PORTLAND, Ore. — The NBA offseason never sleeps, kind of like basketball writers.
Speaking of basketball writers, this week I sat down with one of my friends, Jared Cowley, to talk about the Portland Trail Blazers, what has happened so far this offseason, and what is to come.
Who are we?
Garrett Thornton – Senior Writer for Oregon Sports News
Jared Cowley – Digital Content Producer for KGW-TV in Portland
1 – There’s been a lot of talk about the two first-round draft picks that the Blazers brought in this offseason. During summer league we got our first glimpse of both rookies. What are your rookie-year expectations for Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins?
Garrett Thornton (GT) – There are two obstacles for these rookies to overcome before they can make any meaningful impacts for the Blazers. The first is the depth of the frontcourt. Jusuf Nurkic, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard. There are a number of guys that will start the season in front of both of these guys on the depth chart. The Blazers are a win-now team and will likely largely rely on veterans. The second obstacle is Terry Stotts. I think Stotts has done a phenomenal job in Portland and has garnered a lot of praise for being a player-friendly coach. The one thing that Stotts has been known for is not playing rookies much. During his time in Portland, no rookie other than Damian Lillard has averaged more than 12.5 minutes per game. My expectation is that each guy gets chances to play throughout the season but neither will become anything more than role players as rookies.
Jared Cowley (JC) – Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan probably won’t play a lot as rookies, so expectations for the pair should be kept in check. There will be seven players vying for 96 available minutes per game in the Blazers’ frontcourt. Last season, Jusuf Nurkic played about 30 minutes per game at center and Al-Farouq Aminu played about 28 minutes per game at power forward. Neither Collins nor Swanigan is likely to impact the minutes of Nurkic or Aminu. Noah Vonleh was so effective when paired with Nurkic last season, it’s hard to imagine him losing minutes to either rookie. He averaged about 12 minutes per game at PF last season and five minutes at C; expect those numbers to stay the same or increase. Maurice Harkless (he averaged about nine minutes per game at PF last season), Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard and the two rookies will be left to compete for the remaining 21 minutes of playing time.
2 – Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have not been shy about recruiting other stars, like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, to join them in Portland. Do you like the leaders of a team openly recruiting, or would you prefer those things happen behind closed doors?
GT – This is exactly what Portland needs. The reputation of Portland around the league as a free-agent destination has been well covered. Lillard and McCollum has risen to the point where they are both seen as stars in this league and each have their own brands off the court. Both guys make their year-round home in Portland and understand what this city has to offer. If these two guys can continue to promote the organization and city, it is bound to help raise the Blazers’ profile in the league. It may not help in the Carmelo sweepstakes, but it will help in years to come.
JC – It’s about time. Collusion has been the modus operandi of NBA stars since LeBron James conspired with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Beijing in 2008. Lillard and McCollum are stars, but it’s been clearly established that they can’t do it on their own. Nurkic will help, but if the Blazers are going to attract a fourth star, they’ll need their dynamic backcourt duo to reach out to NBA stars who may be available in trade (because the Blazers won’t have free agency money anytime soon) and convince said stars that Portland isn’t such a bad place to play. Both players would be wise to develop a relationship with USA Basketball and see if they can earn a spot on the national team. It seems like that’s where the strongest connections between NBA stars are developed.
3 – Speaking of recruiting, Lillard and McCollum sparked a lot of conversation last week when they talked about Carmelo Anthony and how he would fit in Portland. It’s a long-shot that Anthony would waive his no-trade clause to come to Portland, but if he did, how would he fit with this team?
GT – While I have said the whole way along that this is a long shot, I have really been a fan of the Anthony-to-Portland scenario. There has been a lot of noise made as to the lack of defense on the Blazers’ roster and how Anthony would just exacerbate the situation even further. I think that the continued integration of Nurkic into the frontcourt as a rim protector would alleviate some of that pressure. But when it comes down to it, when you can add a 10-time All-Star to your team, you do it! Anthony on the floor with Lillard and McCollum would give opponents nightmares.
JC – As much fun as it would be for the Blazers to attract an NBA star like Anthony to Portland, he's not a good fit for the Blazers. He’s 33, which means he’s be almost five years older than the next oldest player on Portland’s roster (Evan Turner, who turns 29 in October). He’s a great one-on-one scorer, but he thrives in isolation and the midrange game. Neither of those play to the strengths of Terry Stotts’ offense. The biggest reason he’s a lousy fit in Portland is his defense. He’s a poor defender, with a defensive rating worse than any player on the Blazers last season. That’s the last thing this team needs. Anthony’s disinterest in Portland may end up saving the Blazers from themselves.
4 – Was the Allen Crabbe trade a salary dump for the Blazers or the first domino to fall? What was your initial reaction to the trade?
GT – It is a bit of both. Trading Crabbe’s contract is a huge move for the Blazers. It will not only save them the $18.5 million this season, it will also save them approximately $44 million in luxury tax according to Bobby Marks of ESPN. That is huge! What won me over on this trade was the $12.9-million trade exception that this trade created. For a team that is cash-strapped and over the luxury tax line, that trade exception offers some rare flexibility for a creative GM like Neil Olshey. I also think there is another trade to come. Crabbe was the backup shooting guard. After the trade the backup shooting guard is Pat Connaughton, who I doubt is a part of this team moving forward. The Blazers aren’t done trading.
JC – It is undoubtedly a salary dump. Neil Olshey should send Nets GM Sean Marks a gift basket or something as a token of his appreciation. To be able to move Crabbe’s contract without adding an asset (like a first-round pick) is a huge bonus for the Blazers. Crabbe is a good shooter, but that’s it. He can’t create his own shot, he’s a poor ball handler, he’s not a good rebounder for his position, and he’s a bad defensive player. That’s why, despite his shooting prowess, advanced analytics peg him as a minus contributor. The day of the trade, before ESPN changed the rosters, I plugged the trade into the ESPN trade machine and it didn't impact the Blazers’ projected wins at all. Great trade.
5 – The Western Conference is going to be a bloodbath this season. Which Western Conference lottery team from the 2016-2017 season is going to make the most noise in the 2017-2018 season?
GT – For me it’s the Timberwolves. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004. That’s 13 years without an appearance. That’s brutal. However, this is a completely different team than years past. This team will likely roll out a starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, and Karl-Anthony Towns. That is a playoff lineup. With so many new additions and young guys, it’s going to be all about chemistry. If the chemistry is there, this team should be in the playoffs and be a very dangerous team.
JC – It’s Denver. The Nuggets were already good and they added Paul Millsap, a fantastic player who looks like a seamless fit. He complements the team’s strengths and buoys their weaknesses. But enough about Denver. Many NBA experts predict a massive jump for the Timberwolves, from 31 wins last season to challenging for home court advantage in the playoffs.They may be a playoff team, but I don't see that large a jump. There’s no doubt they added talented players in Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford. But it's hard to see this team improving enough on defense to make the big jump everyone is predicting. The reason they lost 51 games last season was because they were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA (they ranked 26th). Their two young stars, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, were their second and third worst-rated defenders. Minnesota brought in a couple good defensive players in Butler and Gibson, but neither is elite. Teague and Crawford are not good defenders. Even with all the talent they added, even with Tom Thibodeau as their coach, this team still looks like it’ll struggle to stop anyone.
FACEBOOK LIVE: Jared Cowley and Garrett Thornton talk Blazers (July 13)
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