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Portland’s Title Hopes Hinging On Zach Collins’ Adaptability

With Al-Farouq Aminu & Moe Harkless gone, is Zach Collins ready for a starting power forward responsibility on a Blazers team with championship aspirations? Jack Winter writes.

Jack Winter

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Letting Al-Farouq Aminu walk in free agency was a long time coming for the Portland Trail Blazers.

He was an integral part of the team’s surprisingly stingy defense over the past few seasons, checking several positions over the course of 48 minutes and providing Portland with a sense of disruption and overall activity – both on and off the ball – its more physically-limited defenders couldn’t. The Blazers’ lack of size in the backcourt and ultra-conservative scheme made them imminently exploitable at certain points of the floor; Aminu’s energy and versatility often proved key to staunching the bleeding of those inevitabilities.

But he’s gone now, a loss that comes as no surprise after his playing time steadily diminished throughout Portland’s run to the Western Conference Finals. How the Blazers replaced Aminu is what’s raised eyebrows, and it could be the deciding factor between them building on last season’s progress and taking a step back in a wide-open Western Conference.

Zach Collins is a far different player than Aminu, as well as fellow offseason departure Moe Harkless. Their theoretical value to Portland rested on defense first and foremost, but also a comfort playing without the ball offensively. One problem: Aminu and Harkless, despite some fleeting stretches of hot shooting, weren’t even close to reliable from the beyond the arc. Worse, defenses felt comfortable leaving them away from the ball to make life extra hard on their star teammates, a dynamic that annually neutered the Blazers’ offense when it mattered most.

But Neil Olshey didn’t account for the absence of two stalwarts by bringing in a defensively-limited forward who could nevertheless help relieve pressure on Lillard and McCollum, further juicing an offense that finished an overlooked third in offensive rating last season. Kent Bazemore is Portland’s only significant addition on the wing, and he was acquired from the Atlanta Hawks before free agency. Mario Hezonja isn’t the answer for a team with aspirations of legitimate contention, especially playing small forward, and Gary Trent Jr. is a second-round pick who rarely saw the floor as a rookie.

It’s Collins who’s tasked with sopping up most of the Blazers’ newly-available minutes at power forward. From a team-building standpoint, increasing his responsibilities is certainly the right approach. Portland traded up in the 2017 draft to take Collins at No. 10; he wasn’t going to be an energy guy off the bench forever and likely would have proven over-qualified for that status given even marginal growth over the summer.

Whether the role Collins is primed to play this season is the right one, though, is a matter worthy of disagreement.

He’s best-suited for center long-term; even the Blazers are surely admitting as much in private. But Collins’ time in the middle will almost certainly be few and far between in 2019-20 given the odd makeup of Portland’s roster. Bazemore is the lone off-ball perimeter player who doubles as a plus defender and semi-threatening long-range shooter, and he’s way too small to check the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. There will be many important moments for the Blazers when Rodney Hood is left to guard the best players in the world.

Collins will inevitably be put on that island sometimes, too. His ability to move his feet in space and manage strong contests at the rim from behind is the chief justification behind his potential ability to hold up at power forward full-time. Collins isn’t quite Clint Capela of a couple years ago. Portland won’t readily switch him onto superstar ball handlers like it did Aminu, either, but his combination of quickness, length and impeccable timing as a shot-blocker makes him switch-worthy under duress of time and score or specific opponent regardless.

The Blazers didn’t always switch across four positions with Aminu and Harkless on the court, but the option of doing so when necessary mitigated much of the inherent weakness presented by their personnel. Portland was happy to let offenses target Lillard and McCollum on the block in those circumstances, confident the opposition assumed posting up undersized perimeter defenders was a better means of attack than sizing up Aminu.

Teams won’t feel the same way when it’s Collins venturing outside the paint to corral playmakers. His nagging tendency to foul will come into play there, too. And when the Blazers opt against switching actions involving Collins and a guard, they’ll be subject to exactly the type of defensive rotations their long-running scheme has sought to minimize.

It would be remiss to overlook the potential impact of Portland’s collective length up front. No team in the league will start a frontcourt tandem longer than Collins and Hassan Whiteside, and the same will be true once Jusuf Nurkic returns come spring to take the latter’s place. Pau Gasol, health provided, is a perfect fit for the Blazers’ drop pick-and-roll coverage. They were average defensively last season after finishing sixth in defensive rating one year prior, regression most easily explained by a drop from first in defensive field goal percentage at the rim to 16th, per NBA.com. An uptick in rim-protection numbers is very possible and would do a lot toward stemming the negative influence of Portland’s decrease in defensive versatility.

But that trade-off is hardly a formality, and maybe wouldn’t be enough to offset a potential loss of flexibility on the other end. Aminu made small strides with the ball last season, finishing more awkward, herky-jerky drives without turning it over, but has never been imposing offensively. Harkless is cut from a similar cloth, though he enjoyed more success as a cutter and post-up option on switches.

Collins, as well as he moves for a seven-footer, doesn’t address those longstanding deficiencies for Portland. He can put the ball down two or three times on a short roll and is comfortable in the dribble hand-off game, but certainly won’t be grabbing defensive rebounds and rushing up the floor to create a winning numbers game. He’s also limited in terms of attacking close-outs – should his shooting improve to the point defenders deem aggressive contests necessary, of course.

Collins’ shot 33.1 percent from deep last season, a respectable number for a big with nascent stretch to the arc. But he took just 1.6 three-pointers per game, fewer than his rookie year, and a whopping 96 of his 121 attempts came absent any defender within six feet of him, per NBA.com.

Collins will get a lot of looks like this in October and November, and it’s imperative he knocks them down at a respectable clip – as much for the points as the space created by defenses feeling like they need to guard him outside the paint.

There’s a case to be made that Collins isn’t ready to log a lion’s share of his minutes at center.

He’s still thin despite putting on noticeable muscle since he came into the league, a trait his unrelenting intensity and physicality hasn’t quite been able to overcome. Portland has long been one of the league’s best rebounding teams, but has struggled on both the offensive and defensive glass when Collins has played center over the past two seasons. Mason Plumlee, for instance, killed him on the offensive boards in the second round of the playoffs. Nikola Jokic, to no one’s surprise, bullied him one-on-one, mostly due to such a sizable discrepancy in strength and overall girth.

Maybe starting at power forward really is the next step toward Collins reaching his ultimate ceiling. It’s not like he’s going to be the Blazers’ best center soon anyway, not after Nurkic established himself as a consistent two-way force last season.

Still, asking so much of Collins with so little behind him seems like a mistake for a team looking to compete at the highest level right now. Lillard and McCollum, despite their tandem multi-year extensions this summer, aren’t getting any younger. The collapse of the Warriors’ juggernaut presents a golden opportunity for a long-shot team like Portland to win a title. Lillard probably won’t enter any remaining season of his career, at least in a Blazers uniform, with a better chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June than this one.

Collins alone won’t sink Portland’s championship hopes. Even in an expanded role, he won’t use enough possessions to loom quite so large. But the margins matter more than ever in a Western Conference where as many as six teams can talk themselves into title contention, and so much of the Blazers’ success on both ends hinges on a 21-year-old who seems stuck between positions and has only played more than 30 minutes once in his career to date.

Is Collins ready for so much additional responsibility? The answer could help inform the difference between extremes of Portland playing deep into spring and missing out on the playoffs altogether.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks

David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.

The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.

For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.

He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.

“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”

Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.

But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.

“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”

In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.

Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.

But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.

“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”

Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.

“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.

Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.

“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.

“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”

At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.

“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”

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NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA

Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.

So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.

Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.

“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.

With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.

“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.

The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.

After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.

“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.

While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.

“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”

On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.

“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.

Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.

Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.

“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”

Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.

“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”

Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.

Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.

“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”

The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return

Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.

Chad Smith

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Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.

Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.

Then, it happened.

With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.

Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.

His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.

To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.

After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.

Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.

And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor

That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.

Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.

For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.

With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.

But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.

In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”

Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.

And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.

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