• Over the weekend, the Portland Trail Blazers’ marquee free-agent acquisition played five-on-five for the first time in 10 months. The video Seth Curry posted on Instagram is more a collection of successful possessions in a pickup game than an eye-popping highlight reel displaying his enviable package of offensive skills. Barely considered an average athlete by NBA standards, the montage almost makes unintentional mockery of Curry’s lack of explosiveness, with a simple right-handed layup – uncontested and in transition, mind you – slowed down for dramatic effect.

    Progress is progress by any measure, no matter how small. That Curry is healthy enough to play competitive pickup basketball again for the first time since going under the knife in February to repair a stress fracture in his lower left leg is cause for celebration all by itself. He was originally slated to be available for the Dallas Mavericks’ season opener last fall after suffering a stress reaction early in preseason play, and was then scheduled to resume full basketball activities only three months after surgery. After almost a year away from the game, Curry finally seems on track toward being ready to play.

    Counting on significant contributions from a player so recently encumbered by injury is a risk, but one the Trail Blazers were forced to take out of necessity. They didn’t have nearly enough cap space to back up Neil Olshey’s hollow talk of adding a playoff-caliber wing this summer, and only had the opportunity to sign a player of Curry’s caliber using half the taxpayer’s mid-level exception due to the distinct possibility his health issues linger into the regular season. There’s still no guarantee he’ll be suiting up against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on October 18, let alone reach the esteemed level of play he did with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016-17 – whether by the season opener or over the ensuing six months. But for Portland to defy expectations and overcome an offseason that did little to strengthen its standing in an increasingly loaded Western Conference, Curry will need to do just that, and sooner rather than later.

    Last season, lineups featuring Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Shabazz Napier posted a net rating of +21.9, per NBA.com/stats, an easy team-high among the 60 Blazers trios that shared the floor for at least 200 minutes. Sample size matters here. Opposing teams surely would have been better equipped dealing with that three-guard look if Terry Stotts had employed it on a nightly basis, and statistics gleaned from a configuration that played less than five minutes per game always lend themselves to random variance. Anyone who watched Portland regularly in 2017-18, though, understands all too well that the team was routinely at its best and most exciting putting Napier next to Lillard and McCollum, pushing the pace, fighting like hell defensively and letting its star guards focus on doing doing what they do best: getting buckets.

    The Blazers played at a pace of 103.14 with Lillard, McCollum and Napier on the court together last season, higher than the New Orleans Pelicans’ league-leading mark. Opponents turned the ball over on 15.6 percent of their possessions, a team-high among triumvirates, owed to the natural pressures of tempo and ability of Portland’s guards to play bigger than their size suggests defensively. Both Lillard and McCollum posted true shooting percentages well north of 60.0 playing with Napier, too, major efficiency upticks accounted for by increase sin assisted 3-pointers and free throw attempts, according to NBA.com/stats.

    The notion that Lillard and McCollum would thrive next to another playmaker is what prompted Olshey to give Evan Turner a four-year, $70 million contract in the ill-fated summer of 2016. But not all reserve ball handlers are created equal. Napier has his inherent faults, certainly, and failed to sustain the hot long-range shooting over the full 82-game grind that made him such a pleasant early-season surprise, yet nonetheless proved a far more dynamic fit beside his star teammates than Turner. A third guard who isn’t quick enough to consistently beat his man off the dribble, derives most of his individual offense from schemed post-ups and can be left alone beyond the arc away from the ball is only capable of changing the equation so much. The last thing Lillard and McCollum need is a perimeter partner who stops the ball and shrinks the floor.

    Curry does neither. He shot a solid 41.1 percent on catch-and-shoot triples two years ago, and led the league by making 44.9 percent of his pull-up 3-pointers, a weaponized threat Lillard and McCollum exploit time and again to bring two to the ball in pick-and-roll play and create a numbers advantage behind the point of attack. He also shot a tidy 50.0 percent from the field in ball-screen situations, third-best behind Tony Parker and LeBron James. Still, Curry won’t do the lion’s share of ball handling in Portland’s updated three-guard lineups. Its best allocation of resources means Lillard and McCollum setting the table while Curry spots up off the ball, keeping defenses honest to an extent none of the Blazers’ role players could last season. His ability to create efficient offense out of ball screens looms large regardless, though. Lillard and McCollum are tough enough to stop as primary creators; just imagine what they could do on second side pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs, as the defense scrambles back into position after initially accounting for the prospect of Curry knocking down pull-up threes.

    Of course, Curry’s overall influence will depend on health and re-acclimation more than anything else. He still has utility as a standstill marksman, like fellow offseason signee Nik Stauskas, but will only impact the game like Portland needs him to if he regains the form that made him a breakout player for Dallas in 2016-17. All this optimistic analysis of the Blazers’ three-guard lineup won’t matter much unless Curry is physically prepared to do the dirty work inevitably associated with downsizing, too. Napier was, and Wade Baldwin always relishes the chance to prove his defensive chops. If Curry isn’t ready physically come mid October, maybe Baldwin jumps at the opportunity to replace Napier, adding a much-needed sense of athletic verve that changes the game for the positive on both sides of the ball.

    Baldwin’s growth into a viable rotation player would be a welcome development for the Blazers, but not what raises their ceiling highest. Curry is one full season and one vexing injury removed from emerging as one of the most efficient, role-playing guards in basketball. At his best, he’s a better player than anyone Portland brought off the bench last season, and has the skill set needed to make Stotts’ three-guard lineups even more dangerous than they’ve been in the past.

    Is the scope of Curry’s potential influence ideal for the Blazers? Hardly. A veteran team with limited flexibility, likely to be right in the middle of an ever-heated playoff race, would be best served not relying so much on a player who missed all of last season with injury, and is only just now getting in basketball shape. Variance is better than stasis for Portland, though, and Curry, at the very least, provides a hopeful dose of it. We’ll begin finding out whether he offers much more than that come October.

Fantasy News

  • James Harden - G - Houston Rockets

    James Harden destroyed the Grizzlies on Wednesday despite losing 126-125 in overtime as he had 57 points on 18-of-39 shooting.

    He hit nine triples and made all 12 of his attempts from the line. He also added seven rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks to the stat sheet. Harden is the No. 1 fantasy player even in 9-cat formats despite the huge turnover ratio, and the historic season just keeps getting better game-by-game.

  • Chris Paul - G - Houston Rockets

    Chris Paul put up 18 points with seven rebounds and seven assists on 6-of-17 shooting in an overtime loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday.

    He made two 3-pointers and added one steal to the box score. Paul is still a top-20 value on the season, but his ceiling is obviously limited due to the usage and dominance of James Harden. However, he is still one of the top fantasy point guards as always.

  • Iman Shumpert - G - Houston Rockets

    Iman Shumpert started for Eric Gordon (rest) on Wednesday and put up four points and two steals in 23 minutes of action in a loss to the Grizzlies.

    He is not worth owning in any formats and he did not pay dividends for anyone that picked him in DFS for this one.

  • Damian Lillard - G - Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard scored 33 points on 9-of-18 shooting (6-of-12 3PTs, 9-of-10 FTs) with five rebounds, 12 assists and two steals over 30 minutes in the Blazers' 126-118 win over the Mavs on Wednesday.

    Lillard is going to go off with C.J. McCollum out whenever he is on the floor, so keep an eye on the standings and root for the Blazers to keep having meaningful games.

  • Maurice Harkless - F - Trail Blazers

    Moe Harkless scored 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting (including two threes) with three rebounds, two steals and two blocks over 25 minutes in Wednesday's win over the Mavs.

    Harkless can pop off like this pretty much at any time but he also has a well-known knee issue that might be prime for games off. With no action until Saturday it just adds to the risk profile, but with production like this and C.J. McCollum out there's a lot to like.

  • Mike Conley - G - Memphis Grizzlies

    Mike Conley put up 35 points with five rebounds and eight assists on 12-of-23 shooting in an overtime win against the Rockets on Wednesday.

    He made six of his nine attempts from deep and made all five of his attempts from the line. Conley has been a top-15 value over the past month and looks to be one of the most reliable point guards to own heading down the final stretch of the season.

  • Jonas Valanciunas - C - Memphis Grizzlies

    Jonas Valanciunas put up a career-high 33 points with 15 rebounds in a 126-125 overtime win over the Rockets on Wednesday.

    He shot 10-of-19 from the field and 13-of-17 from the line and continues to dominate for the Grizzlies. He should put up middle-round value for the remaining 11 games and will be a highly coveted center option heading into next season.

  • Jake Layman - F - Trail Blazers

    Jake Layman started once again with C.J. McCollum (knee) out and scored 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting (including three treys) with three rebounds and one block in Wednesday's win over the Mavs.

    Layman has struggled with his shot over the last week but when he was humming a few weeks ago he ran as a late-round guy. A bounceback from his 24 percent shooting over the last week could coincide nicely with additional playing time, but keep in mind that the Blazers don't play until Saturday against the Pistons.

  • Enes Kanter - C - Trail Blazers

    Enes Kanter double-doubled with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes off the bench on Wednesday against the Mavs.

    The Blazers need additional scoring with C.J. McCollum out so Kanter will become a bit more useful for them, but he's still playing behind Jusuf Nurkic (22 minutes, 13 points, 10 boards) so any upside is capped. Give him a look if his proficient categories can help you.

  • Seth Curry - G - Trail Blazers

    Seth Curry hit 8-of-16 shots (including four threes) for 20 points, five rebounds, one assist and two steals in 28 minutes off the bench on Wednesday against the Blazers.

    Curry is on the radar as a guy with late-round credentials with C.J. McCollum out, so depending on your category needs he has some wiggle to his value. And in a small sample size anything is possible for a scorer on a team that needs scoring.