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Portland Trail Blazers 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Portland Trail Blazers reshuffled the roster and added more defense and versatility this offseason — plus, given further development of a youthful bench unit, suddenly, things appear far more promising than usual. Basketball Insiders takes a look at Portland in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ sustained success since LaMarcus Aldridge left town in the summer of 2015 has hinged on continuity as much as anything else. Portland’s core pieces remain intact for now and the foreseeable future, but in wake of a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Blazers shuffled the deck around Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.

The Blazers, finally, have reason to believe – even if it’s partially superficial – that they are one of a handful of teams capable of raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end. But after moving on from Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless on the wing and rebuilding its bench yet again, Portland has many questions to answer before living up to those long-awaited expectations.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Blazers were fairly active this offseason and it resulted in them improving their team – at least on paper. They re-signed Rodney Hood, swapped Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore, snatched up Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, plus a trade of Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Hassan Whiteside. The Blazers are poised to run out a starting five of Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Zach Collins and Whiteside with Bazemore, Hezonja, Tolliver and Anfernee Simons as bench support. In a post-Kevin Durant-Golden State Warriors world, that roster could be quite scary. And if Lillard and McCollum can continue their stellar play from the 2018 playoffs – or at least the first two rounds – then the Blazers could be a top-four seed and contend for the Western Conference crown. But they’ll need exceptional performances on most nights. The conference will both be extremely tough — and the Northwest Division will be decided by two or so games — unfortunately, I expect the Blazers to be on the wrong side of that equation.

3rd Place-Northwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Blazers got all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season before their inevitable defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. That alone, however, is a big step for this team. The conference has no shortage of talented teams, but why couldn’t the Blazers advance one round further and make it to the Finals this time around? An injury here or there to another team and, with the right breaks, it’s not inconceivable. The upcoming hierarchy is wide open and the Blazers have as good a chance as any to come out of the conference. They have a star-studded backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. They may be without Jusuf Nurkic for a while, but they brought in Hassan Whiteside. They’re going to have to replace some of their depth they lost this offseason, so they’ll need to get some solid development from Zach Collins, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons, two of which were not in the rotation last season. But if all goes right, it’s not surprising to think the Blazers could be the conference representative in the NBA Finals.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

The last look we had of Portland was a sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, but the lasting image was Damian Lillard’s 40-foot buzzer-beater to send the OKC Thunder packing just weeks earlier. Whoever thought the mighty backcourt of Lillard and McCollum were splitting up anytime soon was quite mistaken. Neil Olshey addressed areas of need by acquiring Hassan Whiteside as a stopgap big man that can protect the rim and snagged Kent Bazemore as a proven veteran who provides plenty of depth. It’ll be crucial for youngsters like Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons to step up. Still, any year we’ve doubted the Trail Blazers, Terry Stotts and company have proved us wrong. Make it seven straight playoff appearances for Rip City in a close competition at the top of the Northwest Division.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Portland Trail Blazers look like a team more balanced and structured to compete for a championship — the problem, however, is that they are one of six or seven teams in the conference poised to make serious noise. The fact the Blazers have a superstar in Lillard and a complementary second star in McCollum make them a favorite to get out of the gate faster than most. Ultimately, that can be the difference between a top seed or the fifth. The only weak point of concern is head coach Terry Stotts. While a quality head coach in the NBA, the question is this: Does he have enough to push a Blazers team he’s been coaching since 2012 into the elite status? Portland has the players, but time will tell if they have the coach.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

The Trail Blazers are one of the handful of teams who saw several talented players depart this offseason in free agency of through trades. However, the Blazers did bring in a nice group of veterans as well, including Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja. Age is an issue for players like Gasol and Tolliver, but each one of these players can be a contributor in some meaningful way. Nassir Little is also a nice pickup from this year’s draft. The issue for this team is that it doesn’t have the overall talent of some of the other contenders in the Western Conference and need several things to break right in the postseason for there to be any realistic hope of advancing deep into the playoffs. If players like Whiteside, Hezonja or perhaps Zach Collins have unexpectedly strong seasons, that could change the dynamic for Portland. Also, it is unwise to count out any team that is led by the dyanmic duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, as currently constructed, I think Portland will struggle to overcome some of the other contenders in the Western Conference this upcoming season.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Blazers are heavily invested in the 2019-20 season with over $145 million promised in guaranteed salaries. Barring a midseason trade to shed contracts, Portland will be on the hook for at least $22 million in luxury taxes. With that in mind, both Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore have sizeable expiring contracts, but the team just acquired the pair over the offseason.

Before November, the Blazers need to decide on options for Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Skal Labissiere is eligible for a contract extension prior to the season. With patience, Portland may be able to get under the luxury tax for the 2020-21 season, just with contracts coming off their books, but they aren’t likely to be a significant spender under a projected $116 million salary cap.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

Unlike in 2018-19, Lillard backed up another ridiculous regular season by reaching that rare level of performance in the playoffs. His game-winning, walk-off 37-footer over the outstretched arms of Paul George to eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder is already the stuff of legends. Further, he deserves credit for helping the Blazers get out to multiple double-digit halftime leads in the Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

Lillard, it’s clear by now, is the type of lead ball-handler that can lift an offense toward the top of the league without an elite-level supporting cast. Portland finished third in offensive rating last season and scored nearly 12 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the bench. He’s the most dangerous pull-up shooter in basketball other than Stephen Curry and James Harden, but that reality almost takes away from the subtle strides Lillard has made as a passer and finisher in recent years to become one of the most well-rounded offensive players in the league.

The Blazers’ championship hopes are longer than many fans and those within the organization like to believe. But with an offensive engine and culture-setter like Lillard around, it would be foolish to suggest they aren’t at least somewhat realistic.

Top Defensive Player: Zach Collins

Collins will spend most of his time in 2019-20 playing out of his ideal position at power forward, at least until Portland makes a big splash around the trade deadline. But it speaks to his rare and ultra-valuable defensive versatility that the Blazers feel comfortable entering their most hopeful season in years with Collins on that task.

Rim-protection has been the 21-year-old’s calling card since he entered the league in 2017-18, and that continued last season. He has natural timing as a shot-blocker and has already perfected the art of meeting attackers in the air with verticality. Collins won’t be confined to the paint nearly as often this season, though, which is why his nascent ability to keep up with ball handlers on the perimeter looms so large to Portland’s prospects defensively.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

Lillard wasn’t born with the nuanced-playmaking ingenuity of Trae Young and lacks the size necessary to make cross-court passes that are a staple of James Harden’s game. But through years of serving as the Blazers’ primary ball-handler and after countless hours of film study, he’s worked himself into one of the most effective table-setters in basketball.

Lillard — and by proxy Portland’s offense at large — was neutered in the first round of the 2018 playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans putting two on the ball defensively in pick-and-roll action. He killed the Thunder when they tried a similar approach last spring, routinely creating extra space by stringing out his dribble, hitting the roll man or weak-side shooters with perfect timing and pinpoint accuracy — that is, if he wasn’t turning the corner or splitting defenders to get a shot for himself. Lillard showed a far better sense last season of creating scoring opportunities for his teammates while penetrating, too, upping both his pass percentage and assist percentage on drives to easy career-high levels, per NBA.com.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

Portland’s 115.3 offensive rating in the clutch last season ranked third in the league, and it’s not hard to see why. Offense inevitably reverts mostly back to one-on-one play in crunch time, an ideal setting for Lillard and McCollum to flex their muscles as two of the game’s best shot-makers from all over the floor. It was McCollum, remember, who played the hero in Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets last May when Lillard was noticeably fatigued.

Lillard’s shooting numbers in the clutch are worse than his late-game reputation suggests, and significantly lower than McCollum’s, too. Still, any suggestion that he isn’t the Blazers’ top crunch-time player ignores both the fear he instills in opposing defenses with the ball in his hands when it matters most as well as his career-long flair for the dramatic.

There have been less than 10 walk-off buzzer-beaters in NBA playoff history and Lillard owns two of them. The only other player with multiple such game-winners? Michael Jordan.

The Unheralded Player: Jusuf Nurkic

All but one of the 15 players with the league’s best net ratings last season played for the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors or Golden State Warriors, per NBA.com. The lone exception? Nurkic, who was coming into his own as one of the game’s most useful two-way centers before suffering a devastating lower left leg injury in late March.

Nurkic’s success is largely dependent on the limited scope of his responsibilities within Portland’s schemes. He isn’t a three-point shooter despite rare touch for a player his size; plus, Nurkic can still struggle to finish over length even though he’s made obvious progress in that regard recently. The Blazers don’t ask him to leave the paint defensively, either, a strategy Terry Stotts has long preferred and one that best suits the center’s physical profile, but nevertheless leaves Portland susceptible to elite pull-up shooters.

But Nurkic, who’s graded among basketball’s best rim-protectors each of the last two seasons, is the rare traditional big man who makes a consistently positive impact on both sides of the ball regardless. Here’s hoping the growth he made last season, especially on offense as a finisher on rolls to the rim and high-post passer, hasn’t been forever wasted by an injury that will sideline him until the All-Star break at the earliest.

At 25, Nurkic’s best days should still be ahead of him.

Best New Addition: Kent Bazemore

Bazemore isn’t a panacea on the wing. He faded as a long-range shooter last season after connecting on a career-best 39.4 percent in 2018-19, and, perhaps more importantly, isn’t quite as versatile on the other end as his reputation suggests. Bazemore is a dogged, physical one-on-one defender with a freakish wingspan, but is far better suited to check star guards than forwards. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, he’s just not big enough to make life hard on the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, even though he’ll be their primary defender when the Blazers face the Los Angeles-based Lakers and Clippers.

Still, Aminu and Harkless, effective as they were at times, were never true stoppers of oversized playmakers and Bazemore offers far more offensively than either. He can capably run a second side ball screen and attack aggressive close-outs by stepping into mid-range jumpers. Bazemore shot just 32.0 percent from deep in 2018-19, but that number was deflated by a larger share of pull-ups, attempts he’ll only take in a pinch with Portland.

Most potential contenders still have more on the wing than the Blazers. But with Bazemore, as long as his jumper reverts back to recent norms, Portland finally has a defense-first wing who won’t be easily schemed off the floor due to his broad offensive limitations.

– Jack Winter

WHO WE LIKE

1. The Hassan Whiteside Trade

The 2019-20 season could very well be the best opportunity for the Blazers to win a championship during Lillard and McCollum’s prime. Whiteside’s presence addresses that likelihood twofold: first as a worthy replacement for Nurkic, and second as a human trade exception should Portland opt to swing for the fences come mid-February.

Whiteside is a perfect fit for what Stotts asks of his centers defensively and, though he leaves much to be desired as a screener and dribble hand-off partner, gives Lillard and McCollum the lob threat they’ve never had with the Blazers. But the veteran’s greater utility could come courtesy of the $27 million he’s owed this season on an expiring contract, affording Portland major flexibility at the trade deadline it normally lacks.

The most intriguing possible trade target? Kevin Love, who grew up roughly 20 minutes from Moda Center and would surely rather spend his extended prime playing for titles with the Blazers than lottery balls with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

2. Anfernee Simons

Neil Olshey has every incentive to pump up Simons ahead of 2019-20. He’s not only next up in Portland’s long, successful history of promoting deep reserves to major rotation roles, but also this team’s most valuable trade chip.

A live-wire athlete with deep range on his pull-up jumper and the ability to get wherever he wants with the ball, Simons figures to be the Blazers’ third guard this season. Playing most, if not all, of his minutes next to either Lillard or McCollum is the ideal scenario for the 20-year-old to get his first taste of sustained playing time in the NBA.

Simons no doubt possesses the raw talent needed to make an impact; Olshey said in June that he has as much “natural, god-given basketball ability as anyone” he’s ever drafted. Of course, he almost certainly won’t live up to that status this season, but Simons could be the difference between home-court advantage and fighting for a playoff spot should he flash it on a game-by-game basis.

3. Anthony Tolliver

Tolliver may not be in Stotts’ rotation to begin the season. He’s certainly not starting, and it would be in the Blazers’ best interest, both this season and long-term, if Mario Hezonja and rookie Nassir Little were ahead of him in the pecking order.

Either way, there will come a time when Tolliver’s number will be called, and he’s likely to deliver. The 34-year-old is limited athletically, but makes up for it on defense by constantly talking, staying scheme sound and playing with unrelenting energy every time he steps on the floor. Tolliver’s bigger influence will come on the other end, where he’s a willing, deadeye three-point shooter that has worked tirelessly to extend his range far behind the arc.

It would be disappointing if Hezonja didn’t carve out a consistent role, and Portland would be best served by Little – who has the raw physical tools of an impact multi-positional defender – finding his niche early. But in whatever role he takes on, Tolliver will be ready.

4. Pau Gasol

Gasol appeared in only three games last season after signing with the Milwaukee Bucks in March, beset by the same nagging pain in his right foot that previously caused him to miss 28 straight games with the San Antonio Spurs. Even with a clean bill of health heading into 2019-20, there’s no guarantee the 39-year-old is up to the task of playing a more minor role off the bench – especially after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured navicular bone in his left foot, a dreaded injury for big men.

Still, Gasol brings three attributes to the table that will help ease the pain of Nurkic’s absence in the season’s early going: Rim-protection, three-point shooting and perimeter playmaking. Mobility was Gasol’s greatest weakness even before his surgery, but that deficiency matters far less in the Blazers’ defense, where he’ll very rarely leave the paint, instead using his 7-foot-5 wingspan as an obstacle between penetrators and the rim.

The margins matter for teams with title aspirations. Gasol won’t be a cog for Portland, and there’s an outside chance that injuries and age have left him almost unplayable. But if he’s indeed a part of the Blazers’ rotation, Gasol could be very useful in a low-minute bench role – especially if Whiteside is actually dealt at the trade deadline.

– Jack Winter

STRENGTHS

The Blazers’ trump card is self-evident: No team in basketball, with the possible exception of the revamped Clippers, boasts a better pair of shot-makers than Lillard and McCollum. Simons, in a perfect world, will provide the type of dynamic offense from the bench they’ve lacked for years and Stotts won’t hesitate to go small with Rodney Hood at power forward when necessary. Portland, second in offensive rebounding last season, could be even more dominant on the glass while starting a pair of seven-footers.

It would be something close to shocking if the Blazers’ offense wasn’t again among the league’s best. But their greatest strength is, and long has been, the unwavering sense of culture instilled by Stotts and Lillard. Portland is among the league’s most well-coached teams, consistently outperforming preseason forecasts despite annual churn in the middle and bottom half of the rotation.

For well over a decade, the San Antonio Spurs were the league’s gold standard of chemistry, culture and the ideal that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Now, it’s the Blazers who have earned and own that distinction.

– Jack Winter

WEAKNESSES

Portland finished 16th in defensive rating last season and lost its two most flexible defenders without replacing them with like-sized wings. Whiteside just isn’t as reliable on the backline as Nurkic, that goes without saying. But slotting Collins, a more personnel-dependent switching option, at power forward for major minutes will undoubtedly leave the Blazers subject to more frequent defensive rotations. Bazemore is undersized; Rodney Hood, better engaged on that side of the ball after signing with Portland last season, still doesn’t hang his hat on defense.

The Blazers feature several impact defenders, both on the perimeter and interior, and will fight like hell. The lack of wing depth on this roster will be a huge problem against specific opponents, though, while its holes and redundancies overall could lead to struggles defensively that few are anticipating.

– Jack Winter

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the Blazers real contenders in a stacked Western Conference?

The Clippers stand alone in the conference as the team just as likely to win the conference’s top playoff seed as they are to reach the NBA Finals. The Lakers, like all LeBron-led teams, are bound to reach another gear in the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz will rack up regular season wins with ease, and have clear championship ceilings by virtue of internal growth and star-level summer additions.

Where does that leave Portland? Everyone within the organization insists it belongs with that group above, a belief indeed rooted in more than wide-eyed hope. But the Blazers simply possess less overall talent than other teams with championship dreams. Moreover, the Conference Finals appearance that’s made them more believable than ever come with asterisks of favorable matchups on the way there and a sweep at the hands of the Warriors.

Bottom line: It’s easier to envision Portland missing the playoffs altogether than hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come mid-June. Yet writing the Blazers out of the championship picture entirely, as they’ve proven time and again over the past few years by defying expectations, would still be remiss.

– Jack Winter

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NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?

The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?

Chad Smith

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The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.

The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.

This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.

Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.

Miami HEAT

After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.

Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.

Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.

Atlanta Hawks

After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.

After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.

The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.

The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.

One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.

Boston Celtics

It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.

Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.

The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.

On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.

The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.

But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.

After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.

“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.

“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”

One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.

They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.

With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”

In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.

“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”

A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.

He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.

“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”

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NBA Western Conference Bright Future Watch

The Western Conference is loaded with talent this year, but who will be the teams that dominate it in the future? Zach Dupont takes a look at which teams have the brightest future in the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the current season as we head towards the climax of a great race for the Western Conference title. But there are already reasons to look past this year and get excited about the teams who could dominate the Western Conference past 2020-21.

Who are the teams that could strike next year? And who has set themselves up to have a bright future in the Western Conference?

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets are primed to become a force in the Western Conference for years to come and could easily be the favorites heading into next year. The Nuggets’ four best players, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, are all under contract for next season, and all of them are younger than 26-years-old. Jokic has proved himself to be one of the best players in the NBA over the past few seasons and has emerged as a favorite for the MVP award this year. In 2020-21, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Jokic’s wingman Murray is no slouch either, posting the best numbers of his career with 21.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. Combine Jokic’s MVP play and Murray’s high-end scoring ability with the shooting and potential of Porter Jr., and the defensive ability of Gordon and the Nuggets emerge as a clear threat in the Western Conference.

The Nuggets also won’t be lacking for depth next year like many of their rivals. Monte Morris is locked up for the next few seasons, and Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options for next season that they could easily accept. The Nuggets can also keep Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier for next season, as both are on non-guaranteed contracts. There are also younger players on the roster who have shown some promise and could be a factor next season. Zeke Nnaji showed potential as a stretch four in limited showings this year, and Bol Bol is still an exciting talent. Denver will even have some money to play with in free agency this offseason, although the looming extension they will owe Porter Jr. will make options limited. Paul Millsap will no longer be on the books at near $15 million a year, and if either Barton or Green decided to decline their player options, that would give the Nuggets more cap flexibility.

The Nuggets have the most intriguing mix of high-end talent and youth in the west, and while they’re already a threat this season, next season, they may be the favorites.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies may not be where Denver is as a team now, but long-term, they are equally as exciting. The Grizzlies are loaded with young talent up and down the roster, and they already have one of their stars of the future. Ja Morant has been a sensation since entering the league last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, the league should be worried about the Grizzlies’ potential. Morant is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Morant is joined by fellow youngster Jaren Jackson Jr., a two-way big with loads of potential. Jackson has yet to see the floor this year, but he showed the ability to protect the rim like an elite defender and knock down a high volume of three-pointers in his first two seasons of action.

The Grizzlies core may be focused around Morant and Jackson, but what makes Memphis more exciting than other teams out west is the roster’s pure volume of prospects. Brandon Clarke was a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft and has already shown to be a great center who can impact the game on both offense and defense, De’Anthony Melton is one of the league’s most underappreciated defensive players at just 22-years-old and Desmond Bane is already knocking down over 45 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season. From top to bottom, Memphis has exciting young talent. Together with their established talent like Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, you’ve got a team primed to compete in the Western Conference in 2021-22.

Memphis may not be a title favorite next year, but their ability to acquire talented youth will only make them better and better every season.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have some major decisions to make this offseason, but they are a team to watch out west next year no matter what they do. New Orleans has maybe the most exciting young talent in the NBA in Zion Williamson, who has emerged as one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the league this season. Williamson is putting up 26.3 points per game this season on an absurd 62 percent shooting and 66 percent true shooting. At just 20-years-old Williamson is already an All-Star, and he will inevitably improve over the next few seasons with his ceiling being as high as anyone’s in the NBA. New Orleans has managed to pair Williamson with another All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, who has averaged nearly 24 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Pelicans’ big decision this offseason will be what to do with their point guard, Lonzo Ball. Ball has always been a talented distributor and defender since entering the league, but this year he has taken a step forward as a scorer, averaging a career-best 14.5 points per game and 38.4 percent shooting from three. Ball is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s not a given that he will be back next year.

New Orleans already has a core to build around, and they have young depth pieces to add to the already exciting potential of the roster. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis are a pair of young point guards who have shown a lot of potential and could fill in nicely for Ball if he departs this summer. Alexander-Walker is putting up more than 10 points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he has shown glimpses of being a defender and shooter in the same mold as Ball. Lewis is a speedy rookie out of Alabama who has found playing time hard to come by, but if either Ball or Eric Bledsoe find themselves not in New Orleans next year, he has showcased skills that could put him in the conversation for major minutes.

If Zion takes another step next year, and the whole team cleans it up defensively, the Pelicans could become serious players in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers may not be full of young players with high-end potential like other teams on this list, but they still represent the West’s most dangerous threat when healthy. Every season the question “when will he finally slow down” is asked about LeBron James, and every season LeBron shows he is still one of the most dominant players in the NBA. LeBron Is 36-years-old, and this season he has put up 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game and, before getting injured a few weeks ago, was one of the favorites for the MVP award. LeBron’s running mate, Anthony Davis, is equally dangerous and could be considered the NBA’s best two-way player. The Lakers have both Davis and LeBron locked in for next season, and the presence of those two players alone makes them a title threat in the west regardless of the team put around them.

One benefit of having superstars like LeBron and Davis is that it becomes much easier to sign role players. The Lakers will already have the services of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option for next season. But the draw of potentially winning a championship will bring the Lakers role players on cheaper contracts than they would have signed elsewhere, as evident by Gasol, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews’ contracts.

The Lakers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of bright futures, but LeBron and Davis will keep the Lakers’ future bright for as long as they remain in LA.

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