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New York Knicks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Knicks didn’t land a max-level free agent this offseason, but they did add a number of serviceable players who will help their younger players develop. Basketball Insiders previews the upcoming year in New York.

Basketball Insiders

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The New York Knicks enter 2019-20 hoping for development and cohesion. As recently as this time last year, the Knicks expected to enter the season with at least one cornerstone piece in Kristaps Porzingis, a free agent superstar and a lottery pick added to the roster. Instead, the team experienced tremendous turnover, returning only six players from the 2018-19 team.

But the Knicks can boast one thing they haven’t had in some time – a unified vision from its leadership. David Fizdale is still viewed as a player-friendly coach, and general manager Scott Perry is slowing improving the Knicks’ reputation around the league and with free agents.

The Knicks’ 2019-20 season is more of a stepping stone than it is about the end result. They must demonstrate a good culture – because they’re structured to potentially be players in free agency again in 2020.

Five Guys Think…

Coming into season two under David Fizdale, there are actually some positive vibes in the Big Apple. The Knicks have a blue-chip prospect in RJ Barrett taking over as the face of the franchise, meaning they’ll have quite the young talent to work with and develop over the season. Contrary to belief, the offseason wasn’t quite a bad one. There were plenty of forwards signed -and there will be a logjam in the frontcourt – but this team didn’t have the veterans in the locker room to show the inexperienced players the ropes. Plus, the deals are flexible enough that there are some contracts that could be moved for more assets. New York will be in the basement of the Atlantic Division due to the ridiculous amount of tough competition, but this campaign should prove to at least be a step in the right direction.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

The Knicks struck out on their top free-agent targets such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But they did sign a quite a few players, including a couple in Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson who all play the same position. Not bad signings at all, just a question mark as to how they’ll all fit together. They actually have some intriguing young talent on the team including RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox. It’s still going to be a rebuilding year for the Knicks, but if a few of those young guys pan out, there could be some light at the end of the tunnel, sooner rather than later.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Knicks had an underwhelming offseason. They expected two max-level free agents, but had to settle for next-tier players and journeymen. While they enter 2019-20 with more talent than a year ago, it’s still nowhere near enough to compete with the likes of the 76ers, Celtics or Nets. However, if you’re looking for progress, the Knicks should demonstrate a decent amount of it. Coach David Fizdale is back for his second season in the Big Apple and president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry enter their third season together. So while there is practically no continuity on the court – only six players return from last season – at least there is some in philosophy and culture. Further, rookie RJ Barrett and free agent addition Julius Randle inspire a bit of guarded optimism.

5th place – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca

Despite the hype of free agency misses, the Knicks actually came out of the summer set up smartly. They have promising young guys that should continue to see development opportunities while being surrounded by solid win-now veterans that are pretty attractive trade chips as the season plays out. Sure, many likely wanted the superstar this past July, but when you consider the modern NBA roadmap to sustained winning, the Knicks are well-positioned for the future. That may stink this season, as the Knicks may not have enough star-level talent to really compete on a night to night basis, but there is a glimmer of hope in this regards – no-name teams have done pretty well over the last decade, especially if all of those discounted veterans seize their moment in the New York spotlight. It’s likely the Knicks are lottery team, not a playoff team, but in the end, they may come out better positioned for a promising future than where they were two seasons ago.

5th place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

The New York Knicks and their fans had very high hopes entering this offseason. I won’t go deep into those details since it has already been covered in great detail and there isn’t much value in constantly reminding Knicks fans that they flooded social media with photo-shopped pictures of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson in Knicks jerseys. The more interesting discussion revolves around what the Knicks did after they missed out on their star targets this offseason. Through the draft, trades and free agency, the Knicks added RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris to the roster. Oddly enough, the Knicks put major resources into acquiring four power forwards in Randle, Gibson, Portis and Morris (though some of these players can play center as well). Individually, each move makes some sense. However, it’s unclear why the Knicks felt compelled to sign Portis to a two-year, $30.75 million contract. It should not be noted that New York has a team option on the second and final season of the contract, so there’s no long-term risk. But the market wasn’t particularly hot for Portis this offseason and there doesn’t seem to be any long-term advantage to signing him to this deal. However, the Knicks also signed most of their new players to short-term deals, so there’s no significant loss in future flexibility. This wasn’t a bad pivot from the Knicks’ front office after missing out on their key targets, but it’s just a bit confusing when you look at the structure of the roster at this point.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

From The Cap Guy

Unable to land a single superstar this summer, despite the cap room for two, the Knicks invested heavily in players on extremely friendly contracts. Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock each signed two-year deals with just $1 million guaranteed apiece for 2020-21. That’s only $4 million of a combined $29.7 million of guaranteed money. Additionally, Bobby Portis has a team option for $15.8 million.

In addition to their multiple movable contracts (along with the one-year, $15 million deal for Marcus Morris), look for the Knicks to be active in discussions leading to the NBA Trade Deadline. New York also has a couple of future first-rounders from the Dallas Mavericks to include, along with young players like Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. If a star becomes available, look for the Knicks to pursue aggressively.

– Eric Pincus

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Julius Randle

Julius Randle posted career bests last season in points and three-point percentage, and he will have far more opportunity on the Knicks as their primary scorer. Randle entered the league at essentially the perfect time – just as positionless basketball was really catching on. His ability to push the ball up the floor following a rebound is rare for his size. He is a tricky cover because he is too strong for most players his height or smaller, but quicker than most centers. Randle will be used in smaller lineups as a five and could even play some alongside two bigs. The Knicks are going to need every bit of production from Randle, though. The bar is higher this season as he enters the year as the Knicks best player And the pressure will be on immediately as New York is traditionally not an overly patient city.

Top Defensive Player: Mitchell Robinson

Robinson was one of the few positives on the Knicks last season. He oozes potential thanks to a unique combination of length, athletic ability and shot-blocking instincts.

Robinson averaged stellar per-36 numbers last season as a rookie: 12.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and an astounding 4.3 blocks. And despite playing nearly 1000 minutes less than most guys ahead of him on the blocks list, he still finished fourth overall for the entire league.

But it isn’t just blocks. It’s how and where he blocks shots. Robinson closes out on shooters, disrupting and blocking shots at an incredible rate. His instincts must improve while guarding ball handlers; and despite showing improvement regarding fouls, he must continue to improve his defensive footwork and avoid bailing opposing players out by using his hands. But the sky is the limit for Robinson, and he’ll be a huge part of the Knicks’ future.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith Jr. has been criticized for not progressing enough between his rookie and sophomore seasons; however, his play after being traded to the Knicks in February should inspire hope.

Smith Jr. is the Knicks’ best established off-the-dribble player. He seems to have improved his shooting stroke this offseason based on offseason workout videos, which will only further his playmaking abilities given that opponents will have to defend him even more closely. While he is regarded as more of a scorer than a creator, he can create for others simply by breaking down the defense and making the easy pass.

This season is a make-or-break year for Smith Jr. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with how he reacted to the Mavericks drafting Luka Doncic. He must demonstrate more maturity in New York. The Knicks just drafted a high-profile rookie (RJ Barrett). Smith Jr. must understand that he might not be the most important piece on the Knicks, but that he is still instrumental to their success. If he can accept his role and contribute whenever possible, it will begin repairing his image and – probably – benefit him on the court.

Top Clutch Player: Reggie Bullock

Bullock’s signing with the Knicks had a bit of drama. He originally signed this offseason for 2-years/$21 million; but once a health issue was identified in his physical, the deal was reworked (2-year/$8.2 million), which also allowed the Knicks to sign Marcus Morris.

While Bullock’s recovery from neck surgery will disallow him from starting the season with the Knicks, he will be a welcome addition once he’s available to them. Bullock shoots 39.2 percent from long-range for his career. He was brought on due to the fact that he’s seen as a sniper – unfortunately, injuries have derailed his career. If Bullock can get (and remain) healthy, he’ll be a fixture in the Knicks line-up in 2019-20. That is a big if, though. Currently, the timeline for Bullock’s return is undefined. He could miss the first month, or he could miss the entire season.

The Unheralded Player: Marcus Morris

Morris is the blue-collar bruiser New Yorkers have been clamoring for – only a modern version. Morris is a tough, versatile defender. He can also get the Knicks a bucket when they’re in need in a multitude of ways. He averaged 13.9 points last season and happily accepted a role with the Celtics behind Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and others. So there should be no fear in New York of Morris demanding a particular role.

He is a tough-nosed veteran who will be a leader in the locker room and on the floor. And more importantly, he will set a great example for the Knicks’ youngsters. He has been credited by opposing coaches for inspiring his team’s defense. Pacers head coach Nate McMillian said of Morris following a playoff win last April, “He’s a guy that really establishes their defense. He gets after the best player and they feed off that.” The Knicks definitely hope that he’ll have a similar effect in New York.

Best New Addition: RJ Barrett

RJ Barrett was selected third overall – shockingly, the Knicks highest draft pick since 1984 (Patrick Ewing). Knicks fans are obviously clamoring for a quick win with Barrett. Will he be able to pace himself and overcome efficiency issues with Knicks’ fans and the New York media breathing down his neck? Most rookies would struggle mightily with this – but not Barrett.

Barrett’s approach has been solid so far. Remember – it was Barrett who coyly said workout videos aren’t for him, and it was Barrett who was squarely focused on playing in New York throughout the draft process. He’s aware of the expectations and he understands the pressure. New York is an entirely different beast. But Barrett has the right mental makeup to get through all of the stressors that New York will throw at him.

– Drew Maresca

Who We Like

1. Kevin Knox

Knox struggled with efficiency last season – his effective field goal percentage was only 34.3 percent. He settled for threes when given space and he relied too heavily on runners rather than taking the ball up stronger and looking to draw fouls.

But Knox also has an incredible amount of potential. He is a well-built 6-foot-9 swingman who can score in a number of different ways. His shooting stroke was inconsistent last season, but he has good form and should show improvement now that he has a better understanding of the NBA game.

Further, the Knicks didn’t have a go-to scorer last season. So Knox came on board and was immediately among the primary focuses of opposing defenses. The addition of Randle, Morris and company will mitigate the attention on Knox, at least in the early going.

2. Elfrid Payton

Payton’s career has been a bit disappointing so far. While seen as a defensive specialist, he has underwhelmed – mostly gambling too much by jumping in passing lanes. Payton actually posted the worst defensive rating on the Pelicans in 2018-19.

But he can still contribute – especially considering the lack of experience amongst Knicks point guards. He is a solid rebounder and he creates opportunities for his teammates. He has shown flashes throughout his career – erupting for five straight triple-doubles last season.

It would be naïve to expect Payton to develop too much more at this point in his career. But his positive attributes can steady the ship when Smith Jr. has an off game and/or Ntilikina’s confidence wavers.

3. Bobby Portis

Portis is a player the Knicks might consider keeping on the roster beyond next season. He is an above-average rebounder– and most importantly, he has displayed the ability to shoot from distance. Portis shot 35.9 percent from three-point range in 2017-18 with Chicago, and he upped the ante last season connecting on 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts.

But Portis isn’t a one-dimensional offensive player. His size and athleticism enable him to score in a number of different ways. He rolls to the hoop well and can catch and shoot from the mid-range, as well.

Portis struggles on the defensive end of the court, though. And unfortunately, he is a sub-par defender in practically every way possible including pick-and-roll defense, shot-blocking. While he probably won’t improve much at this point of his career, the Knicks can mask his deficiencies by pairing him with guys like Robinson and Morris.

4. Allonzo Trier

Trier was a welcome surprise last season. But if you knew his game in college, you couldn’t have expected any less. Trier is a scorer who exudes confidence. He slowed down a bit as the season progressed last year, but that is to be expected from rookies.

Trier isolates incredibly well and gets buckets in bunches. He has a pure shooting stroke and a series of primary and secondary moves. While slightly undersized for a shooting guard, he was seen as a strong defender in college – which could help his case to carve out minutes on a crowded roster.

Trier must improve off the ball. Last season he attempted just 2.1 three-pointers per game, but converted on 39.4 percent of them. And his opportunities to play as the primary ball-handler will be limited given the number of lead guards on the roster, so it’s in his best interest to embrace his opportunity as a shooting guard.

5. David Fizdale

Coach Fizdale had a challenging first year in New York. But that had very little to do with him. Last season was about initiating a culture in the locker room. And Fizdale did just that. His “chopping the tree” mantra caught on in the locker room with players citing it time and again as the season wore on. He must continue building camaraderie in the locker room, and he must continue representing the Knicks outwardly – as the entire league will continue judging the Knicks moving forward based partially on Coach Fizdale.

– Drew Maresca

Strengths

Young talent. The Knicks have a tremendous number of recent draftees with loads of potential including Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr, Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina and Ignas Brazdeikis – all of whom have less than three years of experience in the NBA.

But youth and wins don’t go together too well.

The Knicks are going to struggle to close out games. They must focus on developing their youth, especially Robinson and Barrett – the most important duo to take the court for the Knicks since Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. They must push through the discomfort of losing games as a franchise and maintain the course. They cannot default to their veterans in an attempt to get a few more wins, robbing their young core of valuable experience in the process.

However, there is a balance they’ll have to strike. They do not want to find themselves playing meaningless basketball too early in the season. That tanking-like strategy breeds bad habits.

– Drew Maresca

Weaknesses

Point guard play has been an issue for the Knicks since approximately 2005, when Stephon Marbury famously declared himself the best point guard in the NBA – the season didn’t go as planned for the Knicks, nor have most since then.

It was widely assumed that the Knicks would acquire a lead guard in each of the last three seasons, beginning with the 2017 NBA Draft when they selected Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has looked good in the FIBA World Cup so far, even stealing starting point guard duties and drawing praise from the teammates including Rudy Gobert. But FIBA and the NBA are entirely different games, and Ntilikina’s confidence seems to wane when he’s back on this side of the pond.

The other point guard they had an eye on in the 2017 draft – Dennis Smith Jr. – is also now on their roster, and he is viewed as a more likely solution at this point than Ntilikina. Smith Jr.’s summer workout videos have been well-received by fans and the New York media, but most experts understand that those videos are engineered to build hype and are showing only highlight-worthy clips.

The Knicks also added Elfrid Payton, who is a Scott Perry draft pick from Orlando in 2014.

To summarize, the Knicks have three talented and unproven point guards on their roster – each of whom has his share of flaws. They can use 2019-20 to gauge who plays well with one another and which ones they hope to keep moving forward – if any. But don’t expect All-Star level play from any of them this season. And if that somehow happens, Knicks’ fans won’t be the least bit upset.

– Drew Maresca

The Burning Question

How will Fizdale manage the rotation?

The Knicks onboarded a number of fairly established players – Gibson, Morris, Payton, Portis, etc. He can’t play all of the new vets and continue ahead with the youth movement. And while Knicks fans and the New York media are behind the idea of a youth movement now, they will probably change their tune after falling a number of games below .500. Coach FIzdale has to strike a very delicate balance between playing his young core and keeping veterans on the court – after all, rookies and second-year players don’t usually win games.

But Fizdale also wants to get his youngsters experience playing in clutch situations. He must define lineups that complement each other deliberately while making sure to play as many of his young players as possible.

In addition to allowing the Knicks to remain competitive, playing veterans alongside younger players removes pressure from Knicks’ rookies and second-year players. Putting too much pressure on younger players can lead to poor habits and/or hurt their development.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ management and coaching staff must remember that this season is mostly a precursor to the future. While they are probably beyond tanking, they should be more concerned with developing their young talent than with wins; however if they can accomplish both at the same time, that would be best.

– Drew Maresca

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NBA

The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

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NBA

The X-Factors: Portland

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.

Spencer Davies

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.

In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.

Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.

We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?

For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.

Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.

Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.

Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.

Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.

Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.

Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.

Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.

Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.

Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.

All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.

Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.

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NBA

The X-Factors: New Orleans

Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back, baby.

Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.

Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.

To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.

Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.

But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.

Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.

Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.

And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.

Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.

Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.

The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.

Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.

At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.

But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.

Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.

Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.

With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.

At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.

But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.

In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.

If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.

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