Damian Lillard, from stopped to surging, takes Portland back toward top

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Damian Lillard, prior to an inbound with 0.9 seconds left and the Trail Blazers down two points in a closeout playoff game, stood almost cryptically still.

The Trail Blazers weren’t supposed to be here. They went 33-49 last season, and though they had a solid young core, few thought they could take a major step in only a year. We predicted they’d go .500 and miss the playoffs. An ESPN panel had them 10th in the Western Conference with 39 wins. Yahoo Sports also gave them 39 wins, and Sports Illustrated pegged them 11th in the conference.

Without warning, Lillard took off like a bat out of hell.

The Trail Blazers point guard raced by defenders, received the inbound pass and made a jaw-dropping, buzzer-beating, series-ending, city-inspiring, legacy-defining 3-pointer to give Portland its first playoff win 14 years.

The final score Friday was Trail Blazers 99, Rockets 98 – and the tension of a tight game that was never separated by more than four points for the excruciating final 17 minutes only fueled the celebration afterward.

Lillard ran around a suddenly crowded court and popped his jersey – a gesture The New York Times once said would never reach the NBA because it put too emphasis on the team over the individual. Then, the second-year point guard grabbed the microphone and shouted “Rip Citaaaaayyyyy!!!”

Party on, Portland.

The Trail Blazers and their fans have been through so much – consecutive sweeps by the Lakers, taking the Mavericks to Game 7 before losing, the Jail Blazers, bottoming out at 21-61, drafting Greg Oden, more early playoff exits, losing Brandon Roy, believing they could lose LaMarcus Aldridge – and Lillard’s shot released all their frustration and turned it into jubilation.

Lillard didn’t singlehandedly save the franchise, but he’s breathed life into it like nobody since Roy. First Lillard won Rookie of the Year, and now this. Friday, he finished with 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-10 on 3-pointers. He’s quickly earned a place in any discussion about the NBA’s most-clutch players.

Aldridge (30 points and 13 rebounds) was nearly as good, but Houston’s two stars nearly outdid Portland’s and sent this series to a Game 7.

James Harden (34 points on 15 shots) lifted the Rockets late, and Dwight Howard (26 points and 11 rebounds) carried them late. Howard scored 13 straight Houston points, accounting for all the team’s scoring in the final 8:50, until Chandler Parsons made a putback that put the Rockets up two with 0.9 seconds remaining.

Before the final inbound, Parsons, perhaps expecting to switch back on a screen, switched with Patrick Beverley (Houston’s top perimeter defender) onto Lillard. Then, Lillard’s sudden burst toward an inbounding Batum created an easy pass and open, though long, shot.

The basket that sent Portland into delirium also began an offseason of scrutiny for the Rockets.

They signed Howard last summer, ratcheting up expectations to championship level. They have two legitimate stars and arguably the NBA’s best role players. Nothing seemed out of reach.

But a reasonable analysis suggests they needed a year for their new players to jell and another offseason to re-stock the roster after trimming the requisite salary to sign Howard. After all, not even LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh won a title their first season with the Heat.

Don’t count on reasonable, though. Howard is the NBA’s easiest scapegoat, and people will line up to criticize him.

Patience is not a virtue in this league. Not in Houston and not in Portland.

No team had gone longer since its last playoff-series win that the Trail Blazers, and the wait was excruciating. And also worth it.

It was only a matter of time until Lillard and his Trail Blazers escaped their malaise, took off and brought Portland to its feet once again.

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s reported reaction to Knicks’ $71 million offer: ‘Man, that’s crazy’

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Knicks acting (now long-term) front-office leader Steve Mills signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet shocked some within the Knicks.

It also apparently shocked someone who wasn’t (yet) with New York – Hardaway himself.

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I was talking to somebody who would know about the Tim Hardaway Jr. scenario. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s first words after signing that contract: “Man, that’s crazy.”

In the likely event Hardaway doesn’t live up to this massive contract, he’ll get blamed – and the scorn will be hotter in New York.* That’s not fair, as Hardaway was just taking the money offered to him. He wasn’t getting anywhere near that much anywhere else. But it is reality.

*It’s a lesson Kyrie Irving, who could land anywhere, could stand to remember as he reportedly hopes for the Knicks to trade for him.

As hilarious as Hardaway’s response was, it doesn’t top Tyler Johnson for my favorite reaction to a loaded offer sheet.

Report: As Kyrie Irving rumors swirl, Timberwolves still negotiating extension with Andrew Wiggins

AP Photo/Jim Mone
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The Timberwolves were working on a contract extension for Andrew Wiggins.

Then, Kyrie Irving‘s trade request became public. He reportedly listed Minnesota among his preferred destinations. Jimmy Butler (a friend of Irving’s) and Karl-Anthony Towns have petitioned Timberwolves management to add Irving, and the team is exploring a deal. Wiggins fits perfectly what Cleveland is said to be seeking.

So, where do extension talks stand now?

Darren Wolfson of

The Timberwolves could simultaneously be exploring multiple paths. They might want to trade for Irving, even if it means including Wiggins. They might want an extension lined up with Wiggins in case they don’t. They’re not committed to either direction until they finalize something.

They’re not even committed to keeping Wiggins if they extend him.

It’d complicate an Irving trade, to be sure. Wiggins outgoing salary would still count as his actual salary ($7,574,323), but his incoming salary to Cleveland would count as the average annual salary of the entire deal – the final season of his rookie-scale contract and the extension years both included.

But there’s no time period after signing Wiggins to a rookie-scale extension where the Timberwolves would be prohibited from trading him. He could also sign an extension with the Cavs anytime between a trade and Oct. 16. Minnesota might be assessing Wiggins’ extension demands on behalf of Cleveland, which would surely be interested in extending him in accordance with a trade.

If the Timberwolves actually sign Wiggins to an extension, that’d send a big signal they don’t plan to trade him for Irving – but even that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Until a deal becomes official or more concrete word leaks of Minnesota’s plan, I wouldn’t assume a Wiggins-for-Irving deal is off the table.

Report: Kyrie Irving ‘very badly’ wants trade to Knicks

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Kyrie Irving, who grew up in New Jersey, listed the Knicks among his preferred destinations in a trade.

Is New York his top choice?

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I got a phone call, and the voice on the other end of that phone call is a trustworthy person. And he was saying to me that Kyrie Irving very badly wants to be a New York Knick. Kyrie Irving wants to come home.

Irving is less valuable than Kristaps Porzingis and more valuable than Carmelo Anthony, and the Knicks can’t easily bridge either gap. They reportedly won’t trade Porzingis for Irving, a wise move. Anthony – who possesses a no-trade clause – is reportedly set on the Rockets. An Irving trade would almost certainly have to be centered around one of those two players.

Maybe Cleveland can work its way into a multi-team trade with Anthony going to Houston, but it’s unclear where the assets the Cavs are seeking would come from.

When Irving requested a trade, he should have known he’d lose control of the process. Locked up for two more years and without a no-trade clause, Irving has minimal sway. His relationship with the Cavaliers looks increasingly unworkable, but they could deal him anywhere.

That said, I can see why he’d want to go to New York – big market in his home area, a team he could take over. Even as Porzingis grows in stature, he’s not a ball-dominant player who’d step on Irving’s toes.

But this just feels like a Stephon Marbury redux. From owner James Dolan down, the Knicks are poorly run, and their stars – beloved when welcomed – usually leave with their reputations damaged.

By the way, what happened to the Spurs being Irving’s top choice? In a situation like this, sometimes people close to the player have differing preferences and leak accordingly. That could have just been someone near Irving pushing for his or her choice for the guard – and this could be, too.

If players thought this year’s free agent market was tight, next summer could be “nuclear winter”

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Plenty of agents spent this summer trying to explain to their clients that the summer of 2017 was not the summer of 2016 (one I know of even was thanking media members in Las Vegas who wrote about how tight the free agent market had gotten so he could show his clients). Players saw the ridiculous contracts of 2016 — Timofey Mozgov got four-years, $64 million; Bismack Biyombo got four years, almost $70 million; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, players deep into rosters were overpaid — and thought this summer it would be their turn.

Except it wasn’t. In 2016 the salary cap spiked from $70 million to $94 million and that meant 27 teams entered free agency under the cap (and the teams over it spent big to re-sign their own), and $5 billion in contracts were handed out. This summer, 14 teams were under the $99 million cap and about $3 billion was handed out — and once the stars such as James Harden got paid big, the market dried up and players got less than expected. Four-time All-Star and elite defender Paul Millsap would have been a clear max a year ago, he could “only” get three years (at age 31) at $4 million less than his max. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would have been a lock max in 2016, he signed a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million this summer. And further down the list guys like Rajon Rondo are signing team-friendly deals.

And next summer is going to be a far tighter market. As Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks of ESPN point out, the free agent class of 2018 is going to pay for the excess of 2016.

The early projections for 2018-19: nine teams with cap space, and potentially 10 teams paying luxury tax.

“The real story is the nuclear winter for free agents coming next year,” one team executive with authority to make personnel decisions told ESPN. “Teams planned the last two summers for the cap to be much higher. The fact that it went way down from the projections crushed teams.”

Another general manager put it this way to ESPN:

“What I see all the time is players not understanding why, ‘This player got this, but I get that?’ They want it to make sense and it just doesn’t make sense. I think you’ll see a lot of agents get fired.

“The top guys will always feed first and then the year of the cap spike, there was a lot left for everybody else to feed. Next year, the top players will still get theirs, and then there will be not much left.”

NBA teams are not going to negotiate deals off the mistakes of 2016, they see that as the outlier to be ignored.

The Summer of 2018 is loaded with top free agents who are going to get max contract offers from their own teams and those with enough cap space to try and poach them — LeBron James, Kevin Durant (he will re-sign with Warriors), Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, plus restricted guys who could see max deals such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. There’s even a second tier of guys who will be maxed out or close to it — Andrew Wiggins (extension eligible right now), DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, and others.

But that next tier down? How much will teams pay for Robert Covington? Aaron Gordon? Clint Capela? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Danny Green? And for guys counting on the one-year deals they signed this summer to boost their stock — we can use Derrick Rose as an example — even if they play well they may not see the money they expect.

The league and owners had wanted to smooth in the salary cap spike of 2016, raising it fair amount over three or five years to avoid the spending spree, but the players’ union rejected that idea. For the free agents in the summer of 2016 that worked out well. For the ones in the 2018… not so much.