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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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NBA Daily: Jimmy Butler’s Potential Absence Could Doom Minnesota

Should Jimmy Butler miss an extended period of time, the Minnesota Timberwolves could lose footing quickly in the tight Western Conference playoff race.

Dennis Chambers

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Say it ain’t so, Basketball Gods.

In his first game back from the All-Star break, coincidentally after logging zero minutes in the glorified exhibition game, Jimmy Butler left Friday night’s game with an apparent knee injury.

If the worst comes to fruition — a season-ending injury — Butler would join a laundry list of players whose seasons have been cut short.

 Butler’s Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of battling for position amongst their Western Conference peers for playoff spots. At the time of Butler’s injury, seeds three through nine are all separated by one game in the loss column.

Calling it a tight race out West would be a vast understatement. With a few more than 20 games to play, the seeding could land in a different order on basically a nightly basis. And for a team like Minnesota, losing their All-Star and veteran presence could be catastrophic.

But, not all hope is lost.

David Aldridge reported Friday night that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Given how tight the race is amongst the conference, losing Butler for any extended period of time is going to be a big blow to the way Minnesota operates. Very literally, Butler produces a drastic improvement on both ends of the court his team.

On the surface, Butler’s averages are good. They don’t blow you away, but it’s clear that his presence is felt on a nightly basis. 22.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists with a 59.3 true shooting percentage is more than worthy of an All-Star selection. But to the naked eye, it doesn’t scream that he’s the team’s most valuable player by a long shot.

So, let’s dig a little deeper.

When Butler is on the court, Minnesota benefits from a 116.3 offensive rating. Houston and Golden State have 115.7 and 115.4 offensive ratings for the season, respectively. The addition of Butler creates more free space for the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play with.

Speaking of those two, with the addition of an established superstar like Butler, they’ve been able to focus more on playing basketball than leading a locker room, allowing for growth in their games — Towns especially.

Truly coming into his own as one of the league’s best big men this season, arguably nobody on Minnesota’s roster benefits more from Butler’s performance on the wing than Towns does. On the court together, Towns sports a pretty 114.1 offensive rating, which produced a satisfying 9.3 net rating. That’s winning basketball.

Take Butler away, though, and things get ugly. Fast.

Because of his vast arsenal of offensive versatility, Towns’ offensive rating doesn’t suffer when Butler isn’t in the fold. But his defense? Well, it falls off of a cliff. Towns’ defensive rating balloons to 120.9, bringing that once impressive 9.3 net rating all the way down to -6.5. Butler alone accounts for a 15.8 point swing in Towns’ net rating. The levels of codependency from Towns to Butler in relation to effective basketball are incredibly concerning if the latter is lost for an extended period of time.

Basketball isn’t just a two-man game, though. So, while Minnesota’s younger All-Star benefits greatly from his elder counterpart, maybe the rest of the roster isn’t in such bad shape without him, right?

Wrong.

In fact, as you could probably assume, the production for the Timberwolves as a whole plummets when Butler grabs a seat on the bench. Shooting percentage, net rating, assist rate, rebound rate, finishing at the rim, defending and just about any other conceivable statistic you can find is worse for Minnesota when Butler isn’t on the floor.

Beyond all of the stats though, Butler represented more to the Timberwolves this season. He was the star to get the team over the hump. The veteran two-way impact player that could take just enough of the load off of the two budding studs in Towns and Wiggins to make Minnesota a threat night in and night out. Tom Thibodeau brought Butler over from Chicago because he knew the level of work ethic and leadership he would bring to a team that had talent, but needed guidance.

Up until Friday night, the pieces were falling into place.

The state of Minnesota will hold its collective breath while waiting for the results of Butler’s MRI. For the sake of Timberwolves fans, the organization and most importantly, Butler himself, hope for a clean scan.

Without it, and without Butler, the team could find itself in a free-fall amid this clustered Western Conference playoff race.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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