Trail Blazers' 2016 foray into free agency has been one marked by misses even as they improve

Trail Blazers' 2016 foray into free agency has been one marked by misses even as they improve

Perhaps nowhere, outside of Oklahoma City, has this 4th of July and the NBA  offseason been met with such deflation as here in Portland.

Armed with potentially $40 million in cap space and clear-cut needs for a rim-protecting center, an athletic and versatile wing and a backup point guard, the Blazers and Neil Olshey have so far produced … Evan Turner.

Along the way, Chandler Parsons reportedly spurned a $94 million offer to play for the same money in Memphis. Pau Gasol turned down a reported deal with Portland worth a whopping $40 million over two years to ink with San Antonio for the same time and $10 million less. And another target – center Zaza Pachulia – was so entranced by the smell of success in Golden State that he went to the Bay for a mere $2.9 million.

If you are counting at home, that’s three strikes, and tonight many think the Blazers are out, left standing in the box with the bat still on their shoulder.

I wish I could tell you things will get better. That Olshey has one of his smarter-than-us moves up his sleeve.

But I can’t. By now, the free agent market has been stripped nearly bare of the players who can step in and make a difference. 

I don’t know what Olshey is up to. I don’t know if he is as frustrated as you. Or if he indeed has a series of moves ready to put into action. As is his way of doing business, Olshey doesn’t share, leak or shape his plan through the media.

So what to make of this anti-climatic 4th of July that is the Blazers’ offseason so far?

Well, in fairness, it’s probably somewhere in the middle of being not as bad as it seems but not as good as the Blazers had hoped.

I know a lot of fans don’t want to hear that right now. They want to be talking about the rim-protection of Hassan Whiteside, or Bismack Biyombo. Or the shooting of Kent Bazemore or Parsons.

But step back for a minute and breath.  And look at the team.

Right now, as of today, the Blazers figure to be a better team than last season.

Right now, I have them as the sixth best team in the conference, behind Golden State, San Antonio, the Clippers, Memphis and Utah and ahead of Oklahoma City, Dallas and Minnesota.

Turner got paid $70 million over four years (average $17.5 million a season) which is way more than anyone dreamed the wing would ever get paid. But hey, that’s today’s NBA.

And as much as Turner is not a sexy name or an impact player, he will greatly help this team.

He’s a 6-foot-7 shooting guard/small forward who can defend and handle the ball, alleviating an enormous amount of pressure from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who were suffocated by traps during the playoffs.

Turner in Boston came off the bench and was essentially a point-forward for the Celtics, averaging 4.4 assists along the way. The Blazers’ wings last year – Al Farouq-Aminu, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Gerald Henderson – were not ball handlers and were not facilitators in the halfcourt.

Turner will be that play maker and facilitator as the team’s starting small forward, and he will likely move to shooting guard when McCollum slides over to backup point guard.

And he gives the Blazers some versatility and depth on defense. We saw how much better the Blazers were defensively when Aminu went to power forward and Harkless started at small forward and checked point guards. They could switch on pick-and-rolls, which became a factor in the Clippers series, even before Chris Paul got injured.

Turner will also be able to provide that kind of versatility on defense, allowing the Blazers to counter the growing trend of small lineups in the NBA.

We still don’t know whether Portland will match what figure to be upcoming offers to Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Harkless, but one agent on Monday said the Blazers weren’t willing to renounce those players to create enough cap space to pursue Festus Ezeli, the free agent center from Golden State. That says the Blazers value those three players, and will likely bring them back.

The hardest part to digest is that if ever there was a time, a front office executive and a team to lure a big-name free agent, this was it.

The Blazers are a sky rocket of a team, a likeable and honorable core of hard workers and largely unselfish players who are only going to get better. They have a team-first star in Damian Lillard. A well-liked coach in Terry Stotts who figures out how to best fit players into his system, which is why nearly every rotation player who has come through Portland has produced a career year.

And, they have Olshey – the fast-talking whirlwind of an executive who was always two steps ahead of everybody before they knew what hit them. He had what owner Paul Allen refers as “the golden gut” – a guy who could not only identify talent, but also how it fit on and off the court.

But somewhere along the way, it all didn’t matter. Not to Parsons. Not to Gasol. Not to Pachulia.

I don’t know who or what is to blame - Olshey, the city of Portland, or just bad luck – but here the Blazers are, deep into free agency with a smoldering firecracker, the only solace being they didn’t get worse, like Oklahoma City, and they didn't throw money at a player just to say they signed someone. 

Maybe this summer will be just what the likes of Lillard and McCollum seem to thrive on: having a slight to feed off, something to rally around, something to say I-told-you-so.

It brings us back to the last 4th of July. It was the day LaMarcus Aldridge announced he was leaving the Blazers for San Antonio. Back then, it was widely viewed as a dark day in Blazers history.

But one year later, would many Blazers fans argue it was not for the best?

 

Quick Takes: MVP of the Blazers of second unit

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NBCSNW

Quick Takes: MVP of the Blazers of second unit

The Blazers bench has been great this season leading to a 10-3 record for the No.2 team in the Western Conference. Nearly every bench player has been stellar, but who would you vote as the MVP of the second unit? Alex, Chris, and Jake of the Blazers Outsiders discuss:

ALEX HAIGH: Zach Collins is my Second Unit MVP. Averaging 10.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, shooting 56% from the floor and capturing the hearts of Rip City at the ridiculously young age of 20? Get this man a paper certificate and a trip to Izzy’s.

JAKE MCGRADY: Although it’s a broken record at this point... Zach Collins. Undisputed. The dude is playing with so much ferocity and hustle, it’s truly a treat. I have a feeling he won’t be coming off the bench much longer.

CHRIS BURKHARDT:  While my co-hosts both picked Zach Collins, which is fair, I'm going in a different direction. My pick for MVP of the second unit is Evan Turner. Statistically, he is having his best year since 2015-16 when he was a member of the Boston Celtics. While his 9.6 points per game are far below his career high of 17.4 in 2013-14,  he is still shooting the ball better than ever. He is shooting .491 from the field, .557 on two-point shots, and has an effective field goal percentage of .509, all the best numbers of his career. His assist and rebounds are both above his career averages, and he has been the man steering the second unit. Turner has finally found his groove in Portland. 

NBC SPORTS GOLD’S “BLAZERS PASS” RETURNS FRIDAY, NOV. 23 WHEN TRAIL BLAZERS VISIT WARRIORS

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NBCSNW

NBC SPORTS GOLD’S “BLAZERS PASS” RETURNS FRIDAY, NOV. 23 WHEN TRAIL BLAZERS VISIT WARRIORS

NBC Sports Gold’s “Blazers Pass” returns Friday, November 23, when the Blazers visit the defending two-time NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. Fans have less than one week left to purchase “Blazers Pass” at the special discounted price of $31.50 (through Nov. 19). The pass will be available for its regular price of $34.99 starting November 20. The streaming product allows fans residing in Portland Trail Blazers territory access to 15 Blazers road games during the 2018-19 NBA season.

The pass is only available to fans in Blazers Territory, as determined by NBA rules. Fans can visit NBC Sports to check whether the pass is available in their area, and to purchase the product.

The pass also features enhanced content, including pre- and post-game shows, full replays for all 15 games, as well as Trail Blazers Raw recap shows for all games beginning November 23 and throughout the regular season, at the same price as last season. NBC Sports Northwest will continue to present its traditional TV offering and streaming via “TV Everywhere” of 76 Blazers games for the 2018-19 season, including the 15 games also available via “Blazers Pass.”

This season’s “Blazers Pass” schedule is highlighted by two games against the defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors; a matchup with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers; a meeting with the 2017-18 NBA MVP James Harden and the Houston Rockets; a rematch from the 2018 NBA Playoffs against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, and games against top teams from the East, including the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Toronto Raptors.

The full 2018-19 “Blazers Pass” schedule:

• Nov. 23 at Golden State
• Dec. 2 at San Antonio
• Dec. 11 at Houston
• Dec. 27 at Golden State
• Jan. 13 at Denver
• Jan. 21 at Utah
• Jan. 22 at Oklahoma City
• Feb. 11 at Oklahoma City
• Feb. 23 at Philadelphia
• Feb. 27 at Boston
• Mar. 1 at Toronto
• Mar. 15 at New Orleans
• Mar. 16 at San Antonio
• Apr. 1 at Minnesota
• Apr. 9 at L.A. Lakers

For all Trail Blazers games beginning November 23, “Blazers Pass” subscribers will have access to all NBC Sports Northwest’s Trail Blazers Raw recap show. Trail Blazers Raw allows fans to experience the highs and lows of each game day in a condensed 30-minute game recap show. It includes the storylines headed into the game, a fast-paced recap with game highlights, and added analysis of the game’s key moments. In all, fans will be able to watch more than 60 episodes of Trail Blazers Raw this season.

“Blazers Pass” is part of NBC Sports Gold’s suite of direct-to-consumer live streaming products available on desktop, mobile, tablets and connected TV devices. NBC Sports Gold is available on Apple iOS, Android, Apple TV V4, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Chromecast and online at NBCSportsGold.com. NBC Sports Gold is powered by Playmaker Media, NBC Sports Digital’s technology service which provides end-to-end support for companies in need of best-in-class live streaming and VOD solutions.

How Damian Lillard has been more efficient attacking the rim this season

How Damian Lillard has been more efficient attacking the rim this season

Damian Lillard has always been a good penetrator off the dribble, but this year it seems like he’s picked up his efficiency as he continues to prove he’s one of the best point guards in the league. 

At this point in his career, we’re not looking for big changes from Lillard, but rather the incremental upticks in percentages or tendencies which allow him to boost his game even further. When you’re really good, it’s hard to get noticeably better and that’s what has made Lillard’s improvements this season so interesting.

Lillard has upped his efficiency as a dribbler in the paint by small percentages, enough to explain much about his improved effectiveness. His points in the paint, free throw rate, field goals at the rim, and percentage at the rim have all gone up. His turnover percentage is down, and he’s also creating better quality shots for his teammates off drives.

There are two changes I’ve seen while studying film that have helped Lillard be a more lethal weapon going to the hoop this year. 

The first is a strategic change in the playcalling by Terry Stotts. Portland is playing more 4-out and 5-out sets where they don’t have any offensive players down low in the paint. Naturally, that allows Lillard more room to operate. The non-essential players spread out and defenders are left unsure if they should guard the key.

The other thing I’ve noticed, and this was more of a “feel” thing that film has verified, is that Lillard is just little craftier this year. He’s passing a bit earlier, his body control is just a little better, and he’s done an excellent job using a stronger gather-and-scoop move to hold off defenders.

One thing Lillard seems to be doing more this season is passing in the mid-post off drives, which is the area from around 6-10 feet. In seasons past, when he got a step on defenders and made it to that area of the floor, it was more than likely that a shot was going up. In 2018, he’s passing as a plan from there, and I think it shows trust in his teammates.

It’s telling about his work ethic that Lillard has become better at the thing he’s perhaps best at — attacking the rim — and I’ll be watching to see how that continues to affect his scoring and his teammates as the season goes along.

Watch the full video breakdown to see how Lillard has helped his teammates this season.

CJ McCollum named Western Conference Player of the Week

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USA Today Images

CJ McCollum named Western Conference Player of the Week

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum has been named Western Conference Player of the Week for the week of November 5-11. 

McCollum led his team to three-straight wins this past week, as the Blazers improved to 10-3 on the season. This is the first Western Conference Player of the Week nod for McCollum, who was the 12th player in franchise history to earn the award. 

In his three games against the Bucks, Clippers and Celtics, McCollum averaged 25.7 points on 50.8 percent shooting to go with 4.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists.

McCollum scored a season-high 40 points, four rebounds, six assists and four steals in Portland’s 118-103 win over Milwaukee on Nov. 6. He became the third player in team history to have a game with at least 40 points, four rebounds, six assists and four steals. 

The Portland Trail Blazers will look to ride McCollum's hot streak as they head on the road for six games. Next up, LeBron and the Lakers on Wednesday. 

Blazers' hot start comes from a 'collective unit'

Blazers' hot start comes from a 'collective unit'

With a win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday night, the Portland Trail Blazers (10-3) are off to their best start since 2014-15 season.

It’s a change of pace from each of the past two seasons, when a similar looking Blazers roster has limped out of gates and waited to find its stride once the calendar flipped in January and February.

Much like that 2014-15 team, the last iteration of the LaMarcus Aldridge era, this Portland roster makes sense. There are clearly defined roles, a strong bench unit and stars at the top of the roster to keep things on course.

Ask anyone in the Blazers locker room and that consistent group effort is what they appreciate most about their start to this year.

“I think it’s been as a collective unit,” Blazers forward Evan Turner said. “I think everybody’s been chipping in. I think that’s the biggest thing. Everybody’s been attentive with attention to detail and it’s been positive.”

Against the Celtics, Al-Farouq Aminu hit two crucial three-pointers to seal the win. On Thursday, he Blazers grinded out a win against the L.A. Clippers thanks to strong fourth quarter minutes from the second unit. And last Tuesday, CJ McCollum exploded for 40-points in an impressive win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

“I think we’ve just won different ways,” McCollum said. “With defense, we’ve won low scoring games, we’ve won high scoring games, we’ve won close games, we’ve had a few blowouts where we didn’t play the fourth quarter. I think we’ve just won in a variety of ways.”

The emergence of the Blazers’ second unit has been crucial to their early success. The added depth has taken pressure of the Blazers starters and adds some peace mind for Portland’s stars.

“Each game is like, alright we play the first eight and a half minutes. Then the bench comes in and do what they do, and we come back in and finish the half,” Damian Lillard said. “It’s like a well-oiled machine right now. Guys are doing their job.”

Depth and consistency has the Blazers out to their best start in four seasons. Their well-oiled machine can win in a variety with a different guys delivering on different nights.

“From winning a slug fest, winning defensive games, different things like that. That’s what it’s going to take to do what we want to do,” Aminu said. “You’re not just going to have to play one way. We’re going to have to play a lot of different ways. That’s what the regular season is for, to learn how to maneuver through different situations.”

Riding the Wave: Will contagious momentum help the streaking Trail Blazers on the road?

Riding the Wave: Will contagious momentum help the streaking Trail Blazers on the road?

After a 100-94 victory over the Boston Celtics on Sunday night, Portland is now riding its longest winning streak of this young season with four straight victories.  The Blazers also concluded this six-game homestand with an impressive 5-1 record.

“We’re playing with confidence and poise… You gotta win close games in this league. I think winning close games over the course of your season, makes the difference of how you look back at your season,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said postgame. 

NBA games are always known for one team going on a run and then the other team will go on a big run and momentum swings in a blink of an eye. But does the momentum of a four-game winning streak mean a lot to Trail Blazers leader Damian Lillard?

“I think the biggest thing is just feeling good about yourself and feeling good about what you’re doing and if we winning games and you know things are happening guys are less likely to be worried about, well… this didn’t happen and this didn’t happen, you’re just kind of like, well allright, what I’m doing for the team is working. It’s just a matter of how long you can sustain that,” Lillard said.

It was a big night for the Chief Al- Farouq Aminu on Sunday. Aminu finsished with 11 points and nine rebounds in the win against Boston, yet, it was his two clutch three-pointers down the stretch that people will still be talking about when they look back at this game.

Momentum swings might mean the most for Aminu and his gratitude for it dates back to his grade schools days.

“I remember in AAU when I was young, my coach use to tell me, like, because I was the main player on the team, you're in charge of the people’s emotions, you know what I mean, like if you get a win, you’ll see after the game everybody’s happy, everybody’s spirited is lifted. If you get a losses and you’re not working hard and things like that, everybody’s spirit is down, everybody’s not as excited and different things like that so that’s also what winning does—it becomes contagious… Aminu said.

With the victory, Portland also ended a three-game losing streak to Boston.

Evan Turner, a former Celtic, realizes how important momentum is, but as a veteran on this team, Turner points out that you should never be riding a rollercoaster of emotions.

“Obviously everthing feels great after a win, just like everything feels great after making a shot. You know, momentum’s a big thing, but I think the mental capacity of it, I think as you get older—You can never get too high or too low… So we also comprehend that nothing’s guaranteed, we really have to go out and you know prepare the right way, play the game the right way, play with integrity and come prepared,” Turner said. 

Blazers now get set to embark on a six-game, 10-day trip with stops at the Los Angeles Lakers, Minneapolis, Washington, New York, Milwaukee and Golden State.

Taking your winning ways on the road is what separates good teams from great teams and the Trail Blazers know how important it is to keep the winning energy alive.

“Going on a tough six-game day road trip you’ve got to ride the wave, take advantage of this momentum at home and try to replicate that on the road,” McCollum said.  

“It's way better to go on the road with four wins than anything else, but how this team thinks even is if we come off a loss, we’re confident to think the next game is going to be a win… We play a type of game where it’s not like if the tide will turn, it’s when the tide will turn,” Turner said.

Confidence and trusting each other have been two key components to the Trail Blazers keeping the momentum rolling.

“To continue to bring good energy, that’s why you want to continue to work so hard, so that you can keep this energy and momentum going,” Aminu said.    

But, don’t think for a second that the Trail Blazers aren’t thinking about how easily they could’ve gone undefeated on this homestand after the Blazers’ comeback to the Lakers fell just short last Saturday, 114-110.

“It’s always good to win at home, especially going on a road trip so we’re happy about how we played, obviously we’d like to get that Laker game back and go 6-0 during the homestand,” McCollum said. 

Good thing the Blazers can test out this good momentum vs. the Lakers on Wednesday with the first game of the trip.

That works out nicely.

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Awkward landing leaves Lillard limping out of Moda

Awkward landing leaves Lillard limping out of Moda

It was a play at the 7:47 mark in the first quarter, and to some it may have seemed like no big deal, but after Damian Lillard gobbled up a rebound, he came down awkwardly and fell to the ground.

He got up quickly, and continued to play a team-high 35 minutes and finished the game with his first double-double of the season with 19 points and 12 assists. 

It was my knee. Tough play…I just got rolled up a little bit. If I would have came down and my leg would have went to the side immediately then it would have been a lot worse but I kind of caught it and landed flat on my foot and just sorta crumbled a little bit. It was painful… I had to run it off to make sure it wasn’t anything crazy. It was sore the whole (rest of the) game. I felt kind of limited in my movement… It’s going to be sore tomorrow. If it was something really wrong, I think I would have found out. I’ll get up, go do treatment. 

Lillard was seen leaving Moda Center with a slight limp after his media availability. 

There is no official practice on Monday and it will be used as a maintenance day for the Trail Blazers. Portland does not play another game until they travel to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers on Wednesday, the first of a six-game road trip, so Lillard will have some time to get the treatment he needs, while aslo getting a little rest.

Lillard has played an average of 78.16 games per season over the first five years of his career including not missing a single game over the course of his first three seasons, so you know that if he can play, he'll play. 

Trust among teammates: Aminu (wait, who?) drains late threes to sink Celtics

Trust among teammates: Aminu (wait, who?) drains late threes to sink Celtics

OK, go down the list of Trail Blazer players you’d like to have take a critical three-point shot late in a close game against the Boston Celtics.

I’m not sure how far down the list you’ve gotten by now, but unless you watched Sunday night’s game in Moda Center, I’m guessing you still haven’t gotten to Al-Farouq Aminu.

The Portland power forward is a defensive specialist who spends most of his time chasing some of the best offensive basketball players in the world around the court.

As a shooter, well, he’s improving. And we know by now his teammates certainly trust him.

Last season he made 36.9 percent of his threes, which brought his career three-point shooting up to 33.6 percent. This season, he went into Sunday’s game against the Celtics shooting 34.2 percent from long range.

That brings us to the waning minutes of Portland’s 100-94 win over Boston. It was a one-point Blazer lead when Damian Lillard found Aminu wide open beyond the arc with 2:34 to play.

Aminu set himself, let fly and swished it clean to hike the Portland lead to 95-91.

But he wasn’t done.

With exactly a minute to go, Lillard found Aminu again, this time from deeper, and he drilled another three to push the lead to 100-94.

Two critical makes from a man who had been 1-5 in the game from three-point range prior to those shots. And if you listened to the whispers in the Boston locker room after the game, he wasn’t open by accident.

If you aren’t a big-time shooter in those situations, you aren’t expected to make big-time shots.

“The first one -- they were really attacking from the weak side,” said Lillard. “They were leaving the weak side wide open and making sure we weren’t hitting the ‘big’ – so the first one, I threw it out to him and he rose up with confidence. Once I saw the quality of that make, I was like ‘He’s feeling good about his shot tonight.’

“So the next one, they shrunk again, he was the play and he was a little deeper than usual, but when he rose up with that confidence, I felt good about it just watching him take the shot. And he knocked down another one.”

And Aminu seemed flattered to have the opportunity to take the game in his hands.

 “Man, it feels good when your teammates trust you,” Aminu said. “I feel like the trust this year has been amazing. It’s been good since I’ve been here but this year, especially, it’s been good. We trust each other in all situations, the beginning of the game and the end of the game.

“The second one WAS deep. I was just praying it wouldn’t do any of that rattle-in-and-rattle-out because it felt great.”

Aminu likes to put pressure on himself when shooting threes in practice. And those three-point games at the end of practice often include the usual trash-talking and taunts among teammates.

“It’s hard to simulate what’s going to happen in games but you want to have some jitters when you’re taking those (practice) shots,” he said. “I’ve never liked random shooting where you’re just getting them up.

“I feel like, for me personally, that doesn’t do me any good. For every shot, I want my stomach to feel a little tight. That competition of trying to win is able to translate.”

And translate it did, Sunday night.

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Rapid Reaction: 3 Quick Takeaways from the Blazers win over the Celtics

Rapid Reaction: 3 Quick Takeaways from the Blazers win over the Celtics

The Blazers rolled the Celtics in the first half and despite a rally in the third and another in the fourth, Boston came up short as the Blazers pick up another Moda Center win. 

Here are some quick thoughts from our reporters on the scene...

Final Box Score

Dwight Jaynes, Trail Blazers' Insider:  Trail Blazers should have been ahead by much more at the half. Blazers need more from Dame and CJ than that against the good teams. Buckets pretty hard to come by in the second half for Portland, which let Boston back into the game. 

Jamie Hudson, Trail Blazers' Reporter:  This Celtics team has been no stranger to coming back against teams on this road trip from 20 down- just look at their win over the Suns... The Blazers biggest lead was 21, but the Cs were able to outscore the Blazers 33-29 in the third and start the 4th with a 13-2 run to make for a close fourth quarter. Portland was able to hold on thanks to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum subbing in earlier than usual in the 4th. Luckily for the Blazers, Portland has two days off before they face the Lakers so extra minutes for Dame and CJ is fine for tonight.

Mike Richman, Trail Blazers' Reporter:  Al-Farouq Aminu hit two huge three-pointers to save an otherwise sloppy second half that nearly ended in an embarrassing loss.

***Be sure to check back here throughout tonight for locker room videos with Coach Stotts and the players, plus locker room reports from Jamie Hudson and Dwight Jaynes***

NEXT UP: The Blazers start a six game roadtrip by heading to LA to take on the Lakers on Wednesday.