Posts Tagged ‘Meyers Leonard’

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 19


VIDEO: Friday night’s Fast Break, recapping a 12-game night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Brad Stevens doing work for the Celtics | Sixers hope Mike D’Antoni helps trigger a change in culture | Zach Randolph still believes in the aging and suddenly average Grizzlies | Steph Curry likes 5 Warriors for All-Stars?

No. 1: Brad Stevens is doing work for the Celtics — The Celtics are playing well and winning games and doing it without a certified star, although Isaiah Thomas might have a vice grip on Best Sixth Man in the league. Anyway, when Brad Stevens was hired away from Butler, there were the usual doubts about whether a college coach could make a smooth transition to a league where their voice and presence doesn’t carry as much weight, and where dealing with men is a lot different than 19-year-olds. Well, Stevens is clearly an asset for the Celtics; almost everyone would agree to that. Here’s Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe on what makes Stevens tick:

There was a reason the Celtics brass secretly traveled to Indianapolis 3½ years ago to negotiate with Brad Stevens, their longtime target as a successor to Doc Rivers.

There was a reason they left Indiana ecstatic about signing Butler’s coach to a six-year, $22 million contract to become the Celtics’ coach, even though he was an NBA neophyte who had never even coached a summer league game.

They knew Stevens had a humility and passion for the job and not a sense of entitlement. He was not like Rick Pitino or John Calipari, who came to the NBA from the college ranks feeling as though their mere presence was going to change the landscape of the professional game.

Stevens was more about substance than style. He was an evenhanded technician and teacher of the game, constantly searching for methods to give his team an advantage.

His search for those edges, ways to get extra possessions, creative times to call timeouts, and his constant tinkering with lineups has led the Celtics to their resurgence. Following Cleveland’s 89-77 victory over the Celtics Tuesday night at TD Garden, Stevens’ performance left LeBron James to remark, simply, “They’re a well-coached team.”

But Stevens’ search for these advantages has been a process of trial and error.

In Wednesday night’s 119-116 loss at Detroit, the Celtics were in the midst of a rally when Stevens decided to cap the surge by intentionally fouling one of the Pistons’ poorer free throw shooters, one of his favorite tools.

The Pistons had the ball and a 106-102 lead with 2:54 left when Stevens called for Isaiah Thomas to intentionally foul Reggie Jackson. It created an inbounds situation where Stevens planned to intentionally foul Andre Drummond, a 36.8 percent free throw shooter, before the inbounds pass.

With more than two minutes left in the game, that strategy would have merely resulted in two free throws. Since the chances of Drummond hitting both free throws were minimal, the Celtics would have received the ball back facing perhaps a 5-point deficit.

Stevens’ plans were foiled when Jackson spun and fired a 3-pointer. The shot had no chance, but that didn’t deter the officials from rewarding him a trip to the foul line for three free throws. It didn’t necessarily ruin the Celtics’ chances of winning, but it certainly did hinder them.

Conventional thinkers might have asked why Stevens didn’t just just bank on his team getting a defensive stop, a defensive rebound, instead of relying on intentional fouls.

The Celtics’ defense has shown — although not Wednesday — it is good enough to make consistent stops.

But Stevens is not conventional. He has devised some inventive ways to create extra possessions or limit opponents to zero or 1-point possessions instead of potentially 3.

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No. 2: Sixers hope Mike D’Antoni helps trigger a change in culture The Sixers lost again Friday and are seemingly speeding toward another year of infamy. But when Jerry Colangelo assumed a measure of front office control a few weeks ago, one of his priorities was to make sure the coaching staff was ripe for the challenge. So he brought in Mike D’Antoni to serve as the top assistant to Brett Brown (who was given a contract extension). The idea was to not only help Brown’s offense, but lend an experienced presence to a basketball operation that desperately needed one. Ken Berger of CBS Sports likes the idea:

“I’m definitely exploring everything,” D’Antoni told me recently. “I’m really at ease, but at the same time I do clinics and watch teams, talk to teams, try to get better as a coach see what happens. I can only control what I can control.”

The Sixers’ hodge-podge of point guards will no doubt benefit from D’Antoni’s counsel; there has perhaps never been a more point guard-friendly coach in the sport. So, too, will budding star Jahlil Okafor, who at this early stage certainly has all the physical tools to be an elite offensive force. What he’s been lacking is leadership, and the Sixers finally have someone who exudes credibility besides Brown.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it odd that D’Antoni will be sitting one seat over from Brown, who came to Philly from Gregg Popovich’s bench in San Antonio. If not for the Spurs, D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns might’ve had the championship that would have, in some eyes, validated D’Antoni’s genius. That honor went belatedly to the Warriors, who rode something D’Antoni never had in Phoenix (an elite defense) and the pillars of his offensive playbook to their first NBA title in 40 years last season.

“I can tell you right now, I’m a huge disciple of Mike’s and what he did offensively,” said Alvin Gentry, D’Antoni’s former assistant in Phoenix who ran the Warriors’ offense last season and now is the head coach in New Orleans. “I think he changed the NBA, if you want to know the truth. If you go back and look and see what happened in 2004 and ’05, nobody was playing like that. Nobody thought you could be successful playing like that. And we got all the way to the Western Conference Finals and lost to the eventual champion. And the next year, we lost to the eventual champion. And the next year, we lost to the eventual champion …”

Nobody is thinking championship in Philadelphia, as a painful rebuilding process has accounted for lots of draft picks and assets but only 38 wins across three seasons — including a 1-26 record this season. After a dozen more losses or so, D’Antoni might find himself longing for a one-stroke penalty to get out of the woods at the Greenbrier.

But the Sixers do have people with track records in positions of power, and cap room and first-round picks as far as the eye can see. The impact of the latest addition to the hierarchy will be measured with a calendar, not a shot clock, but it’s reasonable to wonder if the Sixers finally have some hope.

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No. 3: Zach Randolph still likes the Grizzlies There were two teams that gave the champion Warriors fits in the postseason last summer: The Cavaliers and Grizzlies. One of those teams is still among the elite and would likely have an even greater chokehold on the East if Kyrie Irving were healthy. The other team has reached a fork in the road. The Grizzlies are still true to their grit and grind but has that style, which helped Memphis assume a 2-1 lead against the Warriors in a best of seven, turned obsolete? Or will the Grizzlies eventually overcome their Achilles heel — outside shooting — and once again use defense and toughness to advance in the playoffs. Here’s a decent Q&A with Zach Randolph by Scoop Jackson of ESPN:

Scoop Jackson: You all are hard to figure out. From game to game, you all can look like totally different teams. Can you put your finger on this team?

Zach Randolph: Man … not being the prettiest team, not being the most athletic team, not the best shooting team, I think it’s our heart. That’s what defines us, that’s who we are. It’s our grit and our grind. Honestly. That’s how we started, that’s how we started winning, that’s how we are going to win.

I came here, and we started changing the organization around. That’s that grit and grind and hard work and believing, man. You forget there was a time when nobody believed in us, counted us out. People used to think of the Memphis Grizzlies, they’d be like, “Ah, they ain’t nobody.” And now, even when we lose, it’s not like that anymore.

Scoop: That’s expectations. That happens to every team once the culture of the organization starts changing. Have you grown along with those expectations?

Randolph: In our minds everybody still counts us out, but we still believe in ourselves. Even though we haven’t been playing our best, the way we want to play, the season is still early. We still believe that we are one of the best teams in the league. We believe that. But we have to accomplish that [on the court]. Our confidence is high. We know we can compete with anybody.

Scoop: It’s just a matter of proving it.

Randolph: That’s all it is, man.

Scoop: What’s the fundamental difference in you all now than, say, two seasons ago — let’s go there — since Rudy [Gay] has been gone and since Lionel [Hollins] has been gone?

Randolph: I think our maturity and being together. You know that core being together so long — me and Marc [Gasol], then Mike [Conley] and TA [Tony Allen]. And everyone’s work ethic has improved.

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No. 4: Steph Curry likes 5 Warriors for All-Stars? — One of the fringe benefits of having the best record in the NBA is supposed to be realized in February when the All-Star Game rolls in. Last season, the Atlanta Hawks ran the table for an entire month and saw their starting five named as Players of the Month, and then four members of the team suit up for the All-Star Game. Well, Steph Curry wants to do one better — and who could blame him? — and put 5 Warriors in the All-Star Game. Far-fetched? Well, we probably can count on at least three. Five might be a stretch, but, well, stranger things have happened. Here’s Jeff Faraudo of the San Jose Mercury News …

Stephen Curry wonders if there should be a ceiling for the 25-1 Warriors.

“Why not five?” he said.

All-Star voting has begun and MVP Curry is a sure thing a year after being the leading overall vote-getter. Backcourt mate Klay Thompson also made the Western Conference team last year, and do-everything forward Draymond Green seems like a strong candidate.

“The way they we play, every given night we all want to have an impact on the game,” Curry said. “Stats may look a certain way and you can make judgments off of that. But when a team goes 25-1, and hopefully we keep that trajectory going, hopefully individual guys are recognized for what they mean to the team.”

Curry said Green — who is averaging 14.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.1 assists and shares the NBA lead with four triple-doubles — now has the respect of fans across the country.

“It means a lot to have the support of fans, but the importance for him is we’re winning games and he’s helping us do that,” Curry said. “Whatever comes of that is just a bonus.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Ellie Day, the wife of professional golfer Jason Day, is out of the hospital and doing fine. She holds nothing against LeBron James, who crashed into her sitting courtside and sent her to the hospital on a stretcher … So what’s the story about Justin Bieber getting baptized at Tyson Chandler‘s house?Stan Van Gundy likes where the Pistons are headed, even though his team is tired after a 4-OT win over the Bulls … Steve Nash is lending a helping hand to Klay ThompsonMeyers Leonard is in a serious slump in Portland …

Morning Shootaround — Sept. 28


VIDEO: James Harden and the Houston Rockets are ready to roar after a banner 2014-15 season

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard ready to take control in Portland | Kupchak reiterates support for Byron Scott | Melo ready for end to long summer in New York | Grizzlies doubling down on grit and grind

No. 1: Lillard ready to take control in Portland — The leadership mantle in Portland is now Damian Lillard‘s and Lillard’s alone, as he enters his first training camp with the Trail Blazers without LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum around to help shoulder the load. In preparation for his new role, Lillard made sure everyone understood that he was not only willing to take control and lead the way but ready to do so. Jason Quick of the Oregonian has the story …

One by one across the country, their phones lit up and vibrated, a text message arriving to members of the Portland Trail Blazers with an idea that could change their upcoming season.

For some, like Meyers Leonard in Portland, the number with the 510 area code was already programmed into his phone. Others, like rookie Pat Connaughton in Boston, were perplexed until they opened the message.

“Yo Pat, it’s Dame. We are going to San Diego to get the team together and to get ready for the season …”

The texts were from Damian Lillard, the lone starter remaining from a popular and successful Blazers team that disintegrated amid a summer of free agency and trades. Now, as the undisputed star of the team, Lillard was wading into his first wave of leadership.

It was August, and he wanted to get the young and unproven roster together before players started reporting to Portland in September. After some collaboration with teammates CJ McCollum and Leonard, Lillard settled on San Diego.

Soon, 11 Blazers – some complete strangers to each other– were booking flights and hotel reservations.

A Blazers player had never, in the franchise’s 45 years, attempted an off-season team-building event of this magnitude. Then again, this summer marked one of the biggest transitions in team’s history, a swift and purposeful dismantling of a talented squad in favor of a rebuild with cheaper and younger players.

Success this season won’t be judged wholey on wins and losses, but rather player development and growth. Among the more visible and tangible storylines is how and what kind of leader Lillard will be, and how much his influence could improve the team.

It’s why his August text could determine the course of this season.

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No. 2: Kupchak reiterates support for Byron Scott — Byron Scott doesn’t have to look over his shoulder this season in Los Angeles. He has the full support of the front office, so says his boss, Mitch Kupchak. The general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers reiterated his support for Scott on the eve of what should be one of the most interesting training camps in recent memory for the franchise. Mark Medina of the LA Daily News has more …

For a franchise that usually evaluates itself on wins and losses, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has shifted his expectations.

Though Lakers coach Byron Scott oversaw the team going 21-61 last season in what marked the franchise’s worst record in its 67-year-old history, Kupchak has not wavered in his support for Scott. Kupchak remained mindful of the Lakers missing an NBA-record 324 games because of injuries and a roster filled with unproven talent.

“He has more to work with this year,” Kupchak said of Scott. “I would think he would agree to that. So I’m hoping he’s rewarded with more W’s. I don’t expect him to conduct training camp any differently than he did last year.”

That will begin Tuesday in Honolulu. The Lakers’ nine-day camps will include seven days of practices and two exhibitions. Scott has developed a strong reputation for running conditioning-heavy practices in training camp, the latest one including three two-a-day sessions.

That partly explains Kupchak’s support for Scott, who has three years remaining on his contract. Kupchak praised Scott for the steady flow of Lakers players visiting the practice facility this summer for workouts. Even amid the losses, Kupchak also argued Scott improved the team’s culture.

“Under really tough circumstances, I thought he kept the group together,” Kupchak said of Scott. “They played hard every game and every practice was organized. He was always upbeat. I never sensed a down moment. When he went home at night, it had to hurt. But I thought he did a great job.”

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No. 3: Melo ready for end to long summer in New York — When your names is tossed around the way Carmelo Anthony‘s has been all offseason, the start of training camp and actual basketball is welcome respite from the drama. Anthony said the drama is in his rear view as he readies himself and his team for camp, writes Daniel Popper of the New York Daily News

Over the past several months, Carmelo Anthony has sent mixed signals – publicly and privately – about his thoughts on the Knicks’ offseason.

Anthony’s concerns stemmed from Phil Jackson missing out on a bonafide star in free agency and drafting a project in 19-year-old Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in June. But on Sunday, with Knicks training camp a day away, Anthony voiced support for the organization’s offseason moves.

“I was very excited about what we did this offseason. I liked the moves that we made,” Anthony said at his youth camp in Manhattan. “Was it any of the stars that we wanted to go after and go get? No. But the pieces that we got, I’m really intrigued.”

The Daily News reported in June that Anthony was unhappy with the Knicks’ decision to draft Porzingis, a pick that influenced Lamarcus Aldridge spurning the Knicks for the Spurs.

The Knicks wanted to play Aldridge at center to let Porzingis develop – something Aldridge was vehemently against. And at Team USA training camp in August, Anthony expressed frustration at how the entire situation unfolded, even saying he “threw” his headband when he found out the Knicks wanted Aldridge to change positions.

But now the offseason is in the past, and Anthony’s main concern will be returning from the season-ending knee surgery he underwent in February.

Anthony said Day 1 of training camp Monday will mark the end of a “long summer.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” Anthony said. “Just glad that I can be in the position I’m in right now.”

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No. 4: Grizzlies doubling down on grit and grind — Small ball? Not in Memphis, where the rugged Grizzlies are holding on tight to their grit and grind roots. The rest of the league is welcome to tinker with smaller lineups and the pace-and-space revolution. When you have Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph anchoring your middle, there is no need to stray. Griz coach Dave Joerger isn’t interested in tinkering with what’s worked in Memphis for years, writes Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal …

Joerger’s mantra this summer has been for the already tough Griz to get “nasty,” doubling down on the grit-and-grind mentality that has made the team a perennial Western Conference contender.

The Griz remain committed to a bruising brand of basketball that’s served them well even as the rest of the NBA has become obsessed with 3-point shooting.

NBA.com recently wrote in a 2015-16 season-preview of the Griz: “They’d rather stay true to themselves and hope to be in position once again to scare the next NBA champion in the playoffs. That champion is unlikely to be Memphis, but the Grizzlies will be scary.”

That assessment might be selling the Grizzlies short. Despite the recurring theme of the need for long-range shooting, the Griz return with more versatility, the same expectation of winning 50-plus games and a place among the elite in the Western Conference.

There will, however, be challenges to work through during camp if the Griz are going to make good on their promise to contend:

1. Sorting out the wing positions: No one would ever accuse the Griz of lacking depth. They are deepest at the wing positions, meaning Joerger has a nice problem in determining who will get the bulk of the minutes at shooting guard and small forward. Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, Vince Carter and Matt Barnes are veterans with meaningful careers. Last year, Joerger settled on starting the 6-5 Lee at shooting guard and the 6-4 Allen at small forward to start the season.

The coaching staff acknowledged concerns about such a small lineup given small forwards around the league typically stand 6-7 and taller. Green, 6-9, joined the roster around midseason. He played off the bench but was quickly inserted into the starting lineup and then went back to the bench. Green never found his footing and was inconsistent. With Green participating in a full camp, it’s conceivable that he will start at small forward. Joerger prefers the longer, more versatile Green. The question at camp will be who will start at shooting guard. Lee is a 3-point threat. Allen’s disruptive defense and infectious energy clearly make the Grizzlies “nasty.” As for second-year guard Jordan Adams? That’s a different topic.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Raptors are ready to take a (minimum deal) gamble on former No. 1 overall pick and native son Anthony Bennett … Year 2 of the (Jason) Kidd experience in Milwaukee comes with great expectationsMarcus Morris is still taking shots at the Phoenix SunsKlay Thompson is already taking full advantage of Steve Nash in his role as the Golden State Warriors’ part-time player development consultantThe Thunder have hired an assistant coach, Royal Ivey, with deep ties to Kevin Durant

ICYMI: The best alley-oops from last season:


VIDEO: 2014-15 Top alley-oops

Morning Shootaround — Aug. 29


NEWS OF THE MORNING
Leonard ready to lead | Clippers could go streaming | Boozer to wait it out

No. 1: Leonard says he’ll step up for Blazers — After making a commitment to one serious partnership by getting married this summer, now Trail Blazers big man Meyers Leonard says he’s ready to strengthen the bonds with teammate Damian Lillard in order to move the team forward. In the aftermath of LaMarcus Aldridge bolting to San Antonio, Lillard is at the forefront of Portland’s move in a new direction. But Leonard wants to help with the heavy lifting, according to Dwight Jaynes of Comcast SportsNet NW:

“Obviously, Dame and I are the guys who have been here the longest and he’s going to be our leader. But I hope to be right there by his side, kind of a co-leader, right there having his back through the ups and downs,” Leonard said Thursday night in Hillsboro.

I admire Leonard’s willingness to publicly apply for that job on this team. Quality leadership is imperative on all teams, not only the ones trying to win a championship but those just trying to improve and find their way in the league. But as everybody knows, people don’t get to be leaders by proclaiming themselves leaders — it comes from others’ willingness to follow them. Sometimes the most talented players become leaders. Others lead by example — which often stems from hard work, sacrifice and charisma.

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No. 2: Clippers could choose streaming — As we move deeper into the 21st century, so many of the traditional ways of thinking and acting go out the window. Now the Clippers could be ready to take a new step as they consider the possibility of foregoing the usual method of televising games and streaming them for the 2015-16 season. With Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, now in his second year of owning the club, Dan Woike of the Orange Country Register says it’s being considered:

But could a leap as far as spurning traditional TV distribution for an online-based network happen as soon as 2016? Well, Ballmer’s considering it.

The Clippers recently turned down a $60 million-per-year offer from Fox to remain on Prime Ticket, and while negotiations with the network are ongoing, other options, including a streaming network, are being discussed.

That option was first reported by the New York Post.

No major professional sports team has bypassed cable in favor of Internet distribution of games, and the chance to be on the forefront of the movement would certainly appeal to someone with Ballmer’s tech background.

The Clippers are expected to counter Fox’s $60 million offer, which is a significant increase from the team’s current deal. The Clippers have one year remaining on their contract with Prime Ticket, which is worth $25 million annually.

Fox had exclusive negotiation rights with the Clippers in June, but the window closed without a new deal. A Fox spokesman declined comment Friday.

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No. 3: Boozer to be patient — Despite the talk that he might be ready to head to China or other parts overseas, veteran free agent forward Carlos Boozer isn’t packing his bags just yet. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, the ex-Laker is hoping to find a need and an open spot with a playoff team for the 2015-16 season:

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Toure Murry is returning to the Wizards … Jazz sign rookie free agent J.J. O’Brien … Finals MVP Andre Iguodala is taking a bite out of Japan … Isaiah Thomas has been working out with Floyd Mayweather and giving him a few lessons on the court … Luol Deng met with President Obama to talk about South Sudan.

Blazers’ would-be depth all in Vegas


VIDEO: The Trail Blazers’ young guns rout the Hawks in Las Vegas Summer League

LAS VEGAS — Two seasons ago the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench was remarkably young and perilously inadequate. Last season, the addition of veteran Mo Williams plus incredibly good health among the starting five limited opportunity for the Blazers’ babies.

As Summer League heats up, that banging sound you hear is opportunity knocking. Which young Blazers finally walk through that door will be an intriguing story line to monitor. The choices are all right here in Vegas. In fact, if the Blazers don’t boast the most players from their big-league team on their Summer League squad then they’re right there near the top.

Six of Portland’s 15 roster players are on its Summer League squad: Guards Will Barton, Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum, as well as frontline teammates Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson. All six players have either one or two years of league service, and all six are seeking to make a first-time impact in the Blazers’ rotation.

McCollum, Robinson and Leonard are all top 11 draft picks.

“It’s an important summer for our young bigs and and our young perimeter guys,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said as he watched Portland’s summer team beat down Atlanta, 91-76. “CJ, Will and Allen, there’s an opportunity. I can’t say how many minutes, but there’s an opportunity. Joel, Meyers and T-rob, after signing Chris [Kaman], there’s some competition.”

Kaman was granted a two-year, $9.8 million contract coming off two subpar seasons with Dallas and then the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet Portland felt compelled to sign him up as backup to starter Robin Lopez because they’ve haven’t been able to count on Leonard or Freeland.

The young guards won’t have to contend with Williams, who remains on the market as an unrestricted free agent, however the Blazers signed steady veteran in Steve Blake.

“In my rookie year everyone talked about the bench,” said Leonard, who took a step back last season, partly due to injury. “Last year was a much better year for us, young guys stepped up. Now we need to have even more of a deep bench, confidence from coach to put us in there and know the score isn’t  going to down, we’re going to keep it there or we’re going to increase the lead. It’s confidence in the starters and coaches that when we come in we’re going to do a good job and they can know we’re going to be all right.”

Self-confidence is a big pat of it, too. The leader in that category could be Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick two years ago by Sacramento, who was traded by the Kings and then the Rockets. He played in 70 games for Portland last season, averaging 4.8 ppg and 4.4 rpg in 12.5 mpg. He provided some high energy moments off the bench during the playoffs and now the 23-year-old says he’s discovered what it takes to be a productive NBA player.

“I am where I was supposed to be after my rookie year, making that leap to knowing what type of player you are in this league and knowing what you’re going to do for your team,” Robinson said. “That’s where I am now, where I should have been last year.”

Few expected the Blazers to end up where they did last season, winning 54 games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in the last 14 years. They have a dynamic starting five with All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, streak-shooter Wes Matthews, stat-stuffer small forward Nicolas Batum and Lopez, their lunchpail center.

Bench parts at every position are on the roster. Now, with another year under the belts, the question is which ones walk through that door.

Leonard Ready For New Expectations

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LAS VEGAS –
He was wrapped in a protective layer of patience last season. That cannot be the case anymore.

Now the Trail Blazers need Meyers Leonard. Not to be a star, because he remains as it was in the 2012-13 rookie season, a work in progress. Maybe not even to be the starter, because they acquired Robin Lopez from the Pelicans. But Leonard is an X-factor for the team that showed admirable progress before being dragged under down the stretch by a lack of depth.

summer-league-logoLeonard plays center, remains the biggest hope for the future there even after the Lopez arrival, and center is the one position uncertainty among the Portland starters. Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews at guard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum at forward – they are proven. The fifth spot remains what could be.

There is no pressure to flourish this season. But there is an increased level of expectations after a rookie season of 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 17.5 minutes playing behind J.J. Hickson, who has joined the Nuggets as a free agent.

“Of course,” Leonard said Saturday after the Trail Blazers lost to the Suns 83-69 at Thomas & Mack Center. “As a competitor, I always want to be in there. Last year, it was a little hard, I think, for the coaches sometimes to stick me in there. It was kind of a whirlwind season for me. This year, I think I really have a chance to have a bigger impact. We brought in Robin Lopez. I really think his NBA-center body, practicing against him will definitely help my maturation. I just have to continue to work hard to get better.

“(I am a) ton more confident, especially in my skills and just in the sense that the game is slowing down for me. Physically, I’ve always been able to keep up. But mentally I’m just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. There’s so many things going on. We’re going up and down, I’m guarding the ball screen, I’m getting back, rebounding, running the play.’ It was just so much more fast-paced than it was in college for me. Different rules, different concepts. It was tough for me. But I definitely think this year I can excel more and help our team.”

Hickson’s Sacrifice Has Him Well-Positioned For July

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DALLAS — Portland’s energetic J.J. Hickson has played himself into a great position even while playing out of position.

At 6-foot-9, Hickson is the Blazers’ undersized center who’s putting up double-doubles at a higher rate than even his All-Star teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. Hickson’s 14 points and 10 rebounds in Wednesday’s loss at Dallas was his 27th double-double, tied for third-most in the league.

It’s the kind of production that will put Hickson, 24, atop many teams’ offseason shopping lists when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July.

“I’d be lying if I wasn’t looking forward to it, but that’s something I’ll get more excited about when that period hits,” Hickson said. “It’s something that me and my agent will talk about, but right now I’m just worried about playing basketball and trying to make these playoffs.”

Hickson is averaging nearly 30 minutes a game, 12.9 ppg and a career-best 10.7 rpg to help a Blazers team with little depth to stay in playoff contention.

He’s been a steal for Portland at $4 million this season. The Blazers signed him off the waiver wire last March after Sacramento released him. The Kings acquired Hickson in a trade earlier in the season from Cleveland, the team that drafted him 19th overall in 2008 out of North Carolina State, but moved him out to make room for rookie Tristan Thompson.

Portland attempted to go the more traditional route at center last offseason, making an offer to restricted free agent Roy Hibbert, but Indiana matched to hold onto the promising big man. The Blazers also eyed Chris Kaman, who chose to sign with Dallas. Portland signed Hickson to a one-year deal.

“Nah,” Hickson said when asked if he imagined himself playing center on a daily basis. “But, you know, it’s what my team needs me to do and it’s what my teammates and coaches have asked me to do, so it’s something I’m willing to sacrifice for the team.

“I’ve just been strong mentally, I think, all season. I’m a physical player so that’s not a problem, but mentally I think I’ve been locked in and I’ve just been consistent with my play.”

He and Aldridge complement each other well. In first-year coach Terry Stotts‘ offense, Aldridge is extended out of the low block more often with Hickson occupying the weakside.

“L.A.’s the kind of player that can mix it up so I’m just playing off him,” Hickson said. “He knows my situation and we all know he hates to be called a ‘5,’ so we make it work and we’re doing a good at it.”

At 6-11 and equipped with a solid post game, Aldridge is closer to a traditional 5 than Hickson will ever be.

“Sometimes we get too concerned in pigeon-holing players in what he is or what he isn’t,” Stotts said. “I think [Hickson] is a frontline player, whether you want to say he’s a 4 or a 5, he’s an effective frontline player. He can score, he can run, he can rebound and I’m a little reluctant to pigeon-hole him as he’s this or that.”

Even if Hickson does feel pigeon-holed as a pseudo-center.

“Yeah, I do,” Hickson said, frankly. “But like I say, that’s something I sacrifice for the team. The NBA world knows what my true position is and they know I’m sacrificing for my team and I think that helps us even more knowing that I’m willing to play the 5 to help us get wins.”

So what’s next for Hickson? Aldridge isn’t going anywhere, so big minutes at the 4 wouldn’t seem to exist in Portland, which drafted 7-foot center Meyers Leonard last June and could make a run in free agency (or through trades) at legit centers that potentially will hit the market such as Al Jefferson, Nikola Pekovic, perhaps Andrew Bynum or even Kaman again.

Suitors and a handsome payday won’t be in short supply come July, and Hickson certainly sounded as if he’d look long and hard at a starting power forward gig elsewhere. Which could make it difficult for Portland to retain him.

“Well,” Stotts said, “we’ll worry about that later.”

Aldridge Skepticism Starting To Fade

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The early season controversy that swirled around LaMarcus Aldridge and his shot selection has cooled over the last six weeks, to no coincidence, as the Portland Trail Blazers have reversed a rough start into a 14-5 record since Dec. 1.

Terry Stotts imported his “flow” offense from his Dallas assistant days and it requires Aldridge to often begin offensive sets at the elbow, a la Dirk Nowitzki, and to shoot a lot of mid-range jumpers. 

In previous seasons under former Blazers coach Nate McMillan, Aldridge was the primary post man and McMillan ran loads of isolation sets through him, the kind that grinded away at Nowitzki when Avery Johnson called the plays, and eventually led Dallas to trade for point guard Jason Kidd and fire Johnson and hire Rick Carlisle.

J.J. Hickson or Meyers Leonard serve as the primary post man in Stotts’ scheme, giving Aldridge more freedom to roam and and pull his defender out and, yes, take far more shots from outside of the paint, where Aldridge does possess one of the prettier fadeaways.

Still, initially, the result was a drastically lowered shooting percentage and plenty of skepticism.

“In some ways they’re similar, obviously their size, they both have a great touch, they’re unique for their position,” Stotts said earlier this season, comparing Aldridge to Nowitzki. “LaMarcus is a great block player, but if I can get him on the elbow a little bit more — it will probably take time to get him as comfortable as Dirk is up there — but that’s one way, utilizing him in spacing the floor a little bit, not necessarily to the 3-point line, but he’s a good 18- to 20-foot shooter.

“So LaMarcus is his own player and he’s his own man, but I think there are some similarities that we can take advantage of.”

Through 33 games, according to NBA.com advanced stats, Aldridge has attempted 352 mid-range shots. In 55 games last season, he took 494 and in 81 games in 2010-11, he shot 564. On pace to put up 875 in 82 games this season, it is obviously a steep rise and a significant change to his game that has required time to adjust.

Overall, Aldridge’s shooting percentage continues to rise from the lower 40s of the early season. He’s still at a career-low 46.4 percent (he was at 50 percent or better the last two seasons and never below 48.4 percent), but Aldridge actually is making the mid-range jumper at the same rate he has the last two seasons, right at about 41 percent.  This season, he’s down a few percentage points on shots in the restricted area under the rim and in the paint, contributing to his lower overall shooting percentage.

And, the Blazers just keep winning, their latest conquest being Thursday’s come-from-behind victory over Miami.

With point guard Damian Lillard putting a stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year Award, the Blazers have put together a four-game win streak, including road wins over the Knicks and Grizzlies, to improve to a season-best five games over .500 at 20-15.

They’re doing it primarily with a starting five that all averages double-digit scoring and with little help from arguably the lightest bench in the league.

Aldridge is on an All-Star pace once again, leading the Blazers in scoring at 20.6 points a game, about a one-point dropoff from the past two seasons, and is second in rebounding at 8.6.

Portland’s schedule isn’t terribly unmanageable moving through January, but things get trickier starting tonight with another road game at Golden State followed by Oklahoma City at home and Denver on the road. Two games against the Clippers come later this month.

For now, skepticism has cooled as Aldridge and the Blazers have grown more comfortable in Stotts’ system.

Blazers Face The Aldridge Question

It’s getting late early in Portland.

Of course, the shadows can’t get much longer and the outlook much bleaker than when you’ve become the first team all season to lose to the Wizards.

Still, these things happen. If it were a one-game pratfall, it would be easier for the Trail Blazers to move on up the road and try to work out their frustrations on the soon-to-be-Rondo-less Celtics.

But the trouble is that 15 games into this season, it is already beginning to look a lot like last season. And the one before. And the one before.

“Inexcusable,” is the way guard Wesley Matthews described the loss at Washington and nobody was really sure if he was talking about the way the Blazers shot the ball, rebounded, defended or got off the bus.

Intolerable for their fans is the knowledge that over the past decade, the Blazers have done more rebuilding than FEMA and still have little to show for it. They have the longest current Western Conference drought without winning a playoff series (13 seasons and counting) and are giving little indication that it’s about to end. Enthusiasm for new coach Terry Stotts’ up-tempo, move-the-ball offense is leaking like air from a flat tire.

All of which quickly brings up the question of what to do with LaMarcus Aldridge?

The Blazers official stance is: nothing. That’s what general manager Neil Olshey told Aldridge in an October meeting, asking for patience and promising that the power forward would not be traded.

But how wise is that from both sides?

Aldridge is 27 going on who knows what. He’s previously had a heart condition, was sidelined last season by a hip injury and is now bothered an achy back, probably from having to carry so much of the load. He’s averaging a team-high 38.2 minutes per game and a career-low shooting percentage of 43.9.

On one hand the Blazers need their best player on the floor for his lion’s share of time in order to even dream of competing for one of the lower rung spots on the playoff ladder. But if this is a team that isn’t really going anywhere until rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard develop, Nicolas Batum gets a real clue and then significant free agent additions are made next summer, does it make sense to wear Aldridge out?

The Blazers, with Greg Oden and Brandon Roy as cautionary tales in their recent past, are quite familiar with players that simply break down physically. If it’s going to take Olshey’s two-year window to get Aldridge the help he needs, what state will he be in physically, not to mention mentally? Might there come a time, even this season, when L.A. is ready to flee to L.A. or OKC or any other playoff contender with a need for the kind of firepower he brings? In this NBA era that we live, players are far less likely to commit themselves to a franchise for an entire career. How much longer before those around him, or Aldridge himself, conclude it’s time to start inching him toward the door?

If you’re the Blazers and have seen Aldridge’s game deteriorate into mostly jumpers and fadeaways this season, it could be easy to conclude that he’s past the point — if he ever was — of being a No. 1 option on a championship contender. If you’re already thinking about the next remodeling of the roster, wouldn’t it make sense to move the process along with a deal that could bring in young talent to grow at the same pace with Lillard, Leonard and Batum?

Of course, the trade deadline isn’t till February. But it’s already gotten late early in Portland.

Hickson Rebounding In Many Ways

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Tuesday night at Sleep Train Arena, there was J.J. Hickson grabbing 13 boards against the Kings, which was after 18 rebounds a day earlier against the Hawks and 14 rebounds two days before that against the Spurs. After everything.

Hickson has gone from the Cavaliers giving up on him … to the Kings really giving up on him … to the Trail Blazers spending the No. 11 pick on a center to eventually replace him … to being impossible to pull from the starting lineup. That’s impressive enough. That it has all happened in 16 ½ months is more like unbelievable.

June 2011: The player Cleveland once refused to include in an Amar’e Stoudemire trade package with the Suns, causing the deal to collapse, is traded from the Cavaliers to Kings for backup forward Omri Casspi and a first-round choice.

March 2012: Hickson is cut by Sacramento less than three months into the season, then signed by the Trail Blazers to help the Portland roster limp across the finish line.

October/November 2012: Hickson, re-signed as a free agent during the summer, is averaging 11.9 rebounds a game and has five double-doubles, tops on the team.

“It was tough,” he said of the path. “I’m glad I’m in the position I’m in now. It shows that hard work does pay off. For me, it’s all about being consistent and finding a home in this league. And I think I found my home with the Blazers.”

Meyers Leonard, the lottery-pick center out of Illinois, would have been at least a year away from real impact anyway, maybe two. Hickson, though, has played well enough to end any debate over the opening lineup before it started. Coach Terry Stotts gave the informal nod to Hickson heading into camp, as the closest thing the Trail Blazers had to an incumbent there, and hasn’t had to adjust.

We’ve Got Our Eyes On You

 

On opening night everybody is undefeated and optimistic. But that doesn’t mean some players — young and old — aren’t more under the gun to step forward and establish their place in the league. So we present a couple of fistfuls of guys who need to hit the ground running:

Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers — It’s been four seasons now of occasional flashes and teases. Now that Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are simply yellowed pages in the history books, it is time for Batum to be the twin support along with LaMarcus Aldridge that is a bridge to the future. Rookie of the Year candidate Damian Lillard might draw a lot of attention in the backcourt along with fellow newbie Meyers Leonard in the middle, but after getting his big paycheck, Batum must deliver the goods every night.

Michael Beasley, Suns — As Bob Dylan might have sung, how many roads does a man walk down before he’s considered a bust? This is already the third stop on the reclamation tour of the former No. 2 overall pick, and if he can’t succeed in coach Alvin Gentry’s offense-friendly atmosphere in Phoenix, what’s left? Beasley can score. He can rebound. What he has to prove is an ability to keep his head in the game and with the program.

Andrew Bogut, Warriors — There’s virtually nobody in the league that questions his ability as a passer, scorer and defender in the middle. The only question is his durability. It’s been four years since Bogut played more than 69 games in a season and twice he’s managed only 36 and 12. Coming back from a fractured ankle, he missed the entire preseason schedule and only practiced for the first time on Monday. The Warriors need him on the floor to even think of making a run at the playoffs. (more…)