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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview & Predictions – 1/14

Thursday, January 14, 2016

 

Sitting at a bar in the Pearl District on Sunday, I watched a very good, very close game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder. It was basketball just how I like it: some good things to rejoice at, some blown defensive assignments and missed shots to complain about, and big time performances by big time players. 

Kevin Durant missing shots and dribbling balls off his foot like a doofus was entertaining, too.

The thing that makes me think, and something my friend, Oregon Sports News editor Bryant Knox, discussed with me, was the Blazers actually winning the game. Since the holidays, Portland has scored some impressive wins. The victories over Cleveland and the Thunder have come after losing streaks, signs of the young Blazers’ resiliency. 

Bryant mentioned that I was the guy who was the most down on the Blazers to begin the year, that I thought they would legitimately challenge for the franchise low of 18 wins in a season. Obviously, that prediction has died in a fire; there’s a good chance Portland will reach 18 wins after this week.

The point I made to him was that I don’t think that’s what’s best for the Blazers going forward. We both said during our talk (him with a beer in hand, me with a beer in hand, a shot of Irish whiskey to the side, and chicken in my mouth) that we couldn’t imagine half the Blazers roster on the team after two years. Hell, CJ McCollum has lit the league up on offense, and his defense has been very underrated so far this year, but given that he’s a skinny 6-foot-4 in a league with 6-7 or 6-8 players at both wing positions, CJ’s ultimate NBA destiny still may be as a sixth man. The ceiling on a Damian Lillard-McCollum starting backcourt is limited by CJ’s lack of size and Lillard’s defensive ineptitude.

Portland’s roster has some guys who are overachieving, like Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Allen Crabbe. Sure, the other young guys like Moe Harkless and Noah Vonleh, and veteran guard Gerald Henderson, have underachieved. And please don’t get me started on Meyers Leonard, Contract Year Version.

The sum of the team’s parts, though, has been a surprise. As of Tuesday afternoon (when I wrote this), Portland was one game in the win column behind the Utah Jazz for eighth in the Western Conference, and 2.5 games back overall. In a nice segue, the Blazers also play Utah here tonight, and can make up some ground.

The West has gotten much weaker this season, which hurts the Blazers in their Draft Lottery positioning and helps them with their Playoff positioning. GM Neil Olshey bought low on some underutilized players and tried to field a team that would be competitive, sure. But he also fielded a team that most folks thought would lose at least 70% of their games. 

The Blazers might be too competitive for their long-term good. Bringing up the subject of tanking--setting up a team to fail in order to improve the odds of winning the top pick in the Draft Lottery--is always thorny in NBA cities that house a losing team. There are fans that want the team to win no matter what, fans that want the team to be good for as long as possible, fans that want the team to be a title contender eventually and are willing to swallow a few years of losing, fans that don’t pay attention to the team until they win (fair-weather fans)…there are many different opinions about what a team should do when they’re down and out. That isn’t any different here in Portland.

I want the Blazers to be as good as possible, and to contend for a title. This current team lacks the long-term potential to eventually do that, as much as I love Davis, Mason Plumlee and McCollum. 

Winning games damages Portland’s chances to improve their team the only way they realistically can: the NBA Draft. No free agent is willing to come to Portland, despite the great quality of life, funky atmosphere, tame media scene, and passionate fans. As Lillard proved, being in the Rose City isn’t a death sentence for a player’s endorsement profile; Dame’s making untold millions of dollars. In fact, having both Nike and Adidas’ North American headquarters in Portland can only be a good thing; everybody signed to either one of those companies as a shoe endorser has made a trip or two in years past, starting with some guy named Michael Jordan.

The majority of NBA players, however, view a good place to live as somewhere that’s always warm, has a great nightlife, and is glamorous. That perception is unfair to the players, but as long as the media (read: ESPN) keeps putting that out there, it will continue to be believed. 

In my mind, since the current Blazers lack the potential as a team to get to the top tier, and since free agent NBA players are afraid to live in a cold rainy city full of bearded hipster douches like me, it’s logical to pin all my hopes on the Draft. I realize that it’s very hard to hit multiple high-end draft picks, mold those picks into stars, get the requisite supporting pieces, and then actually win the title. The Golden State Warriors are, literally, a once-in-a-generation team; if I’m fortunate enough to have grandkids, I’ll probably be raving about seeing them play as the nurse wipes the drool from my mouth, my grandkids eyeing me like a crazy old fart.

I’m sure many folks would disagree with me; there are some that have fallen too much in love with the current players, and see their overachieving as legit progress towards being good NBA players. That’s a fair point. Aminu’s three-point shooting, in particular, is a good supporting stat for this argument.

I would counter by saying that if it’s true that Portland has good NBA players right now, they still need a star to get them over the hump. And where, oh where, would the Blazers have the best chance to find said star? The NBA Draft.

I didn’t really get Bryant’s thoughts on this (Bryant, if you’re reading this, DM me on the Tweet Machine with your opinion), but he just let me carry on talking while waving French fries around. For all my odd antics, I do talk sense.

Some folks want the Blazers to make the playoffs, and some want them to tank. The results of the Utah game, and fan reaction to it, should tell you just what side a fan is on in this debate.

Time for picks! Let’s go!  

(Stats provided by NBA.com and basketball-reference.com. All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio.)

Friday, Jan. 15: @ the Brooklyn Nets, 4:30 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: I have a nickname for the Nets I’d like to share with you all. I call them “the Spiral of Sadness.”

Think about it: the Nets are capped out to hell until Joe Johnson’s disgusting contract finally expires after this season. Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez signed back with Brooklyn even though they knew the team would be just bad with them, instead of a horrible dumpster fire. Years of mismanagement has cost them multitudes of draft picks; they don’t have control over their picks until 2020, thanks to outright trading them away and offering switches with other Eastern Conference teams in exchange for taking their overpriced veterans…like Johnson.

That mismanagement has led to former GM Billy King FINALLY being removed from his position; from what I’m told, he was “reassigned,” which is corporate-speak for “You’re so bad at your job, we’ll pay you to sit at home until your contract expires.”

Coach Lionel Hollins, despite not being to blame for this mess at all, was suddenly fired for unsurprisingly failing at getting a bad team to win games in a much improved East. In his heart of hearts, Hollins is probably relieved he no longer has to coach that mess.

Oh, and here’s the awesome part: the Nets have a chance of landing the first overall pick in this year’s Draft…only to have to cede it over to division rival Boston. The Celtics, by the way, happen to be a playoff team that’s overachieving. Imagine a true star talent like Ben Simmons on that team, taken with the pick the Nets stupidly gave them in exchange for one season of Kevin Garnett and two seasons of Paul Pierce?

Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is an interesting guy, at least. Bryant has a slight man-crush on him. 

They have that going for them, at least.

Player To Watch: Mason Plumlee. He was traded to Portland by the Nets, and Brooklyn’s best player, Lopez, plays Plumlee’s position. This situation has Revenge Game written all over it.

Prediction: Portland floats over the Spiral of Sadness.

Saturday, Jan. 16: @ the Philadelphia 76ers. 4:30 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: In the world of basketball, we don’t tend to count the Sixers as an actual professional team. They’ve been so actively bad, and at the bottom of every statistical category, for so long we just apply the modifier “the worst non-Sixers player/team” to explain how bad normal NBA teams or players are.

Philly does have some pieces, like Nerlens Noel and young post savant Jahlil Okafor, but the other guys they have are either D-League rejects or guys putting up inflated stats because they’re told to shoot early, often, and without regard for others. 

From the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade and Joel Embiid pick, to trading away Michael Carter-Williams because he wasn’t projected to be a star, to GM Sam Hinkie treating an NBA team like his personal social experiment (for you gamers out there, think Vault-Tec’s projects on their Vault residents in the Fallout games), the Sixers have been the joke of the professional sports world throughout this decade. Respected basketball executive Jerry Colangelo, at 77 years old, was brought in to fix this mess.

My personal belief is that he fires Hinkie after the season and has his son, Bryan, take over as GM. Bryan is a former front-office executive himself, and while he wasn’t all that great in Toronto, he’ll at least be trying to build a team that’s going to actually compete. He’ll also be trying to draft actual players.

Things, in short, that Sam Hinkie wouldn’t ever do.

Player To Watch: We’ll ignore this part, since the Sixers have about four and a half NBA players on their roster, and Portland has 12.

Prediction: Blazers win. Obviously.

Last week, the Blazers went 1-3 while I went 2-2. I’m starting to pull away a bit.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 16-24    

Jared’s Picks Record: 18-22

Bro Counter: 19 to go!

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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