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Portland Trail Blazers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Basketball Insiders

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The Portland Trail Blazers finished the 2015-16 season as one of the biggest surprises in the NBA. The team got off to a slow start, winning just 14 of their first 35 games. But after the All-Star break, Portland managed to go 17-11 in the final 28 games of the regular season, making the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

For a team that was projected to be in the bottom tier of the NBA, the Blazers proved that they could compete at a high level. And not only did Portland make the playoffs, they advanced to the second round by defeating an injured L.A. Clippers team. Once in the Western Conference Semifinals, they lost to the Golden State Warriors in a deceivingly competitive five-game series.

This season, however, is a little different. After winning 44 games last year, the Blazers had enough faith in their current roster and decided to retain most of their young talent. In re-signing the likes of C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard, while adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli in free agency, the team spent a lot of money on a nucleus that has yet to reach its full potential.

The organization is now fully invested in this group for the long haul, and the expectations have accordingly risen. Fair or not, there are doubters who are assuming the Trail Blazers won’t duplicate their success from last season, but there’s something to be said for team chemistry and continuity. It’s a risky play by management and ownership to pay upfront for their players’ future value, but if it pans out, general manager Neil Olshey will prove everyone wrong once again.

With the strong leadership qualities of blossoming superstar Damian Lillard and the excellent chemistry of this current team, the Blazers could once again make everyone look foolish for doubting them. Don’t count this team out, as they thrive on proving others wrong.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Portland Trail Blazers.

FIVE GUYS THINK

Whether you’ve read my interviews with their players or followed my playoff predictions the last two years, you know that I’ve been on the Blazers’ bandwagon for quite some time. I love this young group, particularly the one-two punch of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt. Both of these guys have emerged as legitimate stars and the scariest thing for opposing teams is that their best basketball is still ahead of them. Throw in head coach Terry Stotts – who remains ridiculously underrated – and a very talented supporting cast, and you have a team that should continue to compete at a high level for years to come. I do have the Thunder winning the Northwest, but as I mentioned in my Jazz preview, I think the top three teams in this division will finish very, very close to one another in terms of win total. All three teams are very good and a case can certainly be made for each squad when it comes to who will win the division. Finally, I love the addition of Festus Ezeli, especially because his contract is a bargain. He’ll earn $7,400,000 this season, and then only $1 million of his $7,733,000 salary is guaranteed for the 2017-18 season (giving Portland flexibility and potentially making Ezeli an attractive trade chip).

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

If you’re still doubting Damian Lillard as a franchise centerpiece, it may be time to reevaluate your position on the issue. The Blazers surprisingly reached the playoffs last season after losing four starters (LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez) the previous summer. The success was largely driven by the play of Lillard. But now, the Blazers won’t have the cloak of anonymity to sneak up on opponents. Expectations are higher. Media scrutiny will be tighter. The fans in Portland want more. Realistic or not, that’s the price to pay for success. The Blazers have all of the tools to be a 50-plus win club, but could also plummet back to earth rapidly. We’ll go with the former.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

Each year, there are those buzzy young teams on the cusp of doing something really special, and this season it looks like that will be the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard is to the point where he’s going to be in the MVP conversation every single year, and to see fellow small-school alumnus C.J. McCollum sneaking up right behind him is heartening for a Blazers fan base that remains one of the most voracious in the league. Evan Turner still feels like a weird fit, but it’s not like Portland lost anything to bring him aboard. He’s one more nice piece added to a team full of nice pieces that just so happens to exhibit really good chemistry. Plenty of young guns (Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe) got paid like studs this offseason, so they’re going to have to start living up to their new paychecks. But even if they just repeat last season’s efforts, it should be enough to land them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. This is a squad that looks ready for primetime.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

I am quite enamored with the potential of the Blazers. A few weeks ago, in my NBA Sunday, I wrote about how the franchise rolled the dice and decided to spend heavily to invest around the potential of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Seeing them develop and come of age before our very eyes, they almost had no choice. There are some new faces in Portland and certainly cause for excitement. Aside from the Golden State Warriors, the Blazers are probably the Western Conference team I will be watching the most this season. I think they will have every opportunity to push the Oklahoma City Thunder for the division crown, but Russell Westbrook is still the best player between the two teams and one could make the argument that, even without Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s supporting cast is stronger. In terms of personnel, I’m not sure that I love the signing of Evan Turner, and certainly not at the price they paid for him (four years, $70 million). Festuz Ezeli, on the other hand, should have a major positive impact and I think him playing with Lillard and McCollum will make things much easier for him. Re-signing Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet for Allen Crabbe are substantial investments made in the pursuit of winning at a high level now, and I think they’ll mostly pay off. Terry Stotts has proven that he is able to get a positive return from these guys, and with the best still to come from most of the younger guys on this roster, there’s no reason to believe that the Blazers won’t continue to progress this season, even if they are still one or two steps behind the Thunder.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

I’ll admit that I was one of the many people who underestimated the Portland Trail Blazers entering last season. Losing players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez in one offseason is a big enough setback that any team could justify throwing in the towel for a season. Well, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum had other plans in mind and led a fun, well-coached team to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Blazers’ front office stepped up big this offseason, paying premium rates to keep rotation players like Allen Crabbe, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard in town, while adding more talent in Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. I still think this team has a second-round ceiling, but that’s a soft position as of now. Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts and Lillard have taught me to not doubt this team too much.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

Not only is he the leader, face of the franchise and best offensive player on the Blazers, Lillard is also one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. An elite floor general, Lillard does a great job of recognizing what his team needs and when they need it. His ability to read the game, see the floor and create for other teammates is incredibly undervalued.

His “bucket brother” C.J. McCollum, may be more of a threat in certain one-on-one scenarios, but that is part of the reason for Lillard’s success. Defenses have to game plan for both guards, which makes them hard to contain. Defenses can’t completely hone in on Lillard or McCollum, because the other will make the opposition pay. The one-two punch is extremely important for Portland.

With unlimited range and an arsenal of offensive moves, Lillard can also quickly get into the lane and wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Whether it’s coming off of screens or hitting transition buckets, Lillard is impressive on a number of levels.

Similar to Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, Lillard can get hot and take over when his team needs it most. It doesn’t always work out, but having that ability to single-handedly take over a game is huge for the Blazers.

When asked about what separates Lillard from his peers, McCollum told Basketball Insiders, “His versatility and ability to lead everyone while staying true to who he is and what he stands for is special. Obviously he’s a great player, but he hasn’t let success change his foundation and that’s what makes him who he is.”

The most valuable Blazer last season, Lillard averaged 25.1 points, 6.8 assists and four rebounds, ranking just outside of the top five in the league in points per game and assists per game. Lillard is the clear-cut leader of this group and an offensive juggernaut. At 26 years old, he still has some room to grow, but he’s reaching what could be the prime of his career.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Last offseason, many criticized the Trail Blazers for signing Al-Farouq Aminu to a four-year, $30 million deal. His offensive game was raw and he had failed to live up to expectations early in his career, but his defense was certainly undervalued. After posting career-highs in points (10.2) and assists (1.7) last year, Aminu showed tremendous improvement on the offensive side of the ball while still continuing to defend at a high level. And now, with the salary cap rising significantly, Aminu’s deal now looks like a bargain.

Aminu’s 7’3 wingspan and 6’8 frame allow him to play passing lanes, disrupt shots and create turnovers. A tenacious and hardworking defender, Aminu is among the better perimeter defenders in the league, but his basic statistics don’t do him justice. He’s extremely savvy when it comes to reading the game and making life difficult for his opponents. His chase percentage (Nylon Calculus’ statistic for battling and fighting for rebounds) was among the league’s top 10. So while Aminu may not gather a ton of rebounds, he’s always fighting for them, which is certainly a valuable asset.

He was one of the biggest surprises last season, as he was able to keep opposing forwards in check. His individual defense was extremely undervalued because he plays on a poor defensive team – the Blazers ranked 20th in points allowed and defensive rating.

Aminu is arguably the best defensive player on the Blazers. Once Stotts moved him from small forward to power forward, Aminu was able to make an even bigger impact. Defending bigger and stronger players in the post may be a tough task for Aminu, but his all around defensive impact is a key component of the Blazers’ success.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

Not all top scorers are also their team’s top playmaker, but Lillard does both in Portland. His ability to thread passes, beat double teams and elevate the play of his teammates is pretty incredible. As previously mentioned, Lillard averaged 6.8 assists last year.

Lillard’s maturity, leadership and overall contributions to this young Blazers core have been extremely vital to their success.

“He’s a very down to earth guy,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “He keeps it real all the time and has helped me get to this point. When I was getting DNPs and going through injuries, he was constantly staying in my ear and telling me to keep working because my chance was going to come. Sure enough, it did last season.”

Lillard has the ability to penetrate the lane, attract defenders and then find open teammates. With Evan Turner in the mix, Lillard may play off the ball more frequently, but he should still be Portland’s most important playmaker. Lillard’s intangibles and elite floor general skills have helped the Blazers compete at a high level and develop remarkable team chemistry and confidence.

Top Clutch Player: Big Game Dame

Everyone remembers Lillard’s game winner against the Houston Rockets in 2014, but he’s hit clutch shots a number of times since then. When Portland needs help most, Lillard steps up and carries this team through rough patches.

Scoring 125 total points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Lillard ranks among the top 15 in the NBA in clutch time buckets. There’s a reason they call it ‘Dame Time.’

The Unheralded Player: Maurice Harkless

Re-signed for another four seasons, Harkless will be looking to build upon his strong performances toward the end of last season. A great player coming off the bench, Harkless’ size and athleticism make him an excellent defender and a difficult player to guard.

Averaging 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21.6 minutes after the All-Star break, Harkless certainly took a leap forward mid-season. Harkless wasn’t utilized consistently, but he started to find his form and role within this Blazers roster as the season went on.

With all the talk around Crabbe, Turner, McCollum and Lillard, it will be very important for Harkless to be utilized properly this upcoming season and pick up where he left off in the second half of last season. He just turned 23 years old in May, so he’ll continue to develop. He could be a very effective 3-and-D contributor for Portland moving forward.

Top New Addition: Evan Turner

One could’ve made the case for Festus Ezeli here, but with his injury history and Turner being a significant scoring option for this team, we think he’s the best addition.

The No. 2 overall pick in 2010, Turner has bounced around a bit over his short career. He’s undoubtedly a good player, but nobody could’ve predicted that he’d get a four-year, $80 million deal a few years ago when he was being criticized for not living up to his full potential. But after a breakout season with the Boston Celtics, he’s cashing in and will now be asked to add another dimension to this Blazers team.

Turner is going to help the Blazers with length and versatility, specifically on the defensive end. But when it comes to offense, there are question marks that surround his fit. He shot just 24.1 percent from three-point range last year, so spacing could be an issue. And if he’s handling the ball more, that indicates that he’ll take touches away from Lillard and McCollum. However, that may not be the worst thing. At times last season, we saw this Trail Blazers team suffer from not having more options on offense. Turner may not fit with everything offensively, but his skill set, size and versatility make him a threat and forces opposing teams to game plan for him. Also, he’s another player who can create his own shot and get to the foul line, something the Trail Blazers lacked last year. Ranking 17th among NBA teams in free throw rating, Turner will help the Blazers in that specific area of need. In Boston, he did some similar things as the Celtics’ sixth man.

Many questioned the Turner addition and his fit with this team, but if he can be a productive offensive threat while giving the Blazers much needed defensive help, they can be a difficult team to match up against on any given night.

– Oliver Maroney

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Terry Stotts

Coach Stotts is the definition of a players’ coach. He’s done a brilliant job of managing the young core and getting all of his players to buy in. This season, he comes in with higher expectations, but his innovative rotations along with the depth of this team should allow him to succeed.

He’ll add a player with a championship ring (Festus Ezeli) and a former top two pick in the draft (Evan Turner) to the mix, both of whom can contribute if put in the right situations. Integrating two new veterans like Turner and Ezeli could be challenging, but if there’s anyone who can keep egos in check and get everyone on the same page, it’s Stotts.

This might be Stotts’ toughest coaching job yet since he’ll have one of the deeper rosters in the league and a lot of young players that will want to play. If he can utilize his players properly and keep the team chemistry high, a top four playoff seed could be a possibility for these Blazers.

  1. C.J. McCollum

Last season’s most improved player, McCollum showed that he can be a versatile scorer and go-to option down the stretch. Arguably a better one-on-one scorer than Lillard, McCollum is extremely talented and creative with his offensive game.

cjgifThere’s always room to get better and for McCollum, it’s on the defensive end of the floor. A little undersized at 6’4, McCollum has to make up for the size differential with other defensive skills. Earlier this offseason, McCollum talked with Basketball Insiders about his work on the defensive end.

“I want to get better on defense,” he said. “I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better.”

It seems as though he’s really putting in the effort to improve, but whether it’ll pay off remains to be seen. After signing a big extension this offseason, McCollum is determined to help Portland climb in the standings.

“This team’s goal is making the playoffs at the highest seed possible,” McCollum said. “I’m confident we’ll do that. We just take it one day at a time.”

Expect McCollum to improve his defensive impact this upcoming season while continuing to provide his efficient scoring.

  1. Meyers Leonard

The word often used to describe Leonard is “potential.” If he could put his physical tools and versatility together consistently, he’d be a great asset for this Trail Blazers team. But the past couple of years, we’ve seen him suffer season-ending injuries and setbacks that affected his confidence.

The future looked bright for Leonard last season with a starting spot almost surely locked up. Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for 21 games and really affected his confidence. Leonard is still viewed as a building block for these Blazers, which is why they gave him a four-year, $41 million deal this offseason. However, with some of his issues and the arrival of Ezeli (and the return of Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis), he does have to prove himself moving forward in order to receive big minutes.

Leonard has all the tools to become a very good player, he just needs to put them together and play consistent basketball. With a loaded front court, Leonard could find himself on the outside looking in if he doesn’t produce.

  1. Allen Crabbe

While Crabbe may not be a starter, he certainly got paid like one this offseason. Crabbe was a primary reason for Portland’s relative success against the Warriors in the playoffs. His ability to hit the outside shot paired with his defensive instincts make him a very solid and reliable player. Last season, Crabbe recorded career-highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. If he can continue his ascent this season, that will be huge for Portland.

After getting the big pay day, expectations will be much higher for Crabbe this upcoming season, but he should continue to grow and thrive within Stotts’ offensive system. A great catch-and-shoot player, Crabbe is going to be a vital component to the Blazers’ success.

– Oliver Maroney

SALARY CAP 101

The Blazers were one of the league’s lowest spenders last season, but the organization heavily invested this summer – spending on Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and Festus Ezeli among others. The team also gave C.J. McCollum a contract extension. Originally under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, Portland is now near the luxury tax threshold of $113.3 million – technically over going into camp with 17 players.

The Blazers have 14 guaranteed contracts, with Grant Jerrett, Luis Montero and Tim Quarterman fighting for one open roster spot. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception. Looking ahead to next summer, Portland projects to be over a $102 million salary cap. That presumes the team picks up rookie-scale options on Noah Vonleh and Shabazz Napier before November. Mason Plumlee is eligible for an extension by the end of October.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The one-two punch of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is one of the best in the league. Two ball-dominant players who are unselfish in nature, the ‘Bucket Brothers’ were the driving force behind the Blazers’ sixth-rated offense. With a deep, young team, the Blazers have a high-powered offense that is hard to defend, especially with Lillard and McCollum running the show.

The Blazers have versatile players who can be used to implement different styles of play. Whether it’s going small and spacing the floor or going big and slowing the game down, the Blazers have the talent to give teams trouble on any given night.

– Oliver Maroney

WEAKNESSES

The Blazers were in the bottom third of the NBA when it comes to points allowed last season. While the team has a great defender in Aminu, it also has sub-par defenders like Lillard and McCollum among others. The addition of Evan Turner will help their defense, but the Western Conference is loaded with talented guards and wings. If McCollum and Lillard can’t defend at a passable level, the Blazers will struggle against the best in the West, making it difficult to win in the playoffs.

– Oliver Maroney

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the additions of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli help the Blazers become a top-four seed?

If Lillard, McCollum and Turner can gel in the backcourt while bringing defensive intensity every night, this team has a shot to be very good. The championship pedigree and winning mentality of Ezeli along with defensive impact and versatility of Turner should help the Blazers take another step forward this season. With three ball-centric players in Turner, McCollum and Lillard, it’ll be hard to predict how Stotts will divide up the playmaking duties. But knowing the maturity of those three players, you can expect them to do whatever it takes to win games.

The Blazers hope that the internal growth of players like Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless will also push them into the upper echelon of Western Conference teams. It’s hard to see this young, developing team outside of the playoffs in 2016-17, but there’s always room for concern when you add another ball handler to the mix. With an addition like Turner, Coach Stotts will have to make sure the team understands his role before stepping on Lillard or McCollum’s toes. Considering the chemistry and culture of this team, it’s likely that these three will find a balance that works for one another and the team.

Based on the Blazers’ perceived ceiling, pushing for the fourth seed in the West won’t be easy. McCollum will need to step up on defense, Turner has to find his role quickly and the frontcourt will need to find a rotation that works. If those things happen, Portland could legitimately battle for the fourth of fifth seed in the Western Conference.

– Oliver Maroney

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NBA

2020 NBA Draft and Free Agency Roundable

Drew Maresca, Matt John and Steve Kyler discuss winners and losers of the NBA Draft and free agency.

Drew Maresca

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ALERT. ALERT. ALERT. The NBA’s 2020-21 season is scheduled to begin in less than a month.

If it feels like we just crowned the 2020 NBA Champions, that’s because we did. The Los Angeles Lakers secured their 17th championship on October 11, just over a month ago. Still, the new season kicks off in less than a month, on December 22; and the preseason could start almost two weeks earlier (December 11). And while there is much to look forward to pertaining to the new season, there is also much to assess.

November brought us trade season, the 2020 NBA Draft and a flurry of free-agent moves – all of which kicked off within days of one another, beginning on November 16. Basketball Insiders begins its 2020-21 coverage with Drew Maresca, Matt John and Steve Kyler assessing the abbreviated 2020 offseason:

NBA Draft Winners:

The draft had its share of surprises, but nothing outdid Tyrese Haliburton slipping to 12th. Haliburton shot up draft boards since the NCAA season came to an abrupt stop in March. His size and versatility were highlighted over and over again, and he was billed as an ideal running mate to pair with a score-first point guard. It seemed all but certain that he’d be a top-6 pick, with the Pistons at 7 being his assumed floor.

Well, this one was a mind-bender. Not only did he fall past the Atlanta Hawks — who he was linked within the lead up to the draft surprisingly — he was passed up by Detroit (who took another point guard in Killian Hayes) AND New York (who selected the 2019-20 Naismith Player of the Year, Obi Toppin) — both of whom were in the market for a point guard of the future.

But while it’s surprising that he fell to Sacramento, it’s far from a bad thing for Haliburton. He’ll line up next to point guard phenom De’Aaron Fox, who just inked a 5-year max extension. The Sacramento backcourt will look to move the ball up the court (FAST), and Sacramento could have found its backcourt of the future.

And it looks like Sacramento will give Haliburton more responsibility than originally assumed as they opted to pass on matching an offer sheet for shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanović (who will head to Atlanta). Further, guard Buddy Hield has a notoriously tumultuous relationship with head coach Luke Walton, making it look as though Haliburton can begin leaving his mark on the NBA immediately. Keep an eye on the rookie from Iowa State as a dark horse in the rookie of the year race.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

If we’re being completely honest, the fact that this draft wasn’t renowned for its upfront talent and more renowned for its deep pool of solid players makes it difficult to determine who really are the big-time winners of this go-round. So for this year, I think I’ll label the teams that usually get maligned for their draft decisions that definitely made the right choice.

Let’s start with the Charlotte Hornets. Michael Jordan has been routinely made a laughingstock for the moves he’s made for the Hornets, but instead of playing it safe, he went with the high upside pick. Out of all the prospects in this draft, LaMelo Ball arguably has the highest ceiling. There are definitely red flags to his game but the Hornets swung for the fences here because Ball may very well have the best chance at becoming a star. If he flops, he flops but that’s not relevant here. For the Hornets, drafting him at the very least signifies that they really do want to change their fortunes.

Then there’s the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland has made some… interesting draft choices with their lottery picks over the past decade, most recently with their 2019 pick, Darius Garland. This time, however, they actually picked the guy who actually fit with what they needed. Cleveland’s been sporting a piss poor defense over the last few years, so they brought in one of the draft’s most talented defenders. Isaac Okoro’s probably not going to be a star, but he definitely aids a big weakness of Cleveland’s. There just might be a light at the end of the post-LeBron tunnel.

Finally, as Drew pointed out, the Sacramento Kings made the perfect selection with Tyrese Haliburton. The do-it-all guard should be an excellent backcourt partner with De’Aron Fox, and his selection eases the pain of the recently departed Bogdan Bogdanovic. No one exactly knows what to make of the Kings’ current roster makeup with all the personnel and roster shakeups, but Haliburton should be another step in the right direction for them.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

They say the true test of an NBA Draft is not known for two maybe three years, and that likely will be true of the 2020 NBA Draft class. To that end, there were a couple of picks that jumped off the page, so let’s start with LaMelo Ball to Charlotte.

From a talent perspective, Charlotte may have gotten one of the best players in the draft. When you combine Melo’s natural ability with having Michael Jordan in his ear, the Hornets could end up with the top player in the class when it is said and done. The risk on Melo is two-part – first, durability, which we have seen with his brother Lonzo’s NBA career. Melo has played a lot of high-level basketball and his body does not reflect high-level physical development, and that could catch up to him as it did with Lonzo.

There is also a side-show factor.  There are enough things going on in an NBA season, but to have the sideshow that comes with the Ball family in Charlotte is a risk. James Borrego has built a strong foundation for Charlotte’s youth — will the spotlight and the bully pulpit Melo’s father Lavar Ball receives be a distraction? Time will tell, but the pick was an excellent one.

With the 15th pick, the Orlando Magic selected Cole Anthony, and while on the surface Anthony had an underwhelming season at North Carolina, its easy to forget he was one of the top scorers coming out of high school and was, by his own account, playing at 70 percent at UNC. If that’s true and Anthony can rebound to his stature coming out of high school, Orlando may have nabbed exactly what they were looking for — namely, an impact scorer. Time will tell if Anthony can be that guy at the NBA level, but getting Anthony’s offensive punch with the 15th represents incredible value.

With the 20th pick, the Miami HEAT selected Precious Achiuwa out of Memphis. Talk about the prototypical HEAT player. Achiuwa checks so many boxes for the HEAT; they now have interchangeability with Bam Adebayo, as they have similar physical styles of play. Achiuwa is a quality defensive presence that can guard four positions. To get such a perfect fit at 20 is uncommon and for Miami, it could be a nice selection.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

NBA Draft Losers:

Most teams drafted pretty well this year, or they strategically swapped their pick(s). But the Hawks’ selection of Onyeka Okongwu was curious for a few reasons. Before I get into the downside of the pick, let’s make one thing clear — this is no way means I think Okongwu wasn’t deserving of the 6th pick. On the contrary, Okongwu is a long and athletic big man who will probably affect the NBA game beginning on Day 1. But the Hawks didn’t need him. They just completed a trade for an athletic, shot-blocker in Clint Capela in February. Regardless of Okongwu’s upside, the Hawks simply don’t need another starting-caliber center. But they could have used a big, versatile forward like Deni Avdija.

The NBA is moving toward a positionless game. Avdija fits that mold to a T. He is a 6’9″ point forward who can score and create for others. Further, he’s a high IQ player who competes hard, plays on and off the ball and possesses strong defensive fundamentals.

Ultimately, the Hawks set themselves up for the future in free agency, so a wonky – but still productive – draft pick won’t set them back too much. But Avdinja’s upside is substantial. And he could have been inserted into the rotation immediately without stealing too many minutes from major players  (whereas Capela will obviously lose minutes to Okongwu).

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

As I said earlier, a draft like this makes it hard to decide who are the winners, and the same goes for the losers. For example, the Bulls definitely reached when they picked Patrick Williams, but a draft like this was the perfect time to reach for a prospect if you really liked him. In a case like this, if the other prospects aren’t good enough to make you think they’ll come back to haunt you, then go for the guy you like the most no matter what anyone else thinks.

In an offseason where pretty much everything uncharacteristically went their way, the Suns made an odd choice when they selected big Jalen Smith seeing how they already have a talented frontcourt and were perhaps better off with a guard like Kira Lewis or a swingman like Haliburton. However, if they think that developing DeAndre Ayton’s backup is the way to go, then go right ahead! We also have to remember that everyone thought that the Cam Johnson pick was terrible last year, and he made the whole NBA world eat their words.

There are definitely guys picked later in this draft who might wind up being better overall than Aaron Nesmith, but the Boston Celtics needed someone who can help them now. The Celtics’ second unit was desperate for a shooter and that’s exactly what Nesmith brings to them. The guys who could wind up being better than Nesmith will need time to develop, and Boston’s not waiting anymore. Maybe in previous years, but not now.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

There were not a lot of crazy questionable picks in the 2020 NBA Draft. Maybe we had too much time to micro analyze the class, or maybe teams just went more with popular opinion  That said there was one pick that sort of stood out as something of a reach – Patrick Williams at four to the Chicago Bulls.

To be fair, Williams is a quality NBA prospect and he could go on to have a fruitful NBA career; but at four with Killian Hayes and Tyrese Haliburton still on the board (and able to solve more pressing needs), Williams seems to be a stretch.

Every year there is a pre-defined order that most believe the draft will go in, so Williams going several spots higher isn’t out of the ordinary. The question is will Williams be a game-changer for a Bulls team desperate for a player in the draft that really moves the needle?

They say the draft should never be about solving positional needs, rather grabbing the best player available. I’m not sold on the idea that Williams was the best talent available at the four spot, so time will tell.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

Free Agency Winners:

The rich seemed to get richer in the NBA this offseason. Very few elite teams lost marquee players, and many actually added one or more. But one outlier is the Atlanta Hawks.

Atlanta had an impressive offseason, first adding elite prospect Onyeka Okongwu in the draft, and then adding Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanović, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondon in free agency. That’s an impressive haul for any team, but the Hawks just sped up their rebuild considerably, placing themselves squarely in the playoff discussion. Their new additions join an incredibly young core of Trae Young, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins and Clint Capela. Rondo will be especially important for Young’s development, as Rondo is known to be an incredibly high-IQ player and cut-throat competitor. Gallinari and Bogdanović add versatility and shooting to a team in need of it. The Hawks were probably going to take a step forward and fight for one of the final playoff spots in the East prior to these signings. They’ll be even better now.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

It’s tough to decide who really are among the biggest winners in free agency because it depends on what the team sought out to do and also because this free agency class was so weak that it was seen as basically the calm before the storm that will be next year’s class. If even. It honestly wasn’t too impressive.

Keeping what goals they had in mind, more teams won than lost. Atlanta got the best pool of players in free agency by a landslide. Houston got the best economic value for the players they added in the offseason. Utah and Miami for the most part ran it back while adding some new faces that should serve to make them better. Those guys were among the biggest winners, but not the winner of free agency. That belongs to the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Not a lot of NBA champions can brag that they got better after winning a title, but the Lakers have definitely been the exception. While it was not perfect, the free agency period went as fantastically as they could have hoped. Signing Wes Matthews was their most key signing of the summer because a. the Dennis Schroder trade makes even more sense now and b. Matthews will do everything Danny Green did for the Lakers at basically 1/5th of the price. Coming in at a close second was re-signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was brought back at a reasonable deal after an awesome playoff performance.

Honestly, they didn’t have to bring in Marc Gasol, but getting him for chump change, even on the back end of his career, was a steal. They were better off keeping Markieff Morris than letting him walk so they did just that. The one head-scratcher was giving Montrezl Harell the full mid-level exception. On the one hand, Harell’s better than the no-show he put up for the Clippers when they got spanked by the Nuggets, so that might be a good value for the Sixth Man of the Year. On the other, it’s hard to see Harell play in their closing lineups alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis. They learned that the more spacing they had during their title run, the better.

At best, Harell adds second unit scoring to a team that didn’t exactly have a whole lot of that last season, and at worst, he’s an expendable asset to dangle at the deadline. No matter what happens, the Lakers have had one of the best offseasons a reigning champion can have to the point where it’s really not a hot take to say that they are a considerably better team now than they were back in October.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

Free agency winners? The Lakers.

Seriously, to see the 2020 NBA Champions deepen their roster with Dennis Schröder, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol without giving up anything that truly mattered to their core? That is incredible front office work.

Here are a couple of other situations worth mentioning:

The Atlanta Hawks have completely remade their team and did so without doing anything break the bank silly. The veteran additions of Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Solomon Hill and Tony Snell are solid pick-ups and nabbing Bogdan Bogdanović will be a great get, maybe on the high side money-wise, but given his talent so far, it was a solid signing and what you have to do to steal another team’s player.

The Miami HEAT running it back with functionally the same core is smart, too. The HEAT are just scratching the surface of their potential given how young so many of their core guys are. They wisely structured their deals to remain flexible, although the Bam Adebayo extension takes them out of the direct free agent market next summer, they won’t be tied to long-term boat anchor type deals and could always trade into a free agent they covet because of how many great assets the HEAT have.

Overall, all three teams did a really good job in such a compressed chaotic timeframe.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

Free Agency Losers:

To Matt’s point above, winners are tough to crown without seeing a finished product on the hardwood. Losers are a little easier. And there are a few clear losers. But the team that hurt itself the most is the Charlotte Hornets. It’s a weird pick because I do actually like their roster, and I think it’s significantly improved from last year’s team. And the guy that’s most to blame for the Hornets’ hate will probably be their best player in 2020-21, but the Hornets also grossly overpaid to get him.

The announcement that Gordon Hayward was signing with the Hornets took most of the NBA universe by surprise. Hayward waited until (essentially) the last minute to announce he would opt out of the final year of his contract, which would have paid him $34.2 million. It was widely assumed he did so to secure more long-term money, not to essentially duplicate his salary AND stretch it. But that’s exactly what he did.

Hayward ultimately announced his intention to sign with the Hornets for 4 years/$120 million. Now, signing a 30-year-old, former all-star is usually celebrated, but Hayward hasn’t been able to re-establish himself after suffering a brutal foot injury in the first game of the 2018-19 season. He did manage to 17.5 points per game last season, and he averaged a career-high in rebounds (6.7), but he averaged only 2.8 free throw attempts per game (down considerably from what he tallied in Utah). He also suffered more injuries last season, breaking a bone in his hand in November and suffering nerve pain in his foot during the playoffs. So exactly what player are the Hornets getting? And worse still, what will he be in 2023-24?

Numerous reports state that the Hornets and Boston Celtics are still working on a sign-and-trade deal, which could improve the Hornets’ future cap situation. But either way, they’re still on the hook to pay Hayward the entirety of this massive contract — and that’s not ideal.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

If they manage to win the championship anyway, then the following won’t matter, but man oh man, the Bucks really missed out on such a golden opportunity when their sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic fell through.

For a couple of days there, it really felt like Milwaukee had added the last piece of the puzzle. Bogdanovic’s abilities as a combo guard felt like such a perfect fit for what the Bucks are all about. His abilities as a scorer would have taken more pressure off of Khris Middleton, and his abilities as a shooter should have complemented Giannis’ game like a glove. As an added bonus, his 6’6” frame and his playmaking abilities would have further strengthened the Bucks’ motion offense and positionless basketball. This was it. The Bucks were going to be better than ever.

Until the rug got pulled right out from underneath them. The tampering debacle canceled everything, and the Bucks at this point can only wonder what could have been. Failing to acquire a superstar is one thing. Having a superstar then failing to get the guy that definitely would have made your championship aspirations the strongest they’ve been in years is another. That’s why they are my pick for the biggest loser in free agency.

In all fairness, their offseason wasn’t a total failure for them. In fact, props to them for not stubbornly trying to run it back when it was clear that something had to be done. Jrue Holiday is definitely an upgrade over the likes of Eric Bledsoe and George Hill. Getting a haul of buy-low additions like DJ Augustin, Bobby Portis, Torrey Craig, and Bryn Forbes will help fill out the bench, but none of those guys compare to what Bogdanovic could have done for them. With what’s at stake, it could very well haunt Milwaukee knowing that Bogdan Bogdanović slipped through their fingers.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

There were a few head-scratchers in free agency…

Not sure what the Detroit Pistons were thinking. They let their best free agent walk in Christian Woods, then turned around and gave a big deal to a slightly-average guy. Jerami Grant is a quality player, but three years and $60 million is a ton.

If the motivation was to go all in for one more run with Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, mission accomplished; but I’m not sure that means anything, even in the East.

The Orlando Magic stayed largely quiet in free agency, which was surprising given that it seems the current squad has run its course. The Magic have long valued the idea of growing youth in an environment built around trying to win, but it’s clear that Evan Fournier who opted in to a massive final contract year worth $17 million, is primed to be moved and looks to be in camp next week.

The Magic do have some injury concerns specifically Jonathan Isaac who is recovering from an ACL tear and the questionable outlook of Mo Bamba, who had to leave the Orlando bubble unexpectedly back in August, due to physical struggles related to the Coronavirus.

With so much uncertainty around the Magic’s youth, their lack of movement in free agency was a surprise.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

One Move We’d Like To See:

Kevin Love to the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland enters 2020-21 with a bit to be excited about. They’re looking forward to a full season with Jusuf Nurkic in the middle, they re-signed Rodney Hood and they added a high-ceiling youngster in Harry Giles (as well as Derrick Jones Jr.). But even if they also bring back Carmelo Anthony, they’ll still need help at the forward spot. Enter Kevin Love.

Love is badly mismatched with the rest of Cleveland’s roster. He is 32, whereas nine of their players are 25 or younger. Further, Love is a five-time all-star and NBA champion, whereas the Cavaliers are in a full-on rebuild. It’s not an ideal match, and the Cavs should cash Love in before it’s too late.

Love to Portland makes perfect sense. He hasn’t been seen as a primary option in a number of years, but he still adds incredible value as a scorer, rebounder and passer. And that works perfectly considering Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum appears poised to stick in Portland for at least the next few seasons. Portland could sit tight, but adding Love would put them in the conversation with teams like the Nuggets and Clippers who hope to knock off the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Even if Portland can’t make a deal for Love, they should look to add a versatile power forward like Julius Randle. They can’t rely on Anthony and Giles to hold down the four spot and expect to compete for a championship. But if they maneuver correctly, Dame-time could translate to championship time in the Rose City.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

DeMar DeRozan/LaMarcus Aldridge to the Charlotte Hornets. By drafting LaMelo Ball and maxing out Gordon Hayward, the Charlotte Hornets are out to prove that they really want to be… not subpar! There will be no argument here that Charlotte paid above and beyond for Hayward’s services, but his contract is in the same ballpark as Tim Hardaway Jr’s- As overpaid as he is, he’s not going to take the money and run. He’ll do his best to live up to the deal Charlotte gave him even if it’s not very likely.

Alas, adding Hayward and Ball only puts Charlotte in discussion for one of the lower playoff seeds, and in no way does it guarantee that they’ll get one of them. If MJ and co. truly are serious about getting the Hornets back to the playoffs, what harm could it do to go all in and pry DeRozan and Aldridge from San Antonio? They have the expiring and near-expiring deals to make it work, like Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller, and Terry Rozier, as well as appealing enough young talent without sacrificing the most appealing assets like Miles Bridges Malik Monk to pull it off. Aldridge’s and DeRozan’s names aren’t as sexy as they were three years ago, and that, along with their contracts expiring, is what makes a possible trade for them feasible. All signs are pointing to San Antonio moving on from both of them, so Charlotte needs to strike while the iron is hot- er, lukewarm in their case if we’re being really honest here.

Those two don’t make Charlotte a contender in the east – again, if it was 2017, it would be a different story – but they do make the Hornets more formidable as a playoff team. If there aren’t many better options for Charlotte, and from the look of things, there really aren’t, acquiring those two at least puts Buzz City back in the postseason, and might just complete the most talented Hornets teams we’ve seen in ages.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

Let’s go with Houston…

When Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey left the Rockets, you knew the clock was ticking. It really hasn’t stopped, the question is when is Houston going to pull the trigger on a Russell Westbrook trade, and how soon after will James Harden follow?

The talk in NBA circles is Westbrook could be headed to Washington in a package for John Wall. Wizards president Tommy Sheppard has said that deal is not happening – that does not mean it couldn’t resurface later.

There was talk of James Harden wanting to be in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but Houston at this point seems set on waiting out the process and seeing if they can get both Harden and Westbrook back on board… How frequently has that worked out? Typically, when guys ask for the door, they usually get it, and the return usually goes down before it goes up.

Trying to move some $82 million in committed salary during the season is nearly impossible. This is why if Houston wants all the Nets’ and Wizards’ cookies, they need to make the move now or risk the offers or even the opportunity to dwindle away fast.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

The 2020-21 NBA season could end up just as chaotic as last season; but looking past the many challenges facing the league’s schedule, player movement has once again shifted the balance of power. There are new favorites this season, and more importantly, there will be surprise teams to look forward to, also. But regardless of which team you root for, NBA fans have much to be thankful for right this holiday season.

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding new voices for the 2020-21 NBA Season, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful.

Please send all of this to: openings2021@basketballinsiders.com

 

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#17 – Aleksej Pokusevski – Oklahoma City Thunder

David Yapkowitz

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With the 17th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder select Aleksej Pokusevski from Serbia. The Thunder completed a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire the pick.

Pokusevski is a long term project, but one that has has an intriguing skillset. A 7-footer with good speed and quickness, Pokusevski plays like a wing and can pass like a guard. But, to truly thrive at the next level, Pokusevski will need to put on some serious weight.

Again, he’s a project. But Pokusevski’s ceiling is sky-high. And, with a rebuild ahead of them, the Thunder have more than enough time to work with him and ensure he reaches it.

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