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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

Georgetown Prospect Omer Yurtseven is Ready for Center Stage

Omer Yurtseven spoke with Drew Maresca about playing for coach Patrick Ewing, training for the NBA during a pandemic and why he feels he’s the best center in the 2020 draft class.

Drew Maresca

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Omer Yurtseven, the 7-foot tall, Georgetown center, posted an impressive junior season in 2019-20; he averaged 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With legitimate NBA size and skills, it’s no mystery why he’s confident. “I don’t think anyone has my combination of tools and versatility,” Yurtseven recently told Basketball insiders. But he’s also a student of the game –well aware of the game’s history and where it’s headed.

“I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of me. I haven’t seen anyone with the tools that I have. I can shoot the ball, the three-ball, and that’s where the big man is headed,” Yurtseven said.

But he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished thus far. He wants more. And he understands that he’ll have to continue working to ensure his spot in the league.

“Some guys might be more athletic [than me], but there are a lot of athletic bigs in the league who don’t stick,” Yurtseven continued. “The skillset is just as important, if not more. So is the [willingness to put in] the work. I think I’m better or as good as any other players, and my rookie year, that’s my goal, to prove that.”

Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown from N.C. State in 2018 after a successful Sophomore season in which he shot over 50 percent on three-point attempts. He sat out the 2018-19 season voluntarily to play for Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing. The opportunity to work with the Hall of Famer was too good to pass up.

“That’s what I was looking for coming in [working with Ewing]. I needed someone to see the game from my perspective,” Yurtseven said. “I was looking for that feedback and I demanded to be coached. I wanted to learn from him. The thing he stayed on me the most about was the pace of the game and how quick my moves would have to be at the next level.

“The turnaround jumper was one of his major weapons,” Yurtseven continued. “He was ahead of his time, but he wanted to see me do the same thing and give 100 percent effort every time.”

Yurtseven jumper is a major weapon in his arsenal, so a pairing with Ewing was an obvious fit. His numbers remained strong during his junior year season with Georgetown, but with one glaring drop off – three-point percentage. Ewing demanded that Yurtseven operate from the low post, a role that the prospect didn’t love, but accepted. Could a new role be to blame for a down shooting year? Yurtseven would never blame anyone other than himself, especially not Ewing. But it’s clear that he felt like he could have done even more if given the opportunity.

“The biggest thing is, I played how I played because that was the role demanded of me. All I had to do was be the inside presence, the defense collapser, and we had to stick to the strategy that coach thought was best for the team.

“I would love to have caught the ball at the top a little more,” Yurtseven continued. “But I was happy to be the post guy. I knew I had to get into my moves quick, so that’s what I did. I sacrificed what I think is my best skills for the team, and I was fine with it.”

It’s evident that Yurtseven is a team-first guy but his three-point shooting took a significant hit. As mentioned above, Yurtseven shot 50 percent on 1.3 three-point attempts as a sophomore in 2017-18, but only 21.4 percent on only half an attempt from long range per game in 2019-20. However, it’s not in his nature to look back – only ahead.

“That’s been my main focus,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “In April, I was shooting 30 or 40 percent two steps behind the college three. That percentage has added up 5 or 10 percent each month. Doing it isn’t easy, but it pays off and that’s why we do it. Now I’m at 75 or 80 percent (in practice sessions) and I’m really confident in my ability.

“And that’s the most important skill set for big men right now,” Yurtseven said. “You’ve got to be a perimeter shooter, as well as a perimeter defender, because big men are evolving away from the rim.”

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yurtseven – and all of the 2020 class – received longer than normal between the end of the 2019-20 NCAA season and the 2020 NBA Draft. And while mock drafts have slowly whittled down the number of prospects, Yurtseven is working tirelessly to improve his stock in any way possible. impressive game.

“No one knew this offseason would be so long. It’s been 6, 8 months already,” Yurtseven continued. “But the team around me has been a blessing – coordinating workouts and making sure I’m taking steps to improve, from nutrition to training lateral quickness to shooting.

“It’s speed and agility, studying the game and having the knowledge about how to position yourself,” Yurtseven continued. “It’s timing and positioning and footwork. It’s all pieces of the puzzle. But the league is another level than college. That’s why I’ve been preparing, increasing lateral quickness, strengthening my glutes, making sure my quads and hips are firing well and that my lateral push-off is explosive as I want.”

“And seeing it translate on the court in two-on-twos and three-on-threes. Switching on guards and providing I can do it to myself. It’s been really fun and fulfilling.”

Yurtseven could have opted to play professionally in Europe – he had numerous professional offers as an 18-year-old prior to coming to joining N.C. State. But Yurtseven is driven by more than money and fame. He is family-oriented and understands the long game. His parents wanted him to receive a college degree before pursuing basketball – a decision that Yurtseven is happy to have made.

“The education was the main reason [I chose to play in the NCAA]. My family’s dream was that I get a college degree.

“When I was 18, [Turkish teams] offered me a huge contract. I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” Yurtseven continued.

“Now it’s time to chase my dream. And my team, my circle, it’s our goal to find a franchise that allows me to grow into a player for 10-plus years – and I’ll never stop working at it.”

Where Yurtseven ultimately plays is anyone’s guess – but he’s already spoken with 17 NBA teams.

Whatever franchise selects the center will add a hard-working and versatile big man that looks well-suited for the modern game – or he may not be selected at all.  Yurtseven is currently ranked outside the top 50 according to some mocks – but if he gets an opportunity, he knows how he’d like to play.

“My aim is to get a double-double, year one,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “And, of course, guarding 1 through 5 is another big thing that coaches are looking for. Look at the Bucks, they were ranked first in offense (in 2019-20). Most of their points come from spot-ups. Defenses collapse on Giannis and Middleton – and Brook Lopez stays alone in the corner. I think that’ll be where I get my shots, too.”

Only three rookies in the past 10 years have averaged a double-double in their first season in the league – Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton. That’s an elite club in which Yurtseven is seeking membership. Can he surprise the basketball world? Only time will tell.

There isn’t much data on him against elite big men. But there is one relevant contest worth examining: a Nov. 22 matchup against Duke and Vernon Carey, who is projected to be drafted No. 26 overall by Basketball Insiders.

Carey filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but so did Yurtseven (21 points, five rebounds and four blocks). That night, his entire repertoire was on full display – decisive drop steps, smooth turnaround jump shots over both shoulders, baby hooks, midrange jumpers and hard-nosed defense.

“He was the only true big man that I played against,” Yurtseven recalled. “He was quick and Duke did a good job putting the ball in his hands as soon as he stepped in the paint. I had to exert a lot of energy keeping him off his spot, but I adjusted quickly.

“I figured he would be very strong, but he ultimately didn’t feel as strong as I expected. My maturity and strength helped me a lot.”

Yurtseven’s skill and build render him tailor-made for the NBA. But for most, sticking at the professional peak is about more than skill and body. IQ, on and off of the floor, play a major role, too.

“A lot of guys [in this draft class] haven’t played many games,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “Having a college degree and that experience is a huge tool.

“Playing overseas as a pro is another layer of experience that I have compared to these guys. My IQ has improved. Those one-and-done guys are gonna be thrown into the fire, but I’ll be more ready.

“I saw a study,” Yurtseven explained. “Guys that come in 21-and-under stay in the league two or three years on average. Guys that come in and are 21-or-older stay seven or eight years on average. That just shows how much time it takes to mature your game.”

Comparatively, only four players were 22 or older as on draft night in 2019 – Yurtsevein is 22.

At the end of the day, it will be about how he performs on the court, and he’s comfortable with that.

“If I get drafted, I’ll be the first guy coming out of Turkey with a college degree,” Yurtseven said proudly.

“I’m ready for the next step. I appreciate everyone wishing me luck and supporting me from afar. I can’t wait to show my game’s evolution and reap the benefits of all of the work I’ve put in.”

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NBA

NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers

Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.

David Yapkowitz

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When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.

Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.

Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.

But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.

In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.

This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.

There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.

Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.

He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.

The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.

In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.

Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.

During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.

Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.

Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.

For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.

With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.

When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.

He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.

The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.

When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.

Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.

Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.

Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee

The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.

Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.

The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.

For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.

But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.

Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.

“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”

On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.

He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.

He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.

Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.

“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”

Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.

He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.

For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.

“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.

“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”

And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.

“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”

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