August 13, 2018, 12:59 pm
During a sprawling, at times self-serving interview with team reporter Brooke Olzendam late last month, Neil Olshey justified the willful departure of Ed Davis by recalling the Portland Trail Blazers’ widespread struggles in first round of the playoffs. To be clear, no single player shoulders more of the blame for Portland’s embarrassing sweep at hand of the New Orleans Pelicans than any other. Its failure was the result of a bad matchup – created by the season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins and the Pelicans’ subsequent trade for Nikola Mirotic, completely changing their team-wide dynamic on both ends – that maximized existing weaknesses of Olshey’s roster while minimizing its strengths.
If there’s an on-court takeaway from that series that deserves to loom largest going forward, it’s the Blazers inability to open up the the floor for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Facing a defense that readily committed two to the ball in pick-and-roll situations while help defenders sagged off awaiting shooters to protect the paint, Portland lacked the collective skill level necessary not only to take advantage, but also force New Orleans to change its approach. Case in point: Not including Lillard, the Blazers shot an ugly 32.2 percent on 3-point attempts taken without a defender within four feet, according to NBA.com/stats.
Time and again, there was no where for Lillard to go when he turned the corner around a pick. When they weren’t forcing the issue, splitting traps at the point of attack or pulling up for three several feet behind it, the only option available to Portland’s playmakers was finding a perimeter release valve – normally the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Moe Harkless or Pat Connaughton, players the Pelicans welcomed launching away from deep, especially compared to the imminent prospect Lillard and McCollum finding a groove. New Orleans mostly refused to give either of the Blazers’ star guards breathing room away from the ball, too.
In the clip below, from the early stages of Game 2, Jrue Holiday face-guards Lillard on the strong-side wing as McCollum operates a high ball screen with Davis. After Ian Clak=rk recovers to the ball in rear-view pursuit and Mirotic retreats back to a rolling Davis, keeping the defensive string taut, McCollum’s only outlet is a pass to Aminu, who lifts from the corner above the break in hopes of avoiding the endless reach of Anthony Davis.
The shot goes in, but that successful result belies the fickle nature of its process. Even after a career year from three, opponents will be happy to concede a contested triple from Aminu at the right wing if it means slowing down Lillard and McCollum. Portland needs its role players to knock down jumpers, obviously, but won’t go anywhere meaningful this season or beyond should the difference between winning and losing boil down to that proposition more than any other – even after bringing in true marksmen Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas.
There’s only one Anthony Davis, of course, and Holiday is one of the most disruptive defenders of opposing guards in basketball. It would be remiss to discount the contributions of Mirotic, too, who fared far better corralling Lillard and McCollum as a ball-screen helper than anyone could have anticipated. But New Orleans gave the rest of the league a replicable blueprint for how to defend the Blazers regardless, a factor that could prove the difference between them making the playoffs for a fifth straight season and sitting at home come playoff time in a laughably loaded Western Conference.
The splashy free-agency addition many Portland fans expected never materialized. Portland used its first-round pick on a teenager, and let a massive trade exception – championed by Olshey as a viable vessel of player acquisition as recently as June – expire without anything to show for it. Any prospective team-wide improvement in 2018-19, then, will inherently stem from additional continuity and individual strides taken by incumbents.
Zach Collins probably isn’t ready to take on the latter responsibility all by himself. The 20 pounds he’s added since the beginning of last season are indeed a step in the right direction, but didn’t make much of a difference at Summer League, where he averaged just 8.0 points per game on 40.8 percent shooting. He was pushed off the block by bigger defenders, couldn’t find much traction attacking off the dribble and took just four 3-pointers in six games. Collins’ defense was typically stellar, with effective verticality at the rim, consistently early off-ball help and impressive switching ability, but any notion that he’d be a panacea for what plagued the Blazers against the Pelicans on the other end vanished in Las Vegas.
That’s the thing about bigs with Collins’ emerging offensive skill set, though: They don’t necessarily need to put up big numbers to make a big impact. The same can’t be said, at least to a similar extent, for Davis or Jusuf Nurkic. The former attempted just eight shots outside the paint last season, while the latter, despite taking an easy career-high 19.1 percent of his field goals from mid-range, connected on a middling 37.9 percent of those attempts. Nurkic missed all seven of his long-range tries, too.
Collins’ 3-point shooting ability, at least based on last season, is more theoretical than functional. He shot 31.0 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, 17th-worst among the 206 players who hoisted at least 3.5 triples per-36 minutes, per NBA.com/stats. Making just 64.3 percent at the free-throw line doesn’t inspire much confidence in his jumper, either. Still, Collins has natural touch, good footwork and a quick, repeatable stroke. Olshey has talked a lot this summer about Collins re-distributing his shot selection to put a greater emphasis on the interior, but doing so wouldn’t just make Collins – and by proxy, the Blazers – easier for the opposition to stop; it would also mean a lion’s share of his minutes come at center, at the expense of Nurkic, who won’t exactly be happy sitting on the bench after inking a new $48 million contract in July.
Despite re-committing to Nurkic, Olshey, thankfully, hardly seems married to the idea that Portland will reach its ceiling with him manning the middle. In fact, the Blazers’ head decision-maker is embracing the possibility his team will be at its best with Collins standing tallest in a more modern look up front – the same one New Orleans has adopted long-term after playing its best basketball of the season with Davis at center.
“When you watched what Zach Collins did in Summer League, when you watch some of the issues in the playoffs we faced in terms of spacing, in terms of floor balance,” Olshey explained in July, “because of the style of play Ed plays, it put us in a position where you watched Dame get blitzed in pick-and-rolls when he shares the floor with guys. And we needed to add more shooting, more floor spacing, more playmaking out of that position. So, Ed was great, and we talked about it. During the regular season it was phenomenal. We ran into a really tough matchup in the playoffs. They blitzed every pick-and-roll; it essentially took Nurk out of a lot of the series as well. And we really felt like we needed to move on and get guys that can play a style where they can attack switches better in the low post, they can stretch the floor and shoot the ball when Dame’s blitzed if guys aren’t going to rotate to the rolling or popping or fading big.”
Nurkic can only pop so far, and, as fans know all too well, lacks the vertical oomph necessary to finish through a crowd while diving to the rim. Davis’ offensive utility was essentially limited to crashing the glass, setting good screens and occasionally hitting the weak-side shooter after catching on the roll. Collins, meanwhile, has the length, athleticism and all-around ball skills to be among the league’s most dangerous ball-screen partners…eventually. He must continue tightening his jumper and filling out his body to make good on just a sliver of that potential, let alone all of it.
The Blazers understand that Collins’ won’t develop into such a force overnight. Nurkic would already be playing elsewhere if that wasn’t the case. For now, though, Terry Stotts can take comfort from the knowledge that juicing a stagnant offense might be as simple as inserting Collins in Nurkic’s place alongside his incumbent starters. During the regular season, opponents are far more likely to defend a player based on his longstanding reputation than recent results, and Collins has “stretch five” written all over him. Even if his jumper isn’t falling at first, basically, it’ll be awhile before defenses adjust. The big-picture pitfalls that plagued Portland offensively against New Orleans won’t in 2018-19 with Collins at center, assuming marginal improvement since last season.
Look at all the extra floor space playing him next to four capable shooters provides.
None of this is to suggest that Nurkic becomes a bit player; odds are he notches far more time at center than any of his teammates. When the opponent downsizes, Stotts might often opt to put Aminu and Harkless up front while leaving Collins on the bench, affording him an easier opportunity to play three guards, best utilizing the construction of his roster. Collins, after all, played 27 total minutes at center across the regular season and playoffs in 2017-18. Earmarking even just 10 minutes a game for that lineup configuration would be a major, major departure from the norm.
But it’s not like Portland has much to lose, either. This team was exposed in the playoffs, and unfortunately, not by an outlier; the entire league is trending the direction the Pelicans found themselves heading after Cousins’ injury. The Blazers’ status quo, it should be obvious by now, won’t be anywhere close to good enough. Does that mean making Collins a full-time five is the answer? Hardly. There isn’t one that will fix all of the issues facing Portland ahead of its most important season in years, but the speed and extent of Collins’ development at center might be its next best thing.
March 21, 2019, 1:58 amJames 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:52 amChris 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:45 amIman 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:43 amDamian 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:42 amMaurice 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:37 amMike 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:32 amJonas 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:31 amJake 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:29 amEnes 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.
March 21, 2019, 1:27 amSeth 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.