ESPN ranks 3 Blazers in Top 50

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PORTLAND, Ore. — With NBA training camps set to open in less than two weeks, ESPN and Sports Illustrated helped fill the void of real NBA news by releasing their annual player rankings.

Naturally, NBA fans and players have taken to social media to complain about the rankings.

The most visible gripe was from Carmelo Anthony. ESPN ranked Anthony at No. 64, one spot lower than Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, drawing a rebuke from Anthony on Twitter.

Blazers guard CJ McCollum, perhaps irked by his No. 39 ranking by Sports Illustrated, waded into the debate, suggesting on Twitter that NBA writers and journalists should be ranked, too.

Suns guard Devin Booker admitted on Twitter that he didn't understand what the fuss was all about, saying he thought basketball players stopped caring about rankings after high school.

The significance of preseason player rankings is negligible, but they still have their place in the NBA offseason. NBA fans and players gobble them up and it creates an entertaining conversation on social media each year.

As far as the Portland Trail Blazers are concerned, ESPN ranked three Blazers players in its Top 50 for the first time since starting the rankings in 2011. Sports Illustrated isn't quite as bullish on Portland's roster, placing only two players in the Top 50.

Here's a look at how the Blazers have fared.

ESPN player rankings

Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic was ranked No. 44 by ESPN, up nearly 30 spots from last year's rank of 73, when he was still with Denver. ESPN Stats & Info analyst Micah Adams wrote that Nurkic may be the third star the Blazers have been looking for.

Nurkic showed flashes that he's capable of becoming the third cog the Blazers so badly need. An untimely injury and doomed opening-round matchup with the Warriors in the playoffs last season may have delayed enthusiasm, but there's reason to be optimistic in the Northwest as the Blazers outscored teams by 11.3 points per 100 possessions in more than 400 minutes with Nurkic on the floor alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. That pair was a whopping 15 points per 100 possessions worse when sharing the floor without Nurkic.

Nearly cracking the Top 30 for the second year in a row was Blazers guard CJ McCollum, who was ranked 31st by ESPN, a five-slot drop from last season, when he ranked 26th. Adams wrote that McCollum has proven himself as a co-leading man next to star teammate Damian Lillard.

There are three players who have averaged at least 20 point per game while shooting at least 40 percent from beyond the arc each of the lpast two seasons. One is McCollum, and the others are Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Though Damian Lillard might get top billing in Portland, McCollum has shown flashes that he has what it takes to be a leading man. In five games he played without Lillard last season, McCollum averaged 31.2 points per game.

Lillard, who was ranked 10th last season, fell to No. 18 in ESPN's rankings, despite Adams writing that the Blazers' star guard "just keeps getting better."

Lillard just keeps getting better and has now increased his scoring and PER in each of his five seasons. He's coming off the best shooting season of his career while also posting his lowest turnover percentage. Although Portland had the misfortune of running into Golden State's buzzsaw each of the past two postseasons, Lillard averaged 30 points in those series. The only player to average more points against the Warriors over the past two postseasons is LeBron James.

This is the first time the Blazers have had three players ranked in the Top 50 since ESPN started its annual rankings back in 2011.

  • 2017 (3): Lillard (18), McCollum (31), Nurkic (44)
  • 2016 (2): Lillard (10), McCollum (26)
  • 2015 (1): Lillard (15)
  • 2014 (2): LaMarcus Aldridge (13), Lillard (16)
  • 2013 (2): Aldridge (17), Lillard (30)
  • 2012 (1): Aldridge (20)
  • 2011 (2): Aldridge (23), Gerald Wallace (48)

Sports Illustrated player rankings

Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney ranked the top 100 players in the NBA for Sports Illustrated. They ranked two Blazers in the Top 50 and a total of three in the top 100.

Nurkic is ranked No. 69 by Sports Illustrated. Golliver said that Nurkic's "pre-injury flashes of excitement and dominant play were very real," but says he'll have to prove he can keep it up this season.

Following a midseason trade, it took Nurkic (10.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.9 APG) just a few weeks to go from a disgruntled, underachieving cast-off in Denver to a beloved, full-fledged phenomenon in Portland. Unfortunately for the Blazers, the good times and monster stat lines were cut short by a leg injury that cost the 23-year-old Bosnian center the final seven games of the regular season and limited him to one brief postseason appearance. Still, the pre-injury flashes of excitement and dominant play were very real, as the monster 7-footer provided badly-needed frontcourt scoring, space-eating interior defense, and mega doses of swagger to an otherwise listless Blazers campaign. With the possibility of a monster payday on the horizon, Nurkic approaches the final year of his rookie contract in “prove it” mode on numerous fronts: He must prove that he can stay healthy after missing 87 combined games over his first three seasons, he must prove that immaturity issues a thing of the past, he must prove that his late-season scoring surge is sustainable once he’s targeted by rival game plans, he must prove that his improved conditioning can help ease his turnover problems and foul trouble, and he must prove that he can be the full-time backline stopper for a decent defense. If he succeeds on most or all of those fronts, the Blazers should be on track for their most successful season of the post-LaMarcus Aldridge era.

McCollum was also ranked lower than ESPN's rankings, coming in at No. 39, a rank that may not have pleased the Blazers guard. Golliver praised McCollum's impressive offense while criticizing his defense.

After establishing himself as a lethal all-around scorer during his 2016 Most Improved Player season, McCollum (23 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG) took his offensive game to new heights in numerous ways last season. The 25-year-old shooting guard shot a career-best 42.1% from deep, he flirted with a 50/40/90 shooting season and led the league in free-throw percentage, he ranked among the league’s most efficient mid-range shooters, and he improved dramatically as a finisher in the basket area. Simply put, McCollum is a nightmare one-on-one cover for opponents thanks to his high comfort level pulling up off the dribble, his slick handle to create space, his polished pick-and-roll game, and his ability to be score from 30 feet and in. That last part isn’t hyperbole, either, as McCollum knocked down a Stephen Curry-like 44.6% of his ultra-deep threes (from outside 25 feet). This charmed story takes a darker turn on the other end of the court, where McCollum’s lack of size and length continues to limit his defensive effectiveness. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks 78th among two guards, in the same range as sieves like Lou Williams and Marco Belinelli, and Synergy’s tracking system rates him in the 25th percentile as an overall defender. When McCollum shares the court with fellow backcourt starter Damian Lillard, the Blazers’ elite 111.8 offensive rating is largely offset by a rocky 108.1 defensive rating, which is equivalent to a bottom-six mark league-wide. With the right cast of frontcourt help, it’s possible to envision McCollum as the No. 1 or No. 2 option on a contender. Without that cover, though, life on the playoff bubble and early postseason exits are likely to be the norm.

Lillard came in at No. 17. Mahoney gushed over Lillard's offensive prowess, and even left open the potential for defensive improvement because of Lillard's effort level.

Even at 27 years old, Lillard is still learning. There’s so much to explore when every defense he faces is rightly terrified of his jumper. Schemes are built to stop him from even taking shots, and still they cede 27 points per game without Lillard really pressing beyond what is reasonable. There are nights when Lillard settles when he shouldn’t and those when he isn’t seeing the full view of the game. But by and large, Lillard is filling exactly the role that’s set out for him—for which commanding attention is an essential part. Lillard is puzzling out in real time how to use all that attention to his advantage. His latest trick: manipulating defenders to get to his drive (and to to the free throw line) even more often.  The cat-and-mouse game has been good to Lillard, who finished 58.6% of his shots in the restricted area last season, up from 51.9% the season prior. More of his heavily contested layups are ending in fouls, too, as Lillard feels his way through the nuances of creating contact. Making space comes naturally. Lillard has spent his entire basketball life trying to put enough separation between himself and his defender to hoist up a jumper. It’s knowing when to bump and how to fall that demanded some on-the-job training, the result of which has Lillard up to 7.3 free throw attempts per game. Lillard’s credentials as a scorer are rock solid at this point. Most of his limitations are familiar, too; running an offense through Lillard means planning around his so-so passing abiity, while leaning on him for big minutes means coming to terms with his lacking defense. Most of what holds Lillard back on that end are misguided instincts. He tries to get around a screen but charts the wrong angle. He moves to cut off a drive but charts the wrong course. So much of playing high-level defense comes from an internalized sense of what to do when. Lillard doesn’t have it, though his willingness to try at least leaves room for realistic improvement.

The Blazers also had two players ranked in the Top 50 last season. The last time Sports Illustrated ranked three Blazers players in the Top 50 was before the 2014-15 season, when the Blazers won 51 games and finished with the fourth-best record in the Western Conference.

  • 2017 (2): Lillard (17), McCollum (39)
  • 2016 (1): Lillard (24)
  • 2015 (3): Aldridge (12), Lillard (22), Nicolas Batum (43)

How do other teams compare?

Between the ESPN and Sports Illustrated rankings, five Western Conference teams placed at least three players in the Top 50. The Warriors lead the way, of course, in both sets of rankings, with five players in the Top 50. No other team has more than three.

Teams with 3 players in the Top 50

  • ESPN: Warriors, Clippers, Thunder, Blazers
  • SI: Warriors, Clippers, Thunder, Timberwolves

One difference between the Blazers and the other teams with three Top-50 players is the level of depth. Portland doesn't have a single player ranked in the Top 100 outside of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic in either set of rankings. The other qualifying teams have much more depth.

A couple teams with only two Top 50 players, like the Spurs and Rockets, are both championship contenders because of the amount of Top 100 players they have on the roster.

Top 100 players for teams with 3 Top-50 players

  • Warriors: 5 (ESPN), 5 (SI)
  • Clippers: 5 (ESPN); 5 (SI)
  • Thunder: 5 (ESPN); 4 (SI)
  • Wolves: 5 (ESPN); 5 (SI)
  • Blazers: 3 (ESPN); 3 (SI)

Portland reportedly tried to trade for Paul George and expressed interest in Carmelo Anthony this offseason, but the Blazers were unable to land another Top 50 or Top 100 player during the summer.

Barring a midseason trade for an impact player, the Blazers will need a player or two already on their roster to perform at a Top 100 level this season if they want to compete with the upper-tier teams in the Western Conference.

Neither set of rankings from ESPN or Sports Illustrated ranked players outside the Top 100, but fantasy projections have and they suggest Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless are the closest players on the Blazers roster to achieve Top-100 status.

ESPN's fantasy basketball rankings slot Lillard at 21, McCollum at 37, Nurkic at 39, Turner at 108, Aminu at 112 and Harkless at 122. No other Blazers rank in the Top 150.

Below is a team-by-team look at how ESPN and Sports Illustrated ranked players on teams in the Western Conference. ESPN includes first-year players in its rankings; Sports Illustrated does not.

ESPN (all players in Top 100)

Warriors (5 in Top 50)

  • Kevin Durant (2)
  • Stephen Curry (4)
  • Draymond Green (10)
  • Klay Thompson (19)
  • Andre Iguodala (43)

Clippers (3 in Top 50)

  • Blake Griffin (24)
  • DeAndre Jordan (30)
  • Patrick Beverley (50)
  • Danilo Gallinari (54)
  • Lou Williams (81)

Thunder (3 in Top 50)

  • Russell Westbrook (5)
  • Paul George (13)
  • Steven Adams (46)
  • Patrick Patterson (76)
  • Andre Roberson (85)

Trail Blazers (3 in Top 50)

  • Damian Lillard (18)
  • CJ McCollum (31)
  • Jusuf Nurkic (44)

Spurs (2 in Top 50)

  • Kawhi Leonard (3)
  • LaMarcus Aldridge (45)
  • Danny Green (59)
  • Patty Mills (67)
  • Pau Gasol (80)
  • Manu Ginobili (99)

Rockets (2 in Top 50)

  • James Harden (8)
  • Chris Paul (7)
  • Eric Gordon (62)
  • Clint Capela (70)
  • Trevor Ariza (95)
  • Ryan Anderson (100)

Timberwolves (2 in Top 50)

  • Jimmy Butler (11)
  • Karl Anthony-Towns (12)
  • Andrew Wiggins (57)
  • Jeff Teague (73)
  • Gorgui Dieng (77)

Nuggets (2 in Top 50)

  • Nicola Jokic (16)
  • Paul Millsap (27)
  • Gary Harris (90)

Pelicans (2 in Top 50)

  • Anthony Davis (6)
  • DeMarcus Cousins (17)
  • Jrue Holiday (52)

Jazz (2 in Top 50)

  • Rudy Gobert (14)
  • Ricky Rubio (48)
  • Rodney Hood (92)
  • Derrick Favors (94)

Grizzlies (2 in Top 50)

  • Mike Conley (23)
  • Marc Gasol (29)

Suns (1 in Top 50)

  • Eric Bledsoe (37)
  • Devin Booker (60)

Kings (1 in Top 50)

  • George Hill (49)

Mavericks (0 in Top 50)

  • Harrison Barnes (58)
  • Dennis Smith Jr. (75)
  • Nerlens Noel (91)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (97)

Lakers (0 in Top 50)

  • Brook Lopez (51)
  • Lonzo Ball (63)
  • Kentavius Caldwell-Pope (74)

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (all players in Top 100)

Warriors (5 in Top 50)

  • Kevin Durant (2)
  • Stephen Curry (3)
  • Draymond Green (10)
  • Klay Thompson (20)
  • Andre Iguodala (46)

Clippers (3 in Top 50)

  • Blake Griffin (22)
  • DeAndre Jordan (28)
  • Danilo Gallinari (42)
  • Patrick Beverley (90)
  • Lou Williams (93)

Timberwolves (3 in Top 50)

  • Jimmy Butler (11)
  • Karl-Anthony Towns (14)
  • Andrew Wiggins (50)
  • Jeff Teague (55)
  • Taj Gibson (95)

Thunder (3 in Top 50)

  • Russell Westbrook (6)
  • Paul George (12)
  • Steven Adams (47)
  • Patrick Patterson (98)

Rockets (2 in Top 50)

  • James Harden (5)
  • Chris Paul (7)
  • Clint Capela (58)
  • Trevor Ariza (62)
  • Eric Gordon (83)
  • Ryan Anderson (97)

Spurs (2 in Top 50)

  • Kawhi Leonard (4)
  • LaMarcus Aldridge (31)
  • Pau Gasol (65)
  • Danny Green (75)
  • Patty Mills (92)

Nuggets (2 in Top 50)

  • Nikola Jokic (25)
  • Paul Millsap (27)
  • Gary Harris (57)
  • Wilson Chandler (84)

Pelicans (2 in Top 50)

  • Anthony Davis (8)
  • DeMarcus Cousins (23)
  • Jrue Holiday (60)

Trail Blazers (2 in Top 50)

  • Damian Lillard (17)
  • CJ McCollum (39)
  • Jusuf Nurkic (69)

Grizzlies (2 in Top 50)

  • Mike Conley (18)
  • Marc Gasol (24)

Jazz (1 in Top 50)

  • Rudy Gobert (15)
  • Ricky Rubio (61)
  • Derrick Favors (67)
  • Rodney Hood (87)

Lakers (1 in Top 50)

  • Brook Lopez (45)
  • Julius Randle (94)
  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (99)

Mavericks (1 in Top 50)

  • Harrison Barnes (49)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (71)
  • Nerlens Noel (86)

Suns (1 in Top 50)

  • Eric Bledsoe (38)
  • Devin Booker (64)

Kings (0 in Top 50)

  • George Hill (63)

Jared Cowley is a digital producer for KGW. Reach him on Twitter here.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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