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Six Things to Know About the Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers have emerged as one of the best teams in the West at the halfway point of the season. Here’s six things you need to know about the Blazers.

Kyle Cape-Lindelin

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As the NBA season nears the halfway mark it’s time to look at the six things you should know about the Portland Trail Blazers as they begin the second half of the season.

»In Related: Portland Trail Blazers Salary Cap Information

#1 The Blazers Are For Real

After a three-season playoff drought and being a lottery team last season, the Blazers have exploded onto the national scene and are proving to be one of the surprise stories in the NBA. At 29-9, the Blazers currently own the third-best record in the NBA and sit just a game and half behind the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs for best record in the West.

Head coach Terry Stotts’ offensive game-plan with an emphasis on moving the ball and attacking from the three-point line has been the most important factor to the Blazers’ success. The team is shooting an impressive 39.7 percent from behind the three-point line with 26 attempts being averaged per game. This has allowed the Blazers to not only win close games, but also make impressive comebacks, which they have done several times this season. Stotts’ should be credited with creating so many three-point opportunities by the game-plan of quickly moving the ball along the parameter to find the open man much like the Spurs’ offensive approach that pushed them to the Finals last year. The unselfish play by the Blazers has them averaging 18 assists per game, sixth-best in the NBA.

Another important change contributing to the Blazers’ winning that is different from past years is their ability and confidence to win on the road. While they have been a fierce team at home for years, the Blazers road record of 13-5 is perhaps the key improvement the team has made from last season. The question of if this hot first half start can be sustainable is an obvious one. Victories against major tests like the Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Clippers clearly show the Blazers have quickly evolved to a dangerous team in the NBA. While the Blazers may not be able to keep this winning pace enough to contend for first place in the West by the season’s end, the goal of securing home-court advantage is certainly an attainable one.

#2 LaMarcus Aldridge Has Emerged as a Superstar

From playing second-fiddle to Brandon Roy in the beginning of his career, to struggling to embrace being ‘The Man’ on offense and enduring constant criticism, LaMarcus Aldridge has now fully grown into the player Blazers’ fans hoped he’d be. Averaging 23.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, Aldridge is now the ‘go-to’ offensive player in the fourth quarter, sometimes becoming unstoppable with his combination of shooting touch, post moves, speed and strength. Aldridge has also shed the title of ‘soft’ that has plagued him since his rookie year. He is now more willing to fight for rebounds, bang in the post and get to the foul line more often to secure his points as he is on pace for his third All-Star game.

#3 Aldridge States He Wants to Remain in Portland

More important to the Blazers organization than the hot first half, Aldridge recently addressed his upcoming free agency after next season. After rumors swirled in the offseason of Aldridge wanting out, he instead stated he wants to re-sign and stay with the Blazers on another long-term contract. Much still needs to be done before Blazer fans can breath easily as Aldridge will surely demand and command a max, five-year contract. The Blazers’ winning ways will need to continue next year as well, but the news certainly adds some excitement and hope for fans in Portland going forward.

»In Related: Six Things to Know About the Chicago Bulls

#4 Neil Olshey’s Plan is Working

Despite Blazers’ GM Neil Olshey’s success bringing the Clippers to contender status in a short period, there were still many questioning if Olshey could repeat his success in a small market with a franchise at a crossroads like the Blazers. The decision to hire the offensive-minded Stotts, draft emerging star Damian Lillard and re-sign Nic Batum are all paying off for the team and has helped expedite the rebuilding process from the Roy-Greg Oden era. Olshey has also committed to trying to accommodate and satisfy his team’s star in Aldridge. Acquiring a true center in Robin Lopez to move Aldridge back to his natural power forward position has also contributed to Aldridge’s happiness and the team’s success. Olshey’s signing of veteran guard Mo Williams cannot be unnoticed either as he has become the lead guard off the bench to help elevate the stress on Lillard. Olshey is following the model of successful franchises like the Thunder and Pacers, building the team from within through the draft and keeping flexibility for the future. If Olshey can convince Aldridge to re-sign and keep the core of this team together, the Blazers will be a playoff contender for some years to come in the West.

#5 Damian Lillard Has Evolved to All-Star Status

In just his second year, Lillard has stepped up to being the team’s leader and star player along with Aldridge and has been the catalyst to the Blazers’ first half success. Averaging 21.6 points and 5.7 assists, there’s no question that he is one of the best young point guards in the NBA. Lillard’s confidence and ice-cold demeanor has been infectious for the Blazers this season as he helps drive the team to keep competing until the final buzzer. This is even more impressive considering the fact that the Blazers are notorious for slow starts, sometimes having to fight back from a double-digit deficit. Lillard is one of the main reasons the team can fight their way back as he shows the maturity to keep the game close even if they are being out-played, giving them the chance to win it in the fourth quarter. Behind his deadly three-point jumper that he is hitting at a fiery 44.5 percent rate, Lillard shows the rare blend to not only shoulder the scoring load if needed, but also keep his teammates involved through Portland’s pass-heavy offense. With injuries to All-Star guards Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant, there is high chance that Lillard will join Aldridge for the All-Star game this year as he has proven in just a season and a half to be an elite NBA player.

#6 There Are Still Issues With the Blazers

Despite the enormous success the Blazers have experienced this season, there are still problems with this team that can’t be overlooked. What has given them success this year can also be the Blazers’ downfall as they heavily depend on the three-point shot to win games. It’s highly unlikely they keep this torrid shooting start going the whole season as they struggle to manufacture points when they’re not shooting well. The few games where the Blazers have struggled from the three-point line show how problematic this is for their offense as they try to force shots or force-feed Aldridge. This causes them to go minutes without points and allows opponents the chance to pull away as the Blazers are merely an average defensive team. This is a major reason why the Blazers play so many close games and at some point the ball will stop dropping in their favor at the end of games.

While improved from last season, depth is still a huge concern as Williams is the only real scoring threat off the bench as newcomer Dorell Wright has struggled in his role and rookie C.J. McCollum is unproven after coming off injury. If an injury were to occur to one of their starting five, it would hurt the Blazers drastically and cause a slip from their high seeding.

»In Related: Six Things to Know About the Orlando Magic

Kyle Cape-Lindelin is based out of Portland, OR covering the NBA while being one of the newsline editors and contributor to "Out of Bounds."

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

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

Bobby Krivitsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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