What went wrong on Portland's wing this year?

What went wrong on Portland's wing this year?

The Portland Trail Blazers had the same fatal flaw this season that they had last season. And the season before that, and the season before that. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, embattled by double teams in the playoffs, were better this year at moving the ball before opponents could cause turnovers. But they needed the recipients of those passes — or the recipients of the passes from those passes — to knock down open 3-pointers.

They didn’t.

Portland had a wonderful season, and its strength was largely due to the rise in production by Jusuf Nurkic and the faith its bench unit had in each other. Both of those things were taken away in the postseason. Nurkic sat out with a broken leg, and with Terry Stotts shortening his rotation in the playoffs, the backups looked unsteady.

That put pressure on the Blazers’ high-minute wing players to perform. Moe Harkless, Evan Turner, Rodney Hood, and Al-Farouq Aminu were on the attacking end of plays where imbalances on McCollum and Lillard should have let them dominate. They got more open looks, and were in better positions during these playoffs.

In part, Portland used those gaps in the defense to punish opponents with passing. The ball moved more, particularly to the high post. The nail acted as a pivot point: cutters ran the baseline and collapsing defenders dictated whether a layup or a corner 3-pointer was the best shot available.

Aminu, with his trebuchet-style shooting form, hit just 24 percent of his corner treys, per Cleaning the Glass. Harkless knocked down 14 percent from the same area, an astonishing number. Turner took and hit a single three all postseason.

This resulted in defenses being able to clamp down a bit more on Hood and Seth Curry, the two known quantities as shooters. Portland’s designated bench gunners — both subject to taking above-the-break threes already — were more predictable and thus, easier to guard.

Hood shot 33 percent on non-corner threes, and his stats from deep ranked him in the 59th percentile for the playoffs at his position. Curry put up better numbers, but his game log was uneven. He played heavy minutes for the Blazers in the postseason but in 12 of 16 games played, Curry’s jumper accounted for either one or zero 3-pointers. Without volume, Curry’s effect was limited. With that limitation, Hood had to do the bulk of the bench 3-point scoring. It just wasn’t enough.

That’s without mentioning Turner, whose inability to shoot one again hurt the Blazers. Turner was brought in to relieve trapping pressure from Lillard and McCollum in 2016. It didn't quite go as planned, but this season Turner finally found his niche as the independent leader of the bench unit. That was a positive for the Blazers, but the reason why Turner wasn't able to act as a release valve for Portland’s stars remained.

That takes us back to Aminu and Harkless. The younger forward, who battled nagging injuries all season long, came on strong in the final two months of the year. Although his shooting suffered, he was an effective scorer and his offensive rating jumped in March and April. But Aminu was never a threat, and in the playoffs opponents often allowed him space to shoot so they could prevent Portland from dominating the offensive glass. As Harkless’ percentages in the postseason rounded out, eventually he was left more space, too.

At their core, the Trail Blazers need more wing shooting. They know that — it's why they’ve stuck with Harkless for so long. Where Aminu provides defense and others must make up for his lack of 3-point consistency, Harkless could provide both. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, including during his first season with Portland in 2015-16, when Harkless was exactly the player Neil Olshey wanted in the postseason. The Queens native was able to guard the best opposing wing player while also shooting effectively from 3-point range. He thrived as a cutter. He passed the ball.

This postseason, Portland was forced to revert back to their old ways. Harkless, Aminu, Turner, Curry, and Hood provided one or two skill sets when the Blazers really needed each to give them three or four. Their compartmentalization of tasks laid bare Portland’s biggest flaws, its lack of fluidity apparent when Stotts’ rotation shrank in the postseason.

There's no easy fix for what ails this team. The front office knows exactly what they are trying to get from the wing. This summer will perhaps be their biggest test, with both Harkless and Aminu’s status with the team up in the air. Whether by trade, draft, or free agency, Portland needs a more dynamic wing lineup. It’s now their most glaring weakness, and next season can’t be played with such large disparities created by the trade-offs in roster construction as it’s stood for the past few seasons.

Trevor Ariza hopeful Rip City doesn't hold Rudy Fernandez foul against him

Trevor Ariza hopeful Rip City doesn't hold Rudy Fernandez foul against him

Trevor Ariza wasn’t going to try to run from history. He remembers that play from 2009, when he was trying to chase down Portland’s Rudy Fernandez in the open court, hit Fernandez in mid-air and sent him crashing to the floor with an injury to his back.

Fernandez, who left the game on a stretche, missed the next two games.

Ariza expressed some hope that people would not hold the play against him as a new member of the Portland Trail Blazers.

“It wasn’t intentional,” he said Wednesday in his introductory meeting with the local media. “It was a basketball play. It wasn’t a dirty play, just a play on the ball.”

Acquired from the Sacramento Kings in a deal announced Tuesday, Ariza, who addresses the play in the video above, is expected to take over as the Trail Blazers’ starting small forward Thursday night when Portland plays host to the Dallas Mavericks.

 

Trail Blazers get "raw" talent and "energy" with Wenyen Gabriel and Caleb Swangian

Trail Blazers get "raw" talent and "energy" with Wenyen Gabriel and Caleb Swangian

Injuries always seem to make way for young players.

The Portland Trail Blazers now not only have a myriad of injuries they are dealing with at the moment, but now they have two young, eager big men ready to prove themselves.

The Blazers and Kings trade become official Tuesday with the Blazers acquiring forwards Trevor Ariza and Wenyen Gabriel and forward/center Caleb Swanigan from Sacramento in exchange for Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver and two second round draft picks.

Most fans know what they’re getting in 15-year veteran Trevor Ariza, but what about the other two?

For Swanigan, he is, of course, back in familiar territory.

The 6-9 forward out of Purdue was selected by the Trail Blazers in the 2017 NBA Draft with the 26th overall pick before he was shipped to the Kings last season at the trade deadline.

Damian Lillard couldn’t help but talk about how strange it was to see Biggie back at the Blazers practice facility.

“When I walked in, he was up there, he was getting tapped and we both acknowledged that it was kind of weird, like, I don’t even think it’s been a full year of him being gone, so it was weird, but it’s good to have him back, another chance,” Lillard said.

Now that Swanigan is in his third season, he has a new perspective on things. 

“The biggest thing with me is that is just growth off the court a lot of things.” Swanigan said. “Just making sure I’m handing my body and other things that I’m doing right… That’d be the biggest thing I’ve grown in.”

The backup big man has now played in 55 NBA career-games while averaging 0.7 points on 37.6 percent shooting to go along with 1.0 rebound.

After just one day back of practicing with the Blazers, he isn’t sure how to feel.

I really don’t know what my reaction is. I’m still taking it in, like it’s different, but it’s the same, so it’s like I’ve been here before, but at a different time… It was good seeing the guys. Still seeing some familiar faces was nice to see. The coaching staff, of course, is the same, so that’s fun. -- Caleb Swanigan on being back in Portland

The 22-year-old isn’t ready to make any claims about this Blazers 2019-20 season.

“All you hear about is the injuries. So, it’s hard to really give them a judgment when you don’t know what guys they really had out there. I’ve been watching a little bit, but each game has been a different group of guys, so it’s hard to get a feel for what it is,” Swanigan said. 

Just as Lillard mentioned the day the trade was reported, there could be a lot of opportunity for Swanigan, Biggie is ready to bring that same liveliness that Blazers fans fell in love with him during the 2017 Summer League Championship run.   

Swanigan believes he can provide “energy, the same thing as before.”

After seeing Swanigan back in a Blazers practice jersey, there is one noticeable difference: Swanigan’s leaner stature.

He said he has lost “about 30 pounds” since he was last in a Trail Blazer uniform after changing his lifestyle to daily early workouts along with eating right.

As for Wenyen Gabriel, a lot of fans don’t know what to expect from the young fella.

Lillard wasn’t sure either.

“I didn’t know much about him, but you can tell he’s really talented,” Lillard said after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s long, athletic, just raw, you can tell there’s a lot of ability there, so it’ll be interesting to see.”

Wednesday, Gabriel showed his excitement of making his way to Portland.  

“When I find out it was Portland, I was pretty happy. I’m excited because there’s opportunity up here right now, and the fact that they wanted me involved in this trade, I felt like, you know, there was some value in that,” Gabriel said.

The 22-year-old went undrafted in 2018 after declaring for the NBA draft last summer following his sophomore season at Kentucky.

The former Wildcat says he hasn’t been informed of his role with the Blazers yet, but he’s going to make sure to stay ready.

“I’m just going to focus on what I can control right now and then just be ready to go out there and be ready to play tomorrow,” Gabriel said.

With all the injuries, Gabriel feels there is a real opportunity with this current roster.

“The type of player I am—I’m long and athletic. I can shoot the ball well so; I think I can help space the floor… Very versatile on defense and offense, so I think I bring a lot of different things to the table and we’ll see what the team needs from me,” Gabriel said.

The Massachusetts and New Hampshire native already knows a couple of the young Trail Blazers too.

Gabriel played against Gary Trent, Jr. in high school and said he knows Anfernee Simons through summer camps.

“To know some familiar faces out here, definitely helps the transition,” Gabriel said.

Of course, there are never any guarantees in the NBA, and for the two newest young players, it’s not for certain they will even see much of the court with the Blazers.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts offered up this about the young forwards, “With Caleb, he remembers a lot of the things that we did and, so I think for him – getting him on the court will be pretty easy… And, Wenyen is a young player and we’ll see where that goes.”

Thursday night will be the first time to see the new guys as the Trail Blazers host the Dallas Mavericks.  

Trail Blazers transfer Jaylen Hoard back to G League

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USA Today Images

Trail Blazers transfer Jaylen Hoard back to G League

The Portland Trail Blazers announced Wednesday afternoon that they have transferred two-way rookie forward Jaylen Hoard back to the G League’s Texas Legends.

Now that Portland has officially completed its trade with Sacramento, which brought in forwards Trevor Ariza and Wenyen Gabriel along with big man Caleb Swanigan, Hoard will be better served getting more playing time with the Legends.   

Hoard is approaching his total of 45 days spent with the team. Per league rules, that is the total allotment of days that a two-way player can spend with its NBA team.

Hoard has played in 12 games with the Trail Blazers, averaging 2.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 0.3 assists.

As for his time with the Legends this season, Hoard has averaged 18.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in nine games. 

Is there better news for Trail Blazer fans than Nurkic, Collins in the gym?

Is there better news for Trail Blazer fans than Nurkic, Collins in the gym?

It was a day full of optimism at the Trail Blazers’ practice facility Wednesday.

Sure, new players Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel were on hand for their first practice with their team.

But that was not the headline news.

Everywhere you looked, there were positive signs in regard to injured players.

There was Zach Collins, going through on-court drills with a basketball -- shooting short jumpers and even left-handed layups -- as he recovers from a torn labrum. No full workout with the team yet, but on the court and even shooting with his (injured) left arm.

At the other end of the court, there was CJ McCollum working out with coaches -- running full speed as he shot and went through defensive drills -- as he recovers from a sprained ankle.

But most of all, there was news -- big news -- of Jusuf Nurkic going through a contact practice, albeit mostly halfcourt, as he recovers from his broken left leg.

Nobody was willing to say how soon Nurkic could be back playing in games, but just the news of him playing full speed in practice is reason for optimism.

He is a difference maker.

Coach Terry Stotts didn’t get specific about how Nurkic did on the floor but teammates spoke highly of how he played. Stotts did point out that this section of the schedule has been pinpointed for a while as a good spot for his return, because the team has two days off between three different home games.

And maybe not coincidentally, it’s also prior to the NBA trade deadline of noon, Pacific time, Feb. 6. So if the Trail Blazers were inclined to deal Hassan Whiteside and his expiring contract, theoretically Nurkic would be ready to play or very close to ready.

Don’t take this wrong. McCollum is the only one of the three injured players whose return to active duty is believed to be imminent.

But with serious injuries the likes of the ones Nurkic and Collins suffered, this sort of progress is what fans have been waiting to hear about.

Media, too. Win or lose, this team is a lot more fun to watch with those players on the floor.

A source of optimism: Jusuf Nurkic one step closer to returning to NBA action

A source of optimism: Jusuf Nurkic one step closer to returning to NBA action

TUALATIN – Over the past few weeks, we have seen Jusuf Nurkic go through individual workouts, but it wasn’t until today when Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard shared the news that the Bosnian Beast was looking like himself in practice. 

Nurk practiced full speed, contact, up and down, seeing him out there – like being himself and not looking like he was struggling – seeing Zach [Collins] out here right now, seeing how well Trev [Ariza] looked in practice – it just felt good. It was like… almost like a pick me up. I feel good about it. -- Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard on Jusuf Nurkc  

Nurkic suffered compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula on March 26th, 2019.

Until now, Nurkic has only been seen doing individual workouts. 

[RELATED: The ultimate Jusuf Nurkic rehabilitation highlight reel]

There is still no official word on his return to an NBA game, but this development is encouraging.

Now as Rip City awaits the Bosnian Beasts return, everyone is wondering will it be soon?

“I do” Lillard said of getting the sense that Nurkic is nearing his return.

Lillard added, “I’m not involved in the situation…. I’m not a doctor, I’m not inside his body, but he looked good to me.”

“I’ve seen him doing contact stuff, but he really looked good.”  

Caleb Swanigan, who is now back with the team after Saturday’s trade has now become official, has banged up against Nurkic at practice many times.

Swanigan gave his thoughts on how Nurk was looking out there today:

“Nurk’s Nurk, man. He’s got a great feel for the game. He plays well. There was a couple of times when he lost the ball…  Nurk looked good,” Swanigan said.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts told the media this was the first time Nurkic has gone through a practice like this.  

“He went through the full practice. It was mostly half court stuff, but he went through everything… We did four-on-four, five-on-five half court stuff today. He’s been doing that with coaches and some of the younger guys, but this is the first time it was five-on-five… He looked fine.”

“He’s been progressing to this point. I guess, it’s a milestone, but it’s just part of his progression... It was hopeful that this week would be an opportunity for him to ramp up his workouts, but as far as anything else beyond that -- it’s too early to say,” Stotts added.

Nurkic wasn’t the only getting after it today.

Zach Collins went through an individual workout after practice.

Having both of the Trail Blazers big men looking more like themselves, is giving Lillard hope.

These developments are a welcomed sight in Rip City!

Dallas big man Dwight Powell ruptures right Achilles, Mavs play Blazers Thursday

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USA Today Images

Dallas big man Dwight Powell ruptures right Achilles, Mavs play Blazers Thursday

UPDATE (11:15am): 

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Dallas Mavericks center Dwight Powell is the latest NBA player to have suffered a non-contact Achilles injury.

The injury happened in the first quarter of Dallas’ 110-107 loss to the LA Clippers Tuesday night.

At this time, the team is not releasing the severity of the injury, but many are fearing the worst of torn right Achilles.

Powell will undergo an MRI exam Wednesday.

The Mavs next opponent will be the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Portland has been dealing with its fair share of injuries, as well.

Trail Blazers starting small forward Rodney Hood underwent successful surgery to repair his ruptured left Achilles tendon back on December 11th. 

Blazers starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who is still rehabbing a left leg fracture, let Powell know he was thinking about him Tuesday night.  

An Achilles injury seems to be more and more common these days in the NBA.

After Wednesday's practice, Blazers guard Damian Lillard wished Powell a speedy recovery as Lillard discussed how players are always at risk of an injury:

It’s part of the game, but it’s something that you just hate to see. You never want to see a guy get hurt, especially a majorinjury like that . That can affect a guy's career and affect him personally. It’s something that’s tough to go through, but like I said, it’s part of the game and every time we step out there, we’re at risk of something like that happening or something going wrong. I wish him nothing but the best, a speedy recovery, and a safe surgery. -- Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard on Dwight Powell

Last summer, NBA.com put together a list of notable players around the league who had ruptured their Achilles. 

The list included:

Kevin Durant

DeMarcus Cousins

Kobe Bryant

Rudy Gay

Wesley Matthews

Chauncey Billups

Now, we will wait and see if Powell is adding to this list. The Mavs role player was averaging 9.4 points and 5.7 rebounds. 

Portland Mayor vows to make 'Damian Lillard Day' a reality

Portland Mayor vows to make 'Damian Lillard Day' a reality

Monday evening in front of a national television audience, Damian Lillard showed why he's among the best basketball players in the world.

The kid from Oakland scored a career-high 61 points against the Golden State Warriors, the highest total ever from a Portland Trail Blazer. 

Dame's performance impressed everyone: Social media, Evan Turner and even Portland Mayor, Ted Wheeler. 

The politician tweeted his announcement the morning following Lillard's stellar display of shooting. Given the impact and admiration Lillard has earned from Rip City, it was just a matter of time until he got a day dedicated in his honor. 

Some Blazers fans agreed with the mayor's call.

Next up, Damian Lillard and the Blazers will host the Dallas Mavericks at 7:00 p.m. at the Moda Center on Thursday.

Evan Turner thinks a street should be named after Damian Lillard

Evan Turner thinks a street should be named after Damian Lillard

To end the slate of nationally televised games for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Damian Lillard saved the best for last.

The franchise star scored a career-high and franchise-record 61 points against the Golden State Warriors to will Portland to an overtime victory.

The whole country took notice, as did Dame's former teammate Evan Turner.

I don't know about you, but a high school named after Lillard would immediately become the go-to school to attend in Portland. If that's too much, a street name is the least the city can do for Portland's most beloved son. 

Turner and Lillard were teammates from 2015-2019 until he was traded to Atlanta in exchange for Kent Bazemore this past offseason. 

Current and former teammates CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard found Turner's tweet as funny as the rest of us.

What do you say Rip City?

The Blazers need Biggie, and Biggie needs the Blazers

The Blazers need Biggie, and Biggie needs the Blazers

On Tuesday morning the Trail Blazers officially announced their long-rumored trade with the Sacramento Kings

Kent Bazemore and Anthony Tolliver are gone, while Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan, and Wenyen Gabriel are on their way Portland.

The Blazers know what they are getting in Ariza: a solid veteran player that has made his entire career on the defensive side of the ball. Coach Stotts anticipates that Ariza will be the team's starting small forward, as many of us expected. 

But what about Gabriel and Swanigan? 

Let's start with Gabriel. He is a largely unknown commodity. In his first year in the league, after spending time in the G-League, Gabriel has played in just 11 games for the Kings. 

In those games, he has averaged 1.7 points, 0.9 rebounds, and 0.3 assists in 5.5 minutes per game.

He is another Moses Brown. A big body with potential, but still very raw and rough around the edges. Most likely, he will be an end-of-the-bench guy. 

That is the quick rundown on Gabriel. Now, what about Swanigan?

First, remember that Swanigan has been in Portland before and that stint didn't work out. 

He was drafted by the Blazers in 2017, failed to crack the rotation, and was later traded to the Kings in return for Skal Labissiere. 

Swanigan played 45 games for the Blazers, averaging 2.1 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game. Swanigan's stint in Sacramento was much the same. He failed to crack the rotation, playing in just 10 games while averaging 1.3. points, 1.9 rebounds, and 0.6 assists. 

To be fair to Swanigan, getting on the floor wasn't easy. He is a versatile player that can play power forward or center in small lineups, but he still had an uphill battle.

In Portland, he was buried behind the likes of Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, and Zach Collins.

In Sacramento, he was buried behind Dewayne Demon, Nemanja Bjelica. Richaun Holmes, Harry Giles, and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Getting on the floor wasn't easy. That's not the case in his second stop here in Portland. 

As we all know, injuries have ravaged the Blazers, especially in the frontcourt. 

The Blazers don't have Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Skal Labissiere, or Pau Gasol available.  

In fact, the Blazers now only have four players available that are 6'9" or taller: Hassan Whiteside (7'0"), two-way player Moses Brown (7'2"), and the newly-acquired Gabriel and Swanigan who both stand at 6'9."

Quite simply, Swanigan is going to get on the floor out of necessity. 

If the team were fully healthy, Swanigan would once again find himself on the bottom looking up. This time, he gets to start near the top.

The Blazers have lived by a "next man up" mentality all season long, and this time they had to go outside of Portland to find that next man. 

If Swanigan hopes to turn it around, to resurrect his career, there is no better chance than what the Blazers are giving him. 

To use a football analogy -  The ball is on the one-yard-line and the team is choosing to hand the ball off to Swanigan. What he does from there is up to him. When someone gives you the ball, you run with it.

He either runs through the door of opportunity that has been opened, or he runs himself back out of town... hopefully it's the former. 

The Blazers need Biggie, and Biggie needs the Blazers. The chance for both of them to turn their season around starts on Thursday against the Mavericks.