Seven fits for the Portland Trail Blazers in free agency

usatsi_12627694.jpg
USA Today Images

Seven fits for the Portland Trail Blazers in free agency

The Portland Trail Blazers are in a tough spot moving into this postseason. They have a significant amount of cap space committed to core players, including Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic. Navigating the NBA's endless list of CBA rules can be tiring, and general manager Neil Olshey and his front office staff have their work cut out for them.

The 2019 summer free agent class is going to be an epic one, but once again Portland will need to go hunting for value — they won't be in the running for the bigger names. For starters, Olshey will need to decide which of his four big free agents he wants to bring back. Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, Jake Layman and Seth Curry all need new deals.

Layman will likely return to Portland because he’s cheap. The Maryland product is a restricted free agent, and I'm not sure how much outside interest there will be i him given he's not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter just yet. Curry, returning from a leg injury last year, played to the level Portland wanted him to. Unfortunately, that also means he’s going to be too expensive for what the Blazers can afford.

The real question comes in Aminu and Hood.

Aminu had a descending deal that was smartly set up in 2015 by Olshey, but his performance this year was not up to par. As a starter with this roster, Aminu doesn’t cut it. He simply doesn't shoot the ball well enough, and he’s not a threat as a dribbler. This is an issue made worse when the other wings — Moe Harkless and Evan Turner — also struggled to shoot the ball.

Still, Portland has Aminu’s Bird rights, which means they can go above the salary cap to offer him a new deal. Even if the Blazers give Aminu a raise, having him on the team next year is better than scrimping a few pennies and replacing him with a minimum salary-level player.

Hood is where this whole thing gets sticky. If the team makes some expected moves — including re-signing Aminu — the Blazers will end up with the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to spend. That would mean $5.7 million for a player in the first year of his contract. But Hood is going to demand more than that in the open market, even if he gives the Blazers a discount. The former Utah Jazz first round pick is worth more than $8 million a season.

That’s a difficult mark for Olshey to reach, because at his best he’ll only be able to find a little more than that. There’s no reasonable way for the Blazers to have <em>real</em> cap space this summer, and so the full Mid-Level Exception is how Portland would give Hood a fair market contract. Now that Portland has traded Turner for Kent Bazemore, it might just make Hood expendable should he demand his full market value.

Portland should also have use of the bi-annual exception, since they didn’t use theirs last year. That gives them another $3.62 million to spend, probably on Curry’s replacement.

So we’re left with a lot of potential options but not much money to spend on them. As such, here are nine interesting players, at various mid-level exception levels, that Portland could benefit from in free agency.

Rodney Hood — Taxpayer MLE

Hood played well to end the season, adding several impressive playoff performances to his resume. He recovered from a disastrous postseason run in 2017-18, when he was dealing with the birth of twins. Hood has apparently re-discovered his love of the game in Rip City. He was a useful 3-point shooter, and at 6-foot-8 he’s big enough to defend at least three positions on the wing.

Stanley Johnson — Taxpayer MLE

Johnson is a younger small forward whose stock has dropped a bit since coming out of Arizona in 2015. He’s a poor 3-point shooter at this juncture, but a decent enough defender and shows flashes of being able to score enough to invest in. He’s a big body, and if the Blazers punt on Harkless he might be able to fill that gap defensively.

Reggie Bullock — Taxpayer MLE

Bullock is a career 39 percent shooter from beyond the arc, and at 6-foot-7 he can switch between a couple defensive positions. He’s a good defender, with good marks against spot-up shooting, hand offs, and isolation plays. He’s probably reached his limit on potential at age 28, but Portland needs to fill the gaps. Guys here don’t all have to be Blazers in five years.

Wayne Ellington — Taxpayer MLE

Ellington was floated as a potential target for Portland last year. He’s a good 3-point shooter, and excels in both spot-up roles and in hand off plays, two things the Blazers need from this cap space. Ellington also doesn’t get enough credit as a defender, but his Synergy statistics suggest he could be quite staunch for Portland.

James Ennis — Bi-Annual Exception

Ennis is a small forward who might fit with the Blazers in a limited role. That’s OK if he’s taking their bi-annual exception money, and even that might be too much to spend on the 28-year-old. He’s a decent enough shooter, although he’ll struggle on defense given too much to do.

Quincy Pondexter — Bi-Annual Exception

Pondexter finally had a year befitting of his natural talents with the San Antonio Spurs last year. He’s a shooter who plays two positions, and although he was impressive on both sides of the ball in 2018-19, those numbers are likely to be looked at as a product of the San Antonio system, especially at his age of 31. That should keep the market on Pondexter from being driven up, and Portland could be buyers.

Anthony Tolliver — Taxpayer MLE

Like Ross, Tolliver feels like a player who’s been floated in Portland circles for ages. He’s 34 years old, but as a career 37 percent 3-point shooter Tolliver is going to age into contracts if he still wants them. Tolliver ranked reasonably well for his age last season against the pick-and-roll according to Synergy. He also consistently plays more than 60 games a year, so he could contribute if the Blazers let Enes Kanter go.

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.

Rip City Future is bright: Trail Blazers rookie Anfernee Simons praised for “crazy potential”

Rip City Future is bright: Trail Blazers rookie Anfernee Simons praised for “crazy potential”

As all of Rip City reflects on the Trail Blazers 2018-19 season, April 10th 2019 will most likely be a date that fans and players will remember for years to come. It was the last game of the regular season and Portland fans got a glimpse into the future.

On May 21st the media got a glimpse behind the scenes of the future and rookie Anferenee Simons.

At exit interviews on Tuesday with the season in the books, the Blazers offered up their thoughts on the season as a whole, what their summer plans will entail, and more.

The Blazers also discussed the future of the franchise with the potential of the Blazers' rookie shooting guard.

In that April 10th home game where Portland rested it stars and let the end of the bench play nearly the entire game, Simons led the charge that eventually led the Blazers to clinch the third spot in the Western Conference. Simons dazzled on offense with 37 points and nine assists. 

That was the first real glimpse of the rookie’s potential.

“I think about it sometimes, especially when people comment, ‘Oh you wouldn’t be here unless Anfernee scored 37,’ so it’s a pretty fun moment, but I kind of just not harp on it too much and try to get better,” Simons said with a smile.

Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard did harp on Simons’ bright future.

“He’s potential is crazy,” Lillard said at Tuesday’s exit interviews. “I mean, I think last year I was here watching both of his workouts for the team, and he just looked so young. When I was watching him he was so explosive. He was a shot maker, you know, he can get to spots on the floor that a lot of people struggle to get to and he can do it.”

“Being able to shoot the ball, being that type of athlete, a really good floater, but I think his demeanor is what’s so big,” Lillard added. “It kind of reminding me of myself a lot, with just how in a room full of grown men in the locker room, he’s never uncomfortable… If everybody is on one side, he doesn’t just agree with everybody just because he feels like he has to or something like that. He stands on his own two feet.”

Simons played in 20 regular season games and averaged 3.8 points on 44.4% shooting, including 34.5% from three after hitting 10-of-29 attempts.

The 37-point game in the last regular season contest did give Simons more confidence moving forward.

Lillard is confident in the young gun as well.

“He works, he puts the time in. He doesn’t complain. I think he has a lot of qualities about him that make me believe that if he just keeps working and keeps developing, I think when I’m on my way out, you’ll all be talking to him every day,”  Lillard said.

Another Trail Blazers veteran who mentioned the potential of Simons at this week’s exit interviews was Al-Farouq Aminu.

“I wish I was the type of professional that he was coming into the league. I kind of pat myself on the back as well, just because I’m a vet, and all the vets that we do have. I think it’s a two-way street… You usually see guys that are around in this league for a long time, they usually have somebody that they can pattern themselves after. I remember when I went to Dallas, I just learned how to be a pro,” Aminu said.

Chief also had a fun story that he shared with the media. During the season the Trail Blazer wings participate in a friendly three-point shooting competition after practice. Simons, who usually working with his fellow rookie Gary Trent Jr. after practice, somehow convinced Aminu and the rest of the guys to let him compete.

Simons won the three-point shootout.  

“We usually don’t let rookies even play. So, it was kind of awkward man. We had a lot of guys go down… We should’ve really not let him get in there, man. He got lucky by even getting in there,” Aminu joked.

“That’s the kid, man. He makes the most of his opportunity,” Aminu said.

“It was the dark days, a couple of dark days for sure,” Aminu laughed.

Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has been pleased with the rookie’s development as well.

"He makes the game look easy... He's got excellent offensive instincts... I think this is a big summer for both him and Gary [Trent Jr.],” Coach Stotts said.

Simons acknowledged that he is confident that he can be a rotation player next season, but added, “obviously, I’m not in control of that, so I just got gotta control what I can control.”

The 19-year-old said the coaching staff has not talked to him about his role for next season yet, but Simons said they did discuss “just getting better, learn a lot, and make sure you take everything seriously in Summer League because they empathized that was going to be big for me this summer.”

Simons will workout and spend most of his summer back home in Florida.  

With just a little over a month away from NBA Summer League tipping off on July 5th, Simons said he’s ready to go repeat and bring back a second straight Summer League Championship.

The countdown is on and the future is in good hands.

Stay ahead of your Trail Blazers this off-season.Get Local Trail Blazers coverage, in-depth articles, podcast, videos and more.Download the app, log-in and the Blazers are at your fingertips. Download Now 

The Scoop Podcast: Hear from the Trail Blazers as they steal Game 2 in Denver!

The Scoop Podcast: Hear from the Trail Blazers as they steal Game 2 in Denver!

Go inside the locker room in Denver after the Trail Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets 97-90 in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. We get an injury update from Moe Harkless, get Al-Farouq Aminu’s take on the defensive effort, plus Enes Kanter weighs in on being booed by the Denver crowd and Rodney Hood discusses being the spark off the bench. All that and more in this special NBA Playoff edition of The Scoop Podcast.

Confidence is high with Al-Farouq Aminu's ball handling... and it's showing

Confidence is high with Al-Farouq Aminu's ball handling... and it's showing

The seconds are ticking off the clock.

It’s a three-point game.

Damian Lillard’s tough floater gets blocked.

Al-Farouq Aminu snags the offensive rebound and puts in a 9-foot bank shot.

Four seconds remaining on the clock when the Pistons call a timeout.

It was a crazy finish on Saturday night in Portland. It’s Aminu who seals the deal in a Trail Blazers gritty win over the Pistons by a final score of 117-112.

“I knew the shot clock was low, so I just wanted to get it off the glass. I didn’t want to rush it. Sometimes when you’re in that predicament you rush it because you’re thinking you’re going against the clock and I figured, let me at least make it and see if it was late or not,” Aminu said with a smile.  

Portland continues to play without CJ McCollum (left knee) and continues to rack up wins from a collective effort with role players continuing to step up.

Saturday night was Aminu’s night.  

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said postgame he was pleased with Chief’s “heads up playmaking,” which is a perfect way to describe that last Trail Blazers possession.

Aminu finished with a season-high 22 points and has now reached double figured for the second time in the last three games. His previous high was 20 points, which he had reached twice this season.

Is there a variable to Aminu’s game that people aren’t talking about when it comes to him getting more buckets?

How about his ball handling skills?

Coach Stotts has no doubt that this is one aspect of Chief’s game that has changed this year.

“I think it’s pretty obvious -- his ball handling has really improved this year. He’s made some nice drives throughout the season. He put a lot of time into it. He’s making some nice moves, whether it’s in transition or in the half court. I think he’s being aggressive when he has a chance,” Stotts said.

As Lillard shouldered the scoring load once again, leading the Blazers with 28 points and nine assists, he couldn’t agree more with his coach when it comes to Aminu’s improved dribbling.

“A lot better,” Lillard said of the difference he has seen of Aminu’s ball handling from this year to years past. “Sometimes when he catches it and they close the gap where he can’t get a shot off, he’s putting it on the floor and making plays to the rim. You know, sometimes in transition, he’s bringing the ball up and we’re getting a quality possession out of it, so it’s not like guys gotta chase the ball down and try to go get the ball or when he doesn’t have a shot, we’ve got to rush to get the ball,” Lillard added.   

Lillard also believes the mental part of Aminu’s game has helped too.

“When your mind is in the right place and you’re doing all these things, doing whatever you can for the team-- good things happen and he was on the good side of things, just because he was in it. He was in it mentally and it worked out. He was huge for us. He pretty much made all the big plays for us,” Lillard added.

Having your coach and teammates confident in you is always a helpful, but Aminu also trusts himself to it bring the ball up the court or drive hard to the rack.   

“It’s a thing that when you’re in the game and you notice that you’re not losing the ball… Obviously, you’re going to go to it more. The confidence comes from doing it… Just glad that it’s working,” Aminu said.

Being able to score a season-high after exerting so much energy on the defensive end with the difficult task of defending Blake Griffin also was noted postgame.

Maurice Harkless, who scored in double digits for the fourth straight game with 10 points, gave props to Aminu and how valuable he was on both ends of the floor. 

“He made a lot of big shots, especially down the stretch. He played really good defense on Blake and when we got switches he played good defense on the guards too, so he was huge for us. That last rebound and putback was big time too. It kind of sealed the game,” Harkless said.

Aminu had his good luck charm in the front row too. Maybe having your wife sit baseline can help boost the confidence as well.

Trail Blazers make second half adjustments and find sparks off their bench in win over Phoenix Suns

Trail Blazers make second half adjustments and find sparks off their bench in win over Phoenix Suns

Foul trouble, a pinky injury, and a ton of fastbreak points and that was all in the first quarter of action between the Blazers and Suns on Thursday night.

The Blazers were able to overcome whatever was thrown their way in the desert as Portland beats Phoenix 120-106 and heads home with a 2-1 record to finish their current road trip.

Dealing with the cards you're dealt

Before the game tipped off, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts talked about how playing against this young team who is without their top two centers, he expected a fast paced game with the Suns going with small ball lineups.

And boy, was he right.

In the first quarter, 19 of the Suns’ 31 points were fast break points in comparison to the Blazers two fast break points (out of 30 in the quarter). Phoenix finished with 23 first half fast break points.

Often times young teams would much rather try and get out and run instead of waiting to setup a half court set and that’s exactly what the Suns did on Thursday night.

The Blazers were able to stay in the game in the first half with help from their bench and second chance points. Plus, Portland made adjustments in the second half to get out and run themselves. Portland finished the game with 16 fast break points of their own.

Some fans out there might think a game like this against the lowly Suns team is a waste of time, but to witness Portland making adjustment and controlling tempo is encouraging because they are showing the ability to adjust to the style of play of their opponent. You hear it all the time – postseason series are all about adjustments. No, the Suns are not even close to a playoff team, but thinking long term, it’s good to see the Blazers play the small ball and match what was thrown their way.

“We gave up too many transition points in the first quarter. We played much better in the second half, obviously… I think the fact that we missed shots, we didn’t necessarily get back quick, it was all tied together (in the first half),” Coach Stotts told reporters postgame.

“We weathered that storm in the first half… The second half we made our adjustments and took over the game," Damian Lillard said postgame in the locker room.

The Devin Booker effect on CJ McCollum

In Thursday’s win, Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum played just over eight minutes in the first half, but was still able to score 11 points.

For the opening minutes of the game, it looked like everyone was in for a treat – McCollum and Suns shooting guard Devin Booker were putting on a show. The two were exchanging buckets, but Booker got the better of McCollum early.

The Suns fourth year guard was in attack mode and that meant McCollum was vulnerable to pick up two quick fouls.

McCollum then picked up his third foul at the 3:46 mark in the first quarter and was sent to the bench for the rest of the half.

Booker made the Blazers pay to going 7-for-8 from the free throw line. He finished the game with 27. But it really is no surprise that Booker made such a big impact on McCollum and on the Blazers – that’s what he does for this Suns team.

Lillard knows how important it was to slow down Booker in the second half.

“He was getting downhill, getting fouled, getting to go one-on-one and a guy that can score that well with that much skill, he’s gonna score points if you allow him to play that free and easy and I think as the half went on… We started to do a little bit better… In the third quarter we were there. We loaded up, made him play against bodies that led to a few turnovers. We made the right adjustments,” Lillard said.     

Aminu hand injury

Al-Farouq Aminu headed straight to the Trail Blazers locker room after suffering a left pinky injury at the 3:57 mark of the first quarter and that meant the Blazers rotation was all out of sorts in the first half, especially with McCollum also on the bench with three fouls.

The good news is Aminu says his hand feels fine after coming back and playing in the second half.

“I’ve dislocated my fingers before, but never where I saw the bone a little bit… Thankful for the doctors here, they did a great job… I feel good. My hand feels okay,” Aminu told our Dwight Jaynes after the game.

Aminu played 16 minutes and had seven points and five rebounds in the win.
This season we have seen many different Blazers’ lineups with Maurice Harkless dealing with his knee issues, so this was nothing new to the Blazers and the next man had to step up.

Luckily for the Blazers, two role players did just that in the second half.

The Layman and Curry factor

Portland entered the fourth quarter with an 88-76 lead over the Suns. Why is this important? Well, if you have not been keeping up with the Blazers, you should know that before this game, the Blazers were undefeated when leading after the first three quarters (29-0). On the flipside, yes, that means Portland has not had a come from behind win if they were not leading to start the fourth.

The Blazers defense showed up big in the second half as Portland was able slow down the Suns late in the third and into the fourth quarter. The Blazers also found some welcomed scoring from its bench, particularly from Jake Layman and Seth Curry. Layman scored 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting, while Curry added 17 points after going 7-for-13 from the field and 3-of-7 from three.

Layman has now scored 44 points total against the Suns in the two games played against Phoenix this season.  

“It was a game made for him. It was up and down. They played a small lineup. I think it catered to his style of game,” Stotts said on Layman’s performance. 

The Blazers have been searching for consistency from their bench. Could Layman be that consistent scorer? With Game No. 50 in the books, only time will tell.

But for now, Layman continues to play well against the Suns and the third quarter streak lives on and Portland will look to play another good three quarters vs. Atlanta on Saturday.

Blazers Outsiders: Grading the Blazers at the halfway point

usatsi_11928147.jpg
USA Today

Blazers Outsiders: Grading the Blazers at the halfway point

We've reached the halfway point of the season and Blazers Outsider Chris Burkhardt has taken the time to hand out his midseason report cards for the Trail Blazers. 

41 down, 41 to go. The Blazers have officially reached the halfway point of the season, and it hasn't been without its ups and downs. The Blazers started strong out of the gate, at one point holding the best record in the Western Conference. But then they hit an early season bump in the road and fell toward the bottom. Despite the rough patch the Blazers have still managed to put together one of their best first halves in recent memory. Portland currently sits at 24-17, which is two games ahead of last season's 22-19 record, and is the team's best record through 41 games since they went 30-11 in the 2014-15 season.

The Western Conference is so stacked right now, that even though the Blazers are off to their best start in four seasons they are still just the seventh best team in the west - 3.5 games behind the first place Denver Nuggets (26-12).

With all that being said, it's time we sit down and grade the Trail Blazers at the halfway point:

DAMIAN LILLARD:
Grade: A+
Damian Lillard is doing Damian Lillard things. He's averaging 26.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game. In fact, he is one of just five players in the league averaging 26 ppg, 4 rpg, and 6 apg: The other four being James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those are all MVP candidates, and Lillard deserves to be in that conversation this season. 

CJ MCCOLLUM:
Grade: B
CJ McCollum has struggled to find his shot this season, shooting a career-worst 32.9% from three-point range. Despite his struggles from deep he has still managed to shoot 45.4% from the floor and score 20.8 points per game. He has also managed to come up clutch when the team needs him. I'll take an off shooting night if he redeems himself with buckets in crunch time. The plus side is there is still time for McCollum to find the shot and get back to his normal self.

MAURICE HARKLESS:
Grade: D
Moe Harkless has struggled all season long, but it's really no fault of his own. Harkless has tried to will himself to play but his body just is not cooperating. He has missed 15 games this year, and had to leave Portland's last game after his left knee soreness returned. He is also averaging just 5.9 points per game, his worst average since his last season in Orlando. When healthy Harkless is an integral part of the lineup. Staying healthy is the struggle. 

AL-FAROUQ AMINU:
Grade: B+
Aminu is quietly having a very strong season, nearly averaging a double-double. While his three-point percentage isn't great at 35.6%, his overall field goal percentage of 42.7% is actually the best he has shot the ball in his time in Portland. He is also averaging a career-high 8.2 rebounds per game, and his defense continues to be the best on the team.

JUSUF NURKIC:
Grade: A
The Bosnian Beast is currently in the midst of the best stretch of his career. He has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games which is something he has never done before. He is averaging 15.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, and shooting 50.8% from the floor - All career-highs. Add in the 1.1 steals, 1.3 blocks, and 2.9 assists and Nurkic is just filling up the box score. Earlier this season he became the first player in recorded history to have a 5x5 with 20 or more points and rebounds: 24 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals, and 5 blocks. Now that's a stat line. 

EVAN TURNER: 
Grade: B-
Evan Turner has been the man behind the wheel of the second unit and has been very solid doing so. While his 7.8 points per game is his lowest average since his rookie season in 2010-11, his 46.7% shooting is the best of his career. He rebounds and assists per game are also the highest they have been while in Portland, and he has easily been the Blazers second best defender all season. While he hasn't been bad, it would be nice to see him score the ball more. 

SETH CURRY:
Grade: B
Curry started the season slowly but has shaken off the rust and come into his own as of late. He is shooting a career-best 48.5% from three-point range, which leads the entire NBA (among qualifying players). If he continues to come around there is no reason he shouldn't see all his averages continue to rise and become the bench unit's go-to scorer.

NIK STAUSKAS:
Grade: C-
Stauskas started the season with a bang, scoring a career-high 24 points in the season opener and scoring in double-digits in five of the first eight games. However, he has scored double-digits in just two of the last 33 and has fallen out of the rotation.

JAKE LAYMAN:
Grade: B
Jake Layman has been the ultimate team player this season. He started the season as the starting small forward but was relegated to the end of the bench once Maurice Harkless returned. He then registered DNPs and garbage minutes. Through it all he never complained once, continued to work hard, and has since passed Stauskas on the depth chart. Lillard said last game the Layman is "instant offense," and he has proven so as of late.

ZACH COLLINS:
Grade: C
It's not that Collins has been bad, in fact, he has been pretty solid off the bench. The disappointing part for Collins is that he hasn't really made the sophomore jump we wanted and expected. While he is averaging career-highs across the board, his stats are not much better than they were last season. He is averaging just 2.6 points, .9 rebounds, and .1 assist more than he was last season. Better, but not by much. 

MEYERS LEONARD:
Grade: B-
Meyers Leonard needed to step up with the departure of Ed Davis and he has certainly done that. He is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and most importantly he has finally found a level of consistency. He has become a reliable threat from deep, shooting 41.7% on the season, and has helped anchor a strong bench unit. While he continues to be the most polarizing player in Portland, it's nice to see him finally silencing some of his critics. 

GARY TRENT JR, ANFERNEE SIMONS, WADE BALDWIN, CALEB SWANIGAN: Grade: Undecided 
None of these players have played enough this season to give a true grade. The four have combined to play in just 38 games this season, most of the minutes coming in garbage time. Trent and Simons or currently on the active roster, while Swanigan and Baldwin are on assignment in the G-League. 

Trail Blazers learn about life without its second floor general in loss to San Antonio Spurs

Trail Blazers learn about life without its second floor general in loss to San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO - Roughly thirty minutes before the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs tipped off from the AT&T Center, Blazers PR informed the media that backup wing Evan Turner would not suit up on Sunday night due to left Achilles tendon inflammation.

With Turner out that meant a shakeup for the Blazers’ rotation. In a game of runs, it was San Antonio who made the last push to snag a 131-118 win over the Blazers.

However, after getting outscored 38-26 in the first quarter vs. the Nuggets on Friday night, Portland, and namely Damian Lillard, made sure to not let a slow start happen again.

Lillard scored seven of the Blazers first 11 points and finished the quarter with 16 as Portland outscored San Antonio 33-32 in the first.

“They went on a nice run... They went on the last run. I thought we started off with aggression. We had some pretty good scoring all around from our starters,” Turner said.

But, there was a void in the second unit that was obvious to start the second quarter. The Spurs outscored the Blazers 30-22 after starting the period with a 17-4 run. 

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts made the decision to leave Lillard in the game for the entire first quarter and then stagger Lillard and CJ McCollum's minutes so that McCollum would fill in as the backup point guard.

With ET out that meant high minutes for Lillard, who tied a season-high in minutes played with 41.

“When I saw ET wasn’t playing pregame, I still didn’t even think about it and then in the first quarter, I got it going a little bit… ET would usually be coming in to play point and Coach left me in to the second quarter and that’s when I was like, ‘well, maybe I’m gonna be playing some high minutes tonight,’” Lillard said.

Lillard finished with a game-high 37 points, while Al-Farouq Aminu chimed in with 20 points, tying his season-high for the second straight game.

This was a Blazers team relying solely on its starters for offensive production Sunday. But, it was also a night where the Spurs’ stars and second unit got it going.  San Antonio shot 60.2% from the floor and whopping 73.3% (11-15) from three-point range.

“You have to tip your hat to them. There were able to put together a little run and make some tough shots tonight,” Aminu said.

San Antonio’s bench ended up outscoring Portland’s Turner-less bench, 31-13. The Spurs All-Stars were the ones to carry the load, though. DeMar DeRozan had 36 points, while LaMarcus Aldridge added 29.

“Well, obviously, Evan has been an important part of the bench unit. Their bench was the difference tonight. If you look at the +/- of their bench they made their runs with the bench guys on the floor. As well as DeRozan and LaMarcus, plus their bench guys made a difference,” Stotts said.

In the last 10 games, Turner has averaged 6.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists while playing 27 minutes of action, but to his teammates, it’s not the stats Turner records that makes the difference, his presence overall that was missed on Sunday night.

“Another ball handler, play-maker, especially with some of those lineups they had out there, another defender, and just another guy that has a huge impact on our team, our morale just as a whole. I mean, he has impact on that, some of those situations, being able to stop runs and turn the game around, just make those game changing plays,” Lillard said.

“That second unit, I think they just didn’t have their general out there… ET calls a lot of plays… He knows how the feel of the game is going… It’s different when you have a floor general, just like when we have Dame out there and he’s able to see certain things, that coach might not necessarily see because it’s different when you’re in the game, than when you’re just looking at it,” Aminu said.

Turner has been going through treatment over the past two days and is doing a lot of active stretching to try to minimize the tightness in his left Achilles tendon. 

Don’t get it twisted, though, Turner’s teammates or Turner himself are not saying because he was not on the floor the team took the ‘L’ on Sunday.

“Basketball is a game of runs, and obviously the way the West is going, you know, we need everybody. It’s not a me thing, it’s just like a unit, and you know, trying to adjust faster, that’s all,” Turner said. 

“There’s no pointing fingers, no blame game. You’re going to have adversity. I think our togetherness and knowing who we are as a group is going to help us come out of it, which we will,” Lillard said.

Adversity.

Oh yes, this team knows all about adversity, losing six of their last nine games, but now the question is, how do you respond to it? And, how does Turner’s Achilles respond to a couple of days of rest?

Sloppy Blazers throw away game at Milwaukee

Sloppy Blazers throw away game at Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE -- The Trail Blazers literally threw away a chance to win their fourth straight on Wednesday, as a turnover-filled fourth quarter doomed Portland to a 115-107 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Portland (12-11) committed nine of their 16 turnovers in the fourth quarter, including miscues on their first three possessions of the final quarter, when they entered facing an 85-76 deficit. The Blazers had a nine point lead in the first quarter and a seven point halftime advantage, but fell apart in the third, when Milwaukee outscored them 34-18. 

The Blazers rallied late, cutting an 11-point deficit to 101-99 with 4:17 left when Allen Crabbe capped a string of three-pointers on three straight Portland possessions. But Matthew Dellavedova hit three floaters in the key and Jabari Parker dunked off an inbounds pass to seal the Bucks' win. 

Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo recorded his second triple-double of the season, finishing 15 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. Parker scored 13 of his 27 points in the first quarter and Dellavedova finished with 17 for Milwaukee (11-9), which won for the fifth time in six games. 

Damian Lillard led Portland with 30 points, 22 of them in the first half, and CJ McCollum added 23. Crabbe got hot late and finished with 14, nine of them in the fourth.

Milwaukee took control in the third quarter as Portland sputtered offensively to 18 points while the Bucks made five three-pointers. 

The Blazers took a 58-51 lead after closing the first half on a 12-2 run that was fueled by some hot shooting from Lillard. He hit four three-pointers in the final 4:23 of the second quarter and fed McCollum for another three with 6.9 seconds left in the half. This was the first time in 11 games the Blazers lost after leading at halftime.

Notes: Mason Plumlee, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds, became the fastest Trail Blazers player to have 150 rebounds and 100 assists (23 games) since Scottie Pippen did it in 22 games in the 1999-2000 season.

Next up: Blazers at Memphis, 5 p.m. Thursday (CSN).

 

Fourth quarter surge leads Blazers past Bulls

Fourth quarter surge leads Blazers past Bulls

CHICAGO -- A fourth quarter surge keyed by the offense of Evan Turner and Damian Lillard and the defense of Ed Davis carried the Trail Blazers to a 112-110 win over the Chicago Bulls on Monday. 

Turner scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth and Lillard had 11 of his 30 points down the stretch as the Blazers pulled away with an 11-0 run midway through the quarter, a run that was sparked by two blocks from Davis. The push gave the Blazers a 103-93 lead with 5:55 left and the Blazers hung on for dear life down the stretch as they scored only five points over the next 5:30 before sealing the game with free throws. The final score looked closer than it was after Jimmy Butler hit an uncontested three-pointer as time expired.

Portland (12-10) kick-started a five game trip and avenged a 113-88 loss to the Bulls on Nov. 15, when Chicago bolted to a 35-14 lead after one quarter. Chicago (11-9) lost its second straight despite 34 points from Dwyane Wade. 

The fourth quarter spurt was special for Turner, who went to high school in Chicago and was cheered on by family members sitting behind the Blazers bench. Turner hit five-of-six shots, including three in a row in the fourth quarter, and finished with 10 points, four assists and two rebounds. CJ McCollum added 24 points and Allen Crabbe had his second consecutive strong game off the bench with 17 points. 

Chicago entered the fourth leading 87-86, taking control in the third quarter with a 12-1 start to the second half. Portland trailed by as many as six in the third but closed within one when McCollum hit a three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left. 

The Blazers held a 65-57 halftime lead, thanks in part to a 12-2 run late in the second quarter that was fueled by the strong bench play of Crabbe, who scored 11 of his 15 first-half points in the second quarter. 

The Blazers welcomed the return of Al-Farouq Aminu, who missed 13 games with a left calf strain, during which the team went 6-7. Coach Terry Stotts pregame said Aminu would be limited to between 16 and 20 minutes on Monday, while bringing him off the bench. 

Aminu entered with 3:23 left in the first quarter and the Blazers leading 23-20 and almost instantly recorded an assist with a pass inside to Mason Plumlee. He played seven minutes in the first half, during which he showed some rust (0-for-2), but also some of the top-level defense the Blazers had been lacking with a nice block of a Wade jumper.

Aminu finished with three points, three rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes.

Next up: Blazers at Milwaukee, 5 p.m. Wednesday (CSN).