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Clippers Face Tough Decisions this Offseason

The Clippers have tough decisions to make this offseason after another early playoff exit.

Jesse Blancarte

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On Friday night, the Los Angeles Clippers’ season came to an end. They fell just short in Game 6, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers on the road. The team was severely undermanned after losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to season-ending injuries, along with J.J. Redick playing through a bruised heel and Austin Rivers suffering an elbow to the face in Game 6 that required stitches.

Now the Clippers are focused on the future, which is more in question than it has been in some time. It may seem overly dramatic to ask whether a team with two top-level big men and one of the best overall point guards in the league should be broken up, especially when the team was ranked sixth in offensive and defensive efficiency this season. However, before the season started, Clippers president of operations and head coach Doc Rivers admitted that this question had to be asked if the team fell short in the postseason.

“We’re right on the borderline,” Rivers told Zach Lowe of ESPN before the 2015-16 season started. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”

To be fair, any team that loses its two best players and has several other players hobbled by nagging injuries is going to be vulnerable in the postseason, including the Golden State Warriors. Once Paul and Griffin went down, the Clippers’ season was effectively over – it was just a question of how long they could hold off the inevitable. To their credit, the team fought until the very end, pushing the Blazers in Games 5 and 6, falling just short in each game.

Still, as Rivers pointed out before the season started, a team can become stale after repeated failures. The Clippers just ended their fifth year with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as the team’s Big Three and they still haven’t reached the Western Conference Finals. In addition, Griffin and Paul have player options for the 2017-18 season and Redick’s contract only runs through next year, meaning next season could be their last with the Clippers. However, Jordan has a player option in 2018-19, so there is no urgency with his contract situation.

Current cap projections provided by Basketball Insiders’ salary cap guru Eric Pincus have the Clippers with just $10.5 million in potential cap space this offseason (in their best-case scenario), which is the lowest figure in the league. As a result, the Clippers will not be able to make a major free agent acquisition, which means if they give this roster another run, it will be largely the same with small changes around the edges.

With all of this in mind, the Clippers’ front office needs to determine whether to push forward with this same group knowing that Paul, Griffin and Redick are all likely to be free agents after next season, or cash in their chips and start over.

Rivers isn’t the most equipped coach to handle a rebuild. In fact, when the Boston Celtics went into fire sale mode in 2013, Rivers took off to Los Angeles to lead a potential contender rather than oversee Boston’s rebuild.

Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Piece, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Brooklyn Nets for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, three unprotected first-round draft picks (2014, 2016 and 2018), with the right to swap first-round picks in 2017. The Nets went nowhere with the talent they traded for, while the Celtics assembled a young, talented and scrappy roster that plays disciplined basketball under top-notch head coach Brad Stevens. The Celtics remained competitive since the trade and now have more assets than just about any team as well as the flexibility to add more talent through free agency and major trades.

Teams learned from the Nets’ mistakes and will be more hesitant to offer the same compensation in future mega-deals. However, Ainge hasn’t made it a secret that he’s looking to cash in some of his assets for a young star player. He has pursued Kevin Love in the past, so a player like Griffin would certainly grab his attention if he were made available. The question is what might Ainge be willing to give up in exchange for Griffin.

Griffin could be traded straight up for a package of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, along with potential draft considerations. The Celtics have enough young, affordable players that this basic scenario can be adjusted to take out a player like Smart in exchange for Jared Sullinger or Terry Rozier, among several other variations. The point is, the Celtics have the young players and draft assets to make a move for a player like Griffin. This would give the Clippers young, developing talent that will be under team control for many years, while potentially replenishing their depleted draft assets.

Then imagine a scenario where the Cleveland Cavaliers fall short this postseason, and LeBron James demands the team trade for Chris Paul as a condition to re-signing. It wouldn’t be difficult for these two teams to structure a deal that essentially swaps Paul for Irving, giving the Cavaliers perhaps a better chance at a championship next season and the Clippers a younger point guard to grow alongside the revamped roster.

The Clippers’ starting lineup would look something like Irving-Redick-Crowder-Sullinger-Jordan. The team would have more young talent locked up, with more draft assets to bolster the team moving forward. With some luck, the Clippers would follow the Celtics’ path of remaining competitive while maintaining better cap flexibility and roster versatility.

Another added benefit with this route is the Clippers push the clock back on their possible window of contention. By the time the revamped roster is ready to truly contend for a championship, dominant teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers could be regressing.

If this approach seems too optimistic, just consider the circumstances that recently surrounded the team that just dispatched the Clippers. The Blazers lost Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo (who they traded Will Barton and other plays for no less) and, of course, LaMarcus Aldridge to free agency. They received no compensation for these valuable players. They did trade Nicolas Batum for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. Henderson and Vonleh aren’t top-notch talents, but Henderson is a serviceable wing and Vonleh still has significant room to improve his game as a stretch-four. The Blazers also traded a future second-round pick (that will never be conveyed) to the Orlando Magic for Moe Harkless, who was a major factor in Portland’s first-round victory over the Clippers.

Blazers general manager Neil Olshey didn’t wait to rebuild his team. He saw the writing on the wall and acted aggressively. He acquired young talent like Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee to grow and develop alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Just about everyone doubted this team’s ability to compete this season, but now they have a shot to upset a banged up Warriors squad in the second-round and a bright future as a result of their cap flexibility.

The Blazers managed to do this without having two top-15 players to use as trade chips. The point is that if the Clippers decide that this roster’s window is closed, they can rebuild on the fly, acquiring young, diverse talent while replenishing their draft assets. There are a countless number of ways for the Clippers to go about a rebuild, but if done effectively, they could come out in a better long-term position, like the Celtics did two seasons ago.

However, this isn’t an obvious path to take. It’s not often that a team has a roster that can contend, so giving up on it prematurely isn’t something that should be done recklessly. Look at the Dallas Mavericks for example. They weren’t championship favorites in 2011, but they pushed forward with their roster and upset the Miami HEAT in the Finals. The Clippers may find the same fortunate circumstances if they keep this roster together.

As we have seen in this year’s playoffs, injuries can happen to anyone at any time. Again, the Blazers have a chance to upset the Warriors if Stephen Curry’s knee injury keeps him on the sideline, or limits him in any significant way when he returns. That would give the winner of the Spurs-Thunder series a much easier path to the Finals.

When talking to Lowe before the start of the season, Redick said that he though the Clippers still have a few years to contend in the West.

“The championship window in the West is so narrow,” Redick said. “Ours might only be open another couple of years. But you need some breaks. Golden State was the best team in the league, but they also had everything go right for them. They didn’t have one bad break. I don’t have any doubt about the DNA of our team.”

The injuries to Paul and Griffin derailed the team’s championship hopes. Before their injuries, the Clippers had a clear path to face the Warriors in the second-round. The Blazers weren’t going to roll over, but they barely managed their last two victories against a depleted Clippers squad. With a little bit of luck, the Clippers could have upset the Warriors, with the Spurs or Thunder waiting for them in the Western Conference Finals.

It could be equally argued that even with a healthy squad, the Clippers still would be severe underdogs against the Warriors, Thunder or Spurs and the Cavaliers, who are the favorites to represent the East in the Finals. Bringing this team back next season may not change that dynamic considering that each of those squads are likely to bring back those same rosters (though Kevin Durant’s free agency could change that quickly for the Thunder), so there is arguably no point in trying again with this same Clippers roster. Especially when they have little free agent spending power and their biggest acquisitions would likely be re-signing Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Green.

Considering Doc’s record of trusting and relying on veterans, recently avoiding Boston’s rebuild and his willingness to move draft assets for slight roster upgrades (and sometimes even just cap flexibility), it’s likely that he gives this roster another shot next season. Like the Mavericks in 2011, that may work out for him. But if things fall apart again in the postseason, the Clippers will enter 2017 free agency with the prospect of losing Paul, Griffin and Redick for no compensation and just a few draft assets to rebuild with.

This isn’t an easy choice for Doc and the Clippers’ front office. The best approach to this offseason is probably to test out the trade value of everyone aside from Jordan and see if a successful on-the-fly rebuild is possible. If not, then they can move forward for possibly one more run with their existing core and some fringe moves around the edges. After five years of bad luck, injuries and costly mistakes, perhaps next season could be the one where everything goes right.

The Clippers are out of the spotlight now that they have been eliminated from the playoffs, but they will be one of the most interesting teams to keep an eye on during the summer. We possibly saw the last of these Clippers on Friday night, which is a shame when you consider how many opportunities have passed them by 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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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

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

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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NBA

The Pressure Is On Anthony Davis

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA

NBA Daily: Picking Up The Pieces In Portland

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

Chad Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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