Portland Trail Blazers: What Should be Their Starting Five?

By Jennifer Fazioli: Lead Writer At Hoopstuff…

The Blazers return their entire starting five from the team that made it to the Western Conference semifinals last season before bowing out in a five game series loss to the eventual NBA champions San Antonio Spurs. Little should change for the quintet that collectively saw the most minutes among any starting rotation in the league, except with some key additions in the offseason and the continued development of second year shooting guard, CJ McCollum, they will hopefully see a reduction in their minutes, preserving them for a longer playoff run.

Point Guard: Damian Lillard. The newly minted All-Star and Rookie of the Year has had a busy last year, including becoming one of the new faces of Adidas, and is now in the mix along with John Wall, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, and Kyrie Irving to make the US squad for the FIBA World Cup. Playing against that caliber of guards will only serve to advance his game and help Lillard better perfect his passing skills. Lillard averaged 20.7 PPG and 5.6 APG while shooting over 39 percent from long range and watched both his efficiency rating (18.69) and true shooting percentage (56.8) improve from his rookie season. Lillard proved in last year’s playoffs, his first time in the postseason at any level, that he is not intimidated by pressure packed moments, elevating almost every facet of his game during both rounds and hitting the game and series winning 3-point shot against Houston as time expired. Lillard is strong, powerful, and long even for an undersized guard and is deceptively quick in his actions on the court. While he has become a more efficient shooter and is much improved at defending the pick and roll he would be best served focusing his efforts on further developing his defensive skills and bringing them up to par with his scoring capabilities, particularly if he is eying securing the same type of rookie extension that Irving just received from the Cavaliers (five years/$90 million). Lillard should receive some more rest during the season then he is accustomed to (and he will need that rest if he makes the FIBA team) with Steve Blake now heading up the second unit and more than capable of running an offense – all of which should help Lillard take yet another step forward in what has thus far been a promising NBA career that has exceeded most experts’ expectations.

Shooting Guard: Wesley Matthews. Until I see something more from CJ McCollum beyond just an occasional glimpse of a nice shooting stroke this job should belong to Matthews particularly after his career year last season. If McCollum can relocate some of the shooting prowess he exhibited at Lehigh, Matthews may see a slight decrease in his playing time but the defensive drop off between he and McCollum is too great to justify taking Matthews off the court for long periods of time, especially if he keeps knocking down threes at the rate he did last year. Matthews made 223 three point shots last year; sixth most in the league while averaging 16.4 PPG with a solid true shooting percentage of 58.8. If we compare McCollum’s per 36 numbers to those of Matthews, Matthews still comes out ahead and is much more efficient – McCollum put up an efficiency rating of just 9.0 (Matthews was at 15.70) and a fairly mediocre true shooting percentage of 52.1. Those numbers don’t scream “I’m taking this starting job no matter what” to me. Matthews is not the strongest straight-up defender but he’s a wily guard who is able to find any mismatches that exist on the court and is adept at exploiting them. For a team with a defense that is improving but still struggles to fully seal off the basket or the perimeter Matthews brings a necessary skill.

Small Forward: Nicolas Batum. There is no one currently on the Blazers’ roster that will be challenging Batum for his starting spot. Batum has been a solid, if not the most flashy, player since he entered the league six years ago and is just entering his prime. Batum is especially beloved by Portland fans and is the glue that holds this team together. He is Portland’s best overall defender, especially on the ball, and the multi-dimensional swingman has excellent court vision and is fully capable of orchestrating virtually any offense that head coach Terry Stotts chooses to run. His versatility (see his stat line for the season: 13.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 58.9 true shooting percentage) is what makes him so essential to this team as he is often asked to employ all of his skills in any one game – his tasks are often many and varied and he is another key cog to the Blazers’ 3-point shooting juggernaut. Batum is signed through 2016 and it would surprise no one if the Blazers try to ensure that he spends the entirety of his career in Portland.

Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge. In line for a very lucrative max contract extension from the Blazers when he hits free agency next summer, Aldridge just had a career season (23.2 PPG, 11.1 RPG) and just keeps getting better. For a good part of last season there was a serious debate as to who the best power forward in the NBA was among Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Aldridge. Despite losing ground to Griffin and Love later in the year due to some uneven play surrounding a few minor injuries, it is clear that at the very least Aldridge is among the top five power forwards in the league. His 21.84 player efficiency rating was the second highest of his career and he and Lillard excelled together. Though Aldridge functions best in the half-court, specifically on the left block and right elbow, he is mobile enough to function in the transition game that Stotts calls for at times. He does take a high percentage of midrange shots, traditionally derided as the most inefficient shot on the court which is why his true shooting percentage of 50.7 is quite low for a player of his caliber, but the shot is difficult to defend and Aldridge has displayed the ability to knock them down at critical moments when the defense sags off of him. Wanting to ensure that he is able to lock up that max contract which will most likely be the most significant deal he signs, look for Aldridge to have another career year in 2014-15.

Center: Robin Lopez. Although Portland signed former LA Laker and Clipper big man, Chris Kaman, to a fairly good sized salary earlier this month don’t expect Kaman to unseat Lopez from his spot in the starting lineup. Lopez quickly made himself into a fan favorite with his selfless, blue collar, do-it-all attitude last season. Lopez was the linchpin for a Blazer defense that saw some progress in its defensive rotations and performance as the season went on, concluding the year with a defensive rating of 104.8, good for 16th in the league (they would give up 102.8 PPG, just 22nd in the league). Though far from an elite defense, Lopez’s arrival allowed for Stotts to develop actual defensive schemes rather than just haphazardly scrambling to stop the bleeding on the defensive side of the ball. Lopez became the team’s big body on the offensive glass and was often placed on the low block by himself, forcing him to handle all comers alone and leaving him vulnerable to posterizing moves but Lopez never complained. Lopez’s scoring totals were down slightly from his time in New Orleans but he would see his shooting efficiency rise and would set a career high in rebounds (8.5 per game). By most advanced metrics he was among the top six centers in the league last year and with Kaman ready to come off the bench Lopez won’t face the high amount of minutes he did last season due to the lack of a legitimate, reliable backup on the roster. While Kaman’s scoring numbers are better than Lopez he isn’t nearly as efficient on either end of the court and Lopez has developed a nice chemistry with Aldridge and Lillard that would be risky to break up by inserting an aging, sometimes injury prone stranger into the mix in the starting 5.

With another training camp and year of work under their belt this starting five should be even better than last year – let’s hope we can say the same Portland’s bench too.

Sacramento Kings: What Should Be Their Starting Five?

By Josh Morgan: VP and Director of Content At Hoopstuff…

There hasn’t been much positive to say about the Kings for the years. Under Rick Adelman in the early 00s they were an exciting young team with players like Mike Bibby, Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic and veracious fans that I personally loved to watch. Then their roster got old and when it was time to adjust the roster, the owners seemed more interested in hoarding their money instead of putting a competitive product on the floor, not only missing the playoffs for six consecutive seasons but doing so with records among the worst in the league each year. Unfortunately for Kings fans it doesn’t seem as if this coming year’s edition of the team will contend for a playoff spot either.

PG: Darren Collison

The Kings chose to add Collison instead of bringing back Isaiah Thomas, a move that I frankly do not understand. While Thomas doesn’t play much defense mostly due to his size and isn’t a distributor, at all, he is younger, a better scorer and the better player overall. Collison is much more effective coming off the bench, as he has put up his best numbers in the three seasons he started about half or less of his team’s games. He is a better distributor than Thomas and a relatively better defender but I don’t think the Kings made the right move at this position. Until Ray McCollum Jr. is ready to take over Collison will be the starter.

SG: Ben McLemore

I thought McLemore had a chance to be the Rookie of the Year last season. He was a highly touted prospect coming out of Kansas to a Sacramento team that wasn’t exactly filled to the brim with talent but he struggled shooting, supposedly his strength, at just 32 percent from three, 42 from inside the arc and 37.6 percent overall. There is still a ton of talent here and even despite the Kings drafting Nik Stauskas at the same position, McLemore will likely be the starter.

SF: Rudy Gay

The Kings traded for Gay early on last year and he actually played relatively well for Sacramento, improving his shooting percentage from inside the three point line from 39.1 in Toronto to 51.6 and cutting his three point attempts from 3.3 a game to 2.5, something that in my opinion he should cut even further. He is overpaid at a ridiculous 19 plus million for next season but he is the second best player on the roster behind Boogie Cousins, averaging around 20 points per game along with 6 rebounds and 3 assists, playing decent defense, and will be the starter at the three next season.

PF: Jason Thompson

This was a tough choice and not because the other options at the power forward are so enticing. They are paying Thompson, Derrick Williams and Carl Landry each more than six million dollars per season and the production is less than inspiring to put that kindly. I’m choosing Thompson because of his youth as compared to Landry, who would be better served coming off the bench, and Williams who isn’t as strong of a shooter as Thompson.

C: DeMarcus Cousins

Despite all of the immaturity, Cousins is one the better offensive centers the NBA, scoring 20 points per game last season on 50 percent shooting. He is also a very good rebounder, averaging 11.7 per game, and an improved overall defender with 1.5 steals per game and 1.3 blocks, though he can be a liability in one on one situations. He needs to reign in his foul trouble, committing 3.8 per game last season but it’s hard to complain about his aggression at times, he just needs to be a smarter player. Getting an opportunity to represent his country at the World Cup of Basketball could help him do just that and for the sake of the Kings, I hope he gets the opportunity. It would not only help the US in the tournament but getting around the some of the best players in the league, not to mention Coach K and the rest of the executives and coaches working for the US and competing for something bigger than himself could help him take that next step at growing up.

Bench: Nik Stauskas was a surprising first round pick with McLemore already in town but he not only gives them a shooter and scorer but a player that has the potential to grow into a point forward type, Ray McCollum Jr. is an intriguing player at the point, Landry could be a nice veteran presence at the four if he can stay healthy, Williams gives them an athlete that runs the floor very well, Reggie Evans is a rebounder, Travis Outlaw is a decent shooter and Quincy Acy is a tough and physical yet undersized power forward.


Chicago Bulls: The Strongest And Weakest Moves Of The Offseason

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

Moves Made:

* Signed Pau Gasol

* Signed Nikola Mirotic

* Signed Aaron Brooks

* Amnestied Carlos Boozer

* Resigned Kirk Hinrich

* Drafted Doug McDermott and Cameron Bairstow

Strongest: Signing Pau Gasol

* If Kevin Love is traded for, it would be the best move, as he is one of the 4-7 best players in the league, but it is looking like he is going to the Cavs.

The Bulls made a lot of excellent move in the offseason and as a fan I believe that this team can win a title. I was tempted to put Doug McDermott here, as he is looking like the go-to perimeter scorer this team has needed since trading Luol Deng. He could be the 3rd offensive option for the Bulls next season, which for a rookie on a contender is ridiculous, but I have to say signing Pau Gasol. The Bulls needed a strong 2nd option offensively and have needed a star level offensive big man since Horace Grant; I was like 7 then. Gasol provides the Bulls with that 2nd option, an elite rebounder, a strong defender and someone that can play the 4 and 5 so he can play with Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. They also got them for a steal of a price at 3 seasons and 22 million dollars, just 7.33 million per season; I thought he would get at least 11.

Weakest: Letting D.J. Augustin Go To The Pistons

Yes resigning Kirk Hinrich was a bigger priority for the Bulls than D.J. Augustin because of his ability to play the 1 and 2 and his excellent defense, so they made a smart decision. A contender needs versatile role players and Hinrich is an elite veteran role player and leader. However it hurts that we lost Augustin, who signed a 2 year contract for just 3 million per season, as I have to think that Chicago could have somehow scraped together the cash to sign him or given him a contract for 3-4 seasons at 2 million per season to give him the financial security he coveted. This season he carried the offense and there is no way the Bulls would have gotten to even 41 wins with just Hinrich and Marquis Teague as their point guards, let along 48. Losing someone so vital to the team is hard to take, as is the realization that he won’t be able build upon his legendary status in Chicago; he is beloved by Chicago fans. His loss hurts the Bulls next season too, as they need insurance for Derrick Rose. This isn’t only season insurance, as they understand as well as the fans that no Rose means that they have no chance a title, but what if he has a minor injury and has to miss 10 games? Are Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich enough at the point to win games? As Rose and Augustin have proven, the point guard position is vital to the offense and Brooks is solid, but no Augustin and Hinrich’s restrictions on offense are no secret. It will be tough seeing Augustin in blue instead of red next season.

Utah Jazz: What Should Be Their Starting Unit?

By Tashan Reed: Staff Writer/Hoopstuff…

The Utah Jazz had no intention of winning this season, and weren’t shy about their effort to tank. They didn’t publicly state it, of course, but there plan was blatantly obvious to the world. They finished with a 27-55 record, 15th in the Western Conference, and it ended up helping them receive the 5th overall pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft. With that pick they selected a point guard in the lottery for the second year in a row in Dante Exum. Exum never played in college, but the teenager displayed his talents in Australia. Jazz fans will be expecting a lot from Exum given his status as a top five pick, and whether or not he’ll live up to it will be an interesting story. Regardless, this will be yet another rebuilding season for the Jazz. While their intention may not be to absolutely tank this time around, they certainly won’t win many games in the highly competitive Western Conference.

PG: Trey Burke

- The Jazz selection of Dante Exum put Trey Burke in a weird situation. Again, he was taken in the lottery just last year, but Exum has been listed as a point guard. Surely the Jazz don’t already plan to replace him, right? Burke hopes so, and they shouldn’t, at least not yet. Burke had a productive year for the Jazz, averaging 13 points, 6 assists, and 3 rebounds per game. His issue was his efficiency, porous to be blunt. He shot only 38% from the field and 33% from deep, not numbers you want to see from your starting point guard. He must improve those shooting numbers if he wants to remain in his role, and the Jazz should give him the opportunity to do that.

SG: Dante Exum

- Dante Exum, the mystery man who many only heard about through word of mouth. The only time anyone really saw him play was the 2013 Hoop Summit, and that has been his claim to fame ever since. He already has multiple commercials with Foot Locker and Adidas, and has Americans nationwide asking themselves – “Who is this guy?”. We’ll find out exactly who Exum is in only a few short months, but for now, I’ll break down his play for his native Australia and the Summer League. In the 2013 FIBA World Championship for 19 year olds, Exum put up 18.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. He struggled with his jump shot, and scored most of his points by attacking the rim and using his athleticism and speed to score around defenders. He’s a decent distributor, but he doesn’t really appear to be able to run a team just yet. In five Summer League appearances, Exum averaged 7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists. The drop in production was expected given it was one of the few occasions in which he’s played against American talent. These numbers, however, are likely closer to what he’ll actually do in his first year in the NBA than his Australian statistics.

SF: Gordon Hayward

- $63 million; that’s the number we all will think of each time we see Gordon Hayward play from now on. Is he worth it? Some would argue he is, he’ll have to prove that in this next season. Hayward has flashed his potential to be an All Star caliber player, but his play has been inconsistent throughout his career. His field goal percentage has steadily decreased since he’s entered the league, hitting rock bottom at 41.3% this season. His three point shooting has been sporadic as well, and he shot only 30.4% from deep. Despite these less than stellar percentages, he still managed to score 16.2 points per game as well as average 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds. Both his scoring and his efficiency will have to take a large jump, and soon, if he’s going to be worth his new max contract.

PF: Derrick Favors

- Derrick Favors got his money as well in the form of a 4 year, $47 million extension from the Jazz last offseason. Favors had a strong season, appearing and starting in 73 games while averaging 13.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. Favors has a ton of potential, and played very well in his first season as a starter after coming off of the bench for the previous three seasons of his career. Favors does the large majority of his scoring in the paint, but he has a nice game in the paint and has even shown the ability to knock down a fade here and there. He’s a great physical specimen at 6’10, 250 pounds, and has excellent athleticism, size, length and strength. He has all the tools, all he has to do now is bring his mental game to the same level and polish his skill set.

C: Enes Kanter

- Kanter came off the bench a lot this season, but averaged 12.3 points per and 7.5 rebounds per game. Kanter has excellent footwork, a soft touch, and can even hit the mid range jumper when asked to. The defensive end isn’t a pretty one for him, but a little improvement on his own part could make him at least average. Still being able to average about 8 rebounds is a good sign and shows his effort attacking the glass. Kanter is extremely young at only 22 years old, but he may only have 1 more season or less in Utah, because of his and Favors’ inability to play well together and one of their main concerns should be seeing if their new coach can help them coexist in the same frontcourt.

Bench: While Dante Exum will likely slide over to the point guard spot quite often whenever Trey Burke comes out of the game, he’ll have to come off of the court at some point, and the only man the Jazz have to replace him at this point is Ian Clark. Clark didn’t do much in that role last season, and with similar minutes, he likely won’t do much this year either. Alec Burks played very well for the Jazz last season, putting up 14 points per night on 45% shooting from the field and 35% from three, but he’ll likely be forced to the bench behind Dante Exum. Burks will be the 6th man for the Jazz, and should fill the role well again. Rodney Hood gives the Jazz an excellent backup wing who has the ability to space the floor with his shooting and flat out score. Trevor Booker and Rudy Gobert are the reserve big men, and together will provide excellent effort on the boards as well as defensively.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Mo Williams Signing Grade

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

Contract: 1 season, 3.75 million

This is a difficult signing to grade for me. On one hand I like the player, I like the contract at just 3.75 million for 1 season and he fills a need on the Timberwolves, but with Kevin Love about to be traded, their franchise is going to look very different by the start of the season and signing a veteran role player who should be on a contender makes little sense. I am of the belief that they will trade Kevin Martin along with Kevin Love in a 3 team trade with Cleveland and Philadelphia and receive Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett (as well as 3 non guaranteed players they will waive), so I will write this grade assuming their roster looks like…

PG’s: Ricky Rubio-Mo Williams-Alexey Shved

SG’s: Andrew Wiggins-Zach LaVine

SF’s: Corey Brewer-Chase Budinger-Shabazz Muhammad-Glenn Robinson III

PF’s: Thaddeus Young-Anthony Bennett-Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

C’s: Nikola Pekovic-Gorgui Dieng

So writing on the assumption that this is their roster, I still like the signing. Mo Williams can be the reserve to Ricky Rubio, but also play next to him as a scorer, as Rubio can defend shooting guards and should play as their primary sixth man. For one of the better sixth men in the league, a 3.25 million dollar contract is very fair value and he will produce at that value and probably more. Yes, he fills a need and the value is strong, but look at the team. If with Kevin Martin and one of the 10 best players in the NBA in Kevin Love they couldn’t come near to making the playoffs, can this roster? No. They have the potential for an excellent playoff team in a few seasons, as a core of Wiggins-Rubio-Pekovic-Young-Bennett-LaVine is incredible, but like I said, it will take 1-3 seasons to make the playoffs. Williams should be on a veteran team that is ready to win now and provide a sixth man role for them, instead of a team that is about to have a franchise player who is just 20 (Andrew Wiggins). There is no problem with the contract, as it has no risk to it and is fair value, but it is an odd choice for what will be a very young roster next season.

Grade: B+

San Antonio Spurs: What Should Be Their Starting 5?

By Ciaran Mills: Staff Writer @ Hoopstuff…

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will probably be the catchphrase for Gregg Popovich as he takes his San Antonio Spurs into another campaign. There wasn’t much to fault about the 2014 winners of the Larry O’Brien Championship, and this has been reflected in the lack of off-season activity by the Spurs.

PG – Tony Parker – The 6’2” French point guard has been calling the plays for the Spurs for 13 years, and he will be entrusted with that role once again. He will be looking to increase his minutes, after a career low in court time last season. He recently declared that he is going to miss the FIBA World Cup in August, instead opting to rest, so expect him to be raring to go come the first day of next season.

SG – Danny Green – This position is an interesting one for the Spurs, as they have two players who seem to share the role. Manu Ginobili and Danny Green may have averaged similar minutes last season, but it was Ginobili who had the bigger effect on court. The problem is that Gregg Popovich feels that Ginobili is too old to start games, or play 30+ minutes, a decision that promotes Green to the starting 5. Green isn’t exactly a bad alternative though, he has improved considerably after a shaky start to his professional career and is an excellent 3 and D player.

SF – Kawhi Leonard – The winner of the 2014 Finals MVP, Leonard is a young man on the rise. Known for his tenacious defence, the 23 year old has slotted neatly into Popovich’s style of play. He has often been ignored during the regular season, as have many Spurs players, with him only coming into the media limelight during the playoffs. This will have changed now, after he won the MVP trophy, as people will expect him to perform consistently well. Time will tell how he will cope with the pressure, but his perseverance and humble nature are signs that he could go far and he should become an All Star, probably this season.

PF – Tim Duncan – Considering he has 5 NBA Championships, 2 MVP’s and 14 All-Star appearances under his belt, he is one of the best players in the history of the NBA. His consistency throughout his 17 year career is incredible, proven by the fact he’s only come off the Spurs bench twice in his 1488 appearances in the NBA. Duncan has kept himself in peak form over the years, by relying on fundamental skills, rather than athleticism, to get ahead in the game.

C – Tiago Splitter – He may be seen as the “weak link” in the Spurs starting 5, but the Brazilian center is still very much part of Gregg Popovich’s plans for the near future. He is still best known for being blocked in the 2013 NBA finals by LeBron James, but he started to make a name for himself last year with his slick distributing. He is an elite role player and his value to the Spurs is clear to see.

Bench – One of the Spurs’ strengths is their bench, as proved by their substitutes’ contributions last year. Time management is key down in San Antonio, especially with an ageing roster, and luckily they have a bench that can be relied on. They managed to keep all their free agents on the team, as well as adding Kyle Anderson from the draft. The only difference in the team will be the lack of Australian point guard Patty Mills, who is expected to be out for 7 months after shoulder surgery. Cory Joseph will be expected to be the reserve point guard to start, especially after a career best season. With Boris Diaw-Manu Ginboili-Patty Mills, they have the best trio of reserves in the league.

Portland Trail Blazers: A look Ahead To 2015 Free Agency

By Jennifer Fazioli: Lead Writer @ Hoopstuff…

The Portland Trail Blazers weren’t very busy during free agency this past summer. With limited cap space and roster room and unable to work out a deal amenable to both sides with Mo Williams, they had just two (bench) roster spots to fill – which they did, signing Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to two year deals. Next year, however, will be a bit different with several key players scheduled to hit free agency or become eligible for contract extensions. While difficult to predict all movement and decisions on some starters without benefit of another full season of play to evaluate, there are some clear priorities moving forward for Portland’s front office in 2015. Let’s explore their options and future moves.

The first objective is to negotiate a max long term deal with star forward and perennial All Star LaMarcus Aldridge, who delayed signing an extension this summer in favor of doing so next offseason when it will be more beneficial financially. Aldridge has expressed that he has every intention of remaining with the Blazers when he hits free agency following the upcoming season. Assuming that the Blazers’ 2014 season mimics this season there should not be an issue in getting this deal done. Aldridge is among the top five power forwards in the league in virtually all statistical categories, trailing only veteran Dirk Nowitzki and stat-stuffer and current talk-of-the-town Kevin Love. After losing out on potential long time franchise players in Brandon Roy and Greg Oden due to injury the Blazers’ are eager to finally have a true healthy face of the franchise to present to their fan base. There is no way this deal doesn’t get done if Aldridge is willing.

Their next order of business is locking up the second half of their franchise tandem in star point guard Damian Lillard, who becomes eligible after this season for a rookie contract extension. Lillard is one of the top 3-point shooters in the league, a high energy spark plug starting to come into his own as a distributor and a young player whose game only continues to improve. Locking up Aldridge and signing Lillard to a lucrative max contract extension (which Lillard could be entitled to if he continues to hit the ‘Derrick Rose’ benchmarks) will handicap the Blazers a bit as the new contracts for those two alone could tie up over 60 percent of the team’s available cap money. While the San Antonio Spurs just proved that quality depth and a fully integrated team can overcome superstar pairings, there are few teams in the league that wouldn’t like the chance to pair up two elite level players at the possible expense of the rest of their roster. I do not expect Blazers’ GM Neil Olshey to turn down the chance to ensure that both Lillard and Aldridge are with the Blazers long term so as to continue the run of success they have recently begun.

So with Lillard and Aldridge taken care of the next biggest question is what to do with current starting two guard Wesley Matthews and center Robin Lopez. Matthews became the epitome of the 3-and-D specialist last year, connecting on 223 of his 3-point attempts, good for sixth most in the league and was often assigned to defend, along with Nicolas Batum, the opposing team’s best player. The Blazers had selected shooting guard CJ McCollum 10th overall in the 2013 draft with the expectation that he would be able to wrestle the starting job from Matthews early on in his rookie season. But a fractured foot right as training camp set McCollum behind from the start and he never caught up, often lacking any rhythm when he did make his way onto the court off the bench later in the season. Meanwhile Matthews took this reprieve from banishment to the bench in favor of a raw and unproven rookie and made the most of it, having a career year in scoring average (16.4 PPG), player efficiency rating (15.70), and 3 point shots made (at a 39 percent clip). He proved to be a defensive stalwart and is entering the last year of a five year/$32.5 million deal set to pay him a base salary of $6.1 million for 2014-15. Matthews produced a WARP of 10.2, one of the best among 3-and-D specialists and if teams continue the current trend of highly valuing outside shooting to the point of overpaying to acquire it, Matthews may price himself right out of the Blazers’ comfort zone particularly with the cap space that Lillard and Aldridge will take up. If McCollum does develop as the Blazers expect him to do, and he has already shown signs of such improvement at various points this summer, then the Blazers may feel comfortable letting Matthews walk. However there is still the matter of the defensive hit they will take if Matthews does exit stage left as McCollum’s defensive instincts leave much to be desired and a guard combo of he and Lillard might not be the most efficient and workable pairing we’ve ever seen. The Matthews/McCollum question is one that won’t be answered until after management has gathered more on-court information in the upcoming season.

As for Lopez, long overshadowed by his brother Brook Lopez much like Marc Gasol was until recent years by Pau, it could be said that Robin had his breakout year with the Blazers last season. Acquired in an offseason trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, Lopez has one year remaining on the original three year/$15.4 million deal he signed in New Orleans with a cap hit of $6.1 million scheduled for the upcoming season. Lopez was viewed as a defensive first big man – someone to play close to the basket in order to allow Aldridge to operate more in the midrange area and focus more on generating offense – Lopez was that and much more. Relentless on the glass and a solid rim defender, Lopez was also a strong contributor on offense. He and Aldridge worked well together and the drop off from him to backup centers, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard was steep which is why he rarely came off the court for extended periods of time. His overall value is best measured in the 7.69 WAR he produced, sixth among all centers, and DeAndre Jordan is the only center scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next year that rated better. If he replicates the success of this past season next year, just like with Matthews, the Blazers are going to have a very tough decision on their hands. Jordan will be out of their price range and the next best big men available will be Roy Hibbert who we watched implode last season with just the smallest bit of controversy to deal with – his lack of self confidence in his game and in himself are not desirable traits in a top caliber NBA player – and Omer Asik, certainly a solid replacement option but likely to be out of Portland’s price range as well. Besides why mess with the frontcourt chemistry that Lopez and Aldridge have so obviously developed? If Lopez truly enjoys playing in Portland it’s possible he doesn’t seek much more than the current average value of his deal making him a steal.

Portland will also have decisions to make on several bench and role players including backup center Joel Freeland, forwards Dorrell Wright and Victor Claver, and two guard Will Barton, none of whom is irreplaceable. Claver and even Freeland to a certain extent really serve as insurance policies for backup big man Thomas Robinson who seems to be on the long and extremely slow plan to reaching the potential he entered the league with – to the point that one wonders if he will get there before he’s 30. With the addition of Kaman, Freeland’s minutes will likely only decrease further. Barton may be the most valuable of the bunch, making only the veteran’s minimum this season with a team option of $1.2 million next year. Barton didn’t see the floor much during the regular season but showed some promise during the playoffs in which he averaged 6.4 PPG in less than 12 minutes of action while shooting 55 percent from 3-point range. If Barton could be relied upon to be that offensive spark off the bench like Mo Williams was last season he may see some more time playing alongside Steve Blake and the second unit, especially if McCollum doesn’t progress. Even though the bench was a big area of concern last year and could have proven to be their downfall if their starting rotation hadn’t remained so healthy, the filling out of the bench will ultimately be secondary to the major questions the Blazers have surrounding their key starters. Portland’s performance in the upcoming season will go a long way in determining just how bold their front office will be in next summer’s free agency.

Oklahoma City Thunder: What Should Be Their Starting Five?

By Tashan Reed: Staff Writer @ Hoopstuff…

PG: Russell Westbrook

- Russell Westbrook’s style of play is more of a two guard’s game; however, he’s fully capable of playing the point. He’s often criticized for his tendency to take a lot of shots and alpha dog mentality, but that’s simply who he is. Obviously distributing should still be a top priority for Westbrook, but he’s a score-first point guard, and asking him to be anything different just isn’t right. His athleticism is unmatched, his pull up jumper is deadly, and he finishes at the rim with a variety of both finesse and power moves. He isn’t a bad passer by any means, either, averaging 7 assists for the Thunder last season. Westbrook is also one of the best rebounding guards in the entire NBA, averaging 6 per night. He takes risks both offensively and defensively, whether it’s forcing up a shot, forcing a pass that isn’t there, or mistiming a jump on a distribution lane. However, when focused, he’s a lockdown defender and an offensive terror.

SG: Jeremy Lamb

- Lamb has had a bumpy, up and down career so far, but nows the time for him to take a starting spot in the Thunder’s rotation. He wasn’t ready last season, but they had Thabo Sefolosha, who is now in Atlanta. With another summer league, training camp, and preseason under his belt, Lamb should be ready to go by the time the season comes around. He’s a streaky shooter, but when he’s on, he’s excellent.

SF: Kevin Durant

- Does anything really need to be said here? No, but I will anyway. Kevin Durant, the reigning league MVP, is only getting better, and that’s flat out scary. He can shoot from anywhere on the court consistently. He has become better at scoring in traffic when attacking the basket and his handle is greatly improved. He became a much better all around player last season, averaging 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists. If he manages to add a post game to his arsenal, then he’ll truly be unstoppable. Defensive improvement is needed, but defense is all about effort, and he gives so much offensively that it’s hard for him to match that same level of effort on defense.

PF: Serge Ibaka

- Serge Ibaka is a shot blocking machine, and swatted away nearly 3 blocks per game last year. He’s the third option in OKC’s offense, putting up 15 points per contest. He stretches the floor with his jumper, and has even extended his range to the three point line, knocking down 38% of his attempts. His hustle on the boards and defensively is extremely important to the success of the Thunder. If you need any convincing of that, just look at how the Thunder performed once he went down in the playoffs with a calf injury.

C: Steven Adams

- Kendrick Perkins needs to be benched, seriously. I get it, the Thunder love his toughness, leadership, intangibles and his physical play, but the man simply doesn’t produce anymore. Adams can be just as physical as Perkins, while being taller and a better rim protector. I’m not saying Adams is polished offensively by any means, but he’s certainly better than Perkins. The Thunder probably won’t actually make this switch, but they should.

Bench: Reggie Jackson will play alongside newly acquired Anthony Morrow to form OKC’s reserve backcourt. They’ll have no issue producing instant offense, and will be flat out deadly shooting from the perimeter. Jackson shot 34% from deep last season, while Morrow shot 45%. Perry Jones, Nick Collison, and Kendrick Perkins will form the frontcourt. This trio won’t do much stat wise, but features two veterans in Collison and Perkins who are capable of playing defense and rebounding well and Collison gives elite hustle, effort and leadership to OKC.

Philadelphia 76ers: What Should Be Their Starting 5?

By Ciaran Mills: Staff Writer A Hoopstuff…

The Philadelphia 76ers certainly have plenty of individuals to choose from to be in their starting 5. Unfortunately for them, the talent on their roster isn’t strong and it is hard to even pick the best starting 5 for them to win.

PG – Michael Carter-Williams – There is no debate as to who should start when it comes to the point guard position. The 6’6” guard from Syracuse had an incredible rookie season, in which he won the Rookie of the Year Award whilst recording 16 double doubles. He also started in the Rising Stars Challenge, where he led the game in assists, while also scoring 17 points. Carter-Williams will spearhead the rebuilding process that the 76ers are currently going through.

SG – Tony Wroten – With starting shooting guard James Anderson being waived a few weeks ago, it looks like Tony Wroten will have to step up into a more prominent role. He proved to be invaluable from the bench last year, scoring 13 points in 24.5 minutes a game. If he can raise these numbers if, or more likely when, his minutes go up, he could find his starting appearances come around more often.

SF – Jason Richardson – This is where the debate gets interesting. With draft pick Dario Saric choosing not to play in the NBA, the 76ers have few small forward options on their roster. This will mean they will have to move a shooting guard to the 3 spot. Luckily, they have two players capable of doing the job. Jason Richardson is the seasoned pro, playing his 13th season in the Association, whereas Hollis Thompson has only played in one campaign, meaning Head Coach Brett Brown will have to make the decision between youth and experience. Expect Thompson to get increased minutes, but Richardson should be the starter.

PF – Thaddeus Young – One of Philly’s best players last season, Young will once again be the starting power forward if on the roster. His place in the team, however, is dependent on whether he stays in Philadelphia at all. He has been linked with a move to Minnesota to replace Kevin Love, who is more than likely leaving the Timberwolves. If he stays he starts.

C – Nerlens Noel – The 76ers may have plenty of options for center, but there is only one man up to the task. The 6th pick in the 2013 draft had to sit out last season, while recovering from knee surgery. If Noel’s Summer League appearances are anything to go by, he’s not going to waste any time making his mark on the league. Another young talent likely to be a core player.

Bench – This free agency hasn’t exactly been a consolidating period for the 76ers bench. They waived James Anderson, and are yet to re-sign Byron Mullens, two reliable role players. They may have selected plenty of players from the draft but the two big names, center Joel Embiid and forward Dario Saric, are both likely to be missing from the NBA for a while. Their lack of depth could be another key factor to the poor record expected for the 76ers.

Toronto Raptors: What Should Be Their Starting Five?

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

The Toronto Raptors just had arguably their best season, have resigned each of their core free agents and are ready to become an even better team. They have drafted the majority of their core and are still very young, so they have the talent to be one of the best teams in the East for the next half decade or more, but who should get the starting nods at each position next season to best help them win?

PG: Kyle Lowry

- Their 2 stars are their 2 guards, the veteran Lowry and the next guy on this list and they just gave Lowry a 4 season extention for 48 million dollars, making him the wealthiest man on their team. He earned that money by helping lead the Raptors this season and some would say he was even better than DeMar DeRozan who was an All Star. Regardless, he is an excellent shooter, scorer, rebounder, distributor and a very solid defender. With season averages of 17.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game, with shooting percentages of about 42 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3, he is a stud and seems to be the leader of the franchise.

SG: DeMar DeRozan

- Their best player is DeMar DeRozan, who was one of the NBA’s Most Improved Players this season and made his 1st All Star team at the ripe age of only 24. He averaged 22.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.1 steals per game, each NBA bests for him, as was his 30.5 percent 3 point shooting. He is an elite scorer and an excellent athlete who keeps getting better and he could become the best shooting guard in the NBA who isn’t James Harden. He is their franchise player and with Lowry the Raptors have one of the best guard duos in the league.

SF: Terrence Ross

- The guards were very simple, but the forwards are where it gets hard. This was a very difficult choice between Ross and James Johnson and Johnson is the better defender and the best perimeter defender on the team, but they won with Ross as their small forward and he is the better shooter, which they need in their starting 5. They would be wise to keep developing Ross and although he won’t have many more 50 point games (wasn’t that ridiculously random?) he is an elite shooter and has excellent offensive potential. They would be better with him as a sixth man, if they were to find a better 3, but for now they should keep with their perimeter duo that helped them win.

PF: Patrick Patterson

- Here is the one switch from their starting 5 from this season. Amir Johnson is a solid rebounder and a very efficient scorer, but Patterson is a better player. He is a better shooter and scorer and too can rebound and with such a big center who can control the paint, a stretch 4 like Patterson is an excellent fit with him in the frontcourt. They just resigned Patterson to a sizeable contract, so they value him and it really is apples and oranges when it comes to Patterson and Johnson, but his ability to stretch the floor gives Patterson the edge.

C: Jonas Valanciunas

- Valanciunas is just 22 and he averaged 11.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game in his 2nd season and his per 36 minutes averages were excellent, 14.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, which are that of an All Star. He still has to mature to be the franchise big man he can become, but he is very talented and should average a double-double next season and sneak into All Star consideration.

Bench: They have one of the best sixth men in the NBA in Greivis Vasquez who they just resigned and should play a big role coming in for Lowry at the one, but also playing with him and running the offense while Lowry focuses on scoring, as he is one of the best distributors in the league. They also have Amir Johnson who was mentioned in the Patterson section and is about as solid of a reserve big man that you can ask for. James Johnson is a very strong perimeter defender, who can play the 3 and 4 and is a very strong defender, rebounder and distributor for a wing and is also a capable scorer. Lou Williams will bring a lot of scoring off the bench and was a very nice addition to the roster and Chuck Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough provide strong depth in the frontcourt. Even rookie DeAndre Daniels could play a role for them at the 3 and Landry Fields will play some at the 3 and 2. They have a very strong bench and an excellent offensive starting 5, which will make them a mid seeded playoff team in the East next season and they can win a playoff series after failing this season. This Raptors roster is the best they have had, which is saying a lot, considering they had Chris Bosh at his best.