The fall of the Portland Trail Blazers

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Every person is going to have their individual sticking point. The one thing that they’ll point to, keep coming back to. For most, it will be Brandon. If Brandon Roy’s knees had held up, if he he had meniscus left in just one of his knees, it would have been different. Others will go to Oden. “He was great when he was on the court,” they’ll say (which is an exaggeration brought about by the circumstances but he was very good). “If he had just been able to recover, he would have been the missing piece.” Some will point to a tough matchup with the Mavericks (which most fans wanted and were surprised when they lost) that caused an inspiring team to fall short. And some will pin it on coaching, management, ownership, this player or that. And the fact remains.

We are witnessing the fall of the Portland Trail Blazers.

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It’s March 10th, and the Trail Blazers dropped to 19-21, two games back of the 8th spot in the Western Conference. By no means are they out of it. A five game winning streak likely puts them back in 8th. They are in the midst of a long road trip against tough opponents which makes things more difficult. But all of this belies how they’ve looked. And how they’ve looked is a ship taking on water.

They lost to the struggling Boston Celtics 104-86 Friday night, and at one point were down 40-17. It was one of those “There’s so much blood!” games where you want to look away, it’s so gruesome. They are 3-7 in their last 10, and 5-14 on the road. They have looked out of place, out of sorts, out of effort, and without much of anything in the way of basketball ability. One of their wins in this awful stretch came against the Spurs on one of those nights where Pop rests the Big 3. An inspiring win it was not.

Worse still are the non-court things in play. There is rampant talk that Nate McMillan has lost the group, that players want him fired, that guys are checked out. There’s dissension between those players playing out the year wanting to win and those playing out the year wanting to collect a paycheck and go home. All of the things you associate with a bad situation, that’s how this thing is described. The word “cancerous” has been tossed around repeatedly to describe the locker room. It’s as bad as it can get without gun play, according to most.

This, from a team that has always relied on the strength of its chemistry.

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You need to try and remember where this team came from. Portland fans are so dedicated, so committed, so passionate. They’re one of the iconic fanbases of the sport. The Lakers are loud and many. The Celtics fans proud and abundant. But Blazers fans are, to be quite honest, lunatics. You love interacting with them because no one cares about their team as much as they do, takes the team into their hearts the way they do. You hate talking to them for this exact reason, but that comes with the territory. And the Trail Blazers era wrecked so much of that.

They were disgraced, they were embarrassed, they couldn’t get behind their guys. But then this new era erupted and there was so much to be excited about. A young group that had no reason to dissolve. Brandon Roy was the phenom, the future “jersey in the rafters” kid. LaMarcus Aldridge was never given the top billing but worked his way to be the kind of impact player Oden was designated to be from draft day. Oden was going to make it all come together. Those years when the Blazers were rising to near the playoffs and then making their first appearance were filled with nothing but hope and confidence that this Blazers team would be a Finals contender for the next half-decade. What could go wrong?

Everything.

Nearly everything.

Ownership, too quick with the trigger on GMs who were good at their job. (Yes, multiple GMs in a three-year span, how does that happen?) Management too attached to ideas of players than production or what they can acquire at some points, and too rushed to bring in veterans at others. Injuries, of course. Dynamics. And a coach who always seemed to get more out of his guys than you could expect but not as much as you could demand.

And so it ends. A dream that was set on fire and left to slowly burn out, a reminder that being young and well-formed does not mean that team is destined for greatness, that it’s more than coaching, talent, and desire, that luck is often the determining factor in basketball fate. The trade deadline is five days away. While you’re waiting for that next move which is inevitably coming, if not a total blow-up, try and remember what this team meant, what they were supposed to be, and how good that made everyone feel. And use it to remind yourself that basketball can be melancholy sometimes. It can be disappointing. It can be sad.

The Blazers are on fire. But it’s not a disaster or a hilarious explosion or an egotist exploration.

It’s a funeral pyre.

God Save the Blazers.

Fans to vote on “Best Dunk,” “Best Assist,” other categories handed out at NBA Awards show

zach lavine
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Fans are going to get their say at the NBA Awards Show, coming June 26 on TNT. Drake will be the host, and we to come up with an under/over on the number of players Drake gives a bro hug to during the ceremony.

That’s the night the NBA will hand out its Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and every other major postseason award — except for All-NBA Team, which has to come earlier. The media have already cast their votes for these awards.

Where the fans get to come in is the fun awards, categories created just for this event:

• Dunk of the Year
• Best Style
• Block of the Year
• Assist of the Year
• Game Winner of the Year
• Top Performance of the Year

The NBA already narrowed down the list of choices for each category to three, and voting opens tonight. Just go to  www.nba.com/nbaawards and cast your ballot, or on Twitter or Facebook just post the #AwardName and First/Last Name of their winner (for example, #DunkOfTheYear  Larry Nance).

These awards should add some energy — and good highlights — to what has the potential to be a stuffy event. It’s a bunch of NBA players in suits in a ballroom in New York, this is going to feel like a branding event at times. The NBA is hoping the fans can liven it up.

Here are the categories, with the hashtags for voting:

#DunkOfTheYear
• Los Angeles Lakers’ Larry Nance, Jr. vs. Brooklyn

• Minnesota’s Zach LaVine vs. Phoenix

• Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo vs. Atlanta

#BestStyle
• Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert
• Chicago’s Dwyane Wade
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook

#BlockOfTheYear
• San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard vs. Houston
• New York’s Kristaps Porzingis vs. Brooklyn
• Miami’s Hassan Whiteside vs. Toronto

#GameWinnerOfTheYear
• Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving vs. Golden State
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook vs. Denver
• Phoenix’s Tyler Ulis vs. Boston

#TopPerformanceOfTheYear
• Phoenix’s Devin Booker 70-point game vs. Boston
• Houston’s James Harden nets 53-16-17 triple double vs. New York
• Golden State’s Klay Thompson scores 60 in three quarters vs. Indiana
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook with most points in a triple-double, 57-13-11, vs. Orlando

#AssistOfTheYear
• Golden State’s Draymond Green to Stephen Curry to Kevin Durant
• Denver’s Nikola Jokic with no-look pass
• LA Clippers’ Chris Paul with wraparound pass

Report: USC’s Elijah Stewart intended to declare for NBA draft, forgot

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Declaring for the NBA draft is like declaring bankruptcy: You can’t just bellow it and expect it to take effect. You actually have to fill out the paperwork.

That’s why USC’s Elijah Stewart wasn’t among the 192 early entrants to the 2017 NBA draft.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

Stewart:

Givony’s report will do little but embarrass Stewart. It’s unlikely Stewart would’ve been drafted, and he likely would have withdrawn to return to USC for his senior season. Perhaps, he would’ve gotten helpful feedback from the NBA before that point, but that’s minimal.

The real problem, though, isn’t Stewart’s inattentiveness, to whatever extent is exists. It’s that the NCAA won’t allow players to maintain eligibility while having an agent.

If Stewart had proper representation, there’d be no questioning whether he intended to declare for the draft. His agent would’ve handled it, one way or the other.

If the NCAA were truly about educating players, it’d allow them to have guidance from experienced professional agents. Agents don’t have to conflict with amateurism (not that amateurism is a worthy goal, anyway).

But teaching players is not the NCAA’s true goal. The NCAA prioritizes keeping its cartel in tact and money flowing to coaches and administrators.

Agents might steer players from that corrupt system entirely or at least help them leverage their immense power to gain better compensation than a wage-fixed scholarship.

This incident should spark discussion about the unseemly lengths the NCAA goes to to protect its money-makers from its revenue-generators. Instead, it’s much easier to make Stewart a punchline.

Kevin Durant gets a hoot out of meme with Draymond Green

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You’ve seen the Draymond GreenKevin Durant meme, right?

Here’s the video with my favorite caption:

In the latest episode of “Still KD,” Durant watches the meme, reads other captions and calls it “hilarious.”

Russell Westbrook: ‘Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be’

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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The Thunder want to sign Russell Westbrook to a contract extension that projects to be worth about $207 million over five years.

But does he want to sign it?

Westbrook, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“That’s something, like I said, I haven’t thought about anything, obviously,” Westbrook said. “Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City and I love being here and I love everybody here. But I haven’t even thought about that. Obviously, Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be.”

Westbrook noted that his wife is expecting their first child in May, and that’s where his focus is right now. Asked whether there’s a timetable on his decision about a potential extension, Westbrook lightheartedly jabbed back.

“No. What did I just say? Like you don’t care about my baby?” he said. “You must not. You didn’t hear that part, huh?”

Though it was painted as Westbrook showing his loyalty to the Thunder in stark contrast to the departed Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s renegotiation-and-extension last summer was also his way of receiving the highest-possible salary.

This is a different case.*

*So, it seems. It’s unclear whether the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow Oklahoma City to renegotiate Westbrook’s 2017-18 salary up to the designated-veteran-player rate, but I’m presuming not.

Westbrook will have 10 years of experience when an extension would kick in. A typical advantage of a designated-veteran-player contract is allowing a player with eight or nine years experience, who’s typically limited to a starting salary of 30% of the salary cap, to receive a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap. But Westbrook will be eligible for 35% of the salary by then simply due to his years of service.

In other words, an extension signed this summer would pay Westbrook the exact same amount he could receive as a free agent in 2018.

So, would Westbrook sign that extension? It’d guarantee him a huge salary and protect him in the event of injury or decline. But Westbrook is so good, he’s extremely likely to get the max in 2018-19 no matter what. With only minimal risk, maybe he’d rather maintain flexibility.

Westbrook appeared to embrace leading the team, and he truly seems happy in Oklahoma City in a way I didn’t expect when he signed last summer. His image is so tied to loyalty to the Thunder, it’d be tough to spin an exit.

But Oklahoma City is relatively locked into a roster that will have a hard time winning multiple playoff series. Westbrook wants to win.

I don’t know whether he’ll accept an extension this summer rather than delaying a year, but if he won’t ink a deal this year, that should be a concerning indicator to the Thunder about their chances of re-signing him in 2018.