the season, but not if Maple Jordan had anything to say about it. Following a decent start to the season, Wiggins has torn it up so far in November. In seven games, Wiggins has put up 29.1 points on 50/43/69 splits. To add to that, he’s shown improved playmaking abilities, averaging 5.1 assists in that span. For more details, read Douglas Farmer’s piece on Wiggins.

The hot shooting will die down a bit, but there’s more to Wiggins’ progress than just hitting more shots. Offensively, he’s been a lot smarter. He’s cutting down his mid-range jumpers. He’s evolved as a playmaker. He’s turned his three-ball into more of a weapon. To summarize, he’s looking more like the Andrew Wiggins we thought the Timberwolves were getting when he first arrived. It’s the best stretch of his career, and it’s played a part in Minnesota starting out better than we thought they would.

No one knows why exactly this is happening now and not before. Maybe we expected too much from him early on. Maybe he experienced some fatigue after playing under Tom Thibodeau for over two seasons. Maybe the Jimmy Butler experience damaged his psyche a bit. Whatever the case may have been, Wiggins’ career now looks like it’s on an upward trajectory again.

In fact, if things keep going this way, there might not be any need to put “future” in “future star” for Wiggins when the All-Star break comes around.

As encouraging as some of these surprises have been, time will tell whether these questions will be worth looking into further. It may take a month, a week, or even just a game to make any of them look offbase.

For the record, there were plenty of other early-season surprises that were worth talking about. How long until Phoenix proves that they’re for real? How long until San Antonio realizes it is better off without DeMar DeRozan? How long until the top of the Eastern Conference is comparable to the top of the Western Conference?

These questions, as of now, arguably aren’t worth looking into because of the small sample size, but time will tell.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Improving Free Throw Percentage

Jake Rauchbach breaks down the most powerful way to improve free throw percentage.

Jake Rauchbach

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Free Throw Components

In this article, we are going to break down how to revamp a player’s free throw percentage without changing free-throw mechanics or increasing repetitions. Holding these variables constant and keying in on Mental Focus and Emotional regulation, there exists the possibility of massive statistical improvement.

For many, this might sound crazy. But for players that have experienced these sorts of upward bursts in free-throw efficiency, this outside of the box approach has become a commonplace implementation.

Before we jump into the most POWERFUL way to improve free throw percentage, let’s first talk about the old model.

The Traditional Free-Throw Model

Repetition

In the traditional model, the central focus of improving free throw percentage is based around putting up physical repetition. Repetition is most effective when players are subconsciously open and ready to receive the muscle memory downloads of the physical/on-court free-throw reps. When a player’s conscious and subconscious mind (mind-body connection), is in alignment, practice reps equal In-Game Improvement.

Said in another way, when there is alignment on the unconscious level of the player, there is innately a positive correlation between practice repetition and in-game results.

However, in the case when a player’s psychosomatic baggage gets in the way, there is generally no amount of practice reps that will move the dial on foul-line improvement. Many times, shot repetitions, laden with psychosomatic trauma, will just belabor the problem for the player.

It is not until these deep psyche imbalances are neutralized that long-term improvement can take place. In my experience, every player has some level of subconscious baggage. Most players only approach free throw improvement, or the improvement in their overall game for that matter, from one or maybe two angles. This is a big-time oversight. It also a BIG-TIME opportunity. I will talk about this in a minute.

Game-Reps

Another way that players and coaches attempt to elevate free throw percentage is through mimicking in-game situations during practice. This is great if the subconscious mind of the player is receiving, processing and executing said outside stimuli. But like the example above, if there is deep trauma present for the player, generating free throw percentage improvement in this manner is generally ineffectual.

Film

Film study is also used frequently to critique form and show different parts of the mechanical process. Film can be beneficial, but usually only when players watch their MADE shots during past periods when they were shooting the ball well.  Analyzing shooting form, and mechanics generally, has been shown to not be beneficial. This hampers the player’s ability to move forward with free throw proficiency.

Tweaking Physical Mechanics

When coaches and/or the player begin trying to fix physical shot mechanics, that is probably the thing that sets players back the most when they are struggling with improvement.

The reason? 99 percent of the time the underlying reason for the free throw struggle is not found in the physical mechanics, but the much deeper energetic level of the athlete.

When shot mechanics are addressed without also focusing on the mental, emotional and energetic level, this tends to further throw a wrench into free throw efficiency.

Often, coaches will change a player’s mechanics out of season with the hope that repetition alone will fix the past shot struggles. This initially CAN have a positive effect on free throw shooting in non-stimulus-filled situations such as practice.

However, often you will see a player revert to old inefficient shooting patterns in-game.

An example of this, albeit from the three-point line, has been Ben Simmons. Great work was seemingly employed during the offseason to solve his long-range shooting challenges.

However, what wasn’t likely addressed was the psychosomatic level of his shot. Unfortunately, Simmons has not yet broken through his long-range shooting struggles, and the reason is most likely because the root cause of his shooting woes is not mechanically based. The root cause of his shooting struggles likely lies deeper than mechanics and just getting up more shots. More analysis on Simmons can be found here in a past column.

Historically, these are some of the most common ways that have been used to improve free throw percentage. Now, let’s discuss the next step frontier for improving free throw percentage.

The Free Throw Formula

Beyond Mechanics and Repetition

Addressing the psychosomatic energetic blocks held at the subconscious mind-level of the player has been shown time and time again to dramatically improve free throw percentage. Reread that.

Keeping all other variables constant, eliminating the mental baggage of a player moves foul-line percentage upwards. Nothing is guaranteed, but this has been the norm.

I have spoken about Nick Anderson’s example at length in previous columns. The reason Anderson’s story is so valuable for today’s player is it gives a real-life account of how past psychosomatic trauma, when left unchecked, can sabotage future performance. Anderson’s case was extreme.

However, from my experience, ALL players experience some level of subconscious limitation, which if addressed could unlock improvement.

All this being said, we are going to outline the most leading-edge way to improve free-throw percentage. This way of working is the next step in optimizing charity stripe efficiency, because, as you will see, it works to UNLOCK ALL levels of the player, and free throw, not just the physical, analytical mind or repetition side.

Off-Court Player Development

Through the use of Energy Psychology methods, players can eliminate the mental blocks obstructing free throw improvement. Through systematic and customized processes, generally facilitated by a High-Performance – Player Development Coach, a player can begin to create the mental shifts needed to move free throw percentage upwards.

Energy psychology works with the energy flow in the body, also known as Chi, Prana or life force. Techniques such as MRP™ Tapping, Reiki and muscle testing work with this energy flow, and when applied correctly, move the dial.

On-Court Player Development

The positive change of the EP work, combined with ownership of the mental and emotional process, has the effect of getting the player out of his/her way,  so that free throw percentage improvement can ensue.

On the energetic level, players will begin to experience a difference in how they FEEL. As this happens, the on-court player development curriculum should be instituted back into the equation.

For example, shooting sets of 10 shots while employing Energy Psychology methods as a part of the free routine is generally the best practice. This way, the player begins to combine both on-court player development with internal player development to exponentialize improvement.

Programs, shot volumes and techniques vary based upon what is best for the player.

Daily Mindfulness Routine

Off-court routines are also super important! Meditation in the morning and visualization at night help create strong psychosomatic foundations for the player. This is a superb way to help move the dial at the foul-line. Yes, the work does go that deep.

If a player wants to improve free-throw percentage in the most powerful way possible, the process to do so begins when they wake up and ends when they go to bed.

These routines are not meant to be arduous or cumbersome. Many times, players report that they very much like these techniques. It gives them a way to anchor into their day.

In-Game Free-Throw Routine

Of course, the game is where the rubber meets the road. As such, it is also important to incorporate customized and player-specific mental focusing routines that leverage the Off-Court player development work.

Focused routines at the foul-line help players own their mental and emotional processes and have been shown to decrease, and at times, altogether eliminate the fear, anxiety and jitters that they once experienced.

Closing

Supporting the player in the most efficient way is not complicated, but does take a willingness to step outside of the traditional box.

The result of making free throws at a better rate is not confined to physical repetition, game-reps or film study alone.

Improvement begins at the core level of the player. Once players recognize that, their energetic system is the KEY that drives improvement. The sky is the limit.

To learn more about the Next Step In Player Development, Please Click Here.

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NBA Daily: Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

Damian Lillard is giving Portland an MVP-caliber season, but the Trail Blazers are on track to waste it, writes Drew Mays.

Drew Mays

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Damian Lillard is off to a scorching start.

Through 12 games, the All-NBA guard has carried the Portland Trail Blazers with 30.5 points and 6.9 assists per game on 63.9 (!) percent true shooting. He leads the NBA in minutes, and that scoring mark is second in the league. His true shooting percentage puts him in the ballpark of scorers Stephen Curry and James Harden – while Lillard has often been (rightly) mentioned in the same breath as those two, this year he’s bringing everything to the table.

Oh, and he still does a lot of this:

That remains a ridiculous shot. Primary defender Ky Bowman gets through the screen mostly unimpeded and stays near Lillard’s left side. Alec Burks never gets below the three-point line, and he’s still too low! You can see him look incredulously at his bench afterwards, where his coach is pleading with him to push up…on a guy over 30-feet from the rim.

This same stuff is happening while he ups his volume across the board – a career-high 20.4 field goal attempts, with 9.5 of those coming from three.

The Blazers, meanwhile, are faltering. Coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance, they’ve sputtered to a 4-8 start, putting them 13th in the standings ahead of only New Orleans and Golden State.

Everyone not named Anfernee Simons has struggled – and even he is playing on 21 minutes per contest. CJ McCollum has gone the opposite way of Lillard thus far with career lows in every major category. His 47.2 TS% puts him well below efficiency anti-heroes like Russell Westbrook and the revived Andrew Wiggins.

Rodney Hood has been okay. But if he’s your second-most effective player, you aren’t in a good spot.

Zach Collins is out with a shoulder injury until at least mid-March. Kent Bazemore, brought in for his perimeter defense and shooting, is shooting poorly.

During preseason, John Hollinger of The Athletic had this to say about Mario Herzonja: “Mario Hezonja is on his last chance. An annual first-team, all-layup-line performer, he’s never been able to figure out 5-on-5.”

He’s playing over 22 minutes per game.

Then there’s Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside’s size always allows his counting stats to look productive, but watching the games tells a different story. It’s hard to care much about rebounding and block numbers when you play defense like this:

Whiteside has been an offensive negative his whole career, and there isn’t evidence to suggest that will change.

Experts everywhere were cautious to pick against Portland to make the playoffs this year. Perennial All-Overachievers, the Blazers have gone over their projected preseason season win total five of the last six years. Two of those seasons (last year and 2013-14, Lillard’s second campaign) saw them beat their projection by over 10 wins. The one year they failed to get there was  2016-17, and even then, they managed to sneak into the postseason as an eight seed.

Now, Portland finds itself on the outside looking in. They’re looking at not only missing the playoffs in an improved West (Phoenix, anyone?), but also wasting an MVP-caliber year from their franchise star.

This is what many speculated would happen with Curry in Golden State this year. The Kevin Durant departure and Klay Thompson injury left Curry largely as a one-man band, destined to push for a repeat of his historical 2015-16 season.

Instead, the Warriors are riding the rails on the draft lottery train with Curry sidelined – and Lillard is the one balling on a team that may be going nowhere. This is devastating for two reasons: One, Lillard is 29. He’s still in his prime, but there’s no telling how long that prime will last. His game should age well, but how many more years can he carry a team offensively? Three or four? Predictions for players past 30 are always murky.

Lillard has been in MVP discussions for years. It’d be a shame to squander his best play yet.

Secondly, there doesn’t appear to be a concrete path for improvement. McCollum likely will stabilize, but where is the rest of the help coming from? Even when Jusuf Nurkic returns, he will have been out of action for a while and will need time to get back up to speed. Thursday night, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Portland signed Carmelo Anthony to a non-guaranteed contract to provide a boost to an already ailing frontcourt.

The Blazers are huge favorites to make moves at the trade deadline. How much does a Kevin Love help them? Would he be enough to compete with the top of the West? Plus, the deadline is in February. If Portland doesn’t right the ship soon, February could be too late.

This puts the Blazers in an interesting dilemma. Have they simply had bad breaks to start the year and will their fortunes will eventually flip? The numbers don’t necessarily show unluckiness – teams are shooting right around 35 percent from 20-29 feet against them.

Or, have they already reached their peak, and we’re watching Lillard carry a below-average team? The front office will have to make those decisions sooner rather than later.

The “big stats on a bad team” guy is not someone you want to be in the NBA. Devin Booker is working to shed that label now. Zach LaVine is hoping that mark doesn’t stay with him in Chicago.

Over his now eight-year career, Damian Lillard has never been that. He shouldn’t be, and won’t be. He’s too good and has been a winner since he entered the league.

But unless Portland figures this thing out, years down the road, “big stats, bad team” is exactly how his 2019-20 season is going to look.

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