VIDEO: James Harden and the Houston Rockets are ready to roar after a banner 2014-15 season
NEWS OF THE MORNING
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 expectations … Marcus Morris is still taking shots at the Phoenix Suns … Klay Thompson is already taking full advantage of Steve Nash in his role as the Golden State Warriors’ part-time player development consultant … The 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