The Portland Trail Blazers’ sustained success since LaMarcus Aldridge left town in the summer of 2015 has hinged on continuity as much as anything else. Portland’s core pieces remain intact for now and the foreseeable future, but in wake of a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Blazers shuffled the deck around Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
The Blazers, finally, have reason to believe – even if it’s partially superficial – that they are one of a handful of teams capable of raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end. But after moving on from Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless on the wing and rebuilding its bench yet again, Portland has many questions to answer before living up to those long-awaited expectations.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Blazers were fairly active this offseason and it resulted in them improving their team – at least on paper. They re-signed Rodney Hood, swapped Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore, snatched up Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, plus a trade of Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Hassan Whiteside. The Blazers are poised to run out a starting five of Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Zach Collins and Whiteside with Bazemore, Hezonja, Tolliver and Anfernee Simons as bench support. In a post-Kevin Durant-Golden State Warriors world, that roster could be quite scary. And if Lillard and McCollum can continue their stellar play from the 2018 playoffs – or at least the first two rounds – then the Blazers could be a top-four seed and contend for the Western Conference crown. But they’ll need exceptional performances on most nights. The conference will both be extremely tough — and the Northwest Division will be decided by two or so games — unfortunately, I expect the Blazers to be on the wrong side of that equation.
3rd Place-Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Blazers got all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season before their inevitable defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. That alone, however, is a big step for this team. The conference has no shortage of talented teams, but why couldn’t the Blazers advance one round further and make it to the Finals this time around? An injury here or there to another team and, with the right breaks, it’s not inconceivable. The upcoming hierarchy is wide open and the Blazers have as good a chance as any to come out of the conference. They have a star-studded backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. They may be without Jusuf Nurkic for a while, but they brought in Hassan Whiteside. They’re going to have to replace some of their depth they lost this offseason, so they’ll need to get some solid development from Zach Collins, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons, two of which were not in the rotation last season. But if all goes right, it’s not surprising to think the Blazers could be the conference representative in the NBA Finals.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The last look we had of Portland was a sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, but the lasting image was Damian Lillard’s 40-foot buzzer-beater to send the OKC Thunder packing just weeks earlier. Whoever thought the mighty backcourt of Lillard and McCollum were splitting up anytime soon was quite mistaken. Neil Olshey addressed areas of need by acquiring Hassan Whiteside as a stopgap big man that can protect the rim and snagged Kent Bazemore as a proven veteran who provides plenty of depth. It’ll be crucial for youngsters like Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons to step up. Still, any year we’ve doubted the Trail Blazers, Terry Stotts and company have proved us wrong. Make it seven straight playoff appearances for Rip City in a close competition at the top of the Northwest Division.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Portland Trail Blazers look like a team more balanced and structured to compete for a championship — the problem, however, is that they are one of six or seven teams in the conference poised to make serious noise. The fact the Blazers have a superstar in Lillard and a complementary second star in McCollum make them a favorite to get out of the gate faster than most. Ultimately, that can be the difference between a top seed or the fifth. The only weak point of concern is head coach Terry Stotts. While a quality head coach in the NBA, the question is this: Does he have enough to push a Blazers team he’s been coaching since 2012 into the elite status? Portland has the players, but time will tell if they have the coach.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Trail Blazers are one of the handful of teams who saw several talented players depart this offseason in free agency of through trades. However, the Blazers did bring in a nice group of veterans as well, including Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja. Age is an issue for players like Gasol and Tolliver, but each one of these players can be a contributor in some meaningful way. Nassir Little is also a nice pickup from this year’s draft. The issue for this team is that it doesn’t have the overall talent of some of the other contenders in the Western Conference and need several things to break right in the postseason for there to be any realistic hope of advancing deep into the playoffs. If players like Whiteside, Hezonja or perhaps Zach Collins have unexpectedly strong seasons, that could change the dynamic for Portland. Also, it is unwise to count out any team that is led by the dyanmic duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, as currently constructed, I think Portland will struggle to overcome some of the other contenders in the Western Conference this upcoming season.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Blazers are heavily invested in the 2019-20 season with over $145 million promised in guaranteed salaries. Barring a midseason trade to shed contracts, Portland will be on the hook for at least $22 million in luxury taxes. With that in mind, both Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore have sizeable expiring contracts, but the team just acquired the pair over the offseason.
Before November, the Blazers need to decide on options for Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Skal Labissiere is eligible for a contract extension prior to the season. With patience, Portland may be able to get under the luxury tax for the 2020-21 season, just with contracts coming off their books, but they aren’t likely to be a significant spender under a projected $116 million salary cap.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard
Unlike in 2018-19, Lillard backed up another ridiculous regular season by reaching that rare level of performance in the playoffs. His game-winning, walk-off 37-footer over the outstretched arms of Paul George to eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder is already the stuff of legends. Further, he deserves credit for helping the Blazers get out to multiple double-digit halftime leads in the Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Lillard, it’s clear by now, is the type of lead ball-handler that can lift an offense toward the top of the league without an elite-level supporting cast. Portland finished third in offensive rating last season and scored nearly 12 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the bench. He’s the most dangerous pull-up shooter in basketball other than Stephen Curry and James Harden, but that reality almost takes away from the subtle strides Lillard has made as a passer and finisher in recent years to become one of the most well-rounded offensive players in the league.
The Blazers’ championship hopes are longer than many fans and those within the organization like to believe. But with an offensive engine and culture-setter like Lillard around, it would be foolish to suggest they aren’t at least somewhat realistic.
Top Defensive Player: Zach Collins
Collins will spend most of his time in 2019-20 playing out of his ideal position at power forward, at least until Portland makes a big splash around the trade deadline. But it speaks to his rare and ultra-valuable defensive versatility that the Blazers feel comfortable entering their most hopeful season in years with Collins on that task.
Rim-protection has been the 21-year-old’s calling card since he entered the league in 2017-18, and that continued last season. He has natural timing as a shot-blocker and has already perfected the art of meeting attackers in the air with verticality. Collins won’t be confined to the paint nearly as often this season, though, which is why his nascent ability to keep up with ball handlers on the perimeter looms so large to Portland’s prospects defensively.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard
Lillard wasn’t born with the nuanced-playmaking ingenuity of Trae Young and lacks the size necessary to make cross-court passes that are a staple of James Harden’s game. But through years of serving as the Blazers’ primary ball-handler and after countless hours of film study, he’s worked himself into one of the most effective table-setters in basketball.
Lillard — and by proxy Portland’s offense at large — was neutered in the first round of the 2018 playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans putting two on the ball defensively in pick-and-roll action. He killed the Thunder when they tried a similar approach last spring, routinely creating extra space by stringing out his dribble, hitting the roll man or weak-side shooters with perfect timing and pinpoint accuracy — that is, if he wasn’t turning the corner or splitting defenders to get a shot for himself. Lillard showed a far better sense last season of creating scoring opportunities for his teammates while penetrating, too, upping both his pass percentage and assist percentage on drives to easy career-high levels, per NBA.com.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard
Portland’s 115.3 offensive rating in the clutch last season ranked third in the league, and it’s not hard to see why. Offense inevitably reverts mostly back to one-on-one play in crunch time, an ideal setting for Lillard and McCollum to flex their muscles as two of the game’s best shot-makers from all over the floor. It was McCollum, remember, who played the hero in Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets last May when Lillard was noticeably fatigued.
Lillard’s shooting numbers in the clutch are worse than his late-game reputation suggests, and significantly lower than McCollum’s, too. Still, any suggestion that he isn’t the Blazers’ top crunch-time player ignores both the fear he instills in opposing defenses with the ball in his hands when it matters most as well as his career-long flair for the dramatic.
There have been less than 10 walk-off buzzer-beaters in NBA playoff history and Lillard owns two of them. The only other player with multiple such game-winners? Michael Jordan.
The Unheralded Player: Jusuf Nurkic
All but one of the 15 players with the league’s best net ratings last season played for the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors or Golden State Warriors, per NBA.com. The lone exception? Nurkic, who was coming into his own as one of the game’s most useful two-way centers before suffering a devastating lower left leg injury in late March.
Nurkic’s success is largely dependent on the limited scope of his responsibilities within Portland’s schemes. He isn’t a three-point shooter despite rare touch for a player his size; plus, Nurkic can still struggle to finish over length even though he’s made obvious progress in that regard recently. The Blazers don’t ask him to leave the paint defensively, either, a strategy Terry Stotts has long preferred and one that best suits the center’s physical profile, but nevertheless leaves Portland susceptible to elite pull-up shooters.
But Nurkic, who’s graded among basketball’s best rim-protectors each of the last two seasons, is the rare traditional big man who makes a consistently positive impact on both sides of the ball regardless. Here’s hoping the growth he made last season, especially on offense as a finisher on rolls to the rim and high-post passer, hasn’t been forever wasted by an injury that will sideline him until the All-Star break at the earliest.
At 25, Nurkic’s best days should still be ahead of him.
Best New Addition: Kent Bazemore
Bazemore isn’t a panacea on the wing. He faded as a long-range shooter last season after connecting on a career-best 39.4 percent in 2018-19, and, perhaps more importantly, isn’t quite as versatile on the other end as his reputation suggests. Bazemore is a dogged, physical one-on-one defender with a freakish wingspan, but is far better suited to check star guards than forwards. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, he’s just not big enough to make life hard on the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, even though he’ll be their primary defender when the Blazers face the Los Angeles-based Lakers and Clippers.
Still, Aminu and Harkless, effective as they were at times, were never true stoppers of oversized playmakers and Bazemore offers far more offensively than either. He can capably run a second side ball screen and attack aggressive close-outs by stepping into mid-range jumpers. Bazemore shot just 32.0 percent from deep in 2018-19, but that number was deflated by a larger share of pull-ups, attempts he’ll only take in a pinch with Portland.
Most potential contenders still have more on the wing than the Blazers. But with Bazemore, as long as his jumper reverts back to recent norms, Portland finally has a defense-first wing who won’t be easily schemed off the floor due to his broad offensive limitations.
– Jack Winter
WHO WE LIKE
1. The Hassan Whiteside Trade
The 2019-20 season could very well be the best opportunity for the Blazers to win a championship during Lillard and McCollum’s prime. Whiteside’s presence addresses that likelihood twofold: first as a worthy replacement for Nurkic, and second as a human trade exception should Portland opt to swing for the fences come mid-February.
Whiteside is a perfect fit for what Stotts asks of his centers defensively and, though he leaves much to be desired as a screener and dribble hand-off partner, gives Lillard and McCollum the lob threat they’ve never had with the Blazers. But the veteran’s greater utility could come courtesy of the $27 million he’s owed this season on an expiring contract, affording Portland major flexibility at the trade deadline it normally lacks.
The most intriguing possible trade target? Kevin Love, who grew up roughly 20 minutes from Moda Center and would surely rather spend his extended prime playing for titles with the Blazers than lottery balls with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
2. Anfernee Simons
Neil Olshey has every incentive to pump up Simons ahead of 2019-20. He’s not only next up in Portland’s long, successful history of promoting deep reserves to major rotation roles, but also this team’s most valuable trade chip.
A live-wire athlete with deep range on his pull-up jumper and the ability to get wherever he wants with the ball, Simons figures to be the Blazers’ third guard this season. Playing most, if not all, of his minutes next to either Lillard or McCollum is the ideal scenario for the 20-year-old to get his first taste of sustained playing time in the NBA.
Simons no doubt possesses the raw talent needed to make an impact; Olshey said in June that he has as much “natural, god-given basketball ability as anyone” he’s ever drafted. Of course, he almost certainly won’t live up to that status this season, but Simons could be the difference between home-court advantage and fighting for a playoff spot should he flash it on a game-by-game basis.
3. Anthony Tolliver
Tolliver may not be in Stotts’ rotation to begin the season. He’s certainly not starting, and it would be in the Blazers’ best interest, both this season and long-term, if Mario Hezonja and rookie Nassir Little were ahead of him in the pecking order.
Either way, there will come a time when Tolliver’s number will be called, and he’s likely to deliver. The 34-year-old is limited athletically, but makes up for it on defense by constantly talking, staying scheme sound and playing with unrelenting energy every time he steps on the floor. Tolliver’s bigger influence will come on the other end, where he’s a willing, deadeye three-point shooter that has worked tirelessly to extend his range far behind the arc.
It would be disappointing if Hezonja didn’t carve out a consistent role, and Portland would be best served by Little – who has the raw physical tools of an impact multi-positional defender – finding his niche early. But in whatever role he takes on, Tolliver will be ready.
4. Pau Gasol
Gasol appeared in only three games last season after signing with the Milwaukee Bucks in March, beset by the same nagging pain in his right foot that previously caused him to miss 28 straight games with the San Antonio Spurs. Even with a clean bill of health heading into 2019-20, there’s no guarantee the 39-year-old is up to the task of playing a more minor role off the bench – especially after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured navicular bone in his left foot, a dreaded injury for big men.
Still, Gasol brings three attributes to the table that will help ease the pain of Nurkic’s absence in the season’s early going: Rim-protection, three-point shooting and perimeter playmaking. Mobility was Gasol’s greatest weakness even before his surgery, but that deficiency matters far less in the Blazers’ defense, where he’ll very rarely leave the paint, instead using his 7-foot-5 wingspan as an obstacle between penetrators and the rim.
The margins matter for teams with title aspirations. Gasol won’t be a cog for Portland, and there’s an outside chance that injuries and age have left him almost unplayable. But if he’s indeed a part of the Blazers’ rotation, Gasol could be very useful in a low-minute bench role – especially if Whiteside is actually dealt at the trade deadline.
– Jack Winter
The Blazers’ trump card is self-evident: No team in basketball, with the possible exception of the revamped Clippers, boasts a better pair of shot-makers than Lillard and McCollum. Simons, in a perfect world, will provide the type of dynamic offense from the bench they’ve lacked for years and Stotts won’t hesitate to go small with Rodney Hood at power forward when necessary. Portland, second in offensive rebounding last season, could be even more dominant on the glass while starting a pair of seven-footers.
It would be something close to shocking if the Blazers’ offense wasn’t again among the league’s best. But their greatest strength is, and long has been, the unwavering sense of culture instilled by Stotts and Lillard. Portland is among the league’s most well-coached teams, consistently outperforming preseason forecasts despite annual churn in the middle and bottom half of the rotation.
For well over a decade, the San Antonio Spurs were the league’s gold standard of chemistry, culture and the ideal that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Now, it’s the Blazers who have earned and own that distinction.
– Jack Winter
Portland finished 16th in defensive rating last season and lost its two most flexible defenders without replacing them with like-sized wings. Whiteside just isn’t as reliable on the backline as Nurkic, that goes without saying. But slotting Collins, a more personnel-dependent switching option, at power forward for major minutes will undoubtedly leave the Blazers subject to more frequent defensive rotations. Bazemore is undersized; Rodney Hood, better engaged on that side of the ball after signing with Portland last season, still doesn’t hang his hat on defense.
The Blazers feature several impact defenders, both on the perimeter and interior, and will fight like hell. The lack of wing depth on this roster will be a huge problem against specific opponents, though, while its holes and redundancies overall could lead to struggles defensively that few are anticipating.
– Jack Winter
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Blazers real contenders in a stacked Western Conference?
The Clippers stand alone in the conference as the team just as likely to win the conference’s top playoff seed as they are to reach the NBA Finals. The Lakers, like all LeBron-led teams, are bound to reach another gear in the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz will rack up regular season wins with ease, and have clear championship ceilings by virtue of internal growth and star-level summer additions.
Where does that leave Portland? Everyone within the organization insists it belongs with that group above, a belief indeed rooted in more than wide-eyed hope. But the Blazers simply possess less overall talent than other teams with championship dreams. Moreover, the Conference Finals appearance that’s made them more believable than ever come with asterisks of favorable matchups on the way there and a sweep at the hands of the Warriors.
Bottom line: It’s easier to envision Portland missing the playoffs altogether than hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come mid-June. Yet writing the Blazers out of the championship picture entirely, as they’ve proven time and again over the past few years by defying expectations, would still be remiss.
– Jack Winter
What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4
What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.
But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.
The New Look Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.
But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?
You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.
Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.
Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.
Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT
In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.
But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.
Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.
If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.
The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is 8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.
That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.
Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.
No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.
It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.