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
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
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
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.