The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2016-17 NBA season with lofty expectations. Following an unexpected second-round playoff appearance, this team was only going to get better, right?
Unfortunately, Portland currently sits at 18-26 and is on the outside looking in when it comes to the Western Conference’s top eight seeds.
With that in mind, this group has plenty of storylines surrounding it with the season’s second half officially underway. Is Evan Turner finally starting to turn a corner? Can the defense become anything resembling intimidating? Is a trade on the horizon? Will Meyers Leonard’s hair change again?
But while there’s plenty to talk about regarding Portland and what’s ahead, that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to give fans of basketball across the Association, who happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, a recap-look-ahead combo platter of the league’s most important topics.
This one is for the fan who needs a little extra fodder to chew on around the water cooler at the office.
This one is for the Portlandian who appreciates what the NBA has to offer, even outside the comfy confines of the
Rose Garden Moda Center.
With one domino down in the form of Kyle Korver, the question is: Who’s next to fall before the Feb. 23 deadline?
Nerlens Noel of the Philadelphia 76ers has been a topic of discussion all season. The center has been vocal about his role on the roster and how he gets lost in the shuffle of big men (and No. 1 pick Ben Simmons hasn’t even played yet due to injury).
Paul Millsap is another name to keep an eye on. The Atlanta Hawks recently put him on the block, only to remove his name after dealing Korver. The truth, though, is that they aren’t likely to compete in the long run as is and needs to think about the future. The Denver Nuggets seem like a reasonable option to swap young talent for a star, and the Toronto Raptors may feel pressure to upgrade the power forward spot after watching the Cleveland Cavaliers upgrade.
Waking up to a world where Paul Millsap to the Raptors is seemingly off the table. Now waiting for Cousins to TOR rumors to pick up. pic.twitter.com/2tZWqSaq2V
— Chris Walder (@WalderSports) January 10, 2017
One name you’re not likely to see this time around is DeMarcus Cousins. The superstar center, who has been the topic of trade discussions for years, is reportedly willing to sign an extension with the Sacramento Kings, per James Ham of CSNBayArea.com.
As shocking as this sounds on the surface, it should really come as no shock at all. The league’s newest collective bargaining agreement (a top storyline in and of itself, seeing how we escaped the threat of labor stoppage) gives star players incredible incentive to stay with the teams that drafted them. In Boogie’s case, that means he can collect an extra $80 million over the lifetime of a contract by making Sacto his permanent residence.
Melodrama In New York
The New York Knicks are bad. We’re not going to sugar coat that by elaborating on the potential of Kristaps Porzingis or…well, that’s about it.
We’re also not going to waste our virtual ink diving into the dirty details about what’s happening in Gotham this season, but here’s what you need to know:
- The Knicks, 19-24, are just 3-11 since Christmas.
- Joakim Noah is making $17 million this year, and that’s a travesty
- Derrick Rose literally disappeared before a game on Jan. 9 and nobody could find him until Noah got a hold of him afterward
- Charlie Rosen, a good friend of Phil Jackson, recently penned a column for FanRag Sports stating that Carmelo Anthony has “outlived his usefulness in New York.”
- Jackson has essentially disappeared from the public, making no statements on any of this…yet made headlines early in the year for referring to LeBron James’ business associates and friends as his “posse”
— The Crossover (@TheCrossover) December 13, 2016
The fact that the Knicks are just two games out of the East’s eighth seed is not a testament to this group’s competitive spirit; it’s an indictment against how wildly inconsistent and unreliable the conference is as a whole.
The biggest problem of all is that this team constantly looks for band-aid solutions instead of looking toward the future. It was recently reported that Rose will be seeking a $150 million contract next season, and the Knicks would be wise to let some other sucker swallow that one while they finally focus on what comes next.
James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook
If you’ve ever watched Russell Westbrook play basketball, you know that he is a ruthless aggressor with no regard for human life or spirt.
And that’s in one-on-one backyard games against his grandmother.
Entering this season, we knew the scorned point guard would leave a trail of bodies during his revenge tour following Kevin Durant’s departure. He’s currently on pace to average a triple-double (the first to do that since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62) and he has his Oklahoma City Thunder, who few gave a shot to compete in the playoffs, eyeing home-court advantage.
What we didn’t expect was that James Harden (a point guard this season) and Mike D’Antoni (most recently known for botched comebacks with the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers) would combine forces to make a disappointing 2015-16 campaign for the Houston Rockets a distant memory.
This season’s MVP race is essentially a two-man showdown between these superstars. LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant can all stake their claim when it comes to the league’s most desired individual award, but it would take a drastic turn of events for one of those three to swipe it away from either of these two point guards.
Trust The Process
Don’t look now, but the Philadelphia 76ers are a decent basketball team. The sample size is small, but since the turn of the Calendar, the squad that finished 30th in the league last season is 6-2.
That’s only four fewer wins than it had all last year, and it’s a better record than the Cavaliers, Rockets, Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have since Jan. 1.
What’s the cause, you ask? Two words: The Process.
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) January 1, 2017
A phrase once mocked mercilessly has become a way of life in Philadelphia. For years, trusting the process meant blindly believing that general manager Sam Hinkie’s approach to treating human beings like assets would eventually pay off. The team kept losing, and Hinkie eventually stepped down.
This season, one of Hinkie’s assets has finally paid off. Joel Embiid, as entertaining as he is on the court as he is on social media, has taken the league by storm. He’s a 7-footer who has moves on the block like Hakeem Olajuwon, creates posters in transition and is shooting nearly 35 percent on more than three triples per game while posting 19.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a night.
I don’t know what’s better, that he is doing all this in just 25.4 minutes per contest or the fact that he encourages “Trust The Process” chants…while at the free-throw line…in clutch situations:
“TRUST-THE-PROCESS!!” chants now BOOMING with game on line, Embiid eating it all up. pic.twitter.com/XflsfGAxLm
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) January 19, 2017
Joel Embiid and the Sixers have become one of the feel-good stories of the season.
So, yes: Trust The Process.
The Rise of Giannis
Giannis Antetokounmpo has always looked the part of an elite NBA player. He’s built like Durant, runs the floor like Westbrook and does things like this:
This season, head coach Jason Kidd made the brilliant decision to play The Greek Freak at point guard. That’s right: This 6’11” Swiss army knife is the Milwaukee Bucks’ primary floor general 65 percent of the time, according to Basketball-Reference.com. As a result, he’s posting a stat line of 23.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game while shooting 53.8 percent from the floor.
Antetokounmpo will be a first-time All-Star this season, but that’s just the beginning of his stardom. He has the young Bucks sitting in ninth out East, and anybody who even remotely likes basketball should root to see this team compete on a larger stage because of what this 22-year-old brings to the table.
San Antonio Spurs Are In a Familiar Place
No, we’re not talking about No. 2 behind the Warriors…although that does apply.
We’re talking about how San Antonio, in true Gregg Popovich fashion, continues to fly under the radar. It’s the consensus second-best team out West and has a legitimate MVP-caliber player in Kawhi Leonard few people are talking about.
Then again, that’s exactly how Pop wants it regardless of how dominant this group can be. So we’ll it at that.
Cavaliers Rule East
Speaking of the Eastern Conference playoff race, the Cavaliers have a stranglehold on the entire concept of parity in the league’s weaker half. Sure, you can claim all you want that competitiveness between No. 2 and No. 8 (and beyond) is at an all-time high, but what good is that when The King and Co. are already ordering their conference champion shirts and hats?
To be honest, this isn’t meant to be a downer. The merits on which we make such claims about Cleveland are clear, and the league is better with LeBron James competing in June.
The storyline here isn’t about how good the Cavs are, but how entertained they are. Every James superteam we’ve seen has gone through lulls of disinterest with the regular season being a mere vehicle to get where we all know they’re going to end up.
After all, James has been to an unreal six straight NBA Finals.
Cleveland is your best team out East and almost certainly your eventual conference champion. But keep an eye on how engaged this group is during the post-All-Star stretch until the playoffs.
Warriors Rule All
The Golden State Warriors are not perfect. They’re not likely to set another single-season record for wins, and they’re not going to put up historically great numbers on a nightly basis.
But doesn’t it say something that that’s the type of barometer used to evaluate this franchise?
Following a Jan. 6 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Warriors have started exorcising some of their demons. They proved that the Cavs may not have their number after all with a 126-91 shellacking on Jan. 16. And they showed that Durant and Stephen Curry, despite their troubles at times to play off each other instead of in spite of each other, can produce at a high level simultaneously with a Jan. 18 win over the Thunder.
At 36-6, the Dubs have the league’s best record by a relative long shot. No, they’re not the defending champions, but they’re the odds-on favorites to win it this year, and they’re the ones every team and fan base has circled on their calendars.
With everything Golden State has done since blowing a 3-1 lead in last year’s finals, it’s obvious there’s a lethal combination of talent and drive that’s setting this squad up for it’s third-straight Western Conference title.
Believing anything to the contrary is setting yourself up for disappointment.