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Trail Blazers Week Preview & Predictions – End Of The Regular Season

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

 

Another Portland Trail Blazers season is about to come to a close, the 45th in team history. While we’ve had hundreds of players and several highly successful eras come and go, it feels like after one era of Blazer basketball passed away last summer--with LaMarcus Aldridge and others leaving, the last teammates of Brandon Roy--another era is on the cusp of starting, with point guard Damian Lillard as the spear point.

This season was supposed to see the Blazers fall back into the morass of terrible teams, with many young players and a frail CJ McCollum flanking Lillard. Instead, after a slightly slow start to begin the year, Portland rode a post-All Star break hot streak into the thick of the playoff race. Now, they’re so sure of making the postseason, with a 2 ½ game lead over ninth-place Houston with four games to go, that the brass have started printing out playoff tickets. Amazing.

At sixth place, and in a dogfight with the Memphis Grizzlies for fifth (they’re separated by just a half-game), everything has come up roses for the Blazers so far this spring. As they close out their regular season, and I close out my second year of doing these columns, all eyes will be looking ahead. To the playoffs, to the upcoming summer, to the next leg of this franchise’s journey in October 2016.

But this summer can wait; after all, we have the whole summer to write about it. Right now, it’s about finishing the 2015-16 season strong for the Trail Blazers, then not totally embarrassing themselves against a clearly superior team in the postseason.

Whether that opponent is going to be the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Los Angeles Clippers, or one of the top two teams in the West if the Blazers suffer a horribly-timed lapse against lesser teams this week, is still to be determined. We might not even know until Wednesday the 13th, the final game for the Blazers this regular season.

Whoever is going to face the Blazers this year in the playoffs is going to get a team that’s likely overmatched, but intends to fight to the bitter end. And who knows? If the Blazers get the Clippers, they just might stand a chance; the Clips are a team that’s mentally frail and destined to choke every spring.

These final four games will be pivotal for the Blazers. So let’s get to looking at them!

(Stats provided by NBA.com and basketball-reference.com. All games can be heard on the radio partner of Oregon Sports News, AM 620 Rip City Radio.)

Tuesday, April 5: @ the Sacramento Kings, 7:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: If you’re feeling a bit of déjà vu, well, it’s because the Blazers played this team here in Portland last week, and beat them by double-digits. The one thing that’s changed is GM Vlade Divac getting a new contract…despite showing almost zero capability to function as an NBA general manager.

This is more a case of owner Vivek Ranadive wanting to keep a guy he’s friendly with close to him, and an executive putting his buddies in major positions in their companies almost never works out well, and almost always breeds jealousy and discontent. Having your boss’ backing is always a good thing, but what good does it do if you suck at your job?

If Divac is an abject failure, Ranadive has now put himself in a position where he’d have to pay Divac every single dollar on that deal he just gave him if he fired him, instead of cutting ties with no cost and finding a man with the next best plan. It’s him throwing even more money into that cesspit he himself had a big hand in creating, and it’s just a bad look all around.

NBA coaching jobs, especially head coaching jobs, are always highly coveted. If I were a young hotshot NBA assistant or college coach, though, I’d think twice before willingly stepping into that madhouse and working with those head cases.

Player To Watch: Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis. The big men will be highlighted in their matchup with Kings superstar big man DeMarcus Cousins. They’ll try to slow him down enough to let the Blazers’ perimeter superiority come into play.

Prediction: Blazers win their final road game of the season.


Wednesday, April 6: vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, 7:00 PM, KGW    

The Skinny: As referenced above, the Thunder are a very possible opponent for the Blazers in the playoffs. Being pretty much locked into the third seed, they might begin resting some players at this juncture, especially in this game; they won’t want to give any recent scouting information to a potential playoff opponent.

I’m thinking Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might sit out this game, which would be a bad thing for Oklahoma City tomorrow, but would be the best thing long-term. For the Thunder, it’s about whether they can challenge and defeat the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, then trying to retain Durant’s services in free agency this summer.

Both Durant and Westbrook are in the top 10 in the league in scoring, are number two and three in PER, and take a combined 37.4 shots per game. Durant has a True Shooting Percentage (which takes into account free throws along with field goals) equal to Hassan Whiteside and greater than that of DeAndre Jordan--two big guys that dunk most of the time, though to be fair, Whiteside actually does have a decent midrange jumper. He’s second in the NBA in TS%, behind the demigod known on Earth as Stephen Curry.

Westbrook is second in the NBA in assists. He’s done a great job at shucking the shameless gunner reputation blowhards like me have painted him with since he got into the NBA.

As for the team itself, the Thunder are second in Offensive Rating and 12th in Defensive Rating. Having stars that can just go and get you a bucket is key in the postseason, yet with the Spurs being such a machine, and the Warriors both having better ancillary personnel and a better star than the Thunder have, it’s unclear just how much that can help OKC this spring.

As for that defense, it must improve. I’m not sure how they can improve said defense with Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, and Kyle Singler (sorry, Kyle) playing significant minutes for them, however.

All in all, the journey of the Thunder will be a huge thing to watch in the playoffs. And the first part of that journey may well run through Portland, the team that could have picked Durant over Greg Oden and chose not to. As another juicy note, Durant has never faced the Blazers in the playoffs before.

He’s probably over it by now, but if Thunder/Blazers does end up happening, expect some media goober (besides myself, I suppose) to bring that up.

Player To Watch: Damian Lillard. He’s the fifth-leading scorer in the league right now, at a healthy 25.3 PPG. That’s one-tenth higher than a certain LeBron James.

I know Points Per Game is a horrendously overrated stat in today’s advanced stats climate, but I just can’t see the NBA leaving their fifth-leading scorer off the All-NBA Teams, even if Lillard does play a stacked position. Lillard is also tied for eighth in assists per game, with 6.8...tied with a certain LeBron James.

Prediction: I’m going with the assumption that the Thunder rest their players because their seed is locked up, while the Blazers play all their personnel because they’re still in a dogfight for better seeding. If that’s the case, Blazers win.


Saturday, April 9: vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, 7:30 PM, CSNNW    

The Skinny: At 25-52, the Wolves haven’t been all that impressive this season as a team. For such a young team playing under an interim coach that’s stuck in the 1990s, and had to deal with the passing of Head Coach/President Flip Saunders before the season, that’s expected. This season is all about growth for the rookies and young guys on the team.

And what growth.

Andrew Wiggins, the perimeter part of the equation, hasn’t improved his traditional stats that dramatically from year one to year two, except a four-point increase in PPG. The advanced stats tell a better story, with Wiggins showing marked improvement in PER, Offensive Win Shares, and Defensive Win Shares. He increased his usage rate by five percent while cutting down his turnovers; that’s sneaky difficult to do, especially for a guy who just turned 21 about six weeks ago. He still needs to learn how to shoot a three-pointer--and coach Sam Mitchell’s medieval attitude about the three-pointer isn’t helping--but Wiggins has shot more of them this year. Progress!

As for the other star in the making the Wolves have, Karl-Anthony Towns? All he’s done this year is average a double-double (18-10), lead all rookies in scoring, rebounding, and PER, be second among rookies (and tied for sixth in the NBA) in blocks per game, shoot 54% from the field, and be in the top 20 league-wide in Defensive and Total Rebounding Percentage, Block Percentage, True Shooting Percentage, and Effective Field Goal Percentage. And while I do admit that PER favors big men because they get most of the rebounds, he’s a rookie with a sterling 22.7 PER, good for 12th in the league.

Simply put, Towns is a total monster, a worthy heir to Kevin Garnett as the Wolves’ keystone player. I don’t envy the fact that he’s in the Blazers’ division.

If Towns and Wiggins continue to be an effective one-two punch, and the Wolves win another draft lottery (or draft another great young player), these guys could be my favorites to win the 2021 NBA Championship.

Player To Watch: Mo Harkless. If he’s still playing the 4 in small-ball Blazer lineups, that means he’ll likely have to tangle with Towns on the boards. May God rest his soul.

Prediction: In a hard-fought contest, Blazers win to sweep the season series with the Timberwolves.


Season Finale, Wednesday, April 13: vs. the Denver Nuggets, 7:30 PM, KGW

The Skinny: It is easy to see similarities between the Nuggets and Blazers in terms of roster makeup. Both teams are populated with young players hungry to carve out a place in the NBA. Both teams have a badass big man, a soft-shooting big man (though Meyers Leonard is out for the Blazers), and a big man with solid potential. Both teams also have dynamic backcourt players.

The one reason why Portland is 41-37 and sixth in the West, and Denver is 32-46 and 10th, is Damian Lillard. Not to keep harping on this point, but it really, really helps to have a top-20 or 25 player in the league on your team, something the Nuggets lack currently.

Maybe rookie guard Emmanuel Mudiay (shooting just 35% for the year, though he does lead all rookies in assists) or one of Denver’s young big men, Nikola Jokic or Jusuf Nurkic, can eventually get to that top-25 area. Maybe the Nuggets eventually decide to auction off the rest of their veterans and dedicate themselves to a true tank job, not this middle-of-the-road nonsense that won’t help them get the star they need. Maybe they even do what the Blazers did last summer, and cobble together a bunch of imperfect parts that make a good basketball machine, though I wouldn’t bank on that approach; the Blazers could try that because of Lillard.

Since the Blazers are likely to make the playoffs this year, Denver gets Portland’s first-round pick in this year’s Draft, which is another bargaining chip in case DeMarcus Cousins wants to reunite with one of his old coaches, Mike Malone, in Denver. I think they also have the right to swap draft picks with somebody thanks to the Carmelo Anthony trade, but the Knicks have done so much crazy stuff the last few years, I can’t remember off the top of my head, and an Internet search turned up zilch. Toronto gets the Knicks’ pick this year anyway, thanks to another stupid New York trade.

The future for the Nuggets, as it has been since Anthony was traded, is murky at best. At least they have some young pieces around.

Player To Watch: CJ McCollum. The likely Most Improved Player against a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, Will Barton. Two former teammates who had great years for their respective teams. Should be a good few minutes of all offense, no defense, and a contrast between McCollum’s cool, collected style, and Barton’s harum-scarum mentality.

Prediction: Yes, I’m going to pick the Blazers to sweep this week. Might bite me in the ass, but given that I’m not going to give them a chance in the playoffs, I figure now’s the time to be nice. Besides, the Nuggets suck.

Last week, the Blazers and I both went 3-1. The only drama left here is whether I can reach 50 games I picked right for the second year in the row.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 41-37

Jared’s Picks Record: 48-30

Next week, the end-of-season reviews and playoff breakdowns (if Portland makes it there) will be written up and served. Till then, thanks for making it through another season with me, and hope to see you in the summertime.

 

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