• Reaction was split when the Portland Trail Blazers signed Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million contract on opening day of the spending spree that was 2016 free agency.

    Few believed that Turner was worth such a lengthy, lucrative payday in a vacuum, but even the opposing majority understood the 34 percent spike to the salary cap at least somewhat justified affording him that deal. It’s not like the market confirmed the notion that Portland overpaid. Luol Deng signed a similar deal with the Los Angeles Lakers a day later, and the Blazers eventually matched an offer sheet to Allen Crabbe from the Brooklyn Nets that was slightly more expensive.

    Most importantly? Portland wanted another capable ball handler to take pressure off Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and Turner’s rare size at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, at least in theory, allowed general manager Neil Olshey to fill two roster gaps with one player. The former second overall pick was coming off a career campaign with the Boston Celtics, too, surging over the season’s second half to become a legitimate candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

    Two and a half years later, skepticism surrounding Turner’s deal has proven prudent. His usage is at an all-time low, he’s made no improvement from beyond the arc and he isn’t the defensive ace that makes up for those offensive deficiencies. It says far more about limitations of the Blazers’ roster than anything positive regarding Turner’s performance that he’s been entrenched as a starter since early December. But that inherent personnel defect, thankfully, hasn’t stopped Terry Stotts from searching for ways to ease the burden on Lillard and McCollum, while diversifying an offensive system that’s mostly looked stale in 2017-18.

    Portland paid cash to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Shabazz Napier on July 6, 2016, less than a week after signing Turner. The former Connecticut star and personal favorite of LeBron James played in 53 games last season, averaging less than 10 minutes per contest, but nevertheless established himself as a player worth keeping around for the first time in his career. What the Blazers didn’t see coming, probably, is that Napier would mean so much more to them this season that humbling distinction alone.

    It’s no secret by now: Portland has been at its best this season when employing a three-guard lineup of Lillard, McCollum and Napier. Lineups featuring that triumvirate are killing opponents on both sides of the floor, to the tune of a 114.0 offensive rating and 92.4 defensive rating – good for a net rating of +21.6, greenest among any Blazers trio that has notched at least 100 minutes, per NBA.com/stats.

    As Turner continues to struggle and Mo Harkless fades into further obscurity, Stotts has grown increasingly comfortable calling the number of that three-guard unit. Lillard, McCollum and Napier have notched 17 combined minutes in Portland’s past two games, home wins over the Phoenix Suns and Indiana Pacers, the latter of which came after a dominant fourth quarter spearheaded by those three guards.

    Pace is what most separates lineups including Lillard, McCollum and Napier from others. The Blazers play at a middling pace on the aggregate, but average 104.7 possessions per 48 minutes when going small on the perimeter, according to NBA.com/stats, a number comfortably higher than the Los Angeles Lakers’ league-leading mark.

    Additional tempo is a natural byproduct of playing three guys simultaneously who can easily be identified as point guards. The other assumed one, however, hasn’t quite come to fruition. Portland is assisting on 48.7 percent of its baskets this season, the lowest share in the NBA by over four percentage points – equaling the difference between the 29th-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder and 16th-ranked Memphis Grizzlies. Lineups with Lillard, McCollum and Napier are barely any better, getting help on 49.6 percent of their made field goals.

    Such a low number would be problematic if the Blazers relied on the pass to create efficient offense, but that’s never been their strategy under Stotts, despite the beautiful hum of their offense when things are really clicking. Instead, the biggest benefit of inserting another legitimate playmaker – for himself or others – beside Lillard and McCollum has been Portland’s penchant for pushing the ball and attacking early in the shot clock, when defenses are scrambling.

    The Blazers’ boast a 58.7 effective field goal percentage on shots taken “early” in the clock, defined by NBA.com/stats as between 18 and 15 seconds. One problem: Those attempts account for just 18.3 percent of Portland’s shots overall, just barely higher than the rate of attempts taken with seven seconds or fewer on the shot clock. That’s a losing proposition for any team, but especially one that lacks the ancillary offensive support needed to consistently find makable looks as the seconds tick away. Lillard and McCollum can only bail Portland out so often.

    Mitigating the amount of times they have to is key, and that’s why Napier’s presence looms so large – on both ends of the floor. The Blazers’ three-guard look creates turnovers on 16.9 percent of defensive possessions, not just a team-high among qualified trios, but a number that tops the first-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder’s.

    Defense leads to offense, the old adage goes, and Napier’s 3.7 deflections per-36 minutes leads Portland by a margin so large it’s problematic. Stotts’ ultra-conservative scheme is somewhat to blame for his team’s infrequent defense-to-offense attacks, but that’s an issue hardly worth correcting considering the Blazers have finally figured out a way to play top-10 defense despite subpar personnel. Napier, with his quickness, instincts and perpetually-running motor, adds a dimension to Portland’s defense that none of his teammates can replicate, one that’s also manifested on the other end of the floor.

    There are many reasons Stotts won’t commit to playing Lillard, McCollum and Napier together for extended stretches on a nightly basis. Those units have actually rebounded better than the team overall, but that utter lack of size on the perimeter still comes back to bite them. The Minnesota Timberwolves pulled away from the Blazers last Sunday when Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler feasted from the post, exploiting major height and weight advantages over Portland’s guards – and that was when Turner or Pat Connaughton was on the floor to check one or the other.

    Sample size matters, too. Teams are shooting 24.3 percent from 3-point range and 67.2 percent from the free throw line against the Blazers’ three-guard lineup, per NBA.com/stats. Those numbers are bound to go up, just like the opposition is bound to focus more of its gameplan on that troika as it continues receiving more court time. Successfully employing three players at the same time who are 6-foot-3 or under has never been more plausible in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean doing so isn’t a rotational gambit – especially when none of the guards in question play much bigger than their measurements suggests, a la Marcus Smart.

    Still, having to deal with teams adjusting to Lillard, McCollum and Napier is a problem Portland is lucky to have. Coming into this season, after trading Crabbe in the summer, there was concern about quality of the Blazers’ perimeter options behind Lillard and McCollum. Would Turner find his footing? Might Harkless take another step forward? Was Connaughton actually ready for minutes?

    Only the latter-most question has yielded a remotely positive answer for Portland so far. Stotts probably didn’t envision Lillard, McCollum and Napier notching major minutes before 2017-18 tipped off. Now that they’ve earned them, though, those units must maintain their effectiveness when matchups allow for it. That’s a less than ideal scenario, of course, but the Blazers simply don’t have any better options.

Fantasy News

  • Kevin Durant
    SF, Brooklyn Nets

    The four players from the Nets who tested positive for COVID-19 are symptom free after passing a 14-day protocol but are still self-isolating, according to Greg Logan of Newsday.

    Logan went on to say that the entire traveling party for the Nets are healthy at the moment. This is a good sign to see players and staff recovering from the virus without any new cases reported.

    Source: Greg Logan on Twitter

  • Marcus Smart
    PG, Boston Celtics

    Marcus Smart plans to donate his blood plasma to the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project for research on how the virus affects the blood of those infected or have been infected already, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

    This marks an interesting end (fingers-crossed) to Smart's coronavirus infection and subsequent quarantine. Only five NBA players have received confirmed positive tests for COVID-19 but the NBA obviously isn't taking any chances during this global pandemic. With speed being medical professionals' biggest pressure with regards to a vaccine, Smart really stepped up to the plate. Hopefully other public figures who have recovered from the virus will follow his lead in donating necessary items for research. This also doesn't hurt Smart's public image, which has been known to fluctuate dramatically during his college and professional career.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Jeremy Lin
    PG, International

    The Chinese government has stopped the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) from resuming their season, nearly two months after halting their season due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

    The CBA does not currently have a players' union, so these types of sweeping decisions can happen more quickly than in the United States, where the players are unionized. While this is not great news for basketball players and fans in China, it also has global ramifications for sports across the world looking for a timeline. Everyone is wondering when it will be safe to resume or begin athletic events. Executives are trying to handle the logistics of said decisions, which is much more of a slippery slope. It seems increasingly obvious that the NBA is nowhere near a return to action and currently the situation is still completely out of commissioner Adam Silver's hands.

    Source: CBS Sports

  • LeBron James
    SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    The entire Lakers roster has been deemed symptom-free of the coronavirus after completing a 14-day home isolation that was prescribed by team doctors, according to Lakers reporter Mike Trudell.

    Finally, some good news for the NBA. The Lakers were isolated two weeks ago and they all maintained quarantine in their homes. The league has yet to announce plans as far as next steps for potentially resuming the 2019-20 season, but this is a good start. More teams should complete quarantine periods in the coming weeks. It doesn't help that professional basketball's return in China was halted abruptly after they had planned on making a return earlier this week. This is obviously a very fluid situation and NBA commissioner Adam Silver must bide his time before making concrete decisions. Stay tuned.

    Source: Mike Trudell on Twitter

  • Clint Capela
    C, Atlanta Hawks

    According to Sarah K. Spencer of the Atlantic Journal Constitution, Clint Capela had been progressing towards participating in half-court workouts prior to the season being suspended.

    There was some uncertainty surrounding Capela's potential return this season, but now he will have a much better shot at getting a few games below his belt before the conclusion of the season. If Capela does indeed find himself on the court for a few games, we'd have to imagine that he will be on a strict minutes limit as Lloyd Pierce alluded to last month.

    Source: Atlantic Journal Constitution

  • Cameron Johnson
    SF, Phoenix Suns

    Cameron Johnson is fully cleared from mononucleosis that he has been battling for the past few weeks.

    Johnson missed the final three games before the league was suspended due to mononucleosis, but will be ready to go when the season starts up again. Johnson was looking at an expanded role with Kelly Oubre Jr. injured, but there is now a chance that Oubre Jr. will be ready a situation to monitor when the season gets ready to resume.

    Source: The Athletic

  • Joe Harris
    SF, Brooklyn Nets

    Joe Harris said that he would like to re-sign with the Nets this summer.

    When Harris was asked if he would like to play with the Nets next season, he replied, “Yeah, definitely! Why wouldn’t you?" The Nets will have Harris' Bird Rights and will certainly like to bring him back, but Harris will be a highly-coveted free agent this summer and will be looking to cash in on what is seen as a weaker free agent class.

    Source: New York Post

  • Jonathan Isaac
    PF, Orlando Magic

    Jonathan Isaac has been continuing his rehab work from a severe knee sprain amid the NBA hiatus.

    Isaac has been out since early in the calendar year after suffering a left knee sprain and bone bruise. The NBA denied the Magic a Disabled Player Exception earlier in the year, as doctors believed that Isaac wouldn't be out until mid June. Isaac was a long shot to return by the playoffs, but the hiatus has given him a better chance to return and potentially be ready for the start of the playoffs. This is an interesting watch as we continue to wait for the NBA, and life in general, to resume as normal.

    Source: The Athletic

  • LeBron James
    SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    The New York Post's Marc Berman reports that the NBA's best-case scenario is looking like a late June to early July brief regular season restart with a one-site, 16-team playoff, possibly with each series a best-of-three.

    He mentions that a league official said that nothing is off the table, so we're far away from anything definitive. There is still obviously a chance that the season gets cancelled, but the league is "very determined to have a champion". Don't expect anything to be determined for many weeks, if not months.

    Source: The New York Post

  • John Wall
    PG, Washington Wizards

    John Wall (Achilles) was participating in scrimmages with the Capital City Go-Go before the NBA suspended its season.

    Wall was scrimmaging every three days or thereabouts, depending on the schedule, and was a regular presence at the team's practices. There's even video of him throwing down a nasty jam on rookie Garrison Mathews at the link below. Despite this notable step forward in his recovery, the Wizards have maintained that Wall will not return this season, even with the hiatus giving Wall an extra few months of recovery time.

    Source: The Athletic