• The Portland Trail Blazers’ longest winning streak in franchise history was built on the back of defense. From February 14 to March 18, when they rung off 13 straight victories, the Blazers’ defensive rating was 100.1, second in the league behind the Utah Jazz’s laughably-low mark. But Portland’s success on defense in 2017-18 extended beyond that season-changing binge of wins, too. It ranked fourth in defensive rating after the All-Star break, and finished eighth on the year as a whole – not just more than 10 spots higher than each of the previous two seasons, but also the team’s best standing since Terry Stotts came to town in 2012-13.

    The Blazers’ surprising stinginess last season wasn’t due to any significant change in personnel, or even a robust overhaul of their defensive principles. Instead, incumbent players re-committed themselves to the blue-collar nuance necessary to make up for a lack of game-altering individual talents and a scheme that allows for certain types of open looks. Guards aggressively and relentlessly trailed over the top of ball screens, fighting to get effective rear-view contests on pull-up jumpers. Big men never left the paint to contain ball handlers in the pick-and-roll, goading inefficient looks from mid-range, then retreated toward the rim to stay behind the rolling big man and get vertical near the restricted area.

    Portland, through en masse activity and engagement rather than elite individual rim-protection, led the league in opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim. The Blazers were fifth in defensive rebounding rate, grabbing 79.1 percent of opponent’s misses. Their defensive shot profile was a modern-day study in exploiting the numbers game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Portland forced the seventh-highest share of mid-range jumpers in basketball; allowed fewer corner threes than any team but the Brooklyn Nets; and permitted the third-lowest ratio of 3-point attempts overall. The result? The Blazers’ opponent’s effective field goal percentage of 50.6 ranked fifth in the league, despite teams shooting above average or better from mid-range, the deep corner and above the break.

    On the surface, nothing that transpired over the offseason suggests those numbers should change much going forward. Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis were all effective defensively in their own way last season, fitting well in Portland’s ecosystem, but are hardly the type of defenders whose absence will dramatically affect a team’s ability to string together stops. But the Blazers’ play on that side of the ball last season was always more about familiarity and continuity than anything else, and replacing a third of Stotts’ rotation, even at the bottom, inherently limits the impact of that advantage. Nothing matters more to team defense than the level of confidence a player has in his teammates’ ability to properly apply instilled defensive principles.

    Some deficiencies, though, can’t be obscured by trust and collective understanding. The merciless ease with which the New Orleans Pelicans abused Jusuf Nurkic in the first round of the playoffs wasn’t exactly hard to see coming, but was still jarring nonetheless. Putting Anthony Davis at center full-time pushed the athletic edge he holds over all opposing big men to new heights, and slotting a shooter like Nikola Mirotic, with range several feet beyond the arc, next to him made it impossible for Portland to prevent New Orleans from pushing the pace and spreading the floor.

    Nurkic is ill-suited to defend mobile, skilled bigs as a general rule, but especially in that setting. He had the worst defensive rating of any Blazer in the first round, and New Orleans shot a whopping 77.3 percent against him at the rim, about 23 points worse than his rock-solid mark from the regular-season. Even more ominous? The Pelicans as a whole made 72.2 percent of their attempts from the restricted area, better than Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s elite season-long number. It was a layup line for New Orleans, basically, regardless of which Portland defender stood between the ball and the basket.

    The league is smaller than it was last season. Seven of the 10 teams primed to compete with the Blazers for eight playoff spots in the Western Conference have the roster tools necessary to, at will, downsize up front and run like hell. The Blazers, meanwhile, never found the playoff-ready wing Neil Olshey thought they would this summer, and as a result, are barely better prepared to handle that style of play than they were last spring. We’ve already discussed the two-way benefits of playing Zach Collins at center, and it goes without saying that Stotts is likely to experiment with no-big lineups in training camp that make Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu Portland’s biggest players on the court, a look he went to only under extreme duress last season. But neither configuration projects as a panacea against small-ball in general, let alone five-out style units built around the likes of Davis, LeBron James, Draymond Green, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns and more.

    The Blazers’ defense never got the credit it deserved during the regular season, then didn’t receive the criticism it should have in the playoffs, protected by uninformed hot takes on struggles of Damian Lillard and well-earned praise bestowed upon Davis, Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans. As 2018-19 fast approaches, several questions need answering before Portland is considered anything more than a run-of-the-mill playoff contender in a historically-loaded Western Conference. Most instructive among them, though, very well could be which version of the Blazers’ defense carries over: the one that propelled them to 49 wins and a three seed in the playoffs, or the one that caused them to get swept by an underdog first-round opponent? And unfortunately, Portland may not have as much control over the correct answer as its opponents.

Fantasy News

  • Trae Young
    PG, Atlanta Hawks

    The eight NBA teams left out of the remainder of the season proposed to play a summer league with televised games to help the development of younger players.

    The teams are concerned that the extended time off from playing organized basketball for their young players. Hawks owner, Tony Ressler told Ramon Shelburne that "Nine months is too long without organized basketball. I think the league has heard that loud and clear. We are pushing to remain competitive. That's what our players want. We were desperate to have something that helps us to stay competitive." It's encouraging that the eight NBA teams seem to be on the same page with playing games before the start of the 2020-2021 season. This would likely only include younger players, so it would be an interesting opportunity to monitor emerging prospects.

    Source: ESPN

  • Zach LaVine
    SG, Chicago Bulls

    Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times reported that the Sixers' assistant coach, Ime Udoka, is the front-runner to be hired as the Bulls' new head coach.

    New president Arturas Karnisovas and GM Marc Eversley are looking to part ways with current head coach Jim Boylen. This will likely be a positive for younger players on the Bulls' roster as Boylen seemed to have a disconnect with them. Raptors' assistant coach Adrian Griffin is also in consideration to be the Bulls' coach.

    Source: Chicago Sun Times

  • Meyers Leonard
    C, Miami Heat

    Erik Spoelstra said that Meyers Leonard (sprained left ankle) is "feeling great".

    Leonard has been steadily recovering given the extra time off with the season being suspended. It was reported by Sports Illustrated back in April that he would be ready to return when the NBA season resumes and it appears that is still the case with Spoelstra's latest comment. Leonard will be a role player for the Heat with limited minutes, which makes him unreliable for fantasy.

    Source: Miami Herald

  • Al-Farouq Aminu
    PF, Orlando Magic

    Al-Farouq Aminu (right torn meniscus), "most likely will not be healthy enough to return," when the season resumes according to the Orlando Sentinel.

    Aminu had season-ending surgery in early January and shed his brace in March. There some some speculation he could return due to the extra time off but in an interview this week, Magic president Jeff Weltman didn't give any indication Aminu was close to a return saying, “Not a whole lot of news there. As always, we’re going to wait and see how they respond to rehab." With Jonathan Isaac in the same boat as Aminu, expect Khem Birch and James Ennis to continue splitting the frontcourt minutes opposite Aaron Gordon.

    Source: Orlando Sentinel

  • Kyrie Irving
    PG, Brooklyn Nets

    According to Adrian Wojnarowski, Kyrie Irving (right shoulder) could conceivably join his Nets' teammates in Orlando when they return to play later this summer, albeit as an inactive player.

    There was really never much of a possibility that Irving would return to action in 2019-20 unless the season got pushed back severely. After the arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in late February, the Nets tentatively said they expected to have him back in time for preseason workouts in the fall (which will now likely take place in November or later). That still seems like the likely scenario, even given the long pause the league was forced to undergo. Caris LeVert had shown flashes of brilliance again this season after he returned from injury, so he and Spencer Dinwiddie will evidently be shouldering the ball-handling duties when the Nets take the floor in Orlando.

    Source: Adrian Wojnarowksi on Twitter

  • Kevin Durant
    SF, Brooklyn Nets

    Kevin Durant (right Achilles) confirmed on Friday that he will not take the court for the Nets when they return to play in Orlando in late July and early August when they close out the 2019-20 season.

    Given the extended pause to the current season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, there were many who believed the Nets could plausibly try to bring back both Durant and Kyrie Irving from their respective injuries in order to make a push for a championship later this summer. Evidently, Durant will remain out of the equation for the Nets as they look to close out the season on a high note. "My season is over," Durant said. The Nets currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and will have to maintain that position in order to avoid the planned play-in bracket to decide the eighth seed after the initial eight final "regular season" games. Durant has never seemed likely to play, even with the pandemic disrupting the season, and it seems as though he won't be playing for the Nets in Orlando. Much crazier things have happened, though.

    Source: The Undefeated

  • Kelly Oubre Jr.
    SF, Phoenix Suns

    Kelly Oubre Jr. (torn right meniscus) will be able to take the floor for the Suns when the NBA returns to play in Orlando on July 31, the team's owner Robert Sarver said on Friday.

    This is phenomenal news for the Suns, as Oubre had really been having a breakout season for the Suns (18.7 PTS, 6.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.7 BLK and 1.9 threes per game in 34.5 minutes) prior to going down with a torn meniscus in late February. He was originally expected to miss the rest of the 2019-20 season, but due to the pandemic he has recovered and will evidently be fully functional for a team that currently sits in 13th place in the Western Conference. They will have quite the uphill battle to force their way into the playoff field in August, as there will only be eight regular season games played before the playoffs are set.

    Source: Arizona Sports

  • Jonathan Isaac
    PF, Orlando Magic

    The President of Basketball Operations for the Magic, Jeff Weltman, said Friday that the team does not expect Jonathan Isaac (left knee) to return when league play resumes, but that they will also be letting his rehab program dictate his timetable.

    Isaac has been sidelined since the beginning of January after a serious injury to his left knee.
    He was scheduled to be re-evaluated in 8-10 weeks but the impact of the coronavirus has muddled things up with many players, Isaac included. The Magic don't want to risk Isaac's immediate future, as he is under contract for one more season and is eligible for a qualifying offer prior to the 2021-22 season. With the Magic sitting in eighth place in the East and looking a (potential) fight for the right to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs as the eighth seed in August, the Magic brass may opt to keep Isaac out until the beginning of next season. That seems likely, at least.

    Source: 96.9 The Game on Twitter

  • Kawhi Leonard
    SF, Los Angeles Clippers

    Marc Stein is reporting that the NBPA has agreed to continue negotiations with the league for a 22-team restart to the season.

    Stein also noted that not everything is settled at this point, and more items need to be agreed upon before the NBPA is ready to sign and proceed forward with the resumption of games. It sounds like we're still on a path to an agreement, but the NBPA still has a few points to clarify before it is all said and done. Stay tuned.

    Source: Marc Stein on Twitter

  • LeBron James
    SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Shams Charania is reporting that the NBPA informed players that they will be tested on a nightly basis for COVID-19 and a positive test will result in quarantine for a minimum of seven days.

    The resumption of play will also include 2-3 preseason games and a bubble of 1600 total people. Players will not have tracking devices on them but they are expected to stay in the bubble for the entire period. Everything is gradually coming together and the schedule for the return to play is becoming more and more clear for all parties.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter