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NBA Sunday: Driven Trail Blazers Sending A Message

Chemistry, underdog status have the Portland Trail Blazers playing like contenders … Ricky Rubio hype proving to be unwarranted?

Bill Ingram

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Portland Trail Blazers Sending A Message

It’s taken some longer than others to buy into the Portland Trail Blazers as championship contenders. No matter what pundits or doubters say, however, the Portland Trail Blazers know they have something special going. Last night’s 127-111 victory over the Dallas Mavericks put them in first place in the Western Conference. At 31-9, their first half of the season could not have gone much better.

“We’ve had a good season up to this point,” says Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “It’s tough winning in San Antonio; everybody knows that. It was a good game, a well-played game on both sides. I liked the way we defended in the fourth quarter. We made timely shots, but it’s been a season where we try to keep getting better. I think the fact that we’ve been playing with an edge and the fact that we didn’t make the playoffs last year, we continue to go out there and try to prove ourselves every night.”

»In Related: The Portland Trail Blazers team salary

The Blazers still have plenty to prove, of course, and they are quick to point out that they really haven’t accomplished anything yet. They also work hard to tune out the noise from fans and media alike by sticking together as a team and focusing on each other and what’s happening in the locker room and on the court.

“I think we’ve done a good job of staying to ourselves,” says Stotts. “Whatever the noise is out there, we’ve really been unaffected by it one way or the other. I think that one of the things we’ve done very well is stay focused on the next game, we haven’t looked in the past and we haven’t looked ahead. The stage where we are – where our players are and where we were as a group – was our approach at the beginning of the season and we’ve done a good job maintaining that.”

Two things that drive the Blazers day in and day out are a hunger to prove themselves in the playoffs , as well as the special chemistry that has developed among players and coaches alike.

“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” says Stotts. “We went into the season basically with a feeling like we have something to prove and we haven’t accomplished anything. We don’t have a player on the roster that played in the playoffs last year. Everything was focused on what we needed to do to win games. I think one of our strengths has been our chemistry and how well we get along and play together. The thing about chemistry is you don’t know when that moment is, but over time it just grows. I think that being rewarded with some wins early helps kind of consolidate that feeling. We lost the season opener at Phoenix; didn’t play very well after a very good preseason. I think that got us kind of grounded and shortly thereafter we won 11 in a row. I think that really was good for a team that hadn’t been together to realize how we needed to play.”

One thing that’s been important for Portland is that after years of talking about who was out of the lineup and for how long, they finally have the team intact and focused on developing talent. The driving force behind that has been second-year point guard Damian Lillard, who is emerging as one of the best floor generals in the NBA.

“I like it when you see growth in any player,” says Stotts. “I’ve seen in it in a lot of our players from last year to this year. After a remarkable rookie season – (Lillard) did that on will power and talent – he took what the league gave him and powered through the season and had a remarkable season. This year he’s even more confident, but he’s more driven to be an even better player.”

»In Related: McCollum, Lillard go way back

Another significant factor for Portland is that they have a much-improved bench, and that starts with the arrival of playoff-tested veteran Mo Williams.

“Mo has been terrific,” says Stotts. “He’s the perfect backup point guard for us because he can play with Damian and he allows us to rest Damian more than we rested him last year. He has an impact when he comes into the game. You sense his impact with the speed of the game and the tempo changes; he’s been in big games, he’s been around the league, and he’s been in tight situations. (Friday) night, for example, when things were going the wrong way in the second half in San Antonio, and even in LA, he kind of got the team together and kept our wits about us. He’s been a very important part to what we’ve done so far this year.”

More than anything, the fact that the Blazers have been able to field the same starting unit every night out this season has been a refreshing change from the recent Brandon Roy/Greg Oden era of injuries.

“It’s been extremely important because our starting unit is our starting and closing unit,” says Stotts. “We’ve been good in the fourth quarter, winning games. That unit plays very well together. Health in general, regardless if it’s your starters or guys that you count on, is extremely important and we’ve been very fortunate to be able to be in that position. I think one of the things in some of the situations I’ve been in, when you have that structure where everybody knows their roles; the starters know that they’re going to start and we’ve been able to have a continuity of rhythm to the game without having a lot of wrenches thrown into it. I think it helps the players prepare for their games, both the players starting and the players coming off of the bench.”

The Blazers have plenty left to prove, and they have the second-toughest schedule over the rest of the season, with only the Denver Nuggets playing more teams with good winning percentages. That said, the Blazers are showing they belong among the NBA’s elite teams, particularly with recent wins in both Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The Portland Trail Blazers once again look like a team to be reckoned with in the ever-tougher Western Conference.

Ricky Rubio Hype Unwarranted?

Since the long-anticipated arrival of Ricky Rubio in Minnesota the Timberwolves have been a team apparently on the cusp of being back in the playoffs long-term.

On paper, anyway.

Until this season it was hard to get a feel for just how good the Timberwolves might be with Rubio and Kevin Love as their franchise cornerstones. They just couldn’t seem to get enough players healthy to establish much of anything on the basketball court. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Kevin Love appeared in 55 of the team’s 66 games, and that was above average for the injury-riddled Timberwolves. Rubio and new addition JJ Barea appeared in just 41 games and starting center Nikola Pekovic was in the lineup just 47 times. It was surprising that they managed to pull off the 26 wins they notched.

The following season wasn’t any better, with Love out of the lineup for all but 18 games, Rubio missing 35 games and Pekovic out for 20. Head coach Rick Adelman established a reputation for being able to make something out of nothing when he coached the Houston Rockets to the playoffs despite being without Yao Ming much of the time, but even Adelman’s magic couldn’t get the Timberwolves past 31 wins.

This season was going to be different. They spent the money to keep Pekovic in town, got everyone healthy over the offseason, and they came into training camp looking to prove to the rest of the NBA that they could make their mark and ascend to the ranks of the perennial playoff teams. The only problem is that  they aren’t much better this season than they were last, though their stars have stayed healthy and even have the vast majority of their second unit healthy. They’re still below .500, and they’re still out of the playoff picture.

The offensive end of the floor is definitely not the problem. The Timberwolves are second only to the Portland Trail Blazers when it comes to scoring, averaging 106.6 points per game and shooting 52.7 percent from the field. That’s despite the inefficiency of Rubio, who shoots a paltry 34.6 percent from the field. Kevin Martin has been everything the Timberwolves hoped he would be and more, pouring in 19.1 points per game as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Love. The only thing missing from Minnesota’s attack was a top-notch starting shooting guard, and Martin has answered the call.

Rebounding also hasn’t been an issue, with one of the best front lines in the NBA in Love and Pekovic corralling 22.1 boards per game between them and the rest of the squad chipping in to help Minnesota average 45.8 rebounds per game. That ranks them fifth in the NBA, but just one rebound per game behind league-leading Oklahoma City. Only the Detroit Pistons are better on the offensive glass, where Love and company grab 13.6 per game to Detroit’s 14.6.

No, where things start to get messy is on the defensive end, an area where Adelman’s teams have often been among the best in the business. The Timberwolves are 15th in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions. As a point of reference, the Indiana Pacers own the category, yielding just 92.6 points per 100 possessions. Despite their big front line, the Timberwolves are also dead last in blocked shots per game, averaging a lackluster 3.2 as a team.

Stats don’t lie, and Minnesota’s defensive ratings tell quite a story. But there’s something else that jumps out at you when you’re watching the Timberwolves play that you don’t often hear people talk about.

What, exactly was all the hype about concerning Ricky Rubio? It caused such a stir when he was drafted, and the way everyone talked about him during the two-year wait between the 2009 draft and his NBA debut in 2011 made it sound like Minnesota was getting the next All-Star point guard. The Timberwolves were so sure that Rubio was the real deal that they didn’t lock up Kevin Love as long as they could have because they were concerned about being able to keep their young point guard.

This season a finally healthy Rubio is averaging 8.6 points and 8.0 assists per game while shooting 34.6 percent from the field. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but they aren’t nearly impressive enough to warrant the kind of hype that Rubio’s arrival in the NBA sparked.

Rubio’s sub-par play is not the only reason why the Timberwolves are struggling to play .500 ball despite boasting one of the league’s most potent offenses. To his credit, he’s saying the right things and taking the credit for his team’s shortcomings, but the reality is that in the modern NBA point guard play often dictates how well a team will fare.

It would certainly help Minnesota’s chances if they added a player or two who could help instill a defensive mindset, but what would help more than anything else would be for Rubio to finally live up to the hype. If he doesn’t, the Timberwolves could very well lose Kevin Love to free agency (he can opt out in 2015) and be stuck rebuilding with a player who never found a way to translate superb Euroleague play into NBA stardom.

NBA Chat with Bill Ingram

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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