30 in 30: UTAH JAZZ

March 3, 2013

Like Denver, the Jazz are rebuilding on the fly. Both traded their superstars away in the middle of the 2011 NBA season, but may not be worse for the wear. Both peaked as losers in the Western Conference Finals — Utah in 2007, losing to San Antonio, and Denver in 2009, losing to Los Angeles. Both were bounced in the first round in last year’s playoffs, and both appear on track to make another run this season.

Around the core nucleus of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, who departed, quite literally, for greener pastures in free agency 2.5 years ago, Utah made 4 consecutive playoff trips from 2006-2010. In February 2011, the Jazz shipped the disgruntled Williams to New Jersey, now Brooklyn, for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, 2 1st-round draft selections and cash considerations. One of those draft picks has yet to be cast, and the other turned into Enes Kanter, likely a fixture of Utah’s frontcourt for years to come, alongside Favors.


As painful as they can be to watch at times, I actually really like this Utah team, particularly their young core of Kanter, Favors, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. I see franchise-player potential in Hayward, the 3rd-year SG out of Butler, who has great size, 6’8″, to cleanly release any perimeter shot and/or back down opposing 2-guards. He’s a capable shooter inside and out — a career 45.2% from the field and 39.1% from 3 — who’s a capable driver and deceptively strong finisher. He also gets to the foul line, 4.4 attempts per 27.1 minutes, and then makes them, 83.5%.

In his 2nd season, Burks, another formerly lottery pick, also has tremendous size for his 1-guard spot, at 6’6″. Burks, a willing defender like Hayward, is not as natural a point guard as you would like, averaging only 1.5 assists per game this year. His 10.64 player-efficiency rating does not scream starter, either, but head coach Tyrone Corbin really should be giving Burks (and Hayward, for that matter) more minutes — he’s only getting 17.6 a night, less than Mo Williams, 30; Earl Watson, 33; and Jamaal Tinsley, 35, all of whom probably are not in Utah’s long-term plans.


Setting the future aside for a minute, this team, in the present, is built on its frontcourt. Similar to Memphis’ front of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but not as talented, Utah relies heavily on post scoring from Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap; combined, they’re averaging 32.8 points and 16.7 rebounds in 63.5 minutes. Surprisingly, for both Jefferson, 17.7 points per game, and Millsap, 15.1, those are their lowest scoring and rebounding outputs since 2009-10, granted also in their fewest minutes.

When Millsap and Jefferson give way to Kanter, 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14.9 minutes, and Favors, 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 22.2 minutes, the result is a more athletic front, even one where the offense can be more free-flowing. The only 5-man lineup to play at least 100 minutes together this season and have a positive +/- points differential is Tinsley, Hayward, DeMarre Carroll, Kanter and Favors, +6 in 102.9 minutes. (Now that is not to say the Jazz are better without Paul and ‘Big Al,’ who both have top-23 efficiency ratings.)


But as strong and deep as their frontcourt may be, Utah has issues at the 1 and 3. This summer, GM Dennis Lindsey shipped Devin Harris’ expiring deal to Atlanta for 2 years of Marvin Williams, and Williams, the former No. 2 overall pick selected ahead of Deron Williams and Chris Paul in 2005, has since turned in career lows in points, 7.9; field goal percentage, 41.6%; rebounds, 3.5; and free throw attempts, 1.7. His efficiency rating is a poor 10.49. Carroll, though, brings excellent defense (yet limited range) and is not nearly as much a liability.

Tinsley, Mo Williams and, the latest insert, Earl Watson have all started games at point, sharing the backcourt with combo guard Randy Foye. Williams is clearly the best of the 3, but he’s missed 35 games with a torn ligament in his right thumb, and is probably out until later this month. Tinsley, 29.9%, and Watson, 19.2%, are limited from deep, whereas Mo’s a marksman, 44.1% from the field and 37.6% from 3; the team’s assists leader, at 6.7 per game; and capable of creating his own shot.


Statistically, Utah’s about as middle-of-the-road as they come — their offense scores an 11th-best 98.5 points per game, and their defense allows, you guessed it, 98.5 points, good enough for 17th. Defensively, the fact that opponents shoot a 7th-best 37% from 3 is a concern, but Utah also shoots a 12th-ranked 36% from 3-land. Due to their formidable frontline, the Jazz are 11th, +1.4, in rebound differential, as well as 5th in blocked shots. Even without a true, pass-first point guard, Utah’s 9th in assists, too.

The Jazz, 32-27 and currently the Western Conference’s No. 7 seed, are 3 games up on the No. 9-seeded Lakers, the only real threat outside the top 8 to make a postseason run. But Utah’s schedule is brutal — 5 of their next 6 are on the road, they’ve still got a Texas road swing, and 13 of their remaining 23 games are against likely playoff teams, including 2 each against the Knicks and Thunder, 2 seeds in their respective conferences. Whether Utah could get past either San Antonio, by whom they were swept last year (with only 1 game, Game 4, decided by less than 12 points), or Oklahoma City, is an entirely different story.


But here’s why I love the Jazz — cap flexibility. Next year, assuming Marvin Williams picks up his $7.5 million player option, Utah still only has about $26 million committed to 6 players. Millsap and Jefferson are free agents likely to fetch 8 figures per in free agency, and my guess is one returns, probably Millsap, as Kanter and Favors develop larger roles. Mo, Foye and Carroll are all free agents, and I’m guessing at least Carroll returns on an inexpensive deal.

The earliest Hayward can hit unrestricted free agency is 2015, the same for Favors; Kanter and Burks in 2016. Utah has serious money to play with, its 1st-round pick and, of course, another from Brooklyn. So, in other words, it’s a good time to be a Jazz fan.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.



March 2, 2013

The way the Raptors are being run this year, an outsider would guess they’re pushing for one of the Eastern Conference’s top seeds, not preparing for another draft lottery. In January, Toronto traded Jose Calderon, promising youngster Ed Davis and a 2nd-round pick for Rudy Gay, due $17.88 million in 2013-14 and a $19.13 million player option in 2014-15. It was a cap-saving move, for Memphis, who unloaded one of the league’s unfriendliest contracts, acquired a nice young forward and maybe even bolstered their chances of short-term success.

Earlier this year, Toronto prematurely set the market on DeMar DeRozan, the 4th-year USC product, with a 4-year, $38 million extension he was probably unlikely to find on the open market. Now, Toronto’s presumably stuck with DeRozan and Gay, similar athletic types with limited outside shooting ability who need the ball to operate, through at least 2015. Hell, even Kyle Lowry, the team’s starter at 1-guard, is a slasher type, meaning a lot of guys who want to put up shots, but only 1 ball to go around in the Air Canada Centre.


The playoffs are out of the picture for the Raptors, now 23-36 and 5th in the Atlantic Division, who are riding a 3-game losing streak. Yet Toronto’s 7-6 since the Gay trade, with 2 wins against the Knicks, one at MSG, one in Indiana, and others against the playoff-bound Nuggets and Clippers. But 13 of the Raptors’ remaining 23 games come against likely playoff teams — they’ve only won 7 this season against above-.500 clubs.

The Gay, DeRozan and Lowry tandem could very well work — Gay’s averaging a team-high 20.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in his first 12 games with the Raptors, though he’s shooting a poor 38.4% from the field. DeRozan’s numbers are also respectable, at 17.9 points on 43.7% shooting. That’s a career-high scoring mark for DeMar, who’s also averaging personal bests in assists, rebounds, free throw attempts, free throw percentage, steals and minutes. Gay, though, is a 25.5% 3-point man, and DeRozan’s not much better at 26.1%.


Dwane Casey’s lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas is actually +37 in 69 minutes of play; more specifically, the Raptors are +49 in net points with Gay on the floor, but -116 with him either on the bench or back in Memphis.

But these stats gloss over the main critique of the Gay trade, one I eschewed hours after the NBA signed off — that the Raptors are indeed better in the short-term with Gay, but at the expense of developing their young prospects, as in the departed Davis or Terrence Ross. And with limited cap flexibility and more wins, the chances of the Raptors bringing in fresh, young talent, either via free agency, trade or, most likely of all, high lottery picks, are all but gone.


Back to this year’s team. I always thought DeRozan, the No. 9 overall pick in ’09, was a consistent jumper away from developing into a franchise talent; now, I’m not so sure he has not reached his ceiling. Davis, the No. 13 overall selection in 2010, is gone, as is Roy Hibbert, arguably the Raptors’ best selection since Chris Bosh in 2003, whom the Raptors dealt Hibbert a few days after the draft for Jermaine O’Neal.

Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 Draft that’s only produced 3 All Stars, is pretty safely done in Toronto. Fans are regularly booing the 7’0″ Italian, probably because he’s shooting 40% from the field, 28.4% from 3 and making $10 million this season. Gone are the days when we compared Andrea to Dirk Nowitzki, who’s never shot that poorly in his 15-year career, and hello to the days where GM Bryan Colangelo openly tells reporters he’s ready to deal Bargnani, but then fails to find a suitor before the trade deadline. (In fairness, Bargnani, who averaged 21.4 points in the 2010-11 season, has missed 29 games due to torn ligaments in his right elbow.)


Toronto does have some young pieces to be excited about, though. The 6’11” Valanciunas, 20, played overseas last year and is seeing his first NBA action, averaging 7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 52.2% shooting in 21.4 minutes. Of course we’re only judging him off 40 games, so it remains too early to tell, but watching Jonas physically dominate Tyler Zeller on Wednesday, you do not have to worry about the ‘soft’ label that typically accompanies European bigs transitioning to the NBA. (But a lot of guys have manhandled Zeller this year.)

The rookie Ross, 22, is only seeing 16.4 minutes a night, but scores 6.4 points on 40% from the field. Personally, I would like to see Ross acquire some of Alan Anderson’s minutes; Anderson, 30, is averaging 11.3 points a night, but getting 24.6 minutes and has a below-average 12.6 player-efficiency rating. And I’m not so sure Anderson, an unrestricted free agent this summer, though only in his 4th year in the league, is part of Toronto’s long-term plans.


Amir Johnson, Toronto’s starting 4, is playing up to his $6 million contract. Aside from leading the team’s ‘Harlem Shake’ video, Johnson is compiling career-highs in points, 9.8; rebounds, 7.2 (also a team-high); free throw attempts, 2.5; and minutes, 27.6, all while shooting 55.5% from the field. Johnson’s been in the league 8 years now, but is only 25, meaning Toronto has a frontcourt to build around, with him and Jonas V.

In trading Calderon, the Raptors not only lost an $11 million expiring deal, but also their only consistent threat from distance, at 42.9%. As a team, Toronto’s 20th in 3-point percentage, at 34.9, and 16th in points scored, at 97.1. Defensively, Casey’s unit is equally mediocre, good for 17th in the NBA, at 98.6 points allowed per game. And they’re 28th in total rebounding, though that will improve with more minutes for Johnson and less for Bargnani.


Skipping ahead to this offseason, Toronto holds the cards on Lowry, who has a $6.2 million team option. But the Raptors are stuck with bad contracts in Linas Kleiza, who’s likely to pick up a $4.6 player option since he’s only appeared in 20 games this season; Landry Fields, Toronto’s ‘big-name’ offseason signing who’s making $5 million but only averaging 4.7 points a game; and Aaron Gray, who’s played in 32 games and has a $2.6 million player option.

In all, Toronto has about $70 million committed to 12 players next season, assuming Lowry’s option is picked up, which is likely enough to put Toronto in luxury tax territory. It may even get worse in 2014-15, when Gay’s deal ascends to $19+ million and the poison year of Fields’ contract, designed to discourage the Knicks from matching the offer in the summer of 2012, reaches $8.5 million.


This team, as constructed, is good enough to slip into the bottom half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff seeding next season, assuming full health, for the first time since 2007-08. But I would still bet against Toronto winning a playoff series, not until Gay’s deal is off the books and Toronto can start over with more cap-friendly faces, something the Raptors have not done since 2000-01.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.



March 1, 2013

The Spurs are not a favorite among casual basketball fans — fans who deride the team’s so-called ‘boring’ style of play, where consistency and execution trump flash and controversy. But, year after year, this team is right back in the thick of things in the always tough Western Conference, on its way to its 3rd consecutive No. 1 seed this season.

On paper, Tim Duncan, 36; Manu Ginobili, 35; and Tony Parker, 30 — a cornerstone that’s delivered San Antonio 3 NBA championships since 2003 — are old, and sometimes they even play as such on TV, but somehow this team keeps finding a way to win under Gregg Popovich. Of the 3, Parker’s the only one to not noticeably have lost a step, though all 3 are still major contributors, but San Antonio’s found young gem after young gem, whether it’s Danny Green, 25; Kawhi Leonard, 21; Tiago Splitter, 28; Nando de Colo, 25; or Gary Neal, 28.


The Spurs’ success is really a testament to Popovich and the coaching staff, GM R.C. Buford, whose draft-first style has fueled the league’s new rebuild model (exhibit A: Oklahoma City), and the people of San Antonio, who consistently rank among the NBA’s best in attendance, despite a not-so-sexy on-court product. San Antonio’s the only team to rank in the top 8 in scoring offense, No. 4 at 104.2 points per game, and defense, No. 8 at 96 points per.

The buck with this Spurs team stops with Parker, who’s putting together an MVP-caliber season in any non-LeBron James year. At 21.1 points a night, Parker’s averaging his best scoring numbers since 2008-09 and the 2nd-best of his career. His assists, 7.6, are only a shade under last year’s career-high of 7.7, and his 3+ assist-to-turnover ratio is among the league’s best. He’s shooting an absurd 53.4% from the field (remember, he’s 6’2″), a career-best 38% from 3 and 82.7% from the foul line. All in only 33.1 minutes per game.


Duncan, 16.8 points and 9.7 rebounds, is still an All Star, but he’s lost much of his lateral quickness and lift; statistically, this is actually Duncan’s best year since 2009-10, in terms of points, rebounds, blocks, 2.7, and minutes, 29.7. His 49.4 field goal percentage is still strong. As for Ginobili, at 12.3 per game, he’s putting together his lowest-scoring season since 2002-03, his rookie campaign. Less is asked of Ginobili, though, given the ascendance of Green and Neal. Ginobili, 23.3, actually plays about 4.5 minutes less per game than starting 2-guard Green.

But the reason this team is good is its depth. Counting the aforementioned 3, Popovich plays 9 guys at least 20 minutes a night, and 4 others — DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, de Colo and Patty Mills — have averaged at least 10 minutes per in 44 or more appearances. Considering teams are only allowed to suit 12, not 13, up on any given night, that stat is absolutely insane.


Of all the young prospects, Leonard’s my personal favorite. The second-year starter at small forward, Leonard’s averaging nearly 11 points a game and offers intensity on both ends, athleticism and an ability to connect from outside (38.3%), spacing the floor for Parker and Duncan. His only stat to not increase over last year is field goal percentage, down to 48.3% from 49.3% in 2011-12.

The Spurs are 2nd in the NBA in field goal percentage, 48.5, and 5th in 3-point percentage, 37.9, thanks largely to Green, 43.2%, and Bonner, 42.2%. Speaking of Green, here’s a guy who could never find the floor in Cleveland, appearing in 20 games (mostly garbage time) on the 2009-10 Cavaliers, but has blossomed in San Antonio’s system, with consistency on both ends of the floor and a developing ability to create his own shot off the dribble.


Rounding out the starting unit is Splitter, who’s also improved mightily over his 3-year career. For the first time in his Spurs tenure, the 6’11” Brazilian is a double-figure scorer, chipping in 10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds on 59.2% shooting in 23.9 minutes. His touch is also improving — he’s shooting 74.4% from the stripe, up more than 20 points over his rookie year. Also in the frontcourt is Blair and Boris Diaw, both former starters; Blair’s role, one that’s gradually diminished over his 4-year career, is bruising toughness, even at an undersized 6’7″ but 270, and Diaw’s to space the floor and hit from outside, where he’s a 42.6% marksman.

The one other guy worth mentioning here is Stephen Jackson, the journeyman scorer who’s found his niche in San Antonio. Jackson, 34 and a 3-time 20 points-a-night scorer, is averaging his lowest scoring totals since 2001-02, at only 6.4 points per game in 20.3 minutes. But when the playoffs roll around, Popovich will undoubtedly use Jackson’s shooting, given his range and ability to score in isolation situations. Captain Jack, after all, shot 53.5% in last year’s postseason, and a crazy 60.5% from 3.


AT 45-14, San Antonio’s 2 games up on Oklahoma City for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed and 4 games up in the win column on the Miami Heat for the NBA’s best record. Of San Antonio’s 23 remaining games, 13 are against likely playoff teams, but 16 are at home, where they’re a conference-best 22-3. So, in other words, the Spurs are likely to grab homecourt advantage throughout, meaning OKC will have to win at least 1 in its building should they meet in the Western Conference Finals, like they did last year.

Last year, San Antonio won its first 10 playoff games before dropping 4 straight to the Thunder, now without James Harden, who scored at least 15 points (including one 30-point effort) in 5 of 6 games in that series. If the 2 were to meet once more, which is by no means a sure bet given the competitive landscape out West, I prefer San Antonio’s chances this year, due to the development of their bench talent and the departure of Harden, whose isolation scoring and big-time shot-making ability was key to OKC’s win in 2012. How the Spurs match up with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, of course, is another story.


Looking even further into the future, financially speaking, the Spurs are in as good a position as anyone. From top to bottom, there’s not a single bad contract on their payroll. Ginobili’s an unrestricted free agent this offseason, whom I expect Buford to return at a team-friendly rate. Jackson’s $10 million comes off the books this summer, as does Blair’s rookie deal; Jackson could return with a major pay cut, but Blair, who’s been reportedly on the trading block for some time now, will probably sign elsewhere. Duncan’s owed $10.36 million in 2013-14 and has a player option for said amount in 2014-15, at which point he’ll probably retire, if next year’s not his last.

Buford will likely extend affordable qualifying offers to Leonard, Splitter and Neal, all 3 of whom I’d guess stick with this franchise for the indefinite future. Say Diaw, $4.7 million, and Mills, $1.13, pick up their player options, and San Antonio will have 11 guys under contract for 2013-14 with at least more than $10 million to spare (and likely re-sign Ginobili with wiggle room). That, my friends, is why San Antonio has not missed the playoffs since 1996-97.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.



February 28, 2013

It’s hard to find a more dysfunctional organization than Sacramento. The Kings’ top talent, DeMarcus Cousins, was suspended indefinitely for arguing with head coach Keith Smart in the middle of a December road game against the Los Angeles Clippers, only for the suspension to be lifted 3 days later. (Cousins is also blamed, at least partially, for coach Paul Westphal’s firing in January 2012 after only 7 games.)

Before last week’s trade deadline, the Kings shipped Thomas Robinson to Houston for essentially Patrick Patterson. The move was widely panned in league circles, who saw Sacramento quickly throwing in the towel on Robinson, the 2012 Draft’s No. 5 overall pick who, still age 21, had only appeared in 51 games. Oh, and, by the way, the Kings are, in all likelihood, playing their last season in California’s capital, as a Seattle group, which has already reached an agreement to purchase the team, has filed for relocation with the league.


So Sacramento has bigger problems than its current roster, good enough for a 20-39 record that’s in a 3-way tie with Phoenix and New Orleans for the Western Conference’s cellar. (Interestingly, Sacramento’s 14-13 at home, despite a league-worst 13,473 fans a night and tickets selling for as low as $1 in secondary markets.) The Kings are, despite a 24-point win in Orlando on Wednesday, losing games by 6.7 points, on average, the NBA’s 2nd-worst margin.

Smart’s squad spots opponents a league-worst 104.9 points per game, 1.4 points more than 29th-ranked Houston, largely due to plain apathy that begins with Cousins. The Kings are 2nd-worst in opponent’s field goal percentage, 19th in opponent’s 3-point percentage and tied for 28th in rebound differential, -3.7. Sacramento’s D is also 2nd-worst in assists allowed, tied for 24th in blocks, and the Kings are tied for the league’s worst assist-to-turnover ratio.


Offensively, there’s teams much worse off than the Kings, who average a 15th-best 97.6 points per game and 5 double-figure scorers, beginning with Cousins’ 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds. This would be the 2nd-consecutive season the former Kentucky product has averaged a double-double, and he’s doing so very, well, lackadaisically.

With maturity, you would love to see Cousins develop as more of an interior threat, as opposed to someone positioned more so on the elbows; he’s a 45.5% shooter from the field and averages 5.8 free throws in 31.9 minutes. But, at the same time, his versatility is a plus, especially for someone who, at 6’11” and 270, can handle the ball like a guard.


Then, there’s Sacramento’s 2 combo guards, Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas, who occasionally masquerade, albeit poorly, as 1-guards. Evans, a former Rookie of the Year, has seen his scoring, assists and minutes gradually fall in the 2.5 years since, to the point where Sacramento even declined to extend his deal before the October 31 deadline, meaning he’s a restricted free agent this offseason.

Thomas, the team’s leader at 3.5 assists per game, is an excellent scorer in his 5’9″ frame, with an ability to slash to the rim and connect from outside, albeit on a 33% basis. Evans, 15.5, and Thomas, 12.7, are the team’s 2nd- and 3rd-leading scorers, respectively.


Since 2007, the Kings have had lottery picks every year. Here’s a quick rundown, starting in 2012: Thomas Robinson (No. 5 overall), traded to Houston; Bismack Biyombo (7), traded to Charlotte for, among other pieces, Jimmer Fredette (10), still on the team; DeMarcus Cousins (5), still with team; Tyreke Evans (4), still with team but probably not in long-term plans; Jason Thompson (12), still with team; and Spencer Hawes (10), traded to Philadelphia.

All 6 players are still in the NBA, and probably are for the foreseeable future, but the only franchise guy, granted those are extremely difficult to find, is Cousins, but whether he ever reaches that potential with the Kings remains to be seen, mostly due to character concerns.


But back to the Kings’ current roster. Also in Sacramento’s loaded backcourt is Marcus Thornton, a volume scorer and one-time 21 points-a-night guy, who’s also the team’s most burdensome financial commitment, at about $8.2 million per season through 2014-15. With Thomas, Evans and Thornton, as well as veteran PG Aaron Brooks, it’s often hard for Fredette to find minutes; he’s averaging 7.2 points in 14.1 minutes, down 4.5 (minutes) from last year, despite being the team’s most consistent threat, 42.6%, from 3-land.

Personally, I’d like to see Smart play Fredette more over Brooks, 20.8, who’s got a $4 million player option for 2013-14, but after that, probably is not part of the team’s future plans. In all, Smart plays 7 guys at least 20 minutes a night, but Fredette and the recently departed Robinson, the team’s last 2 lottery investments, are not among them.


In the frontcourt, the acquisition of Patterson is accompanied by many questions, since Patrick, at 6’9″ and 235 (and, like Cousins, a Kentucky product), is undersized and more of a floor-spacer, which is why he worked so well in Houston’s up-tempo offense. Unless Smart commits to playing Cousins more on the block, I’m not sure I understand the trade; Patterson is a more seasoned, ‘ready’ NBA talent who can probably have more of an immediate impact than Robinson, but Sacramento is not really competing for anything any time soon.

At the 3, Salmons is a productive NBA player who’s started 48 games on the year, but he has a poor 11.1 player-efficiency rating, the worst among the Kings’ regular starters, and his 9.1 points per game is, excluding last year’s 7.5, his worst mark since 2006-07, when he played for Sacramento, 2 teams ago. At 41.3%, he’s also shooting more than 2 points below his career average. Oh, and at 33, he, like fellow rotation player Chuck Hayes, 29, is probably not on this roster after his contract expires.


From a financial perspective, Kings GM Geoff Petrie has decisions coming on Evans, a $6.9 million qualifying offer next season, and Cousins, a $6.5 million qualifying offer in 2014-15, both of whom have been rumored to be on the trading block this season. If the Kings were interested in keeping Evans long-term, I think they would have signed him to such a deal this fall, but if Tyreke decides to play out the qualifying offer and enter unrestricted free agency next summer, he could be an attractive trade asset 11 months from now. As for Cousins, with all the fireworks between he and the organization, I also doubt he sticks, leaving Petrie in search for a franchise guy, probably via trade, as the team presumably transitions to Seattle.

With qualifying offers on Evans, James Johnson ($4 million) and the newly acquired Toney Douglas ($3.1 million), as well as an $885,000 team option on Thomas, Sacramento’s already pushing next year’s cap, especially once you add another lottery salary to the group. In the summer of 2014, the Kings will see flexibility with Evans’ expiring and Salmons’ $7 million team option likely not being picked up, but Patterson, restricted, and Thomas, unrestricted, are in line for raises. Once 2015 hits, the only contracts on the books are Thompson’s affordable $6.43 million and Fredette’s $4.47 qualifying offer, assuming he’s still around.


Add in a likely relocation, the NBA’s first since an ugly 2008, and you’ve got a recipe for an interesting few years in Kings land, or whatever they’re called a year from now.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.



February 27, 2013

Think of where the Blazers might be if Brandon Roy and Greg Oden had healthy knees. Roy, 28 and a 3-time NBA All Star, averaged 22.6 points per game in 2008-09 and 21.5 the following year before his knees began to degenerate so quickly that he was forced to retire following an injury-shortened 2010-11 campaign. Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, missed his entire rookie year due to microfracture surgery on his right knee, then saw 2 more seasons end prematurely because of knee-related injuries. In all, Oden’s played 82 games in his career, a full-season schedule, averaging a respectable 9.3 points and 7.4 rebounds on 58% shooting in 22 minutes.


With a healthy Roy and Oden in their primes, as well as All Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, there’s no reason to think this team could not compete in the top half of the Western Conference. But, for Portland fans, the status quo is not too bad, either; rookie Damian Lillard, this year’s No. 6 overall pick acquired via the Gerald Wallace deal, is a surefire bet to win Rookie of the Year. Meyers Leonard, another lottery pick at 7’1″ and age 20, shows promise as a rotation filler. And Portland’s starting 5, man for man, is as good as anyone’s in the Western Conference.

All 5 of those guys — Aldridge, Lillard, J.J. Hickson, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum — are averaging at least 13 points per game. Hickson, perhaps the biggest surprise, is earning himself some serious coin this offseason, when he enters a weak market as an unrestricted free agent, averaging a double-double with a team-leading 10.4 boards and absurd 57.4 field goal percentage. Matthews is one of the league’s most exciting players to watch, with a very under-the-radar 15 points per and team-high 39% mark from 3. And Batum is rewarding Portland for that borderline max deal they offered this summer, with 15.5 points per game.


But let’s not kid ourselves, this team is built on 2 guys: Lillard and Aldridge. Lillard has been sensational in his rookie season as the team’s primary ball-handler and crunch-time facilitator. The Weber State product is more of a scoring guard, 18.3 points per game, than a distributor, similar to the Kyrie Irving mold, but his 6.5 assists and 2.1 assists-per-turnover ratio both demand an opponent’s respect.

Aldridge, 27, is one of the few post threats left in today’s NBA, with a mid-range game more consistently used than any other big. I’d like to see him get to the line more — only 4.8 FT attempts per game, on 17.7 field goals — but his 48% shooting is a positive considering the defensive attention he attracts.


Portland’s problem, though, is its bench. As good as the starting unit is, Terry Stotts’ bench is dead-last in the NBA in scoring; in fact, the Blazers bench scores, on average, 16.5 points per game, about 10 less than 29th-ranked Indiana. Aside from Hickson, 29.5 minutes, all 4 other starters play at least 34.9 minutes per game; Leonard and Luke Babbitt, each at 4.1, are the only bench guys to tally at least 4 points a night.

The unit’s stretched so thin, they’ve tried Ronnie Price, to Sasha Pavlovic, to Jared Jeffries, and everything in between. Excluding Leonard, no bench player has a PER exceeding 8.6, Luke Babbitt’s mark already 6.4 points below the league’s 15.0 average.


The deadline acquisition of Eric Maynor, formerly Russell Westbrook’s backup in Oklahoma City, can’t hurt, though Maynor has not lived up to his 2010-11 Western Conference Finals run level, even being replaced by sophomore Reggie Jackson as OKC’s primary reserve PG this season. If Maynor fails to produce, Portland’s stuck with Nolan Smith’s 36.6% shooting and poor 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio as Lillard’s backup. Hell, Maynor got 15 minutes in his debut game with the Trail Blazers, showing you just how badly he’s needed.

But, man, is this team fun to watch. Rarely can you put a lineup on the floor with 5 guys and tell any one of them, ‘Hey, go get me 2 points this possession,’ and have a reasonable chance of that player succeeding. Even still, Portland’s -2.9 points differential is 23rd in the league, they’re 18th in FG percentage and 27th in 3-point percentage, at 33.8%. The fact that Portland’s 7th in turnover differential, at 1.5, speaks volumes for Lillard. On the other end, largely thanks to the perimeter defensive energy of Batum and Matthews, Portland’s 8th in 3-point percentage allowed. Defensively, they’re 27th in opponent’s FG percentage, though, and 17th in rebound differential.


Nestled into the West’s No. 10 seed, Portland, 26-30 and 4 games behind No. 8-seeded Houston, still has playoff aspirations. But they’re 3-7 in their last 10, and 19 of their remaining 26 games are against likely playoff teams, so it’s a far-fetched possibility at this point. Either way, Portland’s future is bright, especially with Lillard, who will benefit from another full offseason and hopefully some bench support via the draft and free agency.

From an organizational perspective, Portland’s in a precarious spot financially, with about $44 million committed to  9 players next season, as well as the $32+ million the team owes the amnestied Brandon Roy over the next 2 years. Maynor’s a restricted free agent with a $3.35 million qualifying offer this summer, meaning he’s essentially a short-term tryout for the next 26 games, and Pavlovic has a less-than-queasy $1.4 million team option.


Based on the year he’s having, my best guess is Hickson could command $10+ million annually this offseason, which I’m not sure Portland’s ready to deliver, given that he was very much dangled before Thursday’s deadline. The Blazers committed about $46 million to Batum this offseason, Aldridge’s deal is up in 2015, and, even though he’s not eligible to enter unrestricted free agency until 2017 at the earliest, it’s never too early to start thinking about Lillard’s future deal. With Leonard waiting in the wings, Hickson seems the most expendable of the 5.

Bottom line: The playoffs are not likely this season, but with a few veteran cogs and an improved Leonard, this team is going to make some noise in the years to come.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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