Portland Trail Blazers Not Willing to Tank
Judging by the locker room of the Portland Trail Blazers, the players don’t know that they’re tanking.
At the trade deadline, the Blazers fired their head coach Nate McMillan. They dealt away two starters – center Marcus Camby and small forward Gerald Wallace.
Brandon Roy had already retired and regretfully, Portland recently chose to finally release injured center (and former number-one pick) Greg Oden.
Assistant Kaleb Canales, at just 33-years old, has replaced McMillan on an interim basis, notching a 2-3 record. The Blazers are currently 12th in the Western Conference but only four games behind the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets.
There’s just 18 games left in the season which doesn’t leave much room for the Blazers to overtake the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns to even compete with the three teams tied at 26-22 (Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Rockets).
The upcoming draft is loaded with talent and the Blazers, with 25 losses, could stand to take on some more if they want to climb deeper into the lottery. Additionally, Portland will also get the New Jersey Nets’ pick (as long as it’s not top three), acquired in the Gerald Wallace deal.
The team already has a number of solid young pieces and could end up adding considerable depth in the draft this June.
Do the players look at the moves made by management and consider that a shift has been made away from succeeding in the present to flourishing in the future?
“Nah, we don’t think about that,” said forward Craig Smith. “It just creates another opportunity for other players who haven’t really been out there. It gives them a chance to play and gives them a chance to prove themselves in the league.”
Smith still isn’t getting a lot of time on the floor but the minutes have opened up for forward Nicolas Batum, who argues the Blazers can be a playoff team this year.
“Of course, we have everything to make it,” said Batum. “Sure we lost two big parts of our team - two starters Wallace and Camby; two guys who were very big and important in the group on the court and off the court and we have a new coach now, coach Canales. I think we have a good energy. I’m really excited about what happens.”
The atmosphere around the Blazers seemed lighter on Friday before their 103-96 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. McMillan is a quality coach but sometimes change is necessary and the team seems happy to play for the excitable Canales.
“Coach Kaleb has a lot of energy,” said Batum. “Sometimes you feel like you’re six on five because on the sidelines he’s moving every time.”
It’s been a whirlwind for Canales, who becomes the first Mexican-American head coach in NBA history. His goal is to try and minimize the chaos and keep his team focused.
“We’re really staying in the moment. We’re just approaching each practice and each game to competing and to playing together,” said Canales. “That’s how we’re approaching it. That’s what we committed to each other as a team and as a unit and that’s what we’re going to do going forward.”
Canales is actually six years younger than forward/center Kurt Thomas – unique in the NBA (even Erik Spoelstra in Miami has a few years on Juwan Howard).
“Yeah, I really don’t think about it. Obviously Kurt has a great basketball mind,” said Canales. “As an assistant I tried to talk to him about basketball. There are a lot of situations that he has seen over the years. Basketball is basketball so we just approach it that way.”
Despite being the youngest head coach in NBA history, his players rave about how much work Canales puts in.
“It’s really cool because we know how prepared he was being an assistant coach,” said Crawford. “Being in the video room all the time. You go there on an off day at nine or ten at night. He’s still there on a Sunday night. It’s like go home. But we know how prepared he is and you respect that and you want to play hard for a guy like that.”
So far, the players insist, the Blazers are united despite recent changes.
“It’s always difficult but the seasons not over yet, we’re still professionals,” said Smith. “You just have to still come out and fight [It took some time to learn] the new system in terms of like plays and stuff but everybody’s on the same page and we’re all in it together; just one day at a time and obliviously on the court one position at a time.”
Guard Jamal Crawford said the team has bonded even more after the moves.
“I would say it’s brought us together because it shows that anything can happen,” said Crawford. “Anything can happen and we saw that on the trade deadline day. We lost four players, the coach got fired and it was just a lot to digest in a short amount of time. Then we had to go play Chicago which is probably the number one or number two team in the NBA on the road.”
Crawford was one of the many players the Blazers shopped but no deal was triggered at the deadline. Jamal has a player option on his final year at $5.2 million, which he’ll probably forgo for a chance at a longer, bigger deal in free agency.
That’s a future concern, right now Jamal is playing for this year.
“We understand that it’s just us in this room and the organization and the city and the fans, so we have to go out there and perform,” said Crawford. “If we don’t, things can happen in the summer. We just have to go out there and do the best job that we can do.”
Jamal still believes in the playoff hope.
“Yeah, there are a lot of good teams. The fun thing about it is we’re only a few games out of the eighth spot with 19 or 20 games left,” said Crawford. “It’s a good challenge. It’s a challenge for us and we put ourselves in this position. We were number two in the West at one time so it’s a good challenge for us.”
Even if it’s best for the organization, the players don’t understand the concept of tanking. The Blazers are going to play hard, despite the odds – despite what’s said of them from the outside.
“The locker room is great,” said Batum. “We have good communication and we’ve really connected in the locker room, so we know that nobody believes in us but we believe in ourselves, which is the most important thing.”
“Everything that happened, what people say about us connects us even more,” continued Nicolas.
Perhaps Batum has the most to gain in Wallace’s departure. He’s a restricted free agent this summer and competing executives have told HOOPSWORLD that the Blazers asking price in trade was so high, it was clear the team had no interest in moving him.
After this season, Batum will likely join All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge as one of the team’s long-term cornerstone pieces.
“I think especially for LaMarcus and me – we have to step up now,” said Batum. “LaMarcus can’t do everything by himself so we have to step up to help him make this team win.”
The Blazers play six of their next seven games at home where they’re 15-8. It’s the final stretch of the season that will be more challenging with five of the last six on the road.
Portland still has a real chance to make the postseason, even if it’s a long shot, and while the lure of a higher lottery pick may be more appealing to the organization, the Blazers and their young coach are going to keep playing to win.
J.J. Hickson Debut
After parting ways with the Sacramento Kings, forward Hickson was prepared to join the Golden State Warriors as a free agent . . . except before he cleared waivers the Blazers picked him up off the wire.
“It was something that I did not expect,” said Hickson before his debut on Friday with the team. “I’m ecstatic that I’m here. I’ve talked to everyone in the organization and they have high expectations of me and I have high expectations of myself, so I’m just looking to come out here and be a piece to the puzzle and get a win tonight.”
Hickson played 22 minutes for the Blazers in their 103-96 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He scored an efficient 14 points on 6-9 shooting despite not having a single practice with the team.
“No, but we had shootaround at the hotel this morning,” said J.J. “We went over personnel, went over their plays and before the game we will go over some more stuff. I’ve been concentrating on the scouting report since I haven’t been able to practice and get the offensive sets down, but it’s pretty simple stuff. Nothing in the NBA is too hard to learn as far as plays. I think when I get out there and get up and down the court a little bit I’ll be good.”
After some productive time in Cleveland, he’s struggled to make his mark in the NBA. Sacramento just wasn’t the right place for him.
“No, it just wasn’t a good fit. That’s basically what it was. It just wasn’t a good fit,” said Hickson. “With the buyout we both were happy from my side and the team’s side. There’s no love lost. I wish those guys the best of luck. I’m just happy to be in Portland right now, hopefully we can get on a run for these playoffs and get anywhere from the 6-8 seed.”
Hickson is hopeful the Blazers can be a long-term destination.
“That’s something that I have no control over at the end of the day but I’m going to come out and play my game and let the cookies crumble where they may,” said Hickson. “I think as long as I play hard and stick to my strengths and continue to work on my weaknesses and get better then I think the skies the limit for myself.”
In the meantime, Hickson is going to focus on giving Coach Canales what he needs off the bench.
“Coach is young but he knows what he wants out of us and we know what we want out of ourselves,” said Hickson. “We’re looking to be a defensive team, so as long as I play defense and rebound, just let the game come to me, that’s basically all they can ask for.”
Clippers Re-sign Bobby Simmons (Again)
After his pair of 10-day contracts expired, Bobby Simmons once again found himself an ex-Los Angeles Clipper.
The team wanted to wait until the Friday deadline to see if any quality free agents were cut by teams but none had more to offer than Simmons – so the Clippers have re-signed Simmons for the remainder of the season.
Bobby has played in 13 games for the Clippers this year, playing the second small forward off the bench behind Caron Butler and ahead of struggling veteran Ryan Gomes. Simmons averaged 3.5 points per game in 19.5 minutes but shot a solid 37.1% from three.
The Clippers have struggled of late, dropping to 26-21, fifth in the Western Conference. Their schedule in March, as advertised, has been brutal but the team is also losing winnable games.
There has been a lot of speculation that the team might make a coaching change but with about a month left in the season and no practice time, they’re unlikely to find a high-quality head coach willing to step in to replace Vinny Del Negro.
That would limit the options to either status quo or giving an active assistant (like Marc Iavaroni) the interim job.
Moving from Mike D’Antoni to Mike Woodson seems to have given the New York Knicks a boost. It remains to be seen what direction the Clippers go.
Ideally the team would like to see Del Negro and the players pull out of their recent funk.
If it continues at the current pace? Time alone will tell . . .