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NBA PM: Portland Trail Blazers 2017-18 Season Preview

The Blazers finished last season 17-6. Is that a sign of what’s to come? Basketball Insiders weighs in.

Basketball Insiders

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The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2017-18 as an intriguing bunch, if nothing else.

After winning 44 games during the 2015-16 season, the club made an improbable run to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Despite losing LaMarcus Aldridge, it appeared that brighter days were ahead for the tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The Blazers re-signed most of their core free agents and added a few new faces, but stumbled out of the blocks to the tune of a disappointing 10-10 record after 20 games.

The young club entered the All-Star break a dismal 10 games below the .500 mark and the hopes of securing a playoff spot seemed bleak, but the midseason acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets changed everything.

Acquired on February 12 in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second round pick and cash, Nurkic would play 20 regular season games for the Blazers before going down with a right fibular fracture, but the Blazers managed to reel off a 14-6 record with him in the lineup. Seeming to be the piece the team has missed over the early part of the season, Nurkic’s injury preempted any chance that the Blazers had at advancing out of the first round of last season’s playoffs, especially once they were locked into the eighth seed and pitted against the Golden State Warriors.

Having been swept at the hands of the eventual champions, one can only wonder which Trail Blazers team will show up during the 2017-18 season—the team that was inconsistent and sometimes listless over the first 60 games of last year, or the 14-6 club that emerged with Nurkic in the middle.

Let’s preview the 2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Portland’s backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are amongst the top guard tandems in the league, and this offseason they’ve spent most of their time training together in preparation for what looks to be another playoff bound campaign.

With a healthy Jusuf Nurkic on board for a full 82 games, the star backcourt will have their inside presence to build with all season.

Despite the star power the Trail Blazers possess themselves, a .500 record likely won’t be good enough to get out of the regular season this year. Just in Portland’s division alone, the Western Conference has seen the likes of Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Paul Millsap enter the picture.

Lillard and McCollum are on record with their recruitment of embattled New York Knicks’ star Carmelo Anthony. In order to make their lives a little easier in their suddenly stacked division, maybe the stud duo should ramp up their sales pitch.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has built a reputation for being a savvy team architect. However, his front office’s approach to this offseason has been somewhat dubious. Moving Allen Crabbe’s bloated contract made a lot of sense, but it seems like no one realized how little depth the team has on the wings. If Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum misses any extended period of time this season, the Blazers will likely be in big trouble. Evan Turner can play either guard position, but Turner isn’t the solution to replacing either Lillard or McCollum. The team also lacks three-point shooting, which is going to be a recurring problem, unless the team makes some significant trades. Also, it’s not clear has invested so much money and so many roster slots on big men. Though the roster features significant talent, it’s undeniably imbalanced, which means Portland could look to make some deals before next year’s trade deadline.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

It took the rest of the NBA world a few months to catch up after I suggested that Carmelo Anthony’s ideal situation would be to land in Portland with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but until Anthony himself sees the light, it’s wishful thinking for the Blazers.

One thing the Blazers don’t have to wish for, though, is productivity in the middle. Over the past few years, there have been a real life game of musical chairs for the pivot man in Portland, but it appears that those prayers have been answered in the form of Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic got the opportunity to prove his worth and saw his numbers basically double after being traded to Portland, and if the Blazers had better health fortunes, their season may have ended differently.

Without question, the Northwest Division is the most difficult to predict this season, mainly because the Timberwolves, Thunder and Blazers, under certain circumstances, all may have the opportunity to win it. What’s even more amazing to consider is that the team that won the division last season—the Utah Jazz—aren’t even mentioned there.

In terms of talent, I think the Blazers are closer to a 50-win team than they are a .500 team (which they were last year), so I’ll go ahead and give them that. I can totally see this prediction blowing up in my face, but at this point, I think I’m taking Portland to finish third, behind the Timberwolves and the Thunder.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Something tells me Damian Lillard is on the cusp of taking his game to an entirely different level. Not that he hasn’t been crushing defenders for years at this point, but he’s been passively-aggressively stewing on social media all summer and is made of a lot of the same things that make Russell Westbrook great. I believe in Lillard, flat-out, and getting the contributions we’ve come to expect from C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Mo Harkless should keep Portland every bit as relevant in the Northwest as every other team in that tough division.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

The Blazers are an interesting test case for what we can confidently take away from a small sample in a previous season. During a 20-game stretch post-All-Star break last year when Jusuf Nurkic joined the team, Portland went 14-6 and often looked dominant. On the flip side of that coin, they went just 27-35 for the rest of the year – and to be honest, their slate of opponents during that strong Nurkic-fueled stretch was pretty mediocre.

Is that 20 games enough to assume Nurkic was the missing ingredient for this team? That’s a big question. The Blazers got weaker in the spacing department over the summer with the trade of Allen Crabbe, and they still have some fairly serious defensive questions. Does adding another high-level guy in Nurkic full-time to the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum core do enough to mask these concerns? Playing in the toughest division in the league will also be tough, and this group can’t afford a single injury to either of their stars. At the same time, they’ve still got Terry Stotts behind the bench and a ton of continuity, so they’ll be right there in the playoff picture.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: C.J. McCollum

There are probably a fair number of people that would argue that Damian Lillard is the top offensive player on the Blazers, and it’s difficult to argue with them. We give the nod to C.J. McCollum, though, not because of any ill will toward Lillard or the way he does things, but more so because McCollum is the more efficient player. Aside from converting on 42 percent of his three-point looks last season, McCollum converted on a higher percentage of total field goals, two-point field goals and free throws than Lillard. While Lillard did lead the team in scoring last season (27 points per game to McCollum’s 23), the difference for Lillard can easily be attributed to his higher usage rate and the fact that he is still the team’s go-to player. If not for that disparity and the fact that Lillard took about twice as many free throws as McCollum did last season, McCollum might have been the team’s leading scorer.

Give the nod here to Lillard if you wish, we won’t argue. But in today’s NBA, efficiency counts for a lot, and McCollum’s excellence in that department can’t be overlooked.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Since being drafted with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Al-Farouq Aminu has played four four different teams, but he averaged a career-high 29.1 minutes per game last season for the Blazers. The reason why is because he has proven himself to be a consistent difference-maker on the defensive side of the basketball. Aminu has impeccable defensive instincts and has proven his mettle as both a weak side defender and disruptor of passing lanes. Aminu is also a player that moves remarkably quick on the perimeter for someone whose size and stature allows him to be an effective post defender.

The difficulty in measuring defensive impact is well-documented, but the five-man unit statistics compiled by 82games.com offers some valuable insight. In terms of plus-minus, four of the top five five-man units that the Blazers trotted out last season featured Aminu playing alongside Lillard and McCollum.

Aside from that, anointing Aminu as the top defensive player on the Blazers is more a result of watching him in action than it is of any statistical evidence to support the claim. Of course, that’s fairly normal for defensive players, but we don’t think many would argue in this instance.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard averaged just 5.9 assists per game last season. For a point guard who shot 19.8 shots per game, it seems to be a fairly low number. When compared with the 6.8 assists per game Lillard averaged during the 2015-16 season, the reduction is impossible not to notice. It can be reasoned, however, that the lower assist numbers can simply be attributed to Lilliard’s teammates not converting on the opportunities that he created for them rather than the fact that he simply sought to create less for them. Truth be told, though, for Lillard to take the next step in his career, he needs to become a better floor general. Over the years, he has shown an ability to see the floor and has become a better pick-and-roll point guard, but he rarely breaks down defenders and gets into the paint with the intention of creating an open look for a teammate. Lillard, similar to Russell Westbrook a few years ago, usually seems to pass when the defense forces him to, and not as naturally as a Chris Paul or John Wall.

Still, Lillard has developed as a playmaker and, if his progression continues, will lead the Blazers to higher heights. With Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner as the other players entrusted to create shots, he is still fairly considered to be the team’s top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

You can probably count on one hand the amount of players who have hit series-clinching three-point shots at the buzzer, but that’s exactly what Damian Lillard did back in 2014 when he sank the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of their first round playoff series. At just 23 years old, as a sophomore, Lillard proved he had the clutch gene. Last season was incredible, though.

Lillard accomplished the rare feat of sinking two buzzer beaters in the same game. It came in just the third game of the regular season and was an omen of things that were to come. Last season, Lillard scored 183 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, third to Isaiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook, respectively. Lillard also shot 12-for-38 in the final minute in the fourth quarter and overtime. It again places him behind Thomas and Westbrook, but without question, he is the top clutch performer on the Blazers.

The Unheralded Player: Maurice Harkless

Moe Harkless put together an across-the-board career season last year, and he did it while sharing minutes with Allen Crabbe. Now that Crabbe has been dealt to the Brooklyn Nets, it’ll probably result in more production for Harkless. In 2015, the Blazers signed Harkless to a four-year, $42 million contract and coming into it, there was quite a bit desired from the 21-year-old forward. Two years later, Harkless has emerged as the team’s starting small forward and has shown remarkable improvement in his three-point shooting. Hitting 35 percent of his shots from distance last season, Harkless seemed to mesh well with Jusuf Nurkic and helped the Blazers find themselves in the playoffs. His play suffered a bit during the team’s four-game sweep at the hand of the Golden State Warriors, so consistency is what will be required of him moving forward. Still, he has shown the makings of a good pro and makes enough of a game impact to be considered a diamond in the rough, and at just 24 years old, he still has appreciable upside.

Best New Addition: Jusuf Nurkic

Over the past few seasons, the Blazers have employed what seems to be a revolving door of big men. Last season, though, with the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic, the franchise appears to have found a longterm answer to their question in the middle.

Technically, Nurkic was acquired last season, but since this coming season will be his first in a Blazers uniform, he makes the cut. That he only played 20 regular season games with the team further bolsters the case. As a member of the Denver Nuggets, Nurkic was thought to be a building block that the team foresaw splitting time with Nikola Jokic in the middle, however, the two seemed to be diminishing one another’s impact. After the February trade brought Nurkic to the Blazers, his productivity shot up when compared to what he was able to produce with the Nuggets. Nurkic scored 15.2 points, grabbed 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. The 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks were icing on the cake. As if the double-double wasn’t enough, Nurkic giving the Blazers three assists per game is something that few centers are capable of contributing. With him in the lineup for the final 20 games of last season, the Blazers went 14-6. If that wasn’t an aberration, it could mean 50-plus wins and another journey to the second round of the playoffs.

— Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

1. Zach Collins

The Blazers entered the draft with the 15th, 20th and 26th picks, and managed to use the 15th and 20th picks to walk away with Zach Collins. While Collins did have some issues with staying out of foul trouble in Collins, he entered a loaded drafted as a projected lottery pick and ended up being selected 10th overall, as expected. Collins saw his stock rise dramatically over the course of his freshman year at Gonzaga, mainly due to his impressive per-minute numbers, efficiency ratings and timely performances over the course of the tournament. Obviously, those metrics don’t always translate, but playing behind Jusuf Nurkic, Collins will give the Blazers some depth and youth with upside, so there’s no question that he will have every opportunity to become a valuable part of Terry Stotts’ rotation.

2. Neil Olshey

In hindsight, general manager Neil Olshey may have been a little aggressive last summer when he went on a phenomenal spending spree, but he has consistently shown the ability to find diamonds in the rough and mold them into special pieces. The latest example of this would be Jusuf Nurkic. Perhaps Olshey was simply in the right place at the right time, but Nurkic appears to be the answers for the Blazers in the middle. In the Nurkic trade, while Olshey did send out Mason Plumlee, cash considerations and a second round pick, he managed to convince the Nuggets to include the 2017 first round pick that the club used to select Harry Giles. They eventually flipped Giles to the Sacramento Kings in return for Zach Collins and effectively got Nurkic and Collins for Mason Plumlee and a second round pick. Olshey often finds way to spin pieces into valuable building blocks, and this is another example.

3. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum

If the Blazers made a mistake, it would have been overestimating where they were in terms of their rebuild and committing too quickly to a group of players that won’t ultimately lead them to contention in the Western Conference. One thing they haven’t erred on, though, is committing to rebuild around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The duo rightfully belong in the conversation with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and John Wall and Bradley Beal as the top backcourts in the league. Some would even argue that Lillard and McCollum are as good as the defending champions, but we’re not ready to go there just yet. With James Harden and Chris Paul having joined forces in Houston, Lillard and McCollum may see their perceived stock fall a bit. While they do still need to show an ability to have as much game impact on the defensive side of the basketball, there’s no question that they are a magnificent duo to build around.

4. Terry Stotts

Things might be a tad uncomfortable for Terry Stotts in Portland. Even after ridding themselves of Allen Crabbe’s contract, the Blazers will be a luxury tax team this season, and with the 14-6 record that they compiled over the final 20 games of last season, the expectations of Stotts will be to have the team storm out the gate and cruise to 50 wins out West. What we will credit Stotts for is this: he is innovative and courageous. Last season, Stotts tinkered with his lineups and rotations and found a way to make it all work by giving consistent playing time to Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. With less new faces to incorporate this season, Stotts will enjoy some stability and should, in theory, help the Blazers get their season off to a better start than he did a year ago.

5. Evan Turner

Last offseason, the Blazers signed Evan Turner to a whopper of a contract—four years, $70 million. Although it’s a hefty price tag to play for a player who has started less than 50 percent of his games, Turner is a versatile swingman who has the undervalued skill of being able to create looks for his teammates playing either as an off guard or swingman. Part of the reason why we are showing Turner some love here, though, is because he figures to be a bigger part of what the Blazers do this season with Allen Crabbe having been moved on to Brooklyn. If Turner can revert to the player we last saw in Boston, it would go a long way toward restoring his value and the perception about his contributions.

— Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Blazers entered the summer well above the league’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Dumping Allen Crabbe on the Brooklyn Nets helped shave that down significantly, although Portland is still over the line at roughly $122.2 million in team salary for a $4.5 million penalty. While the team still has their $5.2 million taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, they probably hold off using it to avoid additional taxes.

Next summer, the Blazers will be over the cap. Three players (Noah Vonleh, Jusuf Nurkic and Shabazz Napier) are all eligible for extensions before the start of the season.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The two things that the Blazers have going for them this season is their youth and their continuity.

As we have consistently seen over the years, the NBA is a young man’s game. Often, the teams that can stay healthiest and enjoy the best fortune are those that excel. Last season, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe—four of the team’s most important rotation players—missed a combined total of just 17 games. The Blazers will enter the season with just one player over the age of 30 years old, and that’s Anthony Morrow, whom the club signed on September 15 as a roster filler. Those playing the lion’s share of of the minutes in Portland will have youth on their side, and that’s definitely a strength.

The other obvious strength of the Blazers is continuity. Entering last season, there were a few new players to crash the rotation and newfound expectations thrust upon many members of the team. This season, with a cast that is mostly carried over from last season, the familiarity should pay dividends.

— Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

It seems a bit cliche to point to defense as a weakness, but for the Trail Blazers, it rings true. The team can score with the best of them and can win any game wherein they are hitting their shots, but when they go up against a powerful defensive force, they struggle to gets wins because they struggle to get stops. In the Western Conference, every contender needs to buckle down and get stops when they’re needed, and the Blazers simply cannot count on Al-Farouq Aminu to single-handedly get them those stops—not when they’ll be seeing high-octane offenses featuring the likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

If there is one other weakness of the Blazers, it would have been their lack of interior scoring, but with Nurkic manning the post, the team may be equipped to do something about that this coming season.

— Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum Step Up?

Barring something unforeseen (such as Carmelo Anthony agreeing to waive his no-trade clause to relocate to Portland), with the money on their books, the Blazers are somewhat committed to their current core. The team has over $100 million in salary commitments over each of the next three seasons, so their hope of being able to tango with the Golden State Warriors rests squarely on the shoulder  of Lillard and McCollum. Last season, the tandem averaged just 9.5 assists per game on 37.8 shots attempts per game. Simply put, that’s not a recipe for winning basketball. With the addition of Nurkic, those shot attempts should trend downward, but Lillard and McCollum need to become renowned for impacting the game in area other than scoring.

Last season, Portland was 25th in points allowed and 24th in defensive efficiency. If they are to become anything more than the Western Conference’s version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks, they need to become a better defensive team. Whether or not they do will likely begin (or end) with their dynamic backcourt.

— Moke Hamilton

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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