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NBA PM: Portland Trail Blazers 2017-18 Season Preview

The Blazers finished last season 17-6. Is that a sign of what’s to come? Basketball Insiders weighs in.

Basketball Insiders

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The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2017-18 as an intriguing bunch, if nothing else.

After winning 44 games during the 2015-16 season, the club made an improbable run to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Despite losing LaMarcus Aldridge, it appeared that brighter days were ahead for the tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The Blazers re-signed most of their core free agents and added a few new faces, but stumbled out of the blocks to the tune of a disappointing 10-10 record after 20 games.

The young club entered the All-Star break a dismal 10 games below the .500 mark and the hopes of securing a playoff spot seemed bleak, but the midseason acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets changed everything.

Acquired on February 12 in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second round pick and cash, Nurkic would play 20 regular season games for the Blazers before going down with a right fibular fracture, but the Blazers managed to reel off a 14-6 record with him in the lineup. Seeming to be the piece the team has missed over the early part of the season, Nurkic’s injury preempted any chance that the Blazers had at advancing out of the first round of last season’s playoffs, especially once they were locked into the eighth seed and pitted against the Golden State Warriors.

Having been swept at the hands of the eventual champions, one can only wonder which Trail Blazers team will show up during the 2017-18 season—the team that was inconsistent and sometimes listless over the first 60 games of last year, or the 14-6 club that emerged with Nurkic in the middle.

Let’s preview the 2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Portland’s backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are amongst the top guard tandems in the league, and this offseason they’ve spent most of their time training together in preparation for what looks to be another playoff bound campaign.

With a healthy Jusuf Nurkic on board for a full 82 games, the star backcourt will have their inside presence to build with all season.

Despite the star power the Trail Blazers possess themselves, a .500 record likely won’t be good enough to get out of the regular season this year. Just in Portland’s division alone, the Western Conference has seen the likes of Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Paul Millsap enter the picture.

Lillard and McCollum are on record with their recruitment of embattled New York Knicks’ star Carmelo Anthony. In order to make their lives a little easier in their suddenly stacked division, maybe the stud duo should ramp up their sales pitch.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has built a reputation for being a savvy team architect. However, his front office’s approach to this offseason has been somewhat dubious. Moving Allen Crabbe’s bloated contract made a lot of sense, but it seems like no one realized how little depth the team has on the wings. If Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum misses any extended period of time this season, the Blazers will likely be in big trouble. Evan Turner can play either guard position, but Turner isn’t the solution to replacing either Lillard or McCollum. The team also lacks three-point shooting, which is going to be a recurring problem, unless the team makes some significant trades. Also, it’s not clear has invested so much money and so many roster slots on big men. Though the roster features significant talent, it’s undeniably imbalanced, which means Portland could look to make some deals before next year’s trade deadline.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

It took the rest of the NBA world a few months to catch up after I suggested that Carmelo Anthony’s ideal situation would be to land in Portland with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but until Anthony himself sees the light, it’s wishful thinking for the Blazers.

One thing the Blazers don’t have to wish for, though, is productivity in the middle. Over the past few years, there have been a real life game of musical chairs for the pivot man in Portland, but it appears that those prayers have been answered in the form of Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic got the opportunity to prove his worth and saw his numbers basically double after being traded to Portland, and if the Blazers had better health fortunes, their season may have ended differently.

Without question, the Northwest Division is the most difficult to predict this season, mainly because the Timberwolves, Thunder and Blazers, under certain circumstances, all may have the opportunity to win it. What’s even more amazing to consider is that the team that won the division last season—the Utah Jazz—aren’t even mentioned there.

In terms of talent, I think the Blazers are closer to a 50-win team than they are a .500 team (which they were last year), so I’ll go ahead and give them that. I can totally see this prediction blowing up in my face, but at this point, I think I’m taking Portland to finish third, behind the Timberwolves and the Thunder.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Something tells me Damian Lillard is on the cusp of taking his game to an entirely different level. Not that he hasn’t been crushing defenders for years at this point, but he’s been passively-aggressively stewing on social media all summer and is made of a lot of the same things that make Russell Westbrook great. I believe in Lillard, flat-out, and getting the contributions we’ve come to expect from C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Mo Harkless should keep Portland every bit as relevant in the Northwest as every other team in that tough division.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

The Blazers are an interesting test case for what we can confidently take away from a small sample in a previous season. During a 20-game stretch post-All-Star break last year when Jusuf Nurkic joined the team, Portland went 14-6 and often looked dominant. On the flip side of that coin, they went just 27-35 for the rest of the year – and to be honest, their slate of opponents during that strong Nurkic-fueled stretch was pretty mediocre.

Is that 20 games enough to assume Nurkic was the missing ingredient for this team? That’s a big question. The Blazers got weaker in the spacing department over the summer with the trade of Allen Crabbe, and they still have some fairly serious defensive questions. Does adding another high-level guy in Nurkic full-time to the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum core do enough to mask these concerns? Playing in the toughest division in the league will also be tough, and this group can’t afford a single injury to either of their stars. At the same time, they’ve still got Terry Stotts behind the bench and a ton of continuity, so they’ll be right there in the playoff picture.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: C.J. McCollum

There are probably a fair number of people that would argue that Damian Lillard is the top offensive player on the Blazers, and it’s difficult to argue with them. We give the nod to C.J. McCollum, though, not because of any ill will toward Lillard or the way he does things, but more so because McCollum is the more efficient player. Aside from converting on 42 percent of his three-point looks last season, McCollum converted on a higher percentage of total field goals, two-point field goals and free throws than Lillard. While Lillard did lead the team in scoring last season (27 points per game to McCollum’s 23), the difference for Lillard can easily be attributed to his higher usage rate and the fact that he is still the team’s go-to player. If not for that disparity and the fact that Lillard took about twice as many free throws as McCollum did last season, McCollum might have been the team’s leading scorer.

Give the nod here to Lillard if you wish, we won’t argue. But in today’s NBA, efficiency counts for a lot, and McCollum’s excellence in that department can’t be overlooked.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Since being drafted with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Al-Farouq Aminu has played four four different teams, but he averaged a career-high 29.1 minutes per game last season for the Blazers. The reason why is because he has proven himself to be a consistent difference-maker on the defensive side of the basketball. Aminu has impeccable defensive instincts and has proven his mettle as both a weak side defender and disruptor of passing lanes. Aminu is also a player that moves remarkably quick on the perimeter for someone whose size and stature allows him to be an effective post defender.

The difficulty in measuring defensive impact is well-documented, but the five-man unit statistics compiled by 82games.com offers some valuable insight. In terms of plus-minus, four of the top five five-man units that the Blazers trotted out last season featured Aminu playing alongside Lillard and McCollum.

Aside from that, anointing Aminu as the top defensive player on the Blazers is more a result of watching him in action than it is of any statistical evidence to support the claim. Of course, that’s fairly normal for defensive players, but we don’t think many would argue in this instance.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard averaged just 5.9 assists per game last season. For a point guard who shot 19.8 shots per game, it seems to be a fairly low number. When compared with the 6.8 assists per game Lillard averaged during the 2015-16 season, the reduction is impossible not to notice. It can be reasoned, however, that the lower assist numbers can simply be attributed to Lilliard’s teammates not converting on the opportunities that he created for them rather than the fact that he simply sought to create less for them. Truth be told, though, for Lillard to take the next step in his career, he needs to become a better floor general. Over the years, he has shown an ability to see the floor and has become a better pick-and-roll point guard, but he rarely breaks down defenders and gets into the paint with the intention of creating an open look for a teammate. Lillard, similar to Russell Westbrook a few years ago, usually seems to pass when the defense forces him to, and not as naturally as a Chris Paul or John Wall.

Still, Lillard has developed as a playmaker and, if his progression continues, will lead the Blazers to higher heights. With Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner as the other players entrusted to create shots, he is still fairly considered to be the team’s top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

You can probably count on one hand the amount of players who have hit series-clinching three-point shots at the buzzer, but that’s exactly what Damian Lillard did back in 2014 when he sank the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of their first round playoff series. At just 23 years old, as a sophomore, Lillard proved he had the clutch gene. Last season was incredible, though.

Lillard accomplished the rare feat of sinking two buzzer beaters in the same game. It came in just the third game of the regular season and was an omen of things that were to come. Last season, Lillard scored 183 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, third to Isaiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook, respectively. Lillard also shot 12-for-38 in the final minute in the fourth quarter and overtime. It again places him behind Thomas and Westbrook, but without question, he is the top clutch performer on the Blazers.

The Unheralded Player: Maurice Harkless

Moe Harkless put together an across-the-board career season last year, and he did it while sharing minutes with Allen Crabbe. Now that Crabbe has been dealt to the Brooklyn Nets, it’ll probably result in more production for Harkless. In 2015, the Blazers signed Harkless to a four-year, $42 million contract and coming into it, there was quite a bit desired from the 21-year-old forward. Two years later, Harkless has emerged as the team’s starting small forward and has shown remarkable improvement in his three-point shooting. Hitting 35 percent of his shots from distance last season, Harkless seemed to mesh well with Jusuf Nurkic and helped the Blazers find themselves in the playoffs. His play suffered a bit during the team’s four-game sweep at the hand of the Golden State Warriors, so consistency is what will be required of him moving forward. Still, he has shown the makings of a good pro and makes enough of a game impact to be considered a diamond in the rough, and at just 24 years old, he still has appreciable upside.

Best New Addition: Jusuf Nurkic

Over the past few seasons, the Blazers have employed what seems to be a revolving door of big men. Last season, though, with the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic, the franchise appears to have found a longterm answer to their question in the middle.

Technically, Nurkic was acquired last season, but since this coming season will be his first in a Blazers uniform, he makes the cut. That he only played 20 regular season games with the team further bolsters the case. As a member of the Denver Nuggets, Nurkic was thought to be a building block that the team foresaw splitting time with Nikola Jokic in the middle, however, the two seemed to be diminishing one another’s impact. After the February trade brought Nurkic to the Blazers, his productivity shot up when compared to what he was able to produce with the Nuggets. Nurkic scored 15.2 points, grabbed 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. The 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks were icing on the cake. As if the double-double wasn’t enough, Nurkic giving the Blazers three assists per game is something that few centers are capable of contributing. With him in the lineup for the final 20 games of last season, the Blazers went 14-6. If that wasn’t an aberration, it could mean 50-plus wins and another journey to the second round of the playoffs.

— Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

1. Zach Collins

The Blazers entered the draft with the 15th, 20th and 26th picks, and managed to use the 15th and 20th picks to walk away with Zach Collins. While Collins did have some issues with staying out of foul trouble in Collins, he entered a loaded drafted as a projected lottery pick and ended up being selected 10th overall, as expected. Collins saw his stock rise dramatically over the course of his freshman year at Gonzaga, mainly due to his impressive per-minute numbers, efficiency ratings and timely performances over the course of the tournament. Obviously, those metrics don’t always translate, but playing behind Jusuf Nurkic, Collins will give the Blazers some depth and youth with upside, so there’s no question that he will have every opportunity to become a valuable part of Terry Stotts’ rotation.

2. Neil Olshey

In hindsight, general manager Neil Olshey may have been a little aggressive last summer when he went on a phenomenal spending spree, but he has consistently shown the ability to find diamonds in the rough and mold them into special pieces. The latest example of this would be Jusuf Nurkic. Perhaps Olshey was simply in the right place at the right time, but Nurkic appears to be the answers for the Blazers in the middle. In the Nurkic trade, while Olshey did send out Mason Plumlee, cash considerations and a second round pick, he managed to convince the Nuggets to include the 2017 first round pick that the club used to select Harry Giles. They eventually flipped Giles to the Sacramento Kings in return for Zach Collins and effectively got Nurkic and Collins for Mason Plumlee and a second round pick. Olshey often finds way to spin pieces into valuable building blocks, and this is another example.

3. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum

If the Blazers made a mistake, it would have been overestimating where they were in terms of their rebuild and committing too quickly to a group of players that won’t ultimately lead them to contention in the Western Conference. One thing they haven’t erred on, though, is committing to rebuild around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The duo rightfully belong in the conversation with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and John Wall and Bradley Beal as the top backcourts in the league. Some would even argue that Lillard and McCollum are as good as the defending champions, but we’re not ready to go there just yet. With James Harden and Chris Paul having joined forces in Houston, Lillard and McCollum may see their perceived stock fall a bit. While they do still need to show an ability to have as much game impact on the defensive side of the basketball, there’s no question that they are a magnificent duo to build around.

4. Terry Stotts

Things might be a tad uncomfortable for Terry Stotts in Portland. Even after ridding themselves of Allen Crabbe’s contract, the Blazers will be a luxury tax team this season, and with the 14-6 record that they compiled over the final 20 games of last season, the expectations of Stotts will be to have the team storm out the gate and cruise to 50 wins out West. What we will credit Stotts for is this: he is innovative and courageous. Last season, Stotts tinkered with his lineups and rotations and found a way to make it all work by giving consistent playing time to Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. With less new faces to incorporate this season, Stotts will enjoy some stability and should, in theory, help the Blazers get their season off to a better start than he did a year ago.

5. Evan Turner

Last offseason, the Blazers signed Evan Turner to a whopper of a contract—four years, $70 million. Although it’s a hefty price tag to play for a player who has started less than 50 percent of his games, Turner is a versatile swingman who has the undervalued skill of being able to create looks for his teammates playing either as an off guard or swingman. Part of the reason why we are showing Turner some love here, though, is because he figures to be a bigger part of what the Blazers do this season with Allen Crabbe having been moved on to Brooklyn. If Turner can revert to the player we last saw in Boston, it would go a long way toward restoring his value and the perception about his contributions.

— Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Blazers entered the summer well above the league’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Dumping Allen Crabbe on the Brooklyn Nets helped shave that down significantly, although Portland is still over the line at roughly $122.2 million in team salary for a $4.5 million penalty. While the team still has their $5.2 million taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, they probably hold off using it to avoid additional taxes.

Next summer, the Blazers will be over the cap. Three players (Noah Vonleh, Jusuf Nurkic and Shabazz Napier) are all eligible for extensions before the start of the season.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The two things that the Blazers have going for them this season is their youth and their continuity.

As we have consistently seen over the years, the NBA is a young man’s game. Often, the teams that can stay healthiest and enjoy the best fortune are those that excel. Last season, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe—four of the team’s most important rotation players—missed a combined total of just 17 games. The Blazers will enter the season with just one player over the age of 30 years old, and that’s Anthony Morrow, whom the club signed on September 15 as a roster filler. Those playing the lion’s share of of the minutes in Portland will have youth on their side, and that’s definitely a strength.

The other obvious strength of the Blazers is continuity. Entering last season, there were a few new players to crash the rotation and newfound expectations thrust upon many members of the team. This season, with a cast that is mostly carried over from last season, the familiarity should pay dividends.

— Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

It seems a bit cliche to point to defense as a weakness, but for the Trail Blazers, it rings true. The team can score with the best of them and can win any game wherein they are hitting their shots, but when they go up against a powerful defensive force, they struggle to gets wins because they struggle to get stops. In the Western Conference, every contender needs to buckle down and get stops when they’re needed, and the Blazers simply cannot count on Al-Farouq Aminu to single-handedly get them those stops—not when they’ll be seeing high-octane offenses featuring the likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

If there is one other weakness of the Blazers, it would have been their lack of interior scoring, but with Nurkic manning the post, the team may be equipped to do something about that this coming season.

— Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum Step Up?

Barring something unforeseen (such as Carmelo Anthony agreeing to waive his no-trade clause to relocate to Portland), with the money on their books, the Blazers are somewhat committed to their current core. The team has over $100 million in salary commitments over each of the next three seasons, so their hope of being able to tango with the Golden State Warriors rests squarely on the shoulder  of Lillard and McCollum. Last season, the tandem averaged just 9.5 assists per game on 37.8 shots attempts per game. Simply put, that’s not a recipe for winning basketball. With the addition of Nurkic, those shot attempts should trend downward, but Lillard and McCollum need to become renowned for impacting the game in area other than scoring.

Last season, Portland was 25th in points allowed and 24th in defensive efficiency. If they are to become anything more than the Western Conference’s version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks, they need to become a better defensive team. Whether or not they do will likely begin (or end) with their dynamic backcourt.

— Moke Hamilton

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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