NBA Saturday: Batum Sees Big Year for Blazers
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Nicolas Batum Sees Big Things in Portland’s Future
This year, the top five teams in the Western Conference were Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver, Memphis and the L.A. Clippers, but breakout Portland Trail Blazers swingman Nicolas Batum seems confident that list will look a little different next season.
“This year we showed we could beat good teams. We beat New York. We beat Miami. We beat Memphis,” Batum said in his exit interview in Portland this week. “But then we lost against Sacramento, Detroit, Washington. If we focus, have a good training camp, and don’t do the same mistakes we made this year, it won’t be crazy if we’re in the top five in the Western Conference next year.”
It would be quite a leap for a young Blazers team without a lot of depth, but young stars like Batum, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are certainly the kind of building blocks any burgeoning NBA team would love to have.
Batum in particular had a breakout year across the statistical board, averaging career-highs in points (14.3 ppg), rebounds (5.6 rpg), assists (4.9 apg), blocks (1.1 bpg), steals (1.2 spg) and minutes (38.5 mpg). After matching a four-year, $46 million offer sheet last summer, though, that’s sort of what the Blazers expected.
“I knew I had to perform because of the contract I just signed last year,” Batum said. “I was ready to go, and I just showed that they can trust me. That’s a good thing for them because I showed that I can play in this league.”
Despite his improved play, Batum understands there are still plenty of areas where he could get even better, and that’s exactly what he plans on doing this offseason. More than anything else, he wants to take the next step as a scorer in this league.
“Shooting, ball-handling, one-on-one… it’s to create my own shot,” Batum said when asked specifically what he’d work on over the summer. “If you look at all the best small forwards in this league—LeBron, Carmelo, Kevin Durant—all those guys are the best one-on-one players in the league. In order to be an All-Star, I’ve got to be able to create my own shot.”
He also wants to ratchet up his defense, which, though good, could still use a little work as well.
“I could do better (defensively),” Batum admitted. “I was talking with the coach, and that’s maybe the only weakness I really had this year, was defense. I’m going to get better. I’m going to focus on adding some things to be a better defensive player.”
Portland’s future success relies heavily on Batum’s continued development, especially since they invested so heavily in him, which means even though this year was a bit of a disappointment there’s still plenty of optimism around the players and coaches that they can be much improved next season with a few savvy draft picks and a couple of free agency additions.
If those things go right, Batum may not be far off in his prediction that the Blazers could be among the Western Conference’s top five teams in 2013-14.
If Not Mike Brown in Cleveland, Then Whom?
One of the biggest NBA stories over the course of the last few days has been the rumor that Mike Brown could be welcomed back in Cleveland to take on the suddenly high-profile Cavaliers head coaching job. Whether or not that’s something the team would actually consider—and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has said he wouldn’t interfere with a decision to re-hire LeBron James’ former coach—Cleveland is definitely looking at big-name coaches for this position. Brown fits that bill, but a couple of days into the search, the names just keep getting bigger.
The most tantalizing name for any opening continues to be former L.A. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, and according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, Cavs GM Chris Grant has every intention of hitting up the most highly-coveted name in the coaching pool.
That doesn’t mean Jackson would be interested in the job, but Cleveland has to aim high and do their due diligence for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, they want to find the right guy to help superstar-in-training Kyrie Irving make his next big jump, but they also want a guy that can help them lure James back to town should he hit free agency in 2014. Jackson could do that, but nobody really seems to think he would take an offer from Grant all that seriously. If he’s coming back, he’s doing it to win another championship, and despite Irving’s development Cleveland is nowhere near doing that, even with Jackson at the helm.
If Jackson does pass on Cleveland, though, the next guys on the list could very well be former Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy or former Milwaukee Bucks head coach Scott Skiles. Van Gundy took the year off after 2012’s Dwightmare saga in Central Florida, but he’s too good and too coveted a coach to stay away from coaching forever, and it’s easy to see how a player like Irving could benefit from a coach like him.
Skiles, meanwhile, has worn out his welcome pretty much everywhere he’s gone, but that doesn’t happen until three or four years down the road. In the short-term, he’s really good at helping young teams play their rear ends off and turn the corner, and that could make him a good fit for the immediate future in Cleveland, though he may not be a tremendous draw for any of 2014’s big-name free agents.
Other possibilities, according to Lloyd, are Mike Malone, a highly-sought after Golden State Warriors assistant who once was an assistant in Cleveland under Brown, and David Fizdale, an assistant for the Miami HEAT who played college basketball with Grant at the University of San Diego.
It’s quite a wish list already, but expect to see even more names added to the fray, as Cleveland seems pretty serious about making this an exhaustive search for the next Cavs head coach. It very well could be Brown when all the dust settles, but this organization isn’t going to leave any stone unturned. And apparently, the bigger the stone, the better.
No Jo, No Go for Chicago?
There are plenty of really smart basketball people that believe the Chicago Bulls can beat the Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series, even without Derrick Rose’s help, but those really smart basketball people could probably be dissuaded pretty quickly if Joakim Noah isn’t going to be in uniform, either.
Noah told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune on Friday that he likely won’t play in Saturday’s Game 1 in Brooklyn, blaming his ongoing issues with plantar fasciitis for his setback. Noah actually missed 12 of the team’s final 15 regular season games with the injury, but despite rest he says he’s still not ready to play.
“It’s really disappointing for me,” Noah told reporters after Friday’s practice. “You work really hard in the summer and season to be ready for situations like this. Just to be hurt is really disappointing.
“I’m trying to take all the (anti-)inflammatories I can just so I can play, and then it flares up on me. Even in the limited time I had in the last two games, it wasn’t pretty. It’s painful and I’m just trying to find solutions.”
He’d better find those solutions quickly, because the Bulls aren’t going to have much of a shot against the Nets with Nazr Mohammad playing the lion’s share of the minutes at the center position.
But Noah can’t magically heal himself overnight, no matter how badly his team might need him to be out there.
“I mean, I have a tear in my foot,” Noah said. “I’m upset at myself because I let this linger for a long time and I have no one to blame but myself. I just wish I was a little bit smarter. I played games in the regular season that I probably shouldn’t have played, and it’s going to be tough. But these are the cards I was dealt.’
For the Bulls’ sake, here’s hoping the next hand dealt is considerably better, because without their All-Star center, the Bulls can’t win this series. With Noah, it already looked like a knock-down, drag-out series, but it at least would’ve been close. Without him, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez will have a much easier time leading the Nets to their first ever playoff series win in Brooklyn.
Playing without Rose is hard enough. Losing another All-Star may be too much for the Bulls to overcome.
And Just For Giggles…
Speaking of Derrick Rose, he’s being sued for missing the 2012-13 season. A 25-year-old electrician in Peoria, Illinois named Matthew Thompson is claiming that Rose’s inability to get back on the court this season has caused him emotional distress by way of regular mental breakdowns.
There’s no indication of how much Thompson hopes to win with his suit, but chances are pretty strong that the Peoria courts are going to throw this silly case out, anyway.
Nice try, Matthew Thompson of Peoria, Illinois.