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Portland Trail Blazers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Basketball Insiders

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The Portland Trail Blazers finished the 2015-16 season as one of the biggest surprises in the NBA. The team got off to a slow start, winning just 14 of their first 35 games. But after the All-Star break, Portland managed to go 17-11 in the final 28 games of the regular season, making the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

For a team that was projected to be in the bottom tier of the NBA, the Blazers proved that they could compete at a high level. And not only did Portland make the playoffs, they advanced to the second round by defeating an injured L.A. Clippers team. Once in the Western Conference Semifinals, they lost to the Golden State Warriors in a deceivingly competitive five-game series.

This season, however, is a little different. After winning 44 games last year, the Blazers had enough faith in their current roster and decided to retain most of their young talent. In re-signing the likes of C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard, while adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli in free agency, the team spent a lot of money on a nucleus that has yet to reach its full potential.

The organization is now fully invested in this group for the long haul, and the expectations have accordingly risen. Fair or not, there are doubters who are assuming the Trail Blazers won’t duplicate their success from last season, but there’s something to be said for team chemistry and continuity. It’s a risky play by management and ownership to pay upfront for their players’ future value, but if it pans out, general manager Neil Olshey will prove everyone wrong once again.

With the strong leadership qualities of blossoming superstar Damian Lillard and the excellent chemistry of this current team, the Blazers could once again make everyone look foolish for doubting them. Don’t count this team out, as they thrive on proving others wrong.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Portland Trail Blazers.

FIVE GUYS THINK

Whether you’ve read my interviews with their players or followed my playoff predictions the last two years, you know that I’ve been on the Blazers’ bandwagon for quite some time. I love this young group, particularly the one-two punch of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt. Both of these guys have emerged as legitimate stars and the scariest thing for opposing teams is that their best basketball is still ahead of them. Throw in head coach Terry Stotts – who remains ridiculously underrated – and a very talented supporting cast, and you have a team that should continue to compete at a high level for years to come. I do have the Thunder winning the Northwest, but as I mentioned in my Jazz preview, I think the top three teams in this division will finish very, very close to one another in terms of win total. All three teams are very good and a case can certainly be made for each squad when it comes to who will win the division. Finally, I love the addition of Festus Ezeli, especially because his contract is a bargain. He’ll earn $7,400,000 this season, and then only $1 million of his $7,733,000 salary is guaranteed for the 2017-18 season (giving Portland flexibility and potentially making Ezeli an attractive trade chip).

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

If you’re still doubting Damian Lillard as a franchise centerpiece, it may be time to reevaluate your position on the issue. The Blazers surprisingly reached the playoffs last season after losing four starters (LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez) the previous summer. The success was largely driven by the play of Lillard. But now, the Blazers won’t have the cloak of anonymity to sneak up on opponents. Expectations are higher. Media scrutiny will be tighter. The fans in Portland want more. Realistic or not, that’s the price to pay for success. The Blazers have all of the tools to be a 50-plus win club, but could also plummet back to earth rapidly. We’ll go with the former.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

Each year, there are those buzzy young teams on the cusp of doing something really special, and this season it looks like that will be the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard is to the point where he’s going to be in the MVP conversation every single year, and to see fellow small-school alumnus C.J. McCollum sneaking up right behind him is heartening for a Blazers fan base that remains one of the most voracious in the league. Evan Turner still feels like a weird fit, but it’s not like Portland lost anything to bring him aboard. He’s one more nice piece added to a team full of nice pieces that just so happens to exhibit really good chemistry. Plenty of young guns (Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe) got paid like studs this offseason, so they’re going to have to start living up to their new paychecks. But even if they just repeat last season’s efforts, it should be enough to land them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. This is a squad that looks ready for primetime.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

I am quite enamored with the potential of the Blazers. A few weeks ago, in my NBA Sunday, I wrote about how the franchise rolled the dice and decided to spend heavily to invest around the potential of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Seeing them develop and come of age before our very eyes, they almost had no choice. There are some new faces in Portland and certainly cause for excitement. Aside from the Golden State Warriors, the Blazers are probably the Western Conference team I will be watching the most this season. I think they will have every opportunity to push the Oklahoma City Thunder for the division crown, but Russell Westbrook is still the best player between the two teams and one could make the argument that, even without Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s supporting cast is stronger. In terms of personnel, I’m not sure that I love the signing of Evan Turner, and certainly not at the price they paid for him (four years, $70 million). Festuz Ezeli, on the other hand, should have a major positive impact and I think him playing with Lillard and McCollum will make things much easier for him. Re-signing Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet for Allen Crabbe are substantial investments made in the pursuit of winning at a high level now, and I think they’ll mostly pay off. Terry Stotts has proven that he is able to get a positive return from these guys, and with the best still to come from most of the younger guys on this roster, there’s no reason to believe that the Blazers won’t continue to progress this season, even if they are still one or two steps behind the Thunder.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

I’ll admit that I was one of the many people who underestimated the Portland Trail Blazers entering last season. Losing players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez in one offseason is a big enough setback that any team could justify throwing in the towel for a season. Well, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum had other plans in mind and led a fun, well-coached team to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Blazers’ front office stepped up big this offseason, paying premium rates to keep rotation players like Allen Crabbe, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard in town, while adding more talent in Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. I still think this team has a second-round ceiling, but that’s a soft position as of now. Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts and Lillard have taught me to not doubt this team too much.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

Not only is he the leader, face of the franchise and best offensive player on the Blazers, Lillard is also one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. An elite floor general, Lillard does a great job of recognizing what his team needs and when they need it. His ability to read the game, see the floor and create for other teammates is incredibly undervalued.

His “bucket brother” C.J. McCollum, may be more of a threat in certain one-on-one scenarios, but that is part of the reason for Lillard’s success. Defenses have to game plan for both guards, which makes them hard to contain. Defenses can’t completely hone in on Lillard or McCollum, because the other will make the opposition pay. The one-two punch is extremely important for Portland.

With unlimited range and an arsenal of offensive moves, Lillard can also quickly get into the lane and wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Whether it’s coming off of screens or hitting transition buckets, Lillard is impressive on a number of levels.

Similar to Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, Lillard can get hot and take over when his team needs it most. It doesn’t always work out, but having that ability to single-handedly take over a game is huge for the Blazers.

When asked about what separates Lillard from his peers, McCollum told Basketball Insiders, “His versatility and ability to lead everyone while staying true to who he is and what he stands for is special. Obviously he’s a great player, but he hasn’t let success change his foundation and that’s what makes him who he is.”

The most valuable Blazer last season, Lillard averaged 25.1 points, 6.8 assists and four rebounds, ranking just outside of the top five in the league in points per game and assists per game. Lillard is the clear-cut leader of this group and an offensive juggernaut. At 26 years old, he still has some room to grow, but he’s reaching what could be the prime of his career.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Last offseason, many criticized the Trail Blazers for signing Al-Farouq Aminu to a four-year, $30 million deal. His offensive game was raw and he had failed to live up to expectations early in his career, but his defense was certainly undervalued. After posting career-highs in points (10.2) and assists (1.7) last year, Aminu showed tremendous improvement on the offensive side of the ball while still continuing to defend at a high level. And now, with the salary cap rising significantly, Aminu’s deal now looks like a bargain.

Aminu’s 7’3 wingspan and 6’8 frame allow him to play passing lanes, disrupt shots and create turnovers. A tenacious and hardworking defender, Aminu is among the better perimeter defenders in the league, but his basic statistics don’t do him justice. He’s extremely savvy when it comes to reading the game and making life difficult for his opponents. His chase percentage (Nylon Calculus’ statistic for battling and fighting for rebounds) was among the league’s top 10. So while Aminu may not gather a ton of rebounds, he’s always fighting for them, which is certainly a valuable asset.

He was one of the biggest surprises last season, as he was able to keep opposing forwards in check. His individual defense was extremely undervalued because he plays on a poor defensive team – the Blazers ranked 20th in points allowed and defensive rating.

Aminu is arguably the best defensive player on the Blazers. Once Stotts moved him from small forward to power forward, Aminu was able to make an even bigger impact. Defending bigger and stronger players in the post may be a tough task for Aminu, but his all around defensive impact is a key component of the Blazers’ success.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

Not all top scorers are also their team’s top playmaker, but Lillard does both in Portland. His ability to thread passes, beat double teams and elevate the play of his teammates is pretty incredible. As previously mentioned, Lillard averaged 6.8 assists last year.

Lillard’s maturity, leadership and overall contributions to this young Blazers core have been extremely vital to their success.

“He’s a very down to earth guy,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “He keeps it real all the time and has helped me get to this point. When I was getting DNPs and going through injuries, he was constantly staying in my ear and telling me to keep working because my chance was going to come. Sure enough, it did last season.”

Lillard has the ability to penetrate the lane, attract defenders and then find open teammates. With Evan Turner in the mix, Lillard may play off the ball more frequently, but he should still be Portland’s most important playmaker. Lillard’s intangibles and elite floor general skills have helped the Blazers compete at a high level and develop remarkable team chemistry and confidence.

Top Clutch Player: Big Game Dame

Everyone remembers Lillard’s game winner against the Houston Rockets in 2014, but he’s hit clutch shots a number of times since then. When Portland needs help most, Lillard steps up and carries this team through rough patches.

Scoring 125 total points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Lillard ranks among the top 15 in the NBA in clutch time buckets. There’s a reason they call it ‘Dame Time.’

The Unheralded Player: Maurice Harkless

Re-signed for another four seasons, Harkless will be looking to build upon his strong performances toward the end of last season. A great player coming off the bench, Harkless’ size and athleticism make him an excellent defender and a difficult player to guard.

Averaging 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21.6 minutes after the All-Star break, Harkless certainly took a leap forward mid-season. Harkless wasn’t utilized consistently, but he started to find his form and role within this Blazers roster as the season went on.

With all the talk around Crabbe, Turner, McCollum and Lillard, it will be very important for Harkless to be utilized properly this upcoming season and pick up where he left off in the second half of last season. He just turned 23 years old in May, so he’ll continue to develop. He could be a very effective 3-and-D contributor for Portland moving forward.

Top New Addition: Evan Turner

One could’ve made the case for Festus Ezeli here, but with his injury history and Turner being a significant scoring option for this team, we think he’s the best addition.

The No. 2 overall pick in 2010, Turner has bounced around a bit over his short career. He’s undoubtedly a good player, but nobody could’ve predicted that he’d get a four-year, $80 million deal a few years ago when he was being criticized for not living up to his full potential. But after a breakout season with the Boston Celtics, he’s cashing in and will now be asked to add another dimension to this Blazers team.

Turner is going to help the Blazers with length and versatility, specifically on the defensive end. But when it comes to offense, there are question marks that surround his fit. He shot just 24.1 percent from three-point range last year, so spacing could be an issue. And if he’s handling the ball more, that indicates that he’ll take touches away from Lillard and McCollum. However, that may not be the worst thing. At times last season, we saw this Trail Blazers team suffer from not having more options on offense. Turner may not fit with everything offensively, but his skill set, size and versatility make him a threat and forces opposing teams to game plan for him. Also, he’s another player who can create his own shot and get to the foul line, something the Trail Blazers lacked last year. Ranking 17th among NBA teams in free throw rating, Turner will help the Blazers in that specific area of need. In Boston, he did some similar things as the Celtics’ sixth man.

Many questioned the Turner addition and his fit with this team, but if he can be a productive offensive threat while giving the Blazers much needed defensive help, they can be a difficult team to match up against on any given night.

– Oliver Maroney

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Terry Stotts

Coach Stotts is the definition of a players’ coach. He’s done a brilliant job of managing the young core and getting all of his players to buy in. This season, he comes in with higher expectations, but his innovative rotations along with the depth of this team should allow him to succeed.

He’ll add a player with a championship ring (Festus Ezeli) and a former top two pick in the draft (Evan Turner) to the mix, both of whom can contribute if put in the right situations. Integrating two new veterans like Turner and Ezeli could be challenging, but if there’s anyone who can keep egos in check and get everyone on the same page, it’s Stotts.

This might be Stotts’ toughest coaching job yet since he’ll have one of the deeper rosters in the league and a lot of young players that will want to play. If he can utilize his players properly and keep the team chemistry high, a top four playoff seed could be a possibility for these Blazers.

  1. C.J. McCollum

Last season’s most improved player, McCollum showed that he can be a versatile scorer and go-to option down the stretch. Arguably a better one-on-one scorer than Lillard, McCollum is extremely talented and creative with his offensive game.

cjgifThere’s always room to get better and for McCollum, it’s on the defensive end of the floor. A little undersized at 6’4, McCollum has to make up for the size differential with other defensive skills. Earlier this offseason, McCollum talked with Basketball Insiders about his work on the defensive end.

“I want to get better on defense,” he said. “I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better.”

It seems as though he’s really putting in the effort to improve, but whether it’ll pay off remains to be seen. After signing a big extension this offseason, McCollum is determined to help Portland climb in the standings.

“This team’s goal is making the playoffs at the highest seed possible,” McCollum said. “I’m confident we’ll do that. We just take it one day at a time.”

Expect McCollum to improve his defensive impact this upcoming season while continuing to provide his efficient scoring.

  1. Meyers Leonard

The word often used to describe Leonard is “potential.” If he could put his physical tools and versatility together consistently, he’d be a great asset for this Trail Blazers team. But the past couple of years, we’ve seen him suffer season-ending injuries and setbacks that affected his confidence.

The future looked bright for Leonard last season with a starting spot almost surely locked up. Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for 21 games and really affected his confidence. Leonard is still viewed as a building block for these Blazers, which is why they gave him a four-year, $41 million deal this offseason. However, with some of his issues and the arrival of Ezeli (and the return of Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis), he does have to prove himself moving forward in order to receive big minutes.

Leonard has all the tools to become a very good player, he just needs to put them together and play consistent basketball. With a loaded front court, Leonard could find himself on the outside looking in if he doesn’t produce.

  1. Allen Crabbe

While Crabbe may not be a starter, he certainly got paid like one this offseason. Crabbe was a primary reason for Portland’s relative success against the Warriors in the playoffs. His ability to hit the outside shot paired with his defensive instincts make him a very solid and reliable player. Last season, Crabbe recorded career-highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. If he can continue his ascent this season, that will be huge for Portland.

After getting the big pay day, expectations will be much higher for Crabbe this upcoming season, but he should continue to grow and thrive within Stotts’ offensive system. A great catch-and-shoot player, Crabbe is going to be a vital component to the Blazers’ success.

– Oliver Maroney

SALARY CAP 101

The Blazers were one of the league’s lowest spenders last season, but the organization heavily invested this summer – spending on Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and Festus Ezeli among others. The team also gave C.J. McCollum a contract extension. Originally under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, Portland is now near the luxury tax threshold of $113.3 million – technically over going into camp with 17 players.

The Blazers have 14 guaranteed contracts, with Grant Jerrett, Luis Montero and Tim Quarterman fighting for one open roster spot. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception. Looking ahead to next summer, Portland projects to be over a $102 million salary cap. That presumes the team picks up rookie-scale options on Noah Vonleh and Shabazz Napier before November. Mason Plumlee is eligible for an extension by the end of October.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The one-two punch of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is one of the best in the league. Two ball-dominant players who are unselfish in nature, the ‘Bucket Brothers’ were the driving force behind the Blazers’ sixth-rated offense. With a deep, young team, the Blazers have a high-powered offense that is hard to defend, especially with Lillard and McCollum running the show.

The Blazers have versatile players who can be used to implement different styles of play. Whether it’s going small and spacing the floor or going big and slowing the game down, the Blazers have the talent to give teams trouble on any given night.

– Oliver Maroney

WEAKNESSES

The Blazers were in the bottom third of the NBA when it comes to points allowed last season. While the team has a great defender in Aminu, it also has sub-par defenders like Lillard and McCollum among others. The addition of Evan Turner will help their defense, but the Western Conference is loaded with talented guards and wings. If McCollum and Lillard can’t defend at a passable level, the Blazers will struggle against the best in the West, making it difficult to win in the playoffs.

– Oliver Maroney

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the additions of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli help the Blazers become a top-four seed?

If Lillard, McCollum and Turner can gel in the backcourt while bringing defensive intensity every night, this team has a shot to be very good. The championship pedigree and winning mentality of Ezeli along with defensive impact and versatility of Turner should help the Blazers take another step forward this season. With three ball-centric players in Turner, McCollum and Lillard, it’ll be hard to predict how Stotts will divide up the playmaking duties. But knowing the maturity of those three players, you can expect them to do whatever it takes to win games.

The Blazers hope that the internal growth of players like Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless will also push them into the upper echelon of Western Conference teams. It’s hard to see this young, developing team outside of the playoffs in 2016-17, but there’s always room for concern when you add another ball handler to the mix. With an addition like Turner, Coach Stotts will have to make sure the team understands his role before stepping on Lillard or McCollum’s toes. Considering the chemistry and culture of this team, it’s likely that these three will find a balance that works for one another and the team.

Based on the Blazers’ perceived ceiling, pushing for the fourth seed in the West won’t be easy. McCollum will need to step up on defense, Turner has to find his role quickly and the frontcourt will need to find a rotation that works. If those things happen, Portland could legitimately battle for the fourth of fifth seed in the Western Conference.

– Oliver Maroney

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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