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NBA Saturday: Portland’s Defense Showing Signs of Life

With a few notable adjustments, the Portland Trail Blazers are showing some improvement on defense.

Jesse Blancarte



Portland Trail Blazers Showing Signs of Improvement on Defense

Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers were one of the most surprising teams in the NBA. Portland had just lost LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency and had to replace four of its five starters from the previous season. Despite this significant challenge, the Trail Blazers would go on to win 44 games and advanced to the second-round of the playoffs.

After making some significant offseason moves, such as signing free agents Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli, re-signing Maurice Harkless and matching the Brooklyn Nets’ offer sheet to Allen Crabbe, the expectation was that the Trail Blazers would take another step forward in its development cycle. However, rather than taking a step forward, the Blazers have taken two steps back.

As of December 31, 2016, the Trail Blazers are ranked dead last in defensive efficiency, hemorrhaging 110.3 points per 100 possessions. Early on, it seemed as though the Trail Blazers may have simply been struggling to integrate Turner, while struggling with the loss of Al-Farouq Aminu to a calf injury. However, Aminu has returned to action and we are now closing in on the halfway point of the season. Despite this, the Trail Blazers are still giving up 110.1 points per 100 possessions.

It’s easy to identify that the Trail Blazers have been a disaster on defense this season, but it’s a little more difficult to identify and explain exactly why.

After losing to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night, Jason Quick of Comcast SportsNet Northwest talked to Harkless and asked why this team, with essentially the same roster from last season, is struggling to play at last season’s level.

“I can’t put my finger on it, I don’t know,” Harkless told Quick. “If the camera was off, I’d tell you.”

Quick turned the camera off, but Harkless then decided to remain silent on the matter.

“No, not right now,” Harkless said.

Despite the team’s significant struggles, Portland’s players have all been unified in not pinning the blame on anyone and simply stating that the whole team needs to do better. Harkless’ ominous comments are the first real indication that there may be something going on internally that has led to the steep defensive decline. Whether the team is not collectively buying into head coach Terry Stott’s schemes, the new players aren’t acclimating, egos are clashing or the players have simply regressed defensively, it’s clear that something isn’t working this season.

Regardless of what the internal issues may be for this team, the fact is that they consistently suffer from poor communication and poor pick-and-roll defense.

“It’s just disappointing,” Stotts told Zach Lowe of ESPN earlier this season. “We should have picked up where we left off last season. We haven’t.”

Dating back to when the team had Robin Lopez, the Trail Blazers have favored a conservative defensive scheme against pick-and-rolls. Rather than using the center to jump out on the perimeter and either hedge or trap the ball handler, Portland’s centers have been coached to hang close to the painted area and clog the lane. Portland’s current players, with the exception of Turner and a few others, are used to this defensive scheme, but it hasn’t worked as well this season as it did last.

Last November, Stotts essentially said that he was not ready to make any drastic changes to his defense.

“You ask yourself: Should we maybe try something different?” Stotts said to ESPN. “But I think most coaches would say, ‘Let’s do what we’re supposed to be doing better before we go changing things.'”

It seems as though Stotts has finally changed his mind. On Tuesday, the Trail Blazers faced the league’s best offensive team, the Toronto Raptors. With a historically good offense facing off against this year’s worst defense, it would have been reasonable to expect a high-scoring affair. Instead, Portland held the Raptors to 95 points and nearly came away with a victory.

The difference in this game was that Portland changed up their pick-and-roll defense and put a ton of pressure on Toronto’s ball handlers. The results were promising as Portland held Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to 16-40 from the field and forced the ball out of their hands several times.

“Their defensive scheme was unbelievable tonight. Their bigs moved their feet well and I had a couple of turnovers trying to get around them,” Lowry said after the game.

“It might have been our best defensive game of the season,” Stotts added. “We played with a lot of energy.”

It seems that Stotts and his staff finally decided that the team did need a change in defensive strategy. However, don’t think that Stotts has abandoned his more conservative defensive schemes completely. Stotts is one of the best coaches in the league and seems likely to adjust his pick-and-roll defense based on matchups.

Following their loss to the Raptors, the Trail Blazers faced off against the Sacramento Kings. Against the Kings, Stotts had his big men stay closer to the painted area in pick-and-roll coverage, packed the paint with help defenders and dared Sacramento’s shooters to punish them for not consistently guarding them out to the three-point line.

The Kings couldn’t capitalize on the daylight the Trail Blazers gave them, going 9-28 from three-point range. With more defenders clogging the paint, the Kings struggled from the floor and shot just 31-79 overall. Considering the dramatic shift in pick-and-roll defense from one game to the next, it seems likely that Stotts will now adjust his schemes on a nightly basis. Whether the Trail Blazers can effectively switch from one scheme to another from game to game remains to be seen, but the early returns are encouraging. There’s perhaps no one playing better basketball in the league than Lowry and he was quick to praise the Trail Blazers for keeping him off balance throughout the matchup.

The Trail Blazers’ best case scenario is probably climbing their way up to a league average, or slightly below league average defense. They are in need of a strong rim protector (e.g., Andrew Bogut) who can truly deter opponents from attacking the basket and allow Portland’s wing-defenders to gamble a bit more on defense. However, even without making a move to add such a player, the Trail Blazers have shown an ability to communicate, make proper rotations and force opponents into difficult shots or force turnovers. The problem is that way too often the Trail Blazers fail to communicate, send help when it isn’t necessary, get burned on backdoor cuts to the basket or lose track of an opponent who gets wide open for a jump-shot

At 14-21, the Trail Blazers are still just a game and a half behind the Sacramento Kings for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff slot despite having gone long stretches without some of their key players, including Damian Lillard most recently.

Even with their defense struggling, the Trail Blazers are still capable of putting up big numbers on the board and staying within striking distance with their offense (similar to the Denver Nuggets). However, for this team to get back on track, it needs to consistently communicate with one another and execute Stotts’ defensive schemes. However, that may be difficult to do if the game plan is going to change significantly from one game to the next.

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 Draft Watch: Should You Expect a Flurry Of Trades?

Should you expect a flurry of trades during tonight’s NBA Draft? History says yes!

Lang Greene



Draft Day. The event that rebuilding teams have been planning months for is finally upon us. The next wave of NBA stars await their opportunity to play under the brightest of all lights on the biggest of stages. But outside of the rising and falling status of the prospects, each year draft week is filled with a flurry of trade activity and there’s no reason to believe things will be different in 2018.

On Wednesday, the trade market kicked off with the Charlotte Hornets shipping former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for veteran center Timofey Mozgov. The move isn’t all that surprising considering one of the biggest advocates for the Hornets in acquiring Howard from Atlanta last year, Steve Clifford, was fired back in April. In addition to a new head coach, James Borrego, Charlotte also hired a new president of basketball operations and general manager in Mitch Kupchak.

In the deal, Charlotte was able to avoid paying the luxury tax while also creating immediate salary cap flexibility to be players in this year’s market should they choose. For Brooklyn, the team acquires a veteran presence for their youth movement and a consistent double-double anchor on the interior.

The trade also marks consecutive years that Brooklyn was active on the trade front during draft time. Last year, the team acquired former lottery pick D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the Nets haven’t had the luxury of prime draft assets in recent years, the team has had to resort to trades (Russell, Howard) and free agency (Allan Crabbe) to reshape the roster.

Transitioning to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the question can be asked whether this will be the third straight year involving a draft day trade. At the top of the Warriors’ lineup max players reside which means the team has had to find talented gems in the back half of the draft to contribute to their success.

In 2016, the Warriors acquired the rights to the No. 38 overall pick, Patrick McCaw, from the Milwaukee Bucks for cash considerations. In 2017, Golden State acquired the rights to another No. 38 overall pick, Jordan Bell, from the Chicago Bulls for cash considerations.

Notice a trend?

With the Warriors needing to lock NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant into a long term deal this summer and future free agency looming for All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the franchise will need to continue finding young role players to complement their collection of stars.

There could also be a deal involving All-Star level talent.

The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Victor Oladipo back in 2016 in a draft week deal with the Orlando Magic. While Oladipo didn’t emerge as an All-Star caliber until the following season (after being dealt to Indiana), there are usually a couple of big names in play come draft night.

Consider the 2017 draft day deal that saw the Chicago Bulls send Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for talented two guard Zach LaVine.

This year, the most prominent name potentially on the market is San Antonio Spurs All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard. The rumor mill reports Leonard is frustrated and wants a trade to the Lakers. The Spurs are, of course, attempting to keep their franchise player with a series of meetings. Leonard could become an unrestricted free agent next summer and his public trade demand limits what San Antonio could demand in return. Teams will be hesitant to give up prime assets for a player that won’t commit to their franchise long term. While San Antonio doesn’t have to make an immediate deal their leverage hasn’t been compromised with Leonard’s specific trade destination request.

The NBA Draft can best be described as a crapshoot with prospects being hit or miss. There are teams that make their bones via draft day acquisitions, or working between the lines, which is a storyline to watch during the draft tonight.

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NBA Draft Watch: Storylines Heading into Thursday’s Draft

With the NBA Draft just one day away, there is plenty of uncertainty on how things will play out, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers



From now until the conclusion of Thursday night’s NBA draft the landscape is subject to shift and evolve at a moment’s notice.

As of right now, the only thing that we can be most certain about is DeAndre Ayton going first overall to the Phoenix Suns. After that, it’s basically a crapshoot in regards to what might go down.

With media day commencing in New York City on Wednesday, the players that will be present during the draft’s greenroom got the chance to address the droves of media from all over the land about where they might end up, how they might fit in those places, and a few off-the-cuff questions thrown in here and there.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the league and their selection extravaganza on Thursday night, many people who are usually in the know this time of year seem to be approaching the event erring on the side of caution, more so than in years past.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer echoed that feeling Wednesday afternoon.

One of the large looming clouds heading into draft night is the Kawhi Leonard situation. As it stands, Leonard appears to want out of his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs and would prefer to wind up in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the Lakers being his new employer.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard met with Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday night in order to discuss the situation between San Antonio and their franchise player.

While Wojnarowski has also reported that the Spurs are in no rush to move Leonard, draft night could potentially serve as a motivator in the opposite direction should Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford receive a tempting offer that involves some draft capital. With the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers reportedly interested in acquiring Leonard, on the clock with the 10th overall pick, perhaps they can entice the Spurs into sending their star forward packing.

Regardless of if Leonard is traded Thursday night or not, there were certainly be many eyes on his situation over the next 24-plus hours.

Up until about the time a player is selected by their new club, the situation for drafting remains fairly fluid. When the basketball community congregates to New York the day before the event, rumors and confirmation of shifting ideals begin to flourish.

With a lot of the players in this year’s lottery surounded by reasonable question marks, we may see last-minute rising and falling of the prospected hierarchy in prospects. Michael Porter Jr., with questions surrounding his health, and Trae Young having questions about his slight frame and defensive capability, seem to be two subjects of that shuffling just a day before the Thursday night festivities.

Conversely, the final moments leading up to the time to make a selection, teams can shuffle their opinion based off of their need to bring in star power possibilities — especially high up in the lottery.

Real Madrid star Luka Doncic has been the subject for criticism throughout this year’s draft process. While the 19-year-old has posted some of the best numbers for a player his age in the ACB and Euroleague, NBA evaluators are rightfully questioning if his athleticism can hold up in the league.

Originally figured to slip past the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks, who hold the second and third overall picks, respectively, Doncic appears to be gaining last-minute steam within the ranks of the Georgia-based basketball club.

Even though prospects are surfacing Wednesday in the Big Apple to meet and greet with reporters, and get settled for their big moment on Thursday night, some teams and correlating players are having final sit-downs to profess their admiration for each other.

More specifically, New York native and projected high-end lottery pick, Mo Bamba, reportedly met with his hometown Knicks on Wednesday. Corresponding reports tell the story that the Knicks are exploring the option to trade up in the draft, in hopes to acquire a franchise-caliber center to put alongside Kristaps Porzingis.

DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony added context to further confirm the Knicks’ hope of scoring their first franchise center since Patrick Ewing roamed Madison Square Garden.

Whatever does wind up happening Thursday night, those watching can be assured that this year’s NBA Draft will contain the necessary amount of chaos to continue the conversation throughout the league while free agency quickly approaches.

Although, if you were anticipating being able to see those draft picks come in a few minutes early on Twitter like in years past, think again.

It looks like those draft night Wojbombs will be reserved for any unforeseen trades, and not who your favorite team will be picking 10 minutes later.

Either way, embrace the insanity. Draft night is upon us.

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NBA Daily: What is Cleveland’s Next Move?

Plenty has been made about where LeBron goes this summer, but not much has been made about what Cleveland will do if he leaves.

Matt John



Usually, when you make the NBA Finals, it’s a good thing. Especially if it was the fourth consecutive time you’ve made it.

For Cleveland though, this season, which would have been deemed a success in any other case, was overshadowed by what can only be compared to a hostage situation. Many speculated that this season was going to be LeBron James’ last as a Cavalier, as rumor had it since last summer that he already has his eyes on his next team.

So the pressure was on in Cleveland, to say the least. They did everything to accommodate LeBron given how shaky the circumstances were. From shipping disgruntled star Kyrie Irving out of town to trading half the team mid-season, this past season has been a bumpy ride. In spite of all the hardship, Cleveland managed to make it to the Finals anyway.

Still, it wasn’t enough. For Cleveland to have a realistic chance at re-signing LeBron this summer, they had to beat Golden State, which wasn’t in the cards. The Cavs may have gotten to the Finals, but the Warriors predictably took them out all too quickly.

All in all, the Cavaliers were so close, and yet so far.

That brings us to now. LeBron’s going to test the free agency waters again. Cleveland will certainly do what they can to bring the King back for another season, and for all we know, LeBron could return to Cleveland, but the odds aren’t in their favor.

Cleveland has to deal with the very real possibility that LeBron will leave this summer, because if and when he does, that leaves the current roster in a flux. Without LeBron, Captain Obvious says that Cleveland’s not going anywhere near the Finals and could also see themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. All signs point to it being time to rebuild, but how exactly do they approach the re-building stage?

It all starts with the Nets pick.

No matter what you think of how Cleveland did when they shuffled half their roster around at the trade deadline, one thing should be universally agreed upon: They made the right move not trading the Nets pick they acquired from the Celtics for Kyrie Irving.

It’s true that the Nets pick this season didn’t pan out as well for the Cavaliers as it had for the Celtics over the last two seasons, but it still wound up being the eighth overall pick in a loaded draft. A valuable asset like that should only be traded for someone who puts you over the top and going to stay long-term. With all apologies to any star who was rumored to be on the market back in February, the Cavs didn’t have that option.

So now, Cleveland has the eighth overall pick, and it’s clear who they should take: The best player available. No matter who that is, the best player available for a team that is most likely starting from scratch is the best option.

Of course, the simpler way of getting young talent is by getting it through the lottery. Getting that Brooklyn pick in the Kyrie Irving deal was a great failsafe for if and when LeBron skips town.

Next is addressing who should be traded.

Cleveland’s uncertain draft pick situation from now until 2020 should also push them towards a rebuild. The team traded their first-round pick this year to the Lakers at the deadline when they acquired Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Next year, they will have to forfeit their first-round pick to the Hawks if they finish outside of the bottom ten. Those protections will roll over to the next year if the Cavs finish in the bottom ten.

Given that the roster isn’t all that impressive outside of LeBron, that would be the best way to go. While the Cavaliers aren’t going to get any value out of Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, and Jordan Clarkson, there are two players who definitely could: Kevin Love and George Hill.

Let’s start with Love. Love will not get back the same value that Cleveland gave up to acquire him, but he’s still a proven commodity at 29 years old who should fetch something back if Cleveland decides to trade him. Love has made the All-Star team over his last two seasons and has done all that Cleveland has asked of him since being traded to the team back in 2014, like him or not.

How much he can fetch back is another story. Rumor has it that the Cavs have dangled Love along with the Nets pick for a star, but no one has bitten on it. Love won’t fetch a star, but he could fetch young assets from a team looking to make a win-now move. He won’t bring back a King’s ransom, but he can bring back something.

Then there’s Hill. If Hill has any interested parties this summer, it may stem from his contract rather than his services. Hill will be on the books for $19 million next season, but the following season, his contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. Now, Cleveland could just wait until next year then waive him, and no one would fault them for that. It would heavily reduce the payroll for a team that, even without LeBron James, is playing with fire with the luxury tax this summer.

Or, they could get an asset(s) out of him. Teams that may want to avoid the luxury tax next year or go after a marquee free agent would salivate for a contract like Hill’s. If the Cavs play their cards right, they could sell Hill’s contract to the highest bidder.

Whether or not they keep Hill will all depend on how Cleveland sees its roster’s future. The team still has Rodney Hood’s restricted free agency this summer, and the team reportedly hopes to keep Nance Jr long-term. If avoiding the luxury tax is what they want more than anything during the rebuild, then keeping Hill is the best option.

That transitions to the final aspect of Cleveland’s potential rebuild: Organizing the roster for the foreseeable future. Cleveland is not completely devoid of youth. They have Hood, Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, and even Clarkson, all of whom are young and may have their best days ahead of them. Hood and Clarkson did not pan out well in their half-season in Cleveland, but perhaps that could change if they’re put in the right situation.

It all starts with coaching. Tyronn Lue has done what he can since taking over as head coach in 2016. However, Lue was made head coach because that’s who LeBron wanted running the show. With the King out of the picture, perhaps it might be best to replace Lue with a coach better-suited to nurture youth.

One such name that comes to mind is David Blatt, who has worked with Zizic. Blatt was originally hired in 2014 because of his reputation as a developmental coach, but once LeBron came back, he and Blatt’s tense relationship led to Blatt’s firing half-way through his second season. If LeBron doesn’t return to the team, Blatt could use the strategy he planned to implement when he first arrived.

That is just one idea. The Cavs could keep Lue or they could look at other options, but Blatt would be intriguing. Skeptics would question why Cleveland would bring him back after such a bitter break-up not too long ago, but consider this: The Cavs hired Mike Brown back three years after firing him following the end of LeBron’s first run in Cleveland, so anything is possible.

Re-building is a bridge that Cleveland will have to cross when they come to it. Koby Altman must have known that it was a possibility when he took the reins as general manager last year. The situation he’s found himself in isn’t as hopeless as many have pegged it out to be, but the young GM will have plenty of work to do this summer.

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