Portland Trail Blazers have quietly loaded up for the Western Conference

Damien Lillard Portland Trail Blazers NBA offseason

Most of the attention in the western conference during this absolutely insane NBA offseason has gone to the California teams – the Lakers adding Anthony Davis and striking out elsewhere, the Warriors losing Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins and of course the Clippers forming a superteam of their own with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. However, rather quietly, the Portland Trail Blazers – who I remind you are fresh off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals – have retooled their team and are ready to make another deep run in the playoffs.

Last year’s run was aided by two extremely beneficial mid-season acquisitions, center Enes Kanter and wing Rodney Hood. Both were role players who ended up playing significant minutes during the playoffs; Kanter thanks to a late-season injury to starter Jusuf Nurkic and Hood simply because he showed up and filled the role of athletic scorer off the bench – something Portland was desperately missing for most of the season.

However, Portland didn’t want to wait until midseason to re-shape their roster again. After proclaiming that there would not be any fireworks at the start of free agency, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey oversaw seven players depart via free agency or trade, and brought in five new players. So much for no fireworks.

Analyzing Portland’s Moves

Portland’s biggest acquisition, in importance and size, is former Heat center Hassan Whiteside. Acquired in a trade that sent Meyers Leonard to Miami and Moe Harkless to the Clippers, Whiteside will be a one-year stopgap while Nurkic recovers. Sure, Whiteside has had his issues with attitude and effort, but in a contract year and with Damian Lillard’s no-nonsense approach to leadership, Whiteside has the opportunity to really thrive in this environment.

The trade clears out two expiring contracts in Leonard and Harkless, and frees up third-year Zach Collins to start at the power forward spot now that both Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, who signed with the Magic, are gone.

The team also dealt backup guard Evan Turner to Atlanta for wing Kent Bazemore, a move that saw two massive contracts exchange hands. Bazemore gives Portland an experienced outside shooter and defensive player, effectively replacing Aminu and Seth Curry, who signed with Dallas, in one player.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Blazers also brought in backup power forward Anthony Tolliver and wing Mario Hezonja, two veteran bench players who are capable of scoring in droves.

Projecting The Portland Trail Blazers’ Lineup

A projected starting five of Whiteside, Collins, Hood, McCollum and Lillard doesn’t look much better than last year’s squad – if at all – but a backup unit that includes Tolliver, Hezonja, Bazemore, Anfernee Simons and rookie Nassir Little – who many believe will be the steal of the draft – should do a lot of damage in a suddenly wide-open Western Conference.

That’s not even included Nurkic, who gives this team a huge boost with his projected return in February.

California’s three teams may be getting all of the attention, but it could be the other west coast team that finds itself in the NBA Finals next season.

The Spokane Hoopfest is the best sporting event you haven’t heard of

Spokane Hoopfest

Every summer, the last weekend in June turns the little city of Spokane, Washington – a town that has always been known for its basketball fandom – into a madhouse. The city itself boasts a population of about 217,000, mostly lower-middle-class working folk who enjoy Spokane’s affordable housing, proximity to water and mountains, and basketball. Oh, do they love their basketball tournament!

A big sign on the east side of the city greets visitors with the slogan “Welcome to Hooptown, USA”. During Hoopfest weekend, that sign helps welcome roughly 225,000 people into the city, beckoning them into the largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament on planet earth.

That’s right, a city of 217,000 people doubles in size, just to watch amateur 3-on-3 basketball. The 450 makeshift courts are all right on the street, taking up 45 city blocks, with paint lines and portable basketball hoops lining the city nearly in its entirety.

The History of Hoopfest

Hoopfest just completed its 30th season, making it a staple of Spokane’s history and culture since 1989. Participants as young as five and as old as 90 make up the nearly 20,000 different ballers that take the court each year.

There are family brackets, wheelchair brackets, under six-foot, over six-foot, co-ed, men’s, women’s, elite and recreational formats, meaning there truly is something for everybody.

Games are frequently attended by NBA stars. Isaiah Thomas was there this year, just days before signing with the Washington Wizards. Past years have seen Kevin Durant, Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson attend, and of course the local Gonzaga and Washington State stars – including Klay Thompson, Rui Hachimura, Kelly Olynyk, and John Stockton – almost always make an appearance.

My Experience

This past year was my eighth year participating in Hoopfest. My team has changed a bit over the years, first serving as an opportunity to get my high school friends to come visit me in Spokane (I went to Gonzaga) and now serving as a college reunion with friends who still live in the area. The drive from Seattle to Spokane and back is proof enough of how busy the event is, as traffic is nearly non-stop.

Every team is guaranteed three games, and my buddies and I have rarely played more than that. The competition, even in our adult recreational league, is immense. While that can sometimes boil over into heated exchanges, volunteer court monitors (over 3,000 of them!) help keep tempers cool, even when the temperature in Spokane’s desert climate touches 100 degrees.

Playing physical basketball (you call your own fouls, streetball style) against hyper-competitive strangers in 100-degree heat may not sound like everyone’s version of a good time, but I can promise you that after eight years of suiting up, and a self-reported 5-20 record, that I will be back next year. And you should be too.

If you ever have an opportunity to participate, volunteer or just watch Hoopfest, you’ll see why this little town in Eastern Washington is rebranding as “Hooptown, USA”.

They’ve earned it.

Does Anthony Davis Get a Pass for Making Lakers Super Team w/ LeBron?

Anthony Davis joining the Lakers to make a super team

More than any other major sport, NBA players are judged almost exclusively by their ability to win an NBA championship. While no one (okay very few people) criticizes Mike Trout for not winning a World Series, NBA fans seem only to care about a superstar’s ability to lead his team to an NBA championship. Players like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul constantly have their greatness questioned. Yet, we don’t hear that talk about Anthony Davis. The oxymoron is that the same fans typically don’t like it when players form join teams that already feature superstars to form super teams, in an effort to make winning that championship easier. Kevin Durant is perhaps the most notable recent example of a player who was victimized for not winning a championship and then villainized for joining the Warriors in an attempt to do just that.

It’s a cruel, somewhat unforgiving world for these star players, and no one seems to be immune to it.

Except, for some reason, former Pelicans center Anthony Davis.

Now with the Lakers, Davis managed to avoid the heaps of criticism that followed Durant, Lebron, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and numerous other superstars who were first criticized for not winning – and then again criticized for how they attempted to win – by joining an NBA super team.

That’s not to say Davis doesn’t have his critics, particularly from the New Orleans faithful who weren’t too happy to see him demand a trade and sit out last season after six and a half seasons with the team. They’ll survive, particularly now that they have the rights to Zion Williamson and a haul of talent from the Lakers, including Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and a boatload of first round draft picks coming their way.

Why Doesn’t Anthony Davis Get Criticized?

Still, it does make you wonder why Anthony Davis has managed, by and large, to avoid this kind of scrutiny. Is he not on the level that LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant are? Does this kind of criticism not apply to post players, only to guards and forwards? Does he get a pass because he played in New Orleans? Are people actually mad, we just aren’t hearing as much about it?

Hard to say.

For what it’s worth, I think judging players by how many championships they win is disingenuous. Robert Horry is not ten times the player that Karl Malone or Charles Barkley was. Steve Kerr has more championships as a player than Steph Curry, but that doesn’t mean anything.

However, the NBA is the sport where one player can most impact a team. A truly elite NBA player has a bigger impact on a single team than anyone in a baseball, hockey or soccer game, and arguably more than any football player, although an elite quarterback can sometimes make-or-break an entire team.

Therefore, elite players who can’t win championships draw that criticism, whether it is fair or not. They’ll say that “Jordan did it” (he didn’t – he had HOFers Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman alongside him) or they’ll say “Kobe did it” (kinda – but he struggled without Shaq and needed Pau Gasol) but once a player decides to join a team with another superstar or two, they are a pariah that is destroying the parity in the game and hurting the small-market teams who can’t go out and collect multiple superstars.

Of course, destroyer of super teams Kawhi Leonard may have proven that one doesn’t need a super team to win it all.

NBA Super Teams are the norm

So I guess the question becomes, do we care that Anthony Davis joined the Lakers? If so, why? If not – why has he been exempt from that criticism in the past?

One thing is for sure, even with Antony Davis and Lebron James, the Lakers are going to have a hard time getting through the still-stacked Western Conference in 2019, even if the Warriors are without Durant and Klay Thompson next season.

MLB: Are the Three True Outcomes of At-Bats Killing Baseball?

MLB Players only Walk, strikeout or hit a homerun Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge

These days, it hardly seems like you can watch a single MLB at-bat where the hitter doesn’t walk, strikeout or blast a home run into the seats. Indeed, a quick look at the data shows that the “three true outcomes” are happening at the highest rate of all-time. Just over 1/3 of all at-bats resulted in either a walk, home run or a strikeout in 2018.

MLB’s attendance dropped in 2018 as well, to its lowest point in the last 15 years. Is the rise of three true outcomes truly causing the decline of attendance in baseball, or is this simply a coincidence, with other factors at play?

After all, while baseball is increasingly become a battle between pitcher and hitter, and less about the defense, it’s not like this is a brand new phenomenon. Bobby Bonds, the father of the great Barry Bonds, recorded 32 home runs, 81 walks and 175 strikeouts way back in 1969, which meant a whopping 41.7% of his plate appearances resulted in one of the three true outcomes.

Bonds may be one of the first, but the ringleader for this group of sluggers is no doubt Adam Dunn. Dunn mashed in the big leagues from 2001 to 2014, hitting 462 home runs while drawing 1,317 walks and striking out 2,379 times. His career 49.9% three true outcomes rate is the highest of all-time, and he is truly the catalyst for this time of slugger.

A New Era: MLB Analytics

However, near 50% rates of three true outcomes is becoming more commonplace, as sluggers like Joey Gallo, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, and Paul Goldschmidt have embraced the “launch angle revolution”, which is the idea that it is more beneficial to swing with a heavy uppercut, intending to hit the ball in the air more often. This tends to lead to more strikeouts, but obviously more fly balls = more home runs.

Plus, with the ever growing shift in play, these sluggers have seen their chances of getting a hit on a ground ball nearly evaporate. Why try to hit the ball hard on the ground if the defenders are shifting to your pull side, effectively neutralizing your ability to get a hit?

Sure, the obvious response is “well these guys could bunt, or learn to slap the ball the other way” but – as they would tell you – they don’t get paid excess of $100 million dollars to slap the ball the other way, they get paid to get on base, drive runners in and hit home runs. While striking out isn’t a part of that equation, most (all?) managers will accept that as a necessary evil if their guy is also hitting 40 home runs and drawing nearly 100 walks per season.

As for the fans, well it’s kind of up to them. If you watch baseball because you like watching a shortstop make a play deep in the hole and throw someone out at first, then yes, this revolution is hurting the game you love.

Baseball’s Bigger Issues

However, pointing the finger at the three true outcomes is ignoring the bigger issues the game is facing. Namely, a lack of competition from roughly 50% of the league’s teams, as well as increasing ticket/concession prices, poor marketing of the team’s biggest stars, and a divide between the “old-school” line of thinking and the happy, celebrating “showboating” style of the game’s younger (and predominantly Latino) stars.

That’s a story for another day. For now, accept that baseball is going to have a lot of strikeouts, a lot of walks, and a lot of long, fun-to-watch home runs in the future. Even if that means your favorite shortstop doesn’t make as many plays.