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KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD!
Anybody crazy enough to do a deep dive into the annals of the Squawk’s dusty “NBA Trade Ideas” forum will find a LOT of Kent Bazemore mentions. Yes, they were often posted immediately after one of his infamous Headless Chicken plays while in uniform for the Atlanta Hawks. But the threads would also reflect our understanding that Baze, thorns and all, possessed significant NBA value.
We didn’t stop posting ideas for Bazetrades over his five seasons in town, even after Kent wisely inked that four-year, $70 million deal in Atlanta’s pivotal (not so much because of him) 2016 summer of free agency. It was a deal that, at one time, would once render a moderate NBA talent immovable.
Yet, Baze would not hesitate to catch-and-shoot an open jumper. Baze, to the extent it would be possible in his case, would hike up his shorts and get into a defensive stance, determined to force an offensive threat into an ill-advised pass, a deflection, a well-contested shot, or an offensive foul. Baze would do what he could to keep spirits up along the bench. Those elements, unlike the BazeGaze, were of grand worth to many NBA clubs, and astute Hawks fans suspected as much.
A starting fifth-man, or a high-end reserve, hauling in 18 or 19 million smackeroos per year as he prepares to reach 30 years of age? That would be a no for most dawgs. But some might bite if their teams have a highly price-tagged player to dump, or if a swap could get themselves out of salary cap Hades in a year or two.
I’m sure there were many Bazetrade ideas, because I posted more than my share of them. But I had another strategic carrot to dangle. It was essential, in my role as armchair GM, to woo Baze to teams in NBA markets that had the most eccentric denizens. My last failed attempt, “Laissez Lin Baze Temps Roulet?”, tried to get Kent and Jeremy to Aintsville in 2018, an idea gained probably after catching one of Dr. John’s records playing on alt-radio.
The more flair that fans accept as part of everyday life, the more that Bazemore’s peculiarities would serve as a sweetener in a trade deal. And the only thing better than the late Dr. John’s vibe, in my mind, would be the late Dr. Jack’s pizzazz.
I can find few better marriages of player and fans, respectively, than Kent Bazemore and the frolicking followers of the Portland Trail Blazers. The Hawks kick off their 8-day, 5-game West Coast road trip (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest) in the town that was meant to have a Baze Craze.
The people who know me, know well, that I know weird when I see it. At least from the first time Bill Walton stepped a giant foot in this town, Blazers fans have grown to accept that there will be times when their first major pro franchise would be competitive, and times where it would be run-of-the-mill. But they will accept no time in which the players they root for would be dull or, worse, normal.
Kent just got there a few months ago, and already there he is, at the Blazers’ annual Fan Fest, holding up a trophy. He is not a guy that is going to win league-wide honors for player of the year, or month, or week, or hour. What the pride of Bertie, NC (10.4 career PPG, 3.8 career RPG in ATL) will do is collect a closetful of honoraria for his civic engagement and local philanthropy, when he is not on an NBA court giving it everything he thinks he’s got. He just left this town with the 2017 Phoenix Award, the City of Atlanta’s highest civilian honor, and a 2019 Jason Collier Memorial Trophy from the Hawks for his community service.
He’s good people, through and through. And he’s weird, and comfortable in his weirdness. In this Oregon town, that’s perfect. On and off the floor. I defy you to come up with a better fit for misfits than the one Baze was traded to, acknowledging that Evan Turner was goofball enough.
Hassan Whiteside? Professional podcaster CJ McCollum? Mario Hezonja? That’s just for starters (not kidding, those are starters, in Whiteside’s case until Jusuf Nurkic returns from his 2018 leg injury). Zach Collins (shoulder surgery, out for four months)? Rodney Hood (questionable, back injury)? Anthony Tolliver? Skal Labissiere (questionable, sprained ankle)?
There’s no need to map it out for you. They’re just weird birds, man! Enough oddballs to set up a billiards tournament. You know there that there is no mold that could reasonably reproduce any of these cats on an NBA roster.
Maybe the most on-the-mark typecast of a player the Blazers have in their rotation is the guy who does all he can to save their bacon on most nights, then hits the mixtape studio on the other nights. Damian Lillard (36 points vs. ATL on Mar. 29; 33.3 PPG, 2nd in NBA) dropped a career-high 60 big ones on Brooklyn here at the Moda Center. He and his mates also went home with an L. Hopefully his teammates brought him some Voodoo Doughnuts for the effort he put in during the 119-115 Netspick-pleasing defeat.
I can’t find the stat I saw after Friday’s game, but 9 games into Portland’s season, and not one Blazer has assisted on a Lillard bucket more than twice all year. The beauty of the play by the star point guards tonight, Lillard and Atlanta’s Trae Young, is they will hurl a cross-court, behind-the-back, between-the-legs pinpoint pass on the money to the likes of Damian Jones, and not care a whit that the person on the receiving end is, with all due respect, just Damian Jones.
Or, Jabari Parker just after blowing a layup on the last SCTop10-worthy pass. Or, the second biggest Ukrainian scandal going, somehow-still-starter Alex Len. Young (8.1 APG), and Lillard (6.9 APG), will dutifully find their teammates the rock, and will not expect much generosity in return. Portland is last in the league with 17.0 measly APG (41.2 assist%), and it would help if the goofs would at least pass the ball to each other some more.
Bazemore (1.6 APG, 1.6 TOs/game) is third among active Blazers in assists after McCollum, who could stand to pass more until his jumper returns (3.1, 32.6 3FG%, 38.0 FG%). Kent could be more of a secondary passer on the team once coach Terry Stotts figures out why he’s there. They may one day have a secondary dime-dropper in the up-and-coming Anfernee Simons (1.0 APG), but the youngster isn’t ready yet.
The Hawks have gotten next-to-zilch from Turner, due to a persistent Achilles injury, and have suffered similarly (22,9 team APG, 22nd in NBA) despite Young's occasional brilliance. Kevin Huerter (4-for-7 3FGs, 4 assists in Friday's loss vs. SAC) showed he may be coming out of his shell, and hopefully his improved shooting and passing will be in time for Atlanta (3-5) to hang tough with its Western foes this week.
Bazemore is a free agent this summer, and he’ll do all he can to show Portland and the Blazers why he ought to be a keeper, although it would really help if the team improves enough that he can show off his indispensable play in the postseason. Don’t nobody tell him yet about the World Naked Bike Ride. He might never want to leave.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“NOW, WHEN I SAY FIRE, YOU SAY STOTTS. FIRE!”
After beating the Kings back in mid-November, it took 40 calendar days before the Portland Trail Blazers came away victorious again in their own building. Back at the Moda Center following an up-and-down road trip, the Portland Trail Blazers seek to avenge last weekend’s 104-89 loss in Atlanta against the Hawks (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX). Might the next winless streak for the home crowd stretch beyond eight days? I’m not so sure ex-Hawks coach Terry Stotts can last in his current gig with another weeks-long home drought.
Yes, Damian Lillard (25.2 PPG, 7th in NBA) is back, and although his right calf is a bit gimpy after returning from a hamstring injury to post 25 points (7 TOs) in 33 minutes during Wednesday’s loss in Cleveland, Dame DOLLA probably won’t miss a chance at getting a measure of payback versus Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder (favorite candy bar: 2 Musketeers).
Lillard’s return alleviates sidekick C.J. McCollum (23.2 PPG, 37.5 FG% in five games Lillard missed) from being excessively hounded by defenders while jacking up shots. Dame also allows Shabazz Napier (21 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks @ ATL on Dec. 30) to provide some spark to an otherwise offensively lifeless reserve unit (26th in bench O-Rating; 28th in bench eFG%; dead-last 43.9 bench assist%, no other NBA bench below 50 assist%).
But if the Blazers fail to grab the home W tonight versus league-worst Atlanta (10-27), or against a rested Spurs team on Sunday, then they’d have to endure a tough four-game Western Conference road trip before the suddenly upbeat Phoenix Suns pays Rip City a visit, 11 days from now.
Since turning a 33-win outfit in Lillard’s rookie season into a 54-28 squad with a legendary first-round playoff upset, Stotts’ Blazers have declined in the win column in every season since, going from 54 to 51 to 44 to an even-steven 41. They’ve never entered a playoff series under Stotts as a favored seed, and the prospects for a top-4-seed, for a well-paid roster that has few tradable components, continues to dwindle.
Very little of this has been Stotts’ fault, considering LaMarcus Aldridge’s defection to the Spurs, and GM Neil Olshey’s sketchy decisions during the draft (giving up 2017 first-rounders before-and-after John Collins, to take Zach Collins in the lottery) and in free agency (Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner ‘16). But a January tailspin would have Portland (19-18) sinking below .500, and possibly out of the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, in the unforgiving NBA West.
While the Blazers are aiming for a must-win, the Hawks come up the Oregon Trail after wrestling away a must-lose from the jaws of victory against the Suns. Despite his team blowing a double-digit lead in the final three minutes on Tuesday, Dennis Schröder (favorite sitcom: Two’s Company) had an opening to dish to an open Taurean Prince (eager to make amends, moments after getting highlighted at the rim by Marquese Chriss) for the game-tying three.
Schröder (5 TOs @ PHX, most since Nov. 15) may have caught wind of Prince’s boxscore line (2-for-14 FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs) and elected to press his luck with a last-second layup try instead. It was the type of questionable decision-making that could weigh Ay ton for Atlanta a few months from now. Tanks a bunch, Dennis!
For Portland, it all comes down to these critical fourth quarters, where they make an NBA-low 1.9 threes per game. Their offense petered out during the final frame of their games in Atlanta (20-32 points differential) and Cleveland (23-36), and in their last five losses, the Blazers have averaged a mere 20.6 PPG as a team in those quarters.
“We gotta put together a full game,” McCollum told The Oregonian yesterday, perhaps recalling his Lillard-less squad’s 17 third-quarter tally last Saturday as well. “The second half will be huge for us; how we start the third quarter, and how we sustain that.”
It’s usually in that last quarter where the Hawks’ field goal-making comes alive (47.9 FG%, 2nd-best in NBA; 40.9 3FG%, 3rd-best in NBA). That is, at least, when they can get shots off without turning over the ball (16.4 TO%, 2nd-worst in NBA) or missing free throws after getting hacked (hey there, Miles Plumlee).
With top-scorers Lillard and McCollum usually in to close out games, Stotts’ challenge is to find the complementary frontcourt contributors who can get stops and spark transition (27th in PPG off TOs, last in fastbreak PPG), but can at least look like a threat to be involved in plays on the offensive end. We may be in the throes of Winter, but if the Blazers don’t figure out some stable lineups to finish games, Stotts is certain to become Olshey’s Fall Guy before the Spring gets here.
Go Dawgs! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
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