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Raw to Revered: Rudy Gobert’s Path to Stardom

Ben Dowsett examines Rudy Gobert’s long, winding road from raw rookie to star NBA center.

Ben Dowsett

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When you have a little spare time one day, go take a look at Rudy Gobert’s Twitter account.

It’s mostly innocuous, but a close enough look reveals a unique personality. A few weeks ago, Gobert turned the Jazz’s “#takenote” hashtag into his own slightly R-rated “#takefnnote” slogan, one that’s been picked up by Jazz fans everywhere. Two days later, he sent the “face with tears of joy” emoji to the NBA’s official account in response to a top defensive plays of the week video, which audaciously had left each of his roughly dozen swats on the cutting room floor.

For the best stuff, though, you’ve got to click on Rudy’s “Likes.” He mostly hits the heart button for a combination of diametrically opposed tweets: Those praising his prodigious accomplishments and, more tellingly, those slighting him in any way. Some are both simultaneously, in a way, and devoted Jazz Twitter-ites have long learned that informing Gobert of any diss he may not have been aware of could earn a heart.

The liked slights have become fewer and further between over the years, and the praise more common. Maybe Gobert himself would tell you it’s a result of a diligent Jazz PR staff looking to keep him within a generally conservative and understated fold in Utah.

Squint hard enough, though, and maybe it means something else entirely. Maybe this kid who once felt he had so much to prove has grown into a man who knows his play has done more of the talking (clicking?) than he ever could. Maybe whatever motivation Gobert finds from proving his doubters wrong just isn’t always as necessary anymore, replaced by organic success and a growing Jazz core around him. Maybe tiny changes over time on an ultimately silly social media tool are the perfect microcosm for this young career.

 


 

Gobert’s 21st birthday came the day before the 2013 Draft, but the next night in New York was a pretty lousy present.

He was a consistent lottery presence in DraftExpress mock drafts all through his 2011-12 season, and even rose to a top-five slot for over half of his pre-draft season in late 2012 before his slide began. Team workouts were the biggest issue, per scouts, including one in Oklahoma City where fellow center prospect Steven Adams was rumored to have dominated Gobert in a one-on-one setting. DraftExpress had him sliding all the way to 26 by the big day, one spot before he’d eventually be selected.

From Utah’s perspective, though, it felt like Christmas in June. The Jazz originally held the 14th and 21st picks in 2013 before trading both to move up to ninth and pick point guard Trey Burke. Gobert was squarely on their board at No. 14 while they still held the pick.

Jazz scouts saw a raw prospect, but one who had no bad habits and several good ones. Gobert seemed to genuinely enjoy beating slower big men up and down the floor, and this extended to several of the more grimy areas that every big man says they love to work in, but fewer actually do with any real enthusiasm.

They weren’t as worried about any workout concerns, mainly because they saw the ways this sort of player would be underrated by that environment. Take any version of Gobert, from draft day to present, and put him in a closed-gym, one-on-one workout with a scout who has never seen or heard of him before – here’s $5 to yours that the scout will naturally underrate his NBA success. Workouts are meaningful, but they struggle to pick up many of Gobert’s biggest strengths.

Once Utah’s trade to select Burke was finished, their eyes moved squarely to Gobert as he continued to fall down the board. There had never been much dissent in the Jazz’s draft room regarding their feelings on Gobert overall, but any doubt was removed as soon as he fell into the 20s. A hard worker with historical measurables, already capable of blocking shots and finishing dunks and without any major bad habits? It was a no-brainer for Utah, and the biggest hurdle at that point was finding the right trade partner.

Gobert chose No. 27 as his number, a constant reminder of how many teams looked past him. In retrospect, it was a pretty perfect introduction.

 


 

The NBA game has a habit of overwhelming young big men, and Gobert was no different. A preseason injury to Marvin Williams forced Rudy into immediate action, including nearly 23 minutes in his first ever NBA game. His physical ability was evident, but he struggled with the same leap in overall athletic quality that many young guys do.

“When I got in the league, the game – everything physically, in terms of speed and strength – I was surprised,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I was excited, I was motivated, but it was tough.”

A player very used to making a constant impact on the game wanted to do the same right away in the NBA. Gobert’s hyper-activity wasn’t something anyone had to teach him along the way, and it got him into trouble at times as a rookie. Guys couldn’t be moved as easily at this level with a little sheer physical domination; those extra beats of open space that led to dunks in Europe were replaced by bodies and an unforgiving whistle.

His rawness translated into offensive mistakes that were pretty glaring to even the casual eye, but this may have given a false impression. Gobert saw the game well on both ends, but he needed much more time for his processing skills (and his limbs) to catch up to his raw basketball IQ.

“I think I was going too fast,” Gobert recalls.

That 22:54 he logged in his first NBA game would be the high water mark for Gobert on the calendar year of 2013, with his minutes decreasing and even disappearing for games at a time once Williams was back in the lineup. His first big change came when he was sent to Bakersfield in the D-League in mid-December.

“I hadn’t played for, like, two months,” Gobert said (not technically true, but Gobert had indeed been seeing DNP-CD designations for about half his games from then-Jazz coach Ty Corbin over the prior month or so). “And then I started playing in the D-League, and I was feeling way stronger, I was feeling way better. I dominated in the D-League.”

He’s not exaggerating at all. His first game in Bakersfield was a 16-point, 14-rebound, six-block showing in 32 minutes. He followed that up with a 16-point, 14-rebound, four-block performance.

He capped things off with 23 points and 14 rebounds in just 30 minutes in early January, finishing his eight-game D-League stint with a PER of nearly 28 and a field-goal percentage of nearly 75 percent. Gobert also shot 70 percent from the line, the first sign that he could make teams pay from the stripe when he was comfortable. He had been well under 50 percent in the NBA to that point, albeit on a tiny sample size.

Gobert rejoined the Jazz within the first month of 2014, and minute consistency continued to be a struggle. It’s no secret within the organization that Corbin’s priorities didn’t align with a player like Gobert, and perhaps not with the team’s timeline either. With an expiring contract that pretty obviously wasn’t getting renewed, Corbin was auditioning for the next stop. Gobert is diplomatic about it in retrospect, though.

“I think I just wasn’t in his plans, which is not a bad thing, you know, I got drafted 27th,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Derrick [Favors] was playing good and Enes [Kanter], you know, so that was the plan, play those guys.”

Favors and Kanter might have made playing time tough to come by for Gobert under any coach, but the real issue with Corbin’s approach was how it clashed with Rudy’s long-term development. That rookie year is huge even for guys who aren’t seeing consistent minutes, and while no one within the organization will outright say so (burning bridges isn’t this front office’s style, even off the record), it seems fairly clear that bringing along this seven-foot Frenchman who wouldn’t be an integral NBA starter until long after Corbin was gone wasn’t high on Ty’s priority list.

Gobert found an outlet in assistant coach Alex Jensen, with whom he remains close to this day. He would come back to the team’s facility after practice in the afternoons every day and shoot with Jensen, and the two quickly developed a bond. Some in the organization directly credit Jensen for Gobert’s progress in that first year.

“Alex has been great for me since I got here,” Gobert said. “I would say he was one of the only guys that really, you know – not believed in me, I’m not saying Coach Ty [Corbin] didn’t believe in me, but [Alex] was a guy who was really wanting me to play and was working to try to get me on the court. And working with me every day… Even outside the court, he was always talking to me. That was great.”

Gobert found a few more extended stretches of minutes once he was back permanently with the Jazz, but they were mostly with Favors sidelined in January and February. He was on the keen-eyed Jazz fan’s radar, but generally as nothing more than a long-term project.

Corbin’s expected dismissal and all the resulting rebuild-related summer themes drove most of the summer narrative. The team was focused on a coaching search and Quin Snyder’s eventual hiring, two first-round picks and a roster configuration clearly aimed at handing the kids the keys.

Soon, though, Gobert started making his own noise. He started five games at Orlando Summer League, posting a 22 PER and a 10 percent block rate (a ridiculous figure he’ll never approach during normal NBA play, and few have ever accomplished).

Then suddenly, in the usual NBA September down time, Gobert burst on the national scene for the first time during the 2014 FIBA World Cup. His defensive showing against the Gasol brothers raised eyebrows as France upset Spain in the quarterfinals, eventually finishing third.

Gobert counts the experience as a big moment, and it gave him momentum heading into training camp. He had spent the rest of his non-playing summer building strength, especially in his legs, and he was ready for the longer run the team’s youth movement seemed destined to bring him as an intriguing third big. Training camp would unite him with Snyder and a whole new outlook on player development, and the ball was rolling.

 


 

There was something different right away with Snyder and Gobert. Guys don’t make the NBA without working hard, but Snyder was impressed by how Gobert’s on-court competitiveness carried into urgency in practice and even film sessions (which isn’t always a given).

“There may not be a more competitive guy, as far as how he approaches his work,” Snyder said of Gobert.

The two developed a bond immediately. Snyder is a details guy, and that’s exactly what Gobert’s game needed. This wasn’t a blank canvass of a player; Gobert’s biggest skills were already NBA-level, plus he’d already been honing the margins of his game with Jensen, who was retained on Snyder’s staff.

Hands were a bit of an early issue, an expected one for most given his size – but not expected for Gobert.

“I don’t think I ever had bad hands,” he told Basketball Insiders. “I think I was maybe a little nervous, and when you’re nervous, I was kind of surprised sometimes when I was getting the ball.”

“I never had problems catching the ball when I was younger,” he reiterated. “I just think it was physical, and the speed of the game.”

He also wasn’t exactly in the ideal environment to build his confidence catching the ball as a rookie. Those 2013-14 Jazz gave the bulk of the ball-handling duties to a rookie in Burke and several 23-or-under guys who, outside Gordon Hayward, pretty clearly weren’t ready to initiate an NBA offense yet. Their only veteran ball-handlers were John Lucas III and Jamaal Tinsley, two journeymen who combined for under 300 NBA minutes after that season (all from Lucas).

Gobert dropped his fair share of gimmes, but he was also trying to build up his confidence on a steady diet of unhealthy looks.

Gobert also lacked one big fundamental skill that may seem simple, but can flummox plenty of big men for most or all of their careers: He couldn’t keep the ball high. It’s a natural movement to bring the ball down to your chest or even lower to gather for a shot, even most dunks, but Gobert was getting into trouble as a rookie when he’d keep the ball too available for reaching hands.

Whether it was a Snyder or Jensen emphasis or something else entirely, though, that summer between his rookie and sophomore years seemed to rid a lot of those issues from his game. Gobert’s strength work also played a big role.

“The main thing was also getting stronger, getting my legs stronger, be able to not get pushed around as much,” Gobert said. “And be able to make my move and slow down.”

They were subtle differences. He was still seeing his share of low passes, but he was catching them more effectively and doing a much better job getting the ball back up where quicker hands couldn’t interfere.

Rudy’s turnover percentage dropped nearly seven full points between his rookie and sophomore seasons, and he shaved over a full cough-up from his per-100-possession averages.

Fast forward that to this season, and the progression of a hard-working big man becomes evident. It was second nature for Gobert to bring that ball all the way back down before he re-gathered as a rookie; a few thousand reps later, it would feel foreign for him.

Here’s the lowest point the ball ever reaches on that put-back layup against the Kings from earlier this year:

Compare that to where the ball was right before Gobert gathered to go back up during his rookie year:

With that big confidence boost came trickle-down to the rest of Gobert’s game, on both ends of the floor. His smoother hands meant he could be more of a factor offensively, especially in the pick-and-roll game, a realization his teammates came to quickly. Gobert received more passes by the end of November in his second season than he did for the entirety of his rookie year, per SportVU data (in barely over half the equivalent minutes), and was finishing assisted baskets at nearly double his rookie rate.

“I always wanted to build that connection with my teammates,” Gobert said. “I think [I] had a great connection with Dante [Exum] in my second year. He was finding me a lot, and giving me a lot of confidence.”

Exum, fresh into his own new role as a starter early into his rookie year, assisted on more Gobert baskets than any other Jazz player that season. The young Aussie started finding Gobert at angles where other guys previously hadn’t been considering him an option.

With his improved hands came improving footwork, a combo that made Gobert into an offensive threat simply by putting him in the right places and daring defenses to leave a single guy trying to jump higher than him for the ball. He was always an eager screener as a rookie – sometimes a bit too eager, perhaps.

As the game slowed down, though, Gobert found his literal and metaphorical footing. He learned how to properly vary his screen-and-roll game – when to slip the screen for a quick rim run, when to hold long enough for contact, when to re-position and set another pick.

The ball-handler and roll man in pick-and-roll are engaged in a constant ballet, where one affects the other’s timing and vice versa. Gobert found ways to make himself more presentable by timing his runs better, and mastered the pivot-and-turn that’s often necessary for the big man in these sets.

“Rudy puts pressure on the rim,” Snyder said. “It’s ironic, but he actually really affects your spacing. By rolling to the rim, he impacts your spacing, because people have to come in [and help]. So really I should say, impacts the effectiveness of your spacing.”

That impact has been evident in the numbers. This is now the second straight year the Jazz have been a much better three-point shooting team with Gobert on the floor than with him off, despite the fact that he hasn’t attempted a single triple himself in this time. They’re a borderline top-five three-point shooting team this year by accuracy with him, and a borderline bottom-five outfit when he sits.

Footwork was vital for Gobert on the other end of the floor as well. SportVU data tells us that once he got there to contest, he was an elite rim protector from the moment he stepped foot on an NBA court as a rookie. The 42.2 percent he’s allowing this year is the league’s stingiest mark among volume defenders, but it would actually be his highest mark allowed in four full seasons if the year ended today. Smart teams have long stopped going at him in the post, where he’s allowing 35 percent from the field over the last two seasons, per Synergy Sports. He’s at a gross 27.5 percent allowed as the primary post defender this year.

The rub for Gobert, though, was striking the right balance as a help defender. Early on in Snyder’s tenure, he’d either be too aggressive or too timid – and the two relate.

“There [were] times where he’d kinda hug his man,” Snyder said. “We’re all human. Rudy looks up, and he’s come over to help, and all of a sudden his guy’s got 10 points and six rebounds because he’s leaving him, and he’s not getting help, and he’s more reluctant to leave.”

The best coaches in the world can scream themselves hoarse around skills like these; some guys are going to pick them up, and some guys just aren’t. There’s no set checklist for when these feel elements really click. Snyder never worried much about Gobert becoming one of those physical specimens who never puts it together, though.

“He pays attention to everything,” Snyder said. “He’s very aware. It’s probably one of the reasons he’s such a good shot blocker. There’s an awareness, an alertness and an urgency to who he is as a person, and that fuels him.”

Slowly but surely, Gobert started to fine-tune his instincts. His per-minute rim contests dipped between his first and second seasons as he flushed some of his over-pursuits and focused on staying home, then dipped even further during his 2015-16 season – a reality likely influenced in large part by a midseason MCL injury.

“I don’t think I was 100 percent when I came back, but I gave it my best,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. ”I’ve never had knee problems, so I was kind of scared when I came back. Especially me, I move everywhere, I like to jump, like to push.”

Now, with another summer of strength work and work around the margins, Gobert hasn’t just found his happy medium – he’s begun to push the boundaries of how widely an interior big can impact the game, especially in today’s modern, pace-and-space world. He remains an uber-elite rim protector by percentage allowed despite being present to contest more per-game shots than anyone else over a full season in the public SportVU database. The Jazz play at a bottom-three pace, making this even more remarkable, and these numbers are barely even the half of it.

Take a late November game against the Houston Rockets. With the Jazz leading by 12 points at the half, Snyder did something very few coaches have ever done against this Rockets team: He invited Houston to play two-on-two with James Harden in the pick-and-roll.

Harden is probably the most devastating pick-and-roll player in the game with his array of floaters, foul-draws and exquisite passes, but Snyder was confident. With extremely limited team help, he stuck George Hill or Rodney Hood on Harden, Gobert on the roll man (both Clint Capela and Nene for stretches), and let the chips fall.

The Rockets attempted just nine threes during Gobert’s time on the floor during this second half, a per-minute rate over 25 percent lower than their league-leading figure. Snyder’s gambit worked in that department: Several of these were long, contested threes up against the shot clock.

Meanwhile, Harden got just enough of his to make his stat line respectable in the half – but nowhere near enough to call Snyder’s bluff. It took him 13 shots to get to 16 points, and he had just three assists to two turnovers. The discerning statistician questions whether Gobert was truly the chief cause; anyone who watched the game has no such concerns.

Know that there are maybe two or three other players in the game capable of doing what Gobert did here to block that Harden layup – and maybe none. His awareness is second nature at this point, and he knows Hill is going to slide down and give Capela a little nudge, so he stunts quickly at Harden to prevent him from taking the open midrange J.

Then he recovers, and note again: This is a full bore two-on-one to the basket, featuring MVP frontrunner James Harden and one of the better rim finishers in the league in Capela. Gobert has both options contained at the same time, and look where Utah’s three-point defenders are able to stand because of it.

Finally, it’s too late – even if Harden wanted to loft the lob to Capela, how exactly is he making that happen?

A defender is never complete at this level, but it’s a tempting designation for Gobert after a long journey. He sits near or atop every major defensive catch-all metric, and he wears the crown as the league’s best interior defender until someone takes it from him.

“His focus is so, so consistent,” Snyder says. “And when that happens – for any of us – you just become much more formidable. You don’t take plays off, and I think that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing some more maturity, and I think it will continue.”

 


 

The focus on Gobert has shifted recently.

No one takes his defense for granted, per se, but it’s less of a surprise than ever. You hear more about the other side of the ball, and these days you hear talk about which league-wide award he should be in the running for.

Both are justifiable topics. An offensive surge may seem unexpected to the naked eye, but it’s a clear product of that work on his hands, feet, timing… and most of all, confidence. It’s this last element people around the team claim was bolstered even more than the average guy by a new mammoth extension signed this offseason.

It’s not the dollar amount, really; Gobert is anything but a money-grubber. Folks in the know say Rudy’s loyalty to the franchise stretches back to that fateful day in June 2013, and that in some ways his big extension was a confirmation of that loyalty from both sides – one that freed up any little lingering pressure Gobert may have felt heading into this season.

Suddenly, he’s making on-the-run catches he couldn’t have dreamed of while standing still as a rookie… and dunking on guys whose physicality might have given him pause before this year.

Gobert is shooting his highest mark from the line in his career, pushing 65 percent on nearly six freebies a night.

“He’s going to shoot our technicals soon,” Snyder joked pregame recently.

The Jazz have started using him as more than just a dive man, too. Teams exploited Utah’s Gobert-involved pick-and-rolls in previous years by blitzing ball-handlers, daring the Jazz to get Gobert the ball in space and counting on his limited off-the-dribble skills to make their gamble worthwhile.

Now, the Jazz are bypassing the trap altogether. They’ll position another wing as a safety valve for the original ball-handler, and if teams leave Gobert a lane, he’ll simply ram his ass into his man, seal him down low and say thank you for the easy points.

Remember how Gobert used to love to beat other bigs down the floor in transition as a youngster in Europe? He still does, and now those are more free points with a similar seal concept when all that’s left is a smaller guy.

We’ve barely blinked, but now there’s a case for Gobert as one of the top two-way players in the NBA. He’s in the league’s top 15 for Offensive Win Shares, an admittedly flawed stat that nonetheless still manages to include many of the league’s consensus best attackers (the 12 above him, in order: Harden, Butler, Lowry, Durant, Thomas, Paul, Antetokounmpo, Lillard, Curry, Leonard, James, Westbrook). Utah’s offense goes from a borderline top-five unit with him on the floor to bottom-10 when he sits.

This is the narrative now, and the whispers about the All-Star game and potential consideration for a couple end-of-year awards are growing to a hum. Gobert made waves when he said he thought he was the best center in the NBA recently; no one around him was all that shocked. He’s just being honest.

“When you ask him if he’s the best center in the NBA, he can’t say, ‘We’re the best team in the NBA,’” Snyder said. “He’s a sincere guy. His answers, often times, maybe aren’t as measured. Some of that’s just who he is, and personally I like it.”

Suddenly, you don’t have to search Gobert’s Twitter likes for a snapshot of his self-confidence. Media can’t get the questions out quickly enough, and the guy isn’t going to stand there and lie.

Snyder likes the confidence in doses, and in the right situations. The line between self-motivation and self-sabotage can be very thin in this league, and Gobert has toed it, especially when it comes to starrier names at the center position. His passion for dominating an individual matchup has occasionally gotten the better of him in the past.

“I’m still like that sometimes,” Gobert said with a laugh. “But I put the team first – I feel like if we win the game, to me, we win the matchup. I feel like if I do the best for my team, and if I stop the guy, it’s going to be good for my team too.”

At this point, there’s little else for a constantly diligent coach like Snyder to focus on. Gobert has mastered more details than even a details guy could have hoped; his developmental curve hasn’t stopped pointing squarely up since Snyder came to town. If he’s stopped using his slights as motivation, it’s only because there are hardly any left to choose from.

“I don’t want him to compare himself to other people,” Snyder said. “That’s the part of Rudy that I want him to continue to understand is unique: He’s Rudy. He’s not DeAndre Jordan, he’s not Hassan Whiteside, he’s not Marc Gasol, he’s not Hakeem Olajuwan. He’s himself. And I think that’s what he’s beginning to understand.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

Cleveland Cavaliers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Cleveland Cavaliers may not be as different as you think, especially with most of their Finals core returning from last season. They may not be contenders, but the question is can they stay in the playoff hunt while their big contracts age off the books? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Cavaliers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the talk of the town in the Eastern Conference. The King has left his post for a venture westward and the organization he was the face of is now on its own.

With a mixture of veterans and inexperience, it’s going to be a roller coaster season for the wine and gold, but they’ll be better prepared this time around for the departure of LeBron James.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Losing LeBron James is a tough blow (obviously) but there are still enough solid players on Cleveland’s roster to compete for a playoff seed this season. The main question is whether Kevin Love can recapture his superstar form from years ago when he was playing in Minnesota. It has been a while since Love was the go-to player on a team, so only time will tell if he is able to lead this team to the playoffs. The Cavaliers will also try to get more production out of players like Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and George Hill. These guys can produce but were inconsistent last season. My focus will be on the play of Collin Sexton, whom the Cavaliers drafted eighth overall in this year’s draft. Sexton has the attitude and talent to be a quality point guard and could be a nice sparkplug for the Cavaliers this season.

4th Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s hard to pinpoint which direction Cleveland is going. They actually did a pretty solid job this summer outside of losing the best basketball player of this generation. Drafting Collin Sexton, extending Kevin Love and adding under-the-radar players such as Sam Dekker and David Nwaba were sensible decisions. Sad to say, their current roster is now only good enough to be conversation for one of the lower seeds in the east. That may not be the best idea since they owe Atlanta a top-10 protected first-rounder this year. Still, there should be plenty of interesting storylines for them this year, which include how well they perform post-LeBron (again), how good of a coach Tyronn Lue really is, and what they have in Sexton.

4th Place – Central Division

– Matt John

Much more prepared for the second time LeBron James left the franchise, the wine and gold are poised to create a team-first environment with a healthy culture in the building. Kevin Love will have to take the reigns and Rodney Hood will be heavily depended on to put the ball in the basket. Larry Nance Jr. is going to be tasked with protecting the paint. Player development is going to be the sole focus, but winning is an absolute priority for the Cavaliers. Eighth overall pick Collin Sexton will have the chance to showcase his skills right away with plenty of young talent surrounding him. They’re not looking to tank as some speculated they would post-LeBron, so we’ll see if it pays off. Considering the Eastern Conference is wide open, there’s still a chance they could sneak into the playoffs.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

In their second go-round after losing LeBron James in free agency, there’s definitely hope in Cleveland that things won’t go quite so poorly for the Cavs. Last time, as many will recall, they went from the league’s best record to its worst in just a single season when The King departed. This time? There’s even playoff hope still abound in Cleveland, though whether it’s realistic or not is up for debate. Much of those hopes rest on Kevin Love, who is now armed with a new extension that’ll keep him paid through 2023. Many forget that Love was once a perennial All-Star and considered a borderline top-five player in the NBA in his Minnesota days – does he still have that level of play left in him as the lead dog? The Cavs still have solid shooting in Love, George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and others, but there are real concerns about whether this roster will have enough playmaking or defense to make any noise. Still, the relative weakness of the East makes a playoff appearance possible.

4th Place – Central Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Cavaliers are going to take a huge step backward, that’s not news or shocking, but to think the Cavs will fall off the map might be misplaced. Kevin Love is an All-Star, and he still has a lot of proven guys around him. The Cavs draft pick, Collin Sexton, should get all the opportunity to be the next guy and has star potential and Ty Lue is a good player-centric coach. The 8th seed isn’t out of the question for the Cavs, and that’s not bad for a team that lost its franchise player for nothing in return.

4th Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love

The five-time All-Star forward is going to have his hands full. There is no LeBron anymore. There is no Kyrie Irving anymore. Ironically, he is the last man standing out of the former big three and just signed a long-term deal this summer to be “the man” in Cleveland.

For years, basketball fans have been begging to see Love return to the same player as he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. This season, he has the opportunity to become that dominant force once again. We all know he’s a double-double machine who can stretch the floor and crash the glass, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the Cavaliers establish him on the block more often.

According to NBA.com, on a minimum of three possessions per game, Love had the sixth-lowest frequency, yet scored 0.98 points per possession in post-up situations. Only Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge were ranked above him in PPP. Last year’s offense was full of isolation and drive-and-kicks, leaving little opportunity for the 30-year-old big man to work down low.

He’s coming off his best perimeter-shooting season since 2010-11, too. It might take a few games to get re-acquainted to being the go-to guy without LeBron there, but Love will now have the chance to remind everyone that he is one of the most forceful inside-outside threats in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.

The 2017-18 Cavaliers were an abysmal defensive team. Whether it was a veteran-heavy roster failing to get their legs under them, poor effort, flawed schemes or too much miscommunication on switches—it was not pretty.

With that said, there was a small silver lining in that ugliness, and it was Nance Jr. From challenging bigs at the rim to moving his feet and making it tough on guards, he immediately made an impact as a versatile defender when healthy. Per Cleaning The Glass, with Nance Jr. off the court, Cleveland allowed 9.9 points per 100 possessions more. Opponents’ effective field goal percentage also increased by 4.5 percent as well.

Entering his second season with the wine and gold, Nance Jr. is going to play a huge role in forcing turnovers and making it hard on his assignments. The more floor time he receives, the better he will get.

Top Playmaker: Collin Sexton

A label held by LeBron for the past four years will be taken over by a rookie. There is no replacing the best player in the world in any way, shape or form. It’s all about creating a new star, and that’s what the Cavaliers are planning on doing with Sexton.

You will find no shortage of confidence or explosiveness watching the Alabama alum play the game. Not to use NBA Summer League as the best of examples, but just go back and look at his body language during that tournament, especially against Josh Hart and the Los Angeles Lakers. He is a surefire competitor, which is exactly why Cleveland selected him with the eighth overall draft pick.

He’s able to make things happen for both his teammates and himself. Sexton can change speeds quickly and get to the rim with conviction, pass on the drive and kick and get out in transition. Getting used to the speed of the NBA level will take some adjusting, as will playing with new teammates and learning their tendencies, but the man dubbed “Young Bull” is poised to have a breakout debut year.

Top Clutch Player: Kyle Korver

Who takes the big shot at the end? Who gets the big stop? Who makes the game-altering pass? All of these questions were answered with “LeBron” in the snap of a finger before. The question now is who will assume that responsibility.

At the moment, it’s a collective team effort. One night it could be Love, another it could be Sexton. Maybe Rodney Hood even gets the ball from time-to-time in a late-game situation. The point is, we don’t know the answer quite yet.

Purely based on who had the second-highest net rating in clutch situations to LeBron in a minimum of 30 games played in crunch time, Korver gets the nod here. The veteran sharpshooter’s offensive rating and true shooting percentage were both the highest on Cleveland as well. If you get the 37-year-old the ball on the outside, he’ll likely knock down a big bucket.

The Unheralded Player: Cedi Osman

When you look at the Turkish swingman’s statistics from last year, you’ll probably question what the fuss is all about and why he is getting invited to private workouts with the likes of LeBron, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Here’s why: He has the desire to play the game the right way.

Osman is only 23 years old. He already has the potential to be the perfect glue guy in his second season at the NBA level. Something about his game just provides a spark. It might be the energy he brings to the floor, or maybe it has to do with how aggressive he is on both sides of the boards.

Playing for his country in FIBA, there’s already been an improvement with his jump shot. He’s been drilling threes, specifically on off-the-dribble and pull-up attempts. Remember, he did work with Korver last season often. Maybe the veteran’s pointers will pay off for Osman.

Best New Addition: Collin Sexton

Cleveland desperately needed to add a playmaker to the roster. They severely missed that last year without Kyrie Irving. The 19-year-old rookie is going to have his ups and downs, but more importantly, he’ll be fun to watch develop. Learning under a veteran like George Hill could do him some good, regardless of whether or not the seasoned guard finishes the year out there.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Rodney Hood

It was a difficult second half for Hood last year. Being traded to the Cavaliers at the deadline, some thought he could just fit right in and score 17 points per game as he did with the Utah Jazz. But unfortunately, the league isn’t a 2K simulation where teams can just plug and play with no issues. It took time for him to learn to play off LeBron. His usage was down nearly 10 percent as well. Year two in The Land should allow him to get back to his usual confident self. Tyronn Lue thinks the world of him, so we’ll likely be seeing a lot of trust put into Hood.

2. David Nwaba

On a one-year deal, Nwaba is looking to prove he’s worth a bigger deal in the long term. He’s only going into his third season, but since making waves a couple of years ago in the Lakers’ G-League system and on the big club, he’s been scratching and clawing his way up. He started over 20 of the 70 games he played in for the Chicago Bulls in 2017-18. He’ll likely play a key role in the second unit., but the more playing time he’s gotten, the better the production has been. Nwaba has athleticism through the roof and is already one of the top defenders on the Cavaliers.

3. Channing Frye

Frye is a fan-favorite and an important part of the team culture Cleveland is aiming to instill in the locker room. He’s the perfect person to loosen things up if they get tense, almost like a player-coach type. On the floor, he’s still going to provide valuable production offensively as a knockdown shooter. Off of it, he’ll be a mentor to his younger teammates and a calming presence to the others. That’ll be necessary for an up-and-down season.

4. Tyronn Lue

With no LeBron around, we’re going to really see what Lue is made of. There were plenty of detractors last season due to the rotations he played and the way he managed minutes. Here’s his shot at proving the doubters wrong. Losing the four-time NBA MVP is going to make life harder on everybody in the franchise, but there’s a free range of what to do with this team now. Versatility and youth are available to him now like they never have been before. The pressure has been lifted a bit with the expectations tampered down a bit. It’s time to see if Lue can walk the walk.

– Spencer Davies

STRENGTHS

The Cavaliers finally have a chance to focus on the long-term, while addressing the now. General manager Koby Altman said it himself: This organization is getting back in the player development business. With the moves they made over the offseason, that couldn’t be clearer. Players who haven’t gotten too many opportunities—Sam Dekker, Isaiah Taylor, Kobi Simmons, Nwaba—are going to have a chance to show the coaching staff what they’re made of in training camp. The youth movement started early at the deadline last season with the acquisitions of Jordan Clarkson, Hood and Nance Jr. It’s full speed ahead now.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

This team lost its best scorer, its best playmaker, its best clutch option—pretty much all of the above. Filling the void of LeBron is impossible. In one year without him, it’s not going to be pretty at times. Depending on who is starting these games, you’re going to see errors and mistakes you haven’t seen in a while with the Cavaliers. They’ll show flashes of what they can become in due time, but for the most part, there will be plenty of teaching moments. It’s not going to happen overnight. Everybody involved probably knows, but we’ll see what the reaction is once things are set in motion.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

What is the plan with these veterans and their contracts?

Cleveland has a tall task ahead of them when it comes to shedding salary. We can start off with the $19 million contract of George Hill, followed by the $14.72 million that J.R. Smith is making this season. Both of these veteran guards do not have guaranteed big money next season, though, if waived in the summer of 2019. Only $1 million of Hill’s deal is guaranteed until July 1 and $3.7 million of Smith’s deal is guaranteed until June 30, respectively. If these two are waived before said dates, a team would not be on the hook for the last season of their contracts (Hill at $18 million, Smith at $15.68 million). Because of that, those two players would likely be easier to move for the Cavaliers than Tristan Thompson, who has two fully guaranteed years left on the deal he signed before the 2015 season.

Considering the shift in direction that the franchise has made, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if at least two of these three were moved in the future. Whether that’s mid-season, at the trade deadline or next offseason, we’ll have to wait and see.

– Spencer Davies

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NBA Daily: Four Trades For Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler has told the Minnesota Timberwolves he would like to be traded. If the team decides to deal, what might they get back in return?

Drew Maresca

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The Jimmy Butler and Minnesota Timberwolves saga feels as though it’s dragged on forever. In reality, it was only 15 months ago that he was traded to the Timberwolves from the Chicago Bulls for what now seems like a king’s random: Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, with the only other asset going back to Minnesota being the sixteenth overall pick.

Regardless of what was given up for him or how long the relationship lasted, it seems as though the two will part ways sooner than later. After a drawn out and fairly public back-and-forth on social media about when and where the two parties would ultimately meet, Coach and President Tom Thibodeau and Butler finally sat down on Wednesday. It was then that Butler informed the Timberwolves he would like to be traded. So much for a happy ending to the Thibodeau-Butler reunion.

But Butler doesn’t simply want out of Minnesota. He wants to be traded to one of three teams: the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers or the New York Knicks. Reports have read that Butler will only sign an extension with one of his preferred destinations. The subtext of the leak – regardless of who leaked it – indicates that teams beyond those three need not apply. And in fairness to Butler, he recognizes that he is in the prime of his career and prefers to begin establishing himself in a hand-selected location.

Butler is scheduled to make $19,841,627 this season. Below, Basketball Insiders explores the likely trade packages each of the three teams Butler would like to play for might put together, as well as one additional team that may be able to convince Butler to re-sign. Lots of other scenarios exist, including three-team deals and packages in which Minnesota ships out additional players. But we only focused on two-team deals in which Butler is the only player departing the Wolves roster.

Los Angeles Clippers

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Clippers are the preferred destination for Butler. The Clippers have numerous players with the requisite salary to get the deal done, but little in the way of desirable young players to entice the Wolves.

From a salary standpoint, the Timberwolves would likely have their choice of veterans to pry from the Clippers roster. Danilo Gallinari makes more than Butler and his deal stretches another year after 2018-19. Besides, Gallinari’s age and injury history make him an unlikely candidate. Marcin Gortat is on a $13.565 million expiring deal. But unfortunately for the Clippers, Gortat’s value is relatively low. While the Clippers probably prefer to hang onto Avery Bradley to form a tenacious one-two defensive punch, would be the likely starting point considering his value. But Bradley cannot be traded until December 15. If both teams are willing to wait, then Bradley will likely be the main piece for salary purposes. Otherwise, the Clippers may have to part with one or more of Tobias Harris, Wesley Johnson and Patrick Beverley.

But none of the aforementioned veterans would be the centerpiece of the trade. And the Clippers are unable to trade away another of their first round picks before 2022. So the deal is likely to be predicated on the inclusion of either Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Jerome Robinson, both of whom were drafted by the Clippers with back-to-back picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. However, the team should think twice before trading both. Other recent trades involving superstars – Paul George –haven’t returned two lottery picks of late. If possible, the Clippers should be steadfast in insisting that only one be included.

The Wolves will likely prefer Gilgeous-Alexander given the buzz that he created in the summer league. If the Clippers are serious about acquiring Jimmy Butler, they should begin rebuilding around Butler before they miss out on him altogether (see the Lakers’ recent failed-before-it-even-started pursuit of Paul George).

Clippers Get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves Get Tobias Harris, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jawun Evans

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are one of Jimmy Butler’s (second tier) preferred destinations. On the one hand, the Nets have limited developed talent to pair with Butler in 2018-19. On the other, the Nets open up an enormous amount of cap space next season, allowing them to sign at least two max-level free agents, one of whom could be Butler. If Butler went ahead and included Brooklyn on his list of destinations, then so be it.

Spencer Dinwiddie is an up-and-coming young guard and among the most valuable assets on the Nets roster. Trade discussions would probably begin there. But Dinwiddie only makes $1.6 million this season, the last year on his deal. The recently acquired Kenneth Faried makes a fairly significant $13.7 million and his contract also expires after this season. Throw in a Jarrett Allen for good measure and you’ve got the framework of a deal. In this situation, a protected pick would be needed as well.

Nets Get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves Get Kenneth Faried, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and the Nets 2019 First Round Pick (top 8 protected)

New York Knicks

The Knicks held their press day on Monday, at which time team President Steve Mills professed the team’s strategy of avoiding sending out assets for players that are free agents-to-be. If this is actually true, the team will have a hard time blowing the Timberwolves away with an offer.

But the team can still put forth a respectable package, which would begin with a young guard named Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina is an incredible defender who can be the lead guard or play off the ball. He is a 6-foot-6 20 year old with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. Ntilikina is alluring to almost any front office in the league.

Beyond Ntilikina, the Knicks actually have a talented veteran who can fill most of the salary requirements – Courtney Lee. Lee is slightly older than Butler, but can bridge the gap until Ntilikina is ready to take on a bigger role along side Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Timberwolves would probably prefer to net more than just one solid prospect in a deal for Butler, but Butler put them in a precarious situation when he gave them a wish list of preferred destinations. The Knicks would be wise to offer this and no more.

Knicks get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves get Courtney Lee, Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke and Damyean Dotson

Boston Celtics

Lots of teams will throw their respective hats in the ring on Jimmy Butler. On paper, the Celtics make the most sense given their abundance of young talent and accrued draft picks. And let’s not forget that earlier this summer, rumors began to spread about Kyrie Irving’s desire to team up with Butler.

The Celtics have enough draft assets to swing a deal in which they give up limited players, instead leveraging their future draft picks. Remember, the Celtics not only own their own picks, the team also possesses the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-round pick (top-one protected) and the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2019 first-round pick (top-eight protected).

But is that the right answer? After all, the Celtics already have a mini-logjam at the wing between Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. But maybe, instead of parting ways with future assets, the Celtics secure Butler and shorten up their rotation, which could potentially disrupt the team’s success into the playoffs with the entire roster entering the season seemingly healthy. Disclaimer — the Celtics would likely seek assurances from Butler that he would be open to re-signing before trading away a young star like Jaylen Brown.

Celtics get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves get Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart

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NBA

Portland Trail Blazers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Portland Trail Blazers could end up almost anywhere in the West – their outlook is that unclear. If they can’t be elite, could this be the end of the road for this roster? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Trail Blazers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Portland Trail Blazers surprised many last season when they ended up with the third best record in the Western Conference behind only the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a New Orleans Pelicans team that was probably a bit better than their record and sixth place finish indicated.

Despite that, the Blazers should feel good about themselves. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Sure they may not be on the same level as the Rockets or Warriors, but after that, the West is seemingly wide open. And with a little luck, maybe an injury here or there, anything can happen once the postseason rolls around.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Portland Trail Blazers are a really good team. But being really good in the Western Conference just doesn’t get you very far, unfortunately. Like the Utah Jazz, Portland is a dangerous team that could beat just about anyone on any given night. But I don’t see this year’s team being able to push the elite Western Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are explosive and continue to improve. The Blazers’ role players, like Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic, are solid. The team even has some interesting prospects, such as Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Having said that, I think the front office needs to try and make an honest assessment about this team’s ceiling and decide whether it’s time to be aggressive and start making some serious changes to the roster. It’s odd saying that since this is a really good team. However, the goal for Portland is a championship, but I just don’t see this roster having a real shot at that.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Blazers won 49 games last year and return a very similar roster, yet many are picking them to finish outside the playoff picture in the West – and it’s not that crazy to imagine. The conference is just that tough. Last year’s team was pretty similar to the year before: They had one remarkable run in the mid-spring period (a 13-game winning streak from just before the All-Star break through the middle of March), then were roughly .500 the rest of the year. They’re always a threat to explode offensively with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt, but it seems pretty clear this group has a limited ceiling that falls well below championship level. It’s also one Portland has a lot of money committed to even beyond this season. Is this the year the Blazers seriously consider making some big moves and resetting things if they aren’t in the hunt among legitimate contenders?

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Blazers have to do something. They may have a fine roster. They may have some excellent players. They may be well-coached. Unfortunately, they just don’t have enough. After suffering that embarrassing postseason defeat, the Blazers didn’t really do anything to improve their team. They are capable of making the playoffs and maybe could win a playoff round if everything goes their way. However, that’s as high at their ceiling gets and that’s if everything goes their way. Seriously, does anyone think they can actually compete with the Warriors or the Rockets? Are they even better than the new-look Lakers? If they don’t change things for the better, then the Blazers may approach the dreaded “treadmill team” label.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

It was a quiet offseason for the Blazers, who are coming off a solid season that abruptly ended in the playoffs against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. The tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is still one of the best one-two punches in the league today. Jusuf Nurkic is continuing to grow and build chemistry with his teammates going into year three with Portland. The loss of Ed Davis will impact the bench unit, but Zach Collins will have an opportunity to expand his role. Guys like Wade Baldwin and Jake Layman could see more floor time as well. While there won’t be a regression, Terry Stotts and company will need to fight tooth and nail in a tough Northwest Division to secure a postseason berth in the Western Conference.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

This has to be the year, right? It has to be the year the Blazers break through and become an elite team or management and ownership has to break it up, right? The Blazers have two elite level guards and a gob of money tied up into the rest of the roster. They have a good but not great head coach, so it either has to click and start to happen or leadership has to make bold changes. Let’s be real, the Blazers have tried to be aggressive, not only in trades but in free agency, so this team isn’t a product of sitting on their hands. But as West has gotten tougher and more developed, the Blazers haven’t necessarily kept up, so it has to happen now and there is a sense the Blazers get that. On paper, this arguably should be the best team in the Northwest Division, it’s just not assured they will be.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

To this point, Damian Lillard has blossomed into arguably a top-ten player in the league. He can score from anywhere on the floor. He’s got unlimited range and is very difficult to stop when he’s attacking the rim. Last season, he averaged 7.4 free throw attempts per game which he converted at a 91.6 percent clip, both career-highs.

The 26.9 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting were both the second-highest marks of his career. At 28 years old, Lillard is right in the prime of his career and a true star. He’s capable of exploding and having a huge scoring game on any given night. Many other teams in the NBA would love to have a player of that caliber. As long as Lillard is in Portland and producing at this level, the Blazers should remain competitive.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Al-Farouq Aminu has quietly become the best defensive player on the Blazers roster. He’s a long and athletic wing who can slide between forward positions defensively as well as take on the challenge of staying with some guards. Aminu was a big part of Portland’s strong defense last season. He’s good at transition defense, and he’s good at recovering and helping out when the guards get beat off the dribble. As the season went on, Portland had one of the better defenses in the league and Aminu was a major part of that.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

There isn’t much that Lillard can’t do on the court, and as it stands, he’s their best when it comes to running the offense. As explosive as he is at scoring the basketball, he can be just as deadly carving up a defense and creating opportunities for his teammates.

The 6.6 assists per game that Lillard dished out last season were the second-highest in his career. This was with not having too many offensive options to work with outside of McCollum. The Blazers were last in the NBA in assists per game, largely due to that fact, but Lillard made do with what he was given. He still managed to turn other guys into offensive threats. The Blazers are going to need much more of that this upcoming season.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

With the game on the line and a big shot needed, one could argue that you’d be comfortable with the ball in McCollum’s hands. He can create his own offense and is also a dead-eye shooter from anywhere on the floor. But overall, when a big play is needed for the Blazers, you’d still want the ball to be in the hands of Lillard.

Lillard’s ability to score is unparalleled on the team. He’s more adept than McCollum at getting to the rim in crunch time situations and thus, able to get a better look at the basket or draw contact and get a couple freebies. And when he inevitably draws the defense, his playmaking enables him to set someone else up for a big play.

The Unheralded Player: Al Farouq-Aminu

Al-Farouq Aminu may have emerged as the Blazers best defensive player, but he also might have just become their third best player behind Lillard and McCollum. He doesn’t draw much media and national attention, but he contributes in many different ways that help the Blazers win games.

Since entering the league, he’s improved his offense tremendously. He was always a solid defender, but his offense, in particular his shooting, was a weakness of his. This past season, he knocked down a career-high 36.9 percent of his attempts from three-point range. He also took a career-high 4.9 attempts per game. He’s their perfect 3&D guy. He’s also one of the best rebounders on the team, especially on the defensive glass. He can guard multiple positions. For the Blazers to continue to take leaps in the West, they’ll most certainly need Aminu.

Best New Addition: Seth Curry

The Blazers had a couple of weaknesses last season, bench depth and outside shooting. They’re hoping that Seth Curry can address both of those issues. Sure he owns the distinction of being Steph Curry’s brother, but he’s become a solid NBA player in his own right. He missed all of last season due to injury, but if he’s healthy, he’ll provide Portland with exactly what they need.

During the 2016-17 season, the last in which Curry played, he averaged a career-high 12.8 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent shooting from the three-point line. The Blazers guard off the bench role was filled by Shabazz Napier last season. Napier did an admirable job but he’s now off to Brooklyn. Curry can help fill that void with a capable ball-handler off the bench. He may even see time in the lineup with either one or both of Lillard and McCollum.

– David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Zach Collins

Portland’s lottery pick from a year ago, Zach Collins was thrown into the lineup as the season went on, and he showed vast improvements. He and Ed Davis became an effective big man tandem off the bench. He’s got range out to the three-point line and he is an effective defensive player. It got to the point where he was sometimes finishing games over starting center Jusuf Nurkic. He allowed Portland to feel comfortable letting Davis walk and allowing Collins to be the primary big man off the bench.

2. Anfernee Simons

It’s tough to envision Anfernee Simons getting minutes right away this season, but there’s no denying the oozing potential he has. For a playoff contender like the Blazers, a draft pick like Simons is a huge gamble. Portland has major playoff aspirations and someone like Simons isn’t going to be ready to contribute now. But his long-term outlook is what intrigues Portland. He is very gifted athletically and he’s already a good shooter. In Summer League, he showed off an ability to create his own shot. If his development goes well, Portland could end up with one of the best players of the 2018 draft.

3. Gary Trent Jr.

His fellow rookie Anfernee Simons might not be able to contribute right away, but Gary Trent Jr is a little more NBA ready. For a team that often lacked bench production, Trent can definitely help in that regard, even as a rookie. Physically, Trent is better adapted to the NBA grind than the slight Simons. He also gives the Blazers some much-needed perimeter shooting. In a recent survey of NBA rookies, Trent was voted by his peers as one of this rookie classes best shooters and most likely to be a draft steal. If he can come in and contribute, the Blazers bench might be very much improved.

4. Caleb Swanigan

A year ago, Caleb Swanigan had a very impressive summer league. He played sparingly for the Blazers this past season, but due to some roster departures, he’s going to be counted on to provide production off the bench. He’s a decent passer for a big man and he can score in the paint. He’s more of a traditional big man, which seem to be a dying breed in today’s NBA, but perhaps with his passing, he can make an impact on the court. With Davis gone, the other bigs on the bench such as Collins, Jake Layman and Myers Leonard, are all better suited to the changing game. But this is going to be an important training camp for Swanigan to prove that he should get a chance to help the team.

– David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Defense. The Blazers turned into one of the better defensive teams in the league last season. Sure neither Lillard nor McCollum would be confused for All-Defensive players, but even that didn’t matter too much. Jusuf Nurkic is a decent shot blocker, and Collins showed great defensive potential. Aminu is an incredibly underrated defender. And then there’s the enigma known as Moe Harkless. He can either be very good, or non-existent. He’s got the tools to be a superb wing defender. If they want to continue their ascent in the West, they’re going to need to continue to be a good defensive team.

– David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

Outside shooting and reliable bench production were two of the Blazers main weaknesses last season. Three of their main contributors from last season’s second unit, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis all signed elsewhere. They’re hoping that a few new roster additions, as well as some internal development, can help alleviate that. Based on the development he showed throughout the season, Collins appears ready to take another step forward. Trent and Curry will help with outside shooting. They’re going to need a couple of these guys to really step up and contribute if they hope to keep afloat in the West.

– David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Blazers continue to take a step forward and become an elite Western Conference team?

Sure the Blazers grabbed a top-four seed in the West last season, but they might be skirting around dangerous territory. Looking at their roster, they might be floating around the NBA’s dreaded no man’s land. That is, a team not bad enough to benefit from a lottery pick in the draft, but not good enough to make any serious noise in the playoffs. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt, and that definitely counts for something. But after that, it can get a bit murky. Their depth isn’t on par with some of the other elite West teams. They’ve got some guys capable of filling those roles, but it’s still a question mark. They’re probably good enough to keep their hold on a playoff spot, but it most likely will be a lower one than where they finished last season.

– David Yapkowitz

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