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NBA Sunday: Early Returns on Blazers’ Investments Not Good

The Blazers doled out $350 million in contracts last summer. After 30 games, the returns haven’t been good.

Moke Hamilton

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Patience is a virtue. It just also happens to be exceedingly rare. And as it turns out, the Portland Trail Blazers defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in last year’s playoffs may have been less of a blessing than it was a curse.

In many ways, the Blazers of last year are quite reminiscent of the Houston Rockets this year. Last season, fresh off of losing LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers were widely expected to be a lottery team. Like the Rockets, though, they overachieved so much that Terry Stotts was only narrowly beaten by Steve Kerr for the Coach of the Year Award. Kerr, mind you, only happened to lead his team on a record-breaking journey.

Out of nowhere, suddenly, everyone was all-in on the Blazers. Everyone, apparently, including general manager Neil Olshey, as this past summer, he responded by pushing all of his chips in the middle of the table.

If the early returns are any indication, it may have been a mistake.

* * * * * *

Rockets attain sudden flight. Airplanes steadily ascend. What the 2004 Detroit Pistons and 2011 Dallas Mavericks had in common was their heartache. Year after year, poor Joe Dumars would get his team incrementally closer to the promise land, only to be upended. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban never met a trade they didn’t like when it came to attempting to surround Dirk Nowitzki with a combination of players that could sufficiently cover for his deficiencies and help him deliver on his immense promise.

One could even say the same with regard to Paul Pierce’s 2008 Celtics and Kobe Bryant’s title teams, as well. The contender is built slowly, brick-by-brick. Along the way, the astute mason will realize that a cornerstone may not fit and, out of necessity, jettison it for a better piece.

In all likelihood, years from now, when youngsters are being taught the history of the NBA and being read a roster of past champions, it really needs to be explained to them that LeBron James and his defection to Miami truly shifted the paradigm by which “success” is defined.

Back in 2010, the HEAT renounced Bird rights to a large percentage of its core to clear the way to sign James and Chris Bosh. It was an unprecedented move that Pat Riley was so desperate to make that he traded the 18th pick in the 2010 draft and Daequan Cook to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 32nd overall pick. Second-round picks have minuscule cap holds, and Riley needed every available dollar in order to squeeze the most money he possibly could for his new big three.

In a strange coincidence, in the ensuing Finals, the HEAT fell to the Mavericks—a team that had been built by more traditional means. Still, the get-rich-quick scheme obviously worked. Overnight, the HEAT became a championship contender primarily through free agency, and this isn’t something the league had seen before.

Since then, everyone—fans, front offices, media and casual onlookers—expect to see returns as quickly. The New Orleans Pelicans get fortunate and make the playoffs in 2015, so naturally, the expectation is that they would win 50 games the following season and begin to rise up as a contender. This season, the Minnesota Timberwolves add Tom Thibodeau to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and the idea that the T-Wolves would make the playoffs immediately became real. Derrick Rose takes his talents to New York City, and, for many fans of the Big Apple, merely making the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed wouldn’t be acceptable.

Really?

As a whole, the NBA stopped believing that individual bricks, razing, and trial and error are all a part of the process of building a contender. Everyone wants to win and everyone wants to win now.

So when Olshey saw his Blazers score a first-round upset—when the franchise actually got a taste of the success they longed for—they responded by making it rain. In some ways, it’s easy to rationalize why, but the truth is the Blazers fully committed themselves to a roster of young and unproven pieces. And they did so with a dearth of evidence that the team was truly on the cusp of contention.

Is it fair to blame the franchise? Probably not. But at the very least, what it has done is provide a cautionary tale for the future.

* * * * * *

To the tune of nine years and $24 billion, the NBA announced its new television deal. Overnight, everything changed. The economic landscape under which the league had operated shifted monumentally. We are now in an era where players who have never made an All-Star team are paid maximum contracts.

Of course, the term “maximum” is relative to the league’s collective bargaining agreement. It’s an artificial designation that both limits the earning power of the league’s stars and appoints false value to mediocre players. But still, what seems to have been lost over the past two years is the simple concept of return on investment. Yes, there is more money available and, by virtue of the CBA, each team is required to spend at least 90 percent of the amount of the salary cap. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wise to spend all your money in one place, though, and that’s exactly what the Blazers did last summer.

CJInside1Evan Turner received a four-year contract worth $70 million on the same day that Festus Ezeli received a one-year deal for a partially guaranteed $15 million. Meyers Leonard closed out what was a busy day for the franchise on a four-year deal worth $41 million. After spending their dollars in free agency, the Blazers then took care of their own free agents, matching a four-year, $75 million offer to Allen Crabbe and committing four years and $42 million to Moe Harkless. Last and certainly not least was a $106 million extension (over four years) to C.J. McCollum.

In a world where NBA teams are routinely down with O.P.P.—other people’s players—it was somewhat refreshing to see the Blazers spend heavily to retain their core. The end result, though, was a shotgun wedding that saw the Blazers marry a core whose greatest accomplishment had been defeating a handicapped Clippers team.  While there certainly is an argument to be made for not allowing young, talented players to leave without compensation, even those would have to acknowledge that the lack of flexibility that league-high payrolls yield is disadvantageous.

This season, with about $112 million in salary commitments, the Blazers have the second-highest payroll in the league, trailing only the Cleveland Cavaliers ($120 million).

Even worse? Over the next four seasons, in terms committed payroll, the Blazers rank first, second, first and first, respectively, in terms of future salary.

Said differently, as is stands, no team in the league—not the Warriors, Thunder, Cavs, Knicks, Clippers, Spurs or Rockets—have committed as heavily in their current cores. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will all hit free agency and impact this calculus, but it’s a sobering thought that goes to show the commitment that the Blazers have made. Having compiled a won-loss record of less than .500 after 30 games, the early returns haven’t been good—21 years and $350 million in contracts should have yielded a better return.

Time will eventually reveal whether those decisions were wise or not, but only a firm belief in one’s core would result in such monumental spending. One couldn’t help but wonder whether the Blazers would have pushed all those chips into the middle of the table had they fallen to the Clippers in the first round.

Chalk it up to being another one of the NBA’s great “what if” questions.

* * * * * *

Indeed, patience is a virtue, even at the poker table. Just as going all-in is likely to result in doubling one’s purse, it is as likely to result in the bettor walking away with empty pockets.

With the first 30 games of the season having come and gone, it’s a sobering reality to acknowledge that the Blazers took some uneducated risks this past summer, but it’s the truth.

With the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Jazz and Thunder all looking down at them in the standings, for Olshey’s sake, hopefully, last season’s success wasn’t an aberration. Because with the price tag attached to the current core—one that couldn’t even win half of its first 30 games together—walking away from the table empty-handed would be a darn shame.

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NBA

NBA AM: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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