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The X-Factors: Portland

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.

Spencer Davies

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.

In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.

Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.

We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?

For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.

Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.

Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.

Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.

Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.

Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.

Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.

Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.

Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.

Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.

All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.

Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: 6 G League Players Deserving of NBA Call-Ups

With teams around the league signing players to 10-day contracts, Tristan Tucker takes a look at some of the G League players most deserving of a call-up.

Tristan Tucker

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With most teams in the NBA G-League bubble having around 10 games under their belts, fans are getting a clearer look at which teams have a legitimate shot at winning the G-League championship and which players are stepping up. Recently, the NBA saw a flurry of action after teams became eligible to sign players to 10-day contracts, with G-League players like Justin Patton, Brodric Thomas, Tyler Cook and Donta Hall getting new opportunities.

With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the top performers from the G-League that deserve NBA call-ups sooner rather than later.

Henry Ellenson, Raptors 805

Ellenson, drafted 18th overall by the Detroit Pistons in 2016, is one of the feature pieces on a 7-3 Raptors 905 team that has very real title aspirations. In just over 30 minutes a night, Ellenson is averaging 19.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. One of the things that makes Ellenson so enticing as a prospect is the fact that, at 6-foot-10, he isn’t scared to unload the clip from downtown.

This season, the big man out of Marquette is shooting 37.5 percent from deep on eight attempts per night. For reference, one of the best shooters in the NBA in Duncan Robinson shoots at a 39.8 percent clip on nearly the same amount of attempts. For any team looking for immediate bench reinforcements with a refined offensive game, Ellenson is a great place to start.

Tyrone Wallace, Agua Caliente Clippers

Tyrone Wallace gets buckets. Wallace originally joined the Los Angeles Clippers on a two-way contract in the 2017-18 season, then a scrappy team that saw major contributions from Wallace and fellow two-way guard C.J. Williams en route to a 42-40 record. After averaging 9.7 points per game as an undrafted two-way contract rookie, Wallace was curiously left out to dry, bouncing around the NBA landscape before coming back to the Clippers’ G League affiliate.

This season, Wallace is averaging 18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and, while his three-point shooting could use some refinement, Wallace is bound to earn another call-up sooner or later.

Jordan Bell, Erie Bayhawks

Bell was a draft favorite for many after being acquired in the 2017 NBA Draft in the second round by the Golden State Warriors. Bell joined the Warriors as the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and it seemed as if he and Draymond Green were a frontcourt match made in heaven.

Ultimately, Bell’s stint with the Warriors and subsequent trip around the NBA didn’t work out, but the forward out of Oregon is proving that he deserves another shot. Look no further than the hilariously efficient rate at which he’s hit shots, 80.6 percent on just under 10 attempts, for proof of that.

Picking up his offensive game was always going to be integral for Bell to be a complete NBA player, something he’s done very well as of late while averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. However, it’s still impressive to note that Bell is hitting such a high rate of shots and is averaging 2 blocks per game at just 6-foot-8 — it isn’t like he’s reaching over everyone in the paint to hit these shots.

Myles Powell, Westchester Knicks

After entering the draft out of Seton Hall, Powell was a fan favorite for his scoring antics and many New York Knicks fans wanted to see Powell get a roster spot after he signed as an undrafted free agent. That ultimately didn’t happen, but Powell is tearing it up for Westchester.

One of the things that scared general managers from taking Powell was his efficiency and consistency, both of which he has improved in the G League. Powell scored 21 points per game as a senior in college but shot 39.8 percent from the floor and 30.6 from three on well over nine attempts per game. Adversely, Powell is averaging 17.1 points a night on a 43.2/46.4/82.4 shooting split in the G-League. After seeing such a vast improvement in such little time, it would only make sense for an NBA team to take a shot on Powell, he seems to have good intangibles and is clearly committed to improving himself.

Alize Johnson, Raptors 905

Basketball Insiders took a look at Johnson earlier this season — and he’s meeting expectations while being a key part of a winning 905 team. Johnson is averaging a very impressive 13.3 points and 12.8 rebounds while dishing out 3.6 assists per game. Recently, Johnson scored 22 points with 20 rebounds and 7 assists. He followed that up with 25 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists

There’s no reason for Johnson not to get another NBA chance this season.

Justin Wright-Foreman, Erie Bayhawks

Wright-Foreman was drafted in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz, joining the team on a two-way contract. While the Jazz let him go, it’s easy to see that the 6-foot guard still has a future in the NBA after his showings in the G League bubble. Wright-Foreman had a legendary college career at Hofstra, breaking the school’s record for points in a game with 48 and scoring 27.1 points per game as a senior.

While Wright-Foreman’s box score production is somewhat hampered by the sheer amount of talent on the Bayhawks, his impact is still clear to see. The guard is averaging 11.6 points per game while shooting 40.4 percent from deep on over five attempts per game. If Wright-Foreman can improve his stamina — he averages 14.5 points with one day of rest as opposed to 5.7 points on the second night of back-to-backs — he’ll have a bright future in the league.

It’s easy to be impressed with the sheer production fans see from players in the G-League on a daily basis and so many more players deserve opportunities than one article can name. One thing is certain though, NBA teams are re-tooling their rosters which will be sure to lead the way to more young players getting chances. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to keep up with all the latest news and rumors.

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NBA PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline

The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.

Garrett Brooks

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As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.

Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.

If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.

Another Frontcourt Option

The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.

Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.

Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.

Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.

With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.

The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.

Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.

Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.

It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.

Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.

Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.

Depth At The Point Guard Position

With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.

After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.

Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.

That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.

That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.

Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.

General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.

We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.

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Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center

Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have. 

Enter: Bruce Brown.

Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury. 

In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team. 

Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green. 

Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle. 

When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn. 

Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer. 

“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”

Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able. 

Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.

 

He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5. 

The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends. 

But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.

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