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Cheap Seats: Super Sophomores

In the latest edition of Cheap Seats Basketball Insiders’ interns debate over who is the best sophomore from the 2013 NBA Draft Class.

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss who is the best sophomore from the 2013 NBA Draft class.

Anthony Davis

In a league that features LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant among other big names, a guy like Anthony Davis, in just his second season, may get overlooked on the basketball court. A prime example of Davis getting overlooked happened back in February when he was left off of the All-Star roster by fans and even coaches. He was eventually selected to replace Bryant. Off of the court, Davis may be more noticeable due to “The Brow,” but that may soon change. Davis is playing himself into the elite tier of the league, at a position only few have.

Davis has made improvements in a few key statistical areas, improvements that have Pelicans fans believing he should be the Most Improved Player in the league. The Pelicans took notice and have launched the “Bigger. Better. Brower” campaign highlighting Davis’ improved season and are encouraging fans to post pictures donning a unibrow to social media. The improvements Davis has made are an additional 7.3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game in over six extra minutes of playing time. Davis improved his blocks per game from 1.8 to 2.8, and just missed out on being the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in the 1999-2000 season to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game. Davis is seeing the results of an improved overall game as his player efficiency currently ranks fourth in the league only behind Durant, James and Kevin Love.

Davis brings speed to the big man position that it hasn’t seen since Dwight Howard, and even Davis is quicker. His ability to handle the ball gives him the chance to face up on slower defenders and blow right by them with his first step, which often results in a foul. Davis is sixth among power forwards in free throw percentage and would rank third among centers at 79 percent, miles ahead of Howard’s 55 percent. The Pelicans want to institute the in-and-out type of offense, similar to what Howard had in Orlando, but the Pelicans just don’t have the shooters capable of that. The scary part is Davis still has more skills on the offensive side of the ball to refine. While he can catch some of the bigger guys off with his speed, adding more dribble moves would really solidify his presence in the middle of the floor.

What makes Davis such a dynamic player is his ability to hurt NBA teams on both sides of the ball. Davis can run the floor with the best of them, which is no easy feat for someone 6’10” and 220 pounds. Davis’ 7’4” wingspan has the paint on lockdown at times, but teams are figuring out how to work around that.

They will often run pick-and-rolls to move Davis out of the paint. His lack of size will hurt in the post and the back-to-the-basket plays, but the Pelicans seem to have been able to figure out how to work around that. Davis’ ability to time shots one-on-one in post-up plays has bailed him out numerous times. Once the defense really slows down for Davis, he will become a force for the Pelicans.

– Cody Taylor

Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard burst onto the NBA scene in a big way. In his debut, Lillard scored 23 points, and dished out 11 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a good start for the young point guard from Weber State University who was selected by the Portland Trailblazers with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft. He hasn’t slowed down since. Lillard swept the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award last season, and was unanimously named Rookie of the Year, becoming only the fourth player to do so, along with Blake Griffin, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson.

Last season Lillard set a Portland franchise record by making 185 three pointers, surpassing former Trailblazer Damon Stoudamire, who made 181 three pointers in 2005-2006. Lillard has taken it even further this season. As of today, Lillard is tied for second with Klay Thompson for most three point field goals made this season with 213.

Looking into Lillard’s background, it becomes clear why Lillard has become an elite point guard, and why the Blazers took a chance on him with the sixth pick.

Lillard was born and raised in the Oakland area, which has produced some of the best point guards to have ever played, including Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. Payton, nicknamed “The Glove” for his gritty defense, told SI.com that “He (Lillard) plays like the rest of us did, with that little swagger and that complete calm. He doesn’t get rattled. That quality comes from Oakland, from the neighborhoods, from going into other gyms and getting challenged.” It also comes from Lillard’s strong work ethic. His high school coach, Orlando Watkins, told Maxpres.com that Lillard “has always been very focused and very driven. When other kids were out partying, Damian was working on his dribbling or jump shot.”

That work ethic and composure has served Lillard well in his first two seasons. But his success has not changed the way he approaches the game. Earl Watson, a teammate of Lillard’s, told SI.com that Lillard “doesn’t want to think of himself that way. He still wants to think of himself as a two-star from Weber State. I played with GP and against J-Kidd, and those guys all have that Oak edge. Dame is afraid to lose it.”

This approach has paid off for Lillard. Recent reports indicate that Lillard is close to signing a new, lucrative deal with Adidas. For the last few years Derrick Rose has been the face of Adidas’ basketball brand. The similarities between Rose and Lillard go beyond their shoe endorsements however.

In Rose’s rookie season he averaged 16.8 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting from the field. He also contributed 6.3 assists, and 3.9 rebounds. In his second season, Rose averaged 20.8 points on 48.8 percent shooting, along with 6 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. In comparison, Lillard, in his rookie season, averaged 19 points on 42.9 percent shooting, along with 6.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. This season he is averaging 20.9 points on 42.5 percent shooting from the field. Lillard is also contributing 5.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and is hitting on 39.2 percent of his three point attempts. Note that it was Rose’s third season where he really made the leap into the upper stratosphere of the NBA, and won Most Valuable Player of the Year. With this in mind, it’s not a stretch to believe Lillard’s best days are ahead of him and could make a leap similar to the one Rose made.

However, Lillard still has room to improve, mostly on defense. Gary Payton said that “He’s not where he needs to be defensively. But he calls to ask what he’s doing wrong.” Lillard is in that class of elite players that are willing to admit their weaknesses and work hard to turn those weaknesses into strengths. This perspective will help Lillard continue his climb to truly elite status. Dorell Wright recently had dinner with the young star and told The Oregonian that “He was saying stuff to me that I don’t hear from young guys. He was talkin’ ‘I can’t wait until the summer, because I’m going to be working on this and that.’ And I was like, you already have your head there? Just hearing him saying that, and him looking forward to doing that work, that’s big. When I was that age, I was looking forward to getting back to L.A. to hang out with my friends. That was my main goal. So to hear him say that let’s me know how much passion he has for the game, how much passion he has for winning, and how much of a competitor he is.’’

While Lillard’s future is bright, it is important to not lose sight of what he and the Blazers have accomplished so far this season. Entering this season the Blazers were expected to be at best a fringe playoff team. Instead, they started the season on fire, going 31-9 in their first 40 games. They then hit a rough patch where they were winning and losing games in bunches, and slipping in the standings. Things got especially tough for the Blazers when star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge hurt his back on March 12 against the San Antonio Spurs. The Blazers lost that game, their fourth in a row.

After the game Lillard addressed his teammates in the locker room. It is unclear what he told the team, but veteran players like Wesley Matthews said it was good to hear from their point guard. Matthews said “It showed he’s grown. He’s one of those guys who has always led by example, and he put it on himself. He was tired of losing so he voiced his opinion.’’ The team still had some missteps until finally getting Aldridge back from injury, but it was Lillard who kept things from completely imploding. Most recently, Lillard went off for 14 fourth quarter points to help the Blazers get by the Utah Jazz after the Jazz managed to stick with the Blazers through three quarters.

The Blazers will have a tough route to the NBA Finals and it will be up to Lillard and Aldridge to step up and lead the team against the best teams in the West, most likely starting with the Houston Rockets. Listening to Payton, Lillard’s teammates, and his high school coach, it seems clear that Lillard has the confidence, leadership and skill to rise up to the moment.

– Jesse Blancarte

Andre Drummond

The Pistons season wasn’t great. In fact it was pretty disappointing. The team went out and brought in some big names (Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith) with the intent of being a playoff team and unfortunately never came close. However, there was one silver lining, one big reason to give pistons fans hope for the future and that of course is Andre Drummond.

Drummond, the ninth pick in the 2012 draft has been a monster in paint. When you watch him play it’s hard not to be in awe of his physical attributes. It is rare to see a man of his size (6’ 10” 270lbs) and strength to also be such an explosive athlete. Granted he may not have set the world on fire in his one season at the University of Connecticut but it’s still hard to believe eight teams passed on him before Drummond landed in the Pistons lap.

Following a strong rookie campaign, where he averaged 7.9 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game playing just over 20 minutes a night, Drummond has been even better in his sophomore season. He has started in every game he has played in this season (79) playing over 32 minutes a night. You would expect an increase in production when a player is given a more significant role but the numbers Drummond have been able to put up with increased minutes this season have more than just a small jump.

The most impressive aspect of Drummond’s game this year has to be his relentless effort on the glass. He has been a rebounding machine all season long, hauling in 13.2 per night. To just give his rebound per game numbers would be selling Drummond short, he leads the league the in total rebound percentage at 22.2, offensive rebounding percentage 17.3, total offensive rebounds with 426 and is second in total rebounding with 1041 on the year to date. To put in perspective just how dominant Drummond has been rebounding let’s compare Drummond’s offensive rebound totals historically with the offensive rebound totals of players in their second season, he is the best, EVER. That’s right no player has ever recorded more offensive rebounds in their second season than Drummond. His 426 offensive rebounds ranks ahead guys like Shaquille O’neal, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and Dennis Rodman to name few. When you expand the query to include not just players in their second season but any single season, Drummond only ranks behind the great Moses Malone who somehow managed to haul in 587 offensive boards in the 1978-79 season, as well Malone had two other seasons with over 445 offensive rebounds. His numbers on the defensive glass may not be as historically great but they certainly aren’t bad either. He ranks third in the league in total defensive rebounds (615) and ninth defensive rebound percentage (27.7). In just his second season in the league Drummond has already proven that he is without a doubt one of the best rebounders in the league and is in a class of his own when it comes to the offensive glass.

Rebounding may be his strongest attribute but it definitely is his only strength. He isn’t a great scorer in the sense that he is not likely to drop 40 plus on a given night, but in terms on efficiency he is one of the best in the league. Second best to be exact, scoring on a 62.5 percent on his attempts. Sure many of those attempts are dunks or lay-ups but you could say the same about a lot of big men in the NBA and they aren’t nearly as efficient scoring the ball. His incredible work on the offensive glass allows him to create many scoring chances for himself. As well he does a nice job camping out around the rim waiting for lob opportunities when penetration draws his man to help. If Drummond can manage to improve his low post moves watch out, he may quickly develop into one of the best big men in the league.

One major weakness that he must improve on is his free throw shooting; Drummond is shooting only 41.3 percent from the stripe which is shockingly better than the 37.1 percent he shot his rookie season. He isn’t the first center to struggle at the line, Shaq of course was a notoriously bad free throw shooter, but 41.3 percent is absolutely terrible. The position he plays and the way he plays will afford him plenty of chances at the line so it will be important for him try and get his percentage up to atleast over 50 and preferably near 60.

Defensively Drummond is very solid. He can use his massive physique to handle almost any opposing big on the block. He does a nice job staying out of foul trouble and is decent rim protector blocking almost two shots per game.

The Pistons have look like they have struck gold in Drummond. If he can manage to stay healthy there is no reason he shouldn’t be one of the top big men in the league for the next decade. If he continues to rebounding at the rate he did the season he may in the conversation with some of the best rebounders of all-time. This is just projection based off one season so a lot could certainly change but he has already shown that when healthy he can be one of the most productive rebounding bigs in the league. Amazingly Drummond is still very young, just 20 years old. If he can become a consistent scoring threat on the low block it’s hard to imagine any scenario where he isn’t a perennial all-star. Drummond’s future will only be limited by his commitment to the game, if he is willing to put in the work he will be a star for years to come.

– John Zitzler

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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Aamir Simms Readying Himself for His Opportunity

Clemson’s Aamir Simms is a versatile big man built for the modern NBA. Drew Maresca spoke with Simms about the draft process, Clemson’s success last season and how he thinks he fits in the league.

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Clemson has produced some very good NBA players – including Elden Campbell, Dale Davis and Horace Grant – but not too many of late. The most recent Clemson Tiger who was selected in the NBA Draft was Jason Blossomgame in 2017. Before that, K.J McDaniels in 2014, Trevor Booker in 2010 and Will Soloman in 2001. Aamir Simms hopes to be the first in a while – and he hopes to stick in the league.

Statistically, Simms has everything you’d want in a prospect. He’s a 6’8” big who can defend multiple positions and shoot it from deep. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2020-21, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts and 82.5 percent from the free throw line.

Simms was also named to the second-team All-ACC this season, after being named to the third-team All-ACC last season.

But the NBA Draft is a crapshoot with hundreds of players competing for just 60 spots. Complicating matters is the fact that Simms was a four-year player – and age is not an asset in the NBA Draft.

But Simms proved a lot in his time at Clemson, and he feels that his ability and willingness to do whatever a team needs is an asset.

“My original position was the four,” Simms recently told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m comfortable playing small ball five (too). And later in my career, I want to work toward playing some three, too, like Jeff Green.”

Green, who played a major role in the Brooklyn Nets’ success this season, is among the players who inspire Simms. He obviously values what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do, but he sees the utility of players like Green, and he understands that mimicking players like this will be key in his success.

“Being a versatile four like Jae Crowder (would be ideal), Simms said. “Being able to defend guys his size. Having the mid-range and the face-up like Al Horford or Paul Milsap. The craftiness and versatility of Tobias Harris. And especially Jeff Green. He does a good job of shooting the ball, playing the post, guarding one through five.”

“And that’s something I’m excited to showcase in this combine, in workouts and even through summer league.”

Achieving that success requires serious skill and versatility, but Simms believes he’s already on his way. If you’re thinking “but there isn’t evidence that he can do that,” you’re not wrong. But it’s not uncommon for players to sacrifice their own success for the greater good of a college program – and that’s exactly what Simms did.

“My perimeter defense is something I am really ready to showcase,” Simms said. “At school, I was an undersized five, so I didn’t switch much for the sake of the team,’ Simms said.

But he can – and he knows it.

Clemson’s entire roster had only three players taller than Simms. Two of the three were Freshmen and the other – Jonathan Baehre – started just 10 games. Clearly, Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a vision for his team, which included Simms as an undersized center. And considering their entry into the NCAA tournament after the media predicted they finish 10th in the ACC in a pre-season poll, it’s fair to say it worked.

“I think there’s a lot of things that teams look at (in the draft process): winners, individual growth, changes in your stats, and consistency,” Simms said. “I think I’ve shown all those areas throughout this season.”

“Just the way I led my team, (along) with other guys on the team, I got us back to the tournament – because people didn’t really expect us to. We got ranked pretty highly. My shooting and numbers improved, especially my field goal percentage. I was a little streaky with rebounds, but I think I showed improvements in areas that would progress me in the prospect rankings.”

With Simms, shooting will initiate interest.  As mentioned above, Simms shot better than 40 percent on three-point over the past two seasons – but he wasn’t a knock-down shooter early in his Clemson career.

As a Freshmen, Simms shot a pedestrian 32.6 percent on three-point attempts. But credit Simms for identifying the problem and working to fix it

“The reason why I shot so low as a freshman was that my form was coming across the left side of my face, so when I released the ball I couldn’t see as much,” Simms explained. “From the middle of my freshmen year to Senior year, I worked with (assistant) coach Smith before he went to Florida State, as well as (assistant) coach Dean and (director of player development) Terrell Mcintyre.”

“And those guys helped me improve my form and stick with it. And then, it was just spending my summers getting up hundreds of shots – 500 every morning and 500 every night to get that muscle memory down.”

But there’s more to Simms game than just shooting, and that’s what he hopes to prove throughout the draft process – beginning on Sunday, June 20 at the G-League Elite camp.

The G League Elite camp is an opportunity for 40 players to showcase their abilities in front of NBA and G League scouts, as well as coaches and front-office executives. The camp will consist of five-on-five scrimmages, as well as strength and agility drills. Top performers will earn an invite to the 2021 NBA Draft combine, meaning the camp can catapult players into very real consideration by NBA clubs. And Simms understands the opportunity at hand.

“Getting invited to the combine (is the goal),” Simms said. “That’s where the best of the best goes. I belong, but I’m fortunate to get the invite because there are other good guys who didn’t get an invite.”

This season, Simms faced off against at least two lottery prospects in Scottie Barnes (Florida State) and Jalen Johnson (Duke). Both will probably be used as measuring sticks of Simms’ potential; but considering defensive schemes, all matchups aren’t equal.

Simms underperformed against Florida State, scoring just 5 points on one-for-three shooting. But Florida State eliminates post opportunities and is known for its swarming defense.

“Florida State gets up in you, (they) switch one through five. They sit on you and take you out from catching the ball deep in the post,” Simms said. “I understood I wasn’t going to be as involved as I wanted entering it.”

But regardless of how you view Simms’ performance against Florida State, he demonstrated a big heart in coming back and playing well against Duke just one week later. While Clemson lost by 26 points, Simms performed well in a head-to-head matchup with another high-profile forward, scoring 19 points on seven-for-thirteen shooting.

“I have shown since my junior year that your ranking doesn’t matter,” Simms explained. “You play lottery picks a few times every year. That one was more of a bounce back after Florida State. That’s another one where we weren’t together, but the individual performance was what it was. It was in a losing effort so I didn’t focus on it, but it shows that I can play with anyone. I don’t care if you’re top 10 in the draft or wherever. I always feel I perform at a high level against highly projected players, and that was an opportunity to remind people who I am.”

Having to prove oneself self after four seasons at a big-time program would probably bother a lot of prospects, but it doesn’t bother Simms. On the contrary, Simms uses it as motivation.

“I am just thankful to be in the position I am because a lot of guys work for it and don’t get the opportunity,” Simms said. “It can be frustrating to be asked to prove yourself over and over, but the majority of great guys in the game have to do that at some point, too, so that’s fine.”

“I (already) have a chip on my shoulder,” Simms continued. “I come from the worst situations you can imagine, so being asked to keep showing my game and my progression is easy. Being able to put the ball in the basket and play hard isn’t something I stress over.”

“I’ve been through way darker times,” Simms continued. “Playing basketball is fun. I’ll have to show it over and over, but at least I’m doing what I love. Passion takes care of all of that. My faith pushes me through, God pushes me through. So if they ask me to do it 100 times, I’ll do it 101. I belong in the league. I believe I’m NBA-ready. If they want me to do it this week and another week after that, I’m ready.”

Simms is focused on getting the right opportunity with the right team. He’s spoken to his friends in the NBA including Mamadi Diakite (Milwaukee Bucks) and Nic Claxton (Brooklyn Nets), both of whom speak about the mental toll of going from being “the guy” to getting DNPs. But they’re not bitter. They emphasize the importance of getting into a good situation with a patient team and how it enables players to build confidence away from the pressure of the NBA game.

Still, you never know when your number will be called and rookies have to be perpetually ready. They also have to understand a team’s needs and the system that’s run. But Simms isn’t worried about that aspect. As the 2021 “Skip” Prosser Award winner, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in men’s college basketball, he’s always been one to hit the books – and he intends on approaching an NBA opportunity the same way.

“If I am lucky enough to get drafted, I am going to spend that time starting the first night to get a feel for the team,” Simms said. “Learn the roster, who’s the primary and secondary guys and seeing where I fit.”

“No matter what, one thing you can do is rebound and defend. So that’s something I am going to do from the jump, (as well as) doing what coach asks of me. I’ve always been very coachable.”

Getting drafted is obviously the goal. But Simms understands that there is an opportunity beyond the draft. And conversely, he knows that getting drafted doesn’t guarantee success.

“Too many guys get caught up with their name being called, and that can land them in a bad situation,” Simms said. “It takes a lot of maturity to understand that it’s OK if you’re not drafted. A lot of guys who aren’t drafted or are taken late second-round are standing out (currently). Look around the league, guys come from the G League or overseas… if you can get over the idea of getting drafted and just focus on getting your foot in the door, that’s most important. That’s what I’m focused on.”

Simms has spent at least the last four years preparing himself for this moment – now it’s time to prove that he belongs. His mix of athleticism, size and skill will get him noticed, but his patience and cerebral approach are real differentiators. Even if Simms’ name isn’t called on July 29th at the draft, this writer believes he’ll find his way onto an NBA roster for the 2021-22 season, one way or another.

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Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers

From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.

It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.

Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games. 

He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.

To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.

There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.

However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.

Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.

As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.

The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”

As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.

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Now What? – Golden State Warriors

The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.

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For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.

Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.

The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.

Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.

Strengths

Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.

A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.

Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.

Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.

Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.

Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.

Weaknesses

One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.

Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.

Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.

Opportunities

The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.

The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.

Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.

Threats

Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.

Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.

While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.

One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.

The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.

Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.

A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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