5 up, 5 down: I want to trust the Trail Blazers so badly


5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

A lot has happened since we last spoke, dear readers. The 2018 NBA All-Star Game came and went, I think the Cleveland Cavaliers traded me to New Orleans, and there seems to be a major shift in how people are thinking about the Houston Rockets as title contenders.

However, it’s all about the little things in the NBA — especially in the regular season — so let’s get into the broth and see what this soup is made of.

5 Up

The Portland Trail Blazers are third in the West

Look, the Blazers started off the season in typical fashion. They were up and down, finishing the 2017 calendar year close to .500. They’ve now been damn near unstoppable since mid-January, and they’re looking good despite having one of the most difficult schedules remaining — not to mention a bunch of outstanding tiebreakers.

Ed Davis has been great, Moe Harkless has jumped out of his funk and earned a starting role, and rookie Zach Collins looks like the big man of the future in Rip City. That’s without saying anything about Damian Lillard, who would be the Player of the Month in February if Anthony Davis weren’t playing on the moon.

The team looks and feels more confident in the final six minutes or so of games, a leap from what Blazers fans may have experienced earlier in the year. They’re still not close to the level of the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, but it’s entirely possible we could finish the year saying Portland is legitimately the third or fourth-best team in the West without batting an eye. Even if it all falls apart Monday against the Los Angeles Lakers, that feeling is different for Portland.

J.R. Smith threw soup at a guy

In no other league does this stuff happen. JR Smith, he of “You trying to get the pipe?” fame, came through for us once again. Where other leagues need their playoffs to produce attention-grabbing headlines it’s the dregs of the regular season in the NBA that lends us the best stuff. J.R. Smith threw soup at an assistant coach and, although it should probably be viewed through the lens of incorrigible workplace behavior, is actually sort of funny.

Plus, it’s rumored he threw chicken tortilla soup. That’s not even a Top 10 soup. Everything about this story was a curveball. Don’t tell me how your sport is better than this.

The response by the NBA to that Fox News lady

Some career potstirrer said some thinly-veiled, vaguely racist things about LeBron James over on a channel you would expect that sort of thing to come from. That’s not super surprising. What was heartening was how folks stepped up around the NBA to show the ignorance of Laura Ingraham. Everyone from Jaylen Brown, to Kevin Durant and Gregg Popovich had their opinion heard.

If anything Ingraham’s comments created an increased awareness and impact of LeBron’s charitable work, character, and community impact. What a master strategist.

Boban Marjanovic getting his shine

Boban is sort of an NBA Twitter mascot, and people want him to get some run despite playing for the LA Clippers. Marjanovic straight up took over a game against the Denver Nuggets recently, nearly matching the Nuggets in scoring during a 13-minute swing starting in the third quarter.

There’s been all kinds of stories about how Marjanovic is actually extremely efficient, but since he doesn’t get as much playing time as we’d like it’s hard to see those per-36 numbers tally out in real time too often. We got it against the Nuggets, which is all we ever hoped for.

We could always use more Boban. You know, have him really explore the space.

Sexy Sax Man

To be honest with you, I’d never heard of the Sexy Sax Man until the Sacramento Kings hired him to come out during a game against the Utah Jazz as a means of distraction during pregame lineups. Turns out this is a viral video from all the way back in 2011 (shoutout to the Kings for an Internet culture deep cut) and it’s pretty funny. I think the joke is mostly that the saxophone is a awful instrument. What’s the saying? “Play the saxophone. Go to jail. It’s the law.”

I think that’s it.

5 Down

They didn’t actually fix the All-Star Game

It’s nice that everyone collectively decided the All-Star Game was fun this year, but the league didn’t actually fix anything. What happened was the mid-season annual was just as boring and uncompetitive as it always is until the final period. Scratch that, if you look at the play-by-play it wasn’t actually a game until Paul George hit a 3-pointer for Team LeBron with SIX MINUTES LEFT. Team Steph was up by 13 points before that happened and it wasn’t anything to shake a stick at.

Divvying up players basically at random is sort of interesting but it didn’t “fix” anything. In the age of lifetime shoe contracts and $153 million extensions for the Mike Conleys of the league, I’m actually not convinced the All-Star Game needs to or should be competitive anymore. Don’t even play the game. Just do the 3-point contest and then have all the All-Stars compete in a Chopped tournament or something. I want to see what kind of appetizer Kyle Lowry can make out of haricots verts, gummy worms, dried herring, and Smucker’s Uncrustables®.

Philadelphia and Cleveland are in billboard wars

The recession hit us a decade ago, yet people are out here spending real American dollars on billboards to convince basketball players to sign with their team. Have you people learned nothing? You should be converting the money you spend on billboards into precious metals and panic rooms, both buried deep under your garage.

There’s nothing the city of Cleveland can do to convince LeBron James to stay there. On the other hand, there’s also nothing the city of Philadelphia can do to convince LeBron James to sign there. The factors that will influence The King’s decision this summer will be out of anyone else’s control because that’s the place LeBron is at in his career. It’s a function of things both having to do with basketball and not, and things for the current, future, and distant future.

If you want to spend money on something dumb send me an e-mail and I’ll give you my account number for my student loans.

Kawhi Leonard is STILL injured … and he has no new shoe deal

This is a recurring 5 Up, 5 Down topic that has to get retired. I would prefer this to end the old fashioned way, with Kawhi Leonard stepping on a basketball floor and becoming a complete hassle as he leads a team made of him, Patty Mills, and some 34-year-old rookie to the Western Conference Finals.

Instead, Leonard has been toying back and forth with returning this year, and there’s some questions about whether that has any influence on his shoe deal with Jordan Brand stalling.

Just get him back on the floor. Please. We’ve had enough injuries to stars, O Basketball Gods!

Marc Gasol seems … unhappy in Memphis

The Grizzlies are like the version of the Chris Paul Clippers that you didn’t actively hate. I mean, they ground you into a fine powder each game, but it was a kind of grinding you had to respect. Mike Conley is out, and despite some nice development by the Grizzlies young players, Memphis isn’t any good.

That’s taken its toll on Gasol, who said quite pointedly about that development that the Grizzlies are an NBA team and, “not the D-League.”

The Gasol era seems to be coming to an end in Memphis and indeed the whole fate of the organization seems up in the air given that Robert Pera could be selling his share of the team sooner rather than later. What a way to go out.

Kobe Bryant won an Oscar

Kobe is one of the greatest Los Angeles Lakers of all-time. He’s one of the best players in NBA history. He’s got five championships to his name. He’s also got an Oscar as of Sunday night after producing what amounted to a commercial about his retirement from the NBA.

Bryant hired one of the most well-known Walt Disney animators and John Freaking Williams to create his “Dear Basketball” animated short, which took home the trophy over several other nominations. The cartoon is part of Bryant’s big swing at career revisionism (which is working by the way) along with his “Musecage” series and “Canvas” shorts.

While “Dear Basketball” itself isn’t a specific reimagining of Bryant’s career, the Oscar he obtained for it is part of the larger move by Kobe to legitimize himself as a “storyteller”. His continued softening of the edges of his career is something to keep an eye on. No doubt this will only embolden him.

Stephen Curry out at least three weeks with Grade 2 MCL sprain


The Warriors will have to go the rest of the season and probably the start the playoffs without the guy their offense is built around.

Stephen Curry will be out at least three weeks after suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain Friday night when JaVale McGee accidentally fell into his knee, the team announced Saturday. It’s about as good of news as could have been hoped for, considering the injury and the timing, that said the team will “re-evaluate” Curry in three weeks, and Grade 2 MCL’s often take a month or more to fully heal.

The playoffs begin in exactly three weeks. Curry could be back around the start of those games or, more likely, will miss part of the postseason depending upon how his recovery goes. The Warriors are essentially locked in as the two seed right now, but in a jumbled West it’s unclear who they will play in the first round and what matchup challenges that presents. The Warriors should be much healthier by then, they will get Draymond Green back from his hip injury on Sunday vs. the Jazz. Kevin Durant is expected later next week. Klay Thompson will be a little after that, but before the playoffs.

Curry, however, is the fuel that turns the Warriors offense into something elite. Curry is averaging 26.3 points and 6.2 assists per game, shooting 42.4 percent from three this season. The Warriors offense is 14 points per 100 possessions better this season when Curry is on the court.

Kyrie Irving out 3-6 weeks following surgery on his knee

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Kyrie Irving could be back right around the start of the playoffs, somewhere during the first round, or maybe not until the beginning of the second (if the Celtics are still playing).

Irving had his knee surgery Saturday and the timeline for his return is 3-6 weeks, the Celtics announced Saturday. This is the official press release.

Celtics guard Kyrie Irving today underwent a minimally-invasive procedure to remove a tension wire in his left knee. The wire was originally placed as part of the surgical repair of a fractured patella sustained during the 2015 NBA Finals. While removal of the wire should relieve irritation it was causing in Irving’s patellar tendon, the fractured patella has fully healed and Irving’s knee has been found to be completely structurally sound. Irving is expected to return to basketball activities in 3-6 weeks.

When Irving has been off the court this season, the Celtics have been 7.7 points worse per 100 possessions, with an offensive rating of 101, which is right at the bottom of the league. In the last five games, when Irving has been sidelined, the Celtics have gone 3-2 with an offensive rating of 100.4.

The Celtics are all but formally locked in as the two seed in the East.

With no Gordon Hayward or Daniel Theis for these playoffs, no Marcus Smart to start, and now questions about Irving’s availability, the question is how hard should Boston push to get Irving back for this postseason? Irving will push, it’s his nature, but the Celtics need to think bigger picture. Boston is poised to be a force in the East and maybe the team to beat next season, that should not be risked to make a splash this season. How motivated are the Celtics to push Irving for this season’s playoffs with a roster already decimated by injuries?

Doctor working with Kristaps Porzingis: “He’ll be better than ever”

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A disclaimer up front: I’m instantly suspicious of very optimistic people with grandiose claims. It feels like they are selling something, usually a form of snake oil.

Enter Dr. Carlon Colker, who is working with Knicks big man and franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis on his recovery from a torn ACL last season. Porzingis is targeted for a return in the middle of next season (like when the calendar flips to 2019).

Colker has a much more aggressive and optimistic outlook for Porzingis, as he told the New York Post.

“Despite the talk, ‘The sky is falling, he’ll never be the same,’ that’s a bunch of horse s–t,’’ Colker told The Post. “He’ll be better than ever. He’s going to blow people away. If you’re around people who know what they’re doing, it’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of the world if you have the wrong people around you.”

With a doctorate specializing in sports performance, Colker’s job is strengthening Porzingis’ frame — everything but his damaged left knee….

“We have to deal with the ACL aspect in addition to the bigger picture. Rehabbing an ACL is straightforward. The important thing is be mindful of we’re rehabbing an ACL, but start establishing a power base, getting our balance, our flexibility back, working in conjunction with what the guys are doing on the ACL front. We’re bulking him up and giving him more muscle mass and strength, working on his upper body, doing a lot of hamstring work.”

Colker is part of an aggressive faction regarding ACL timetables. While the Knicks likely won’t let Porzingis play until around Christmas (the 10-month mark) at the earliest, Colker says he’ll have him ready for opening night.

Did anyone actually say the sky was falling?

Much of this makes a lot of sense — strengthening Porzingis’ base matters (it’s what has helped turn Rudy Gobert into a defensive force, the Jazz staff focused on his base, core, and hips). Functional training that strengthens muscles around the ACL matters. And with time, Porzingis can be back to what he was before and better.

The faster timeline… I’m not sold.

There’s a lot of data here. We’ve seen the recovery curve for a lot of NBA players with torn ACLs — and all of them are working with elite trainers, both with teams and personal ones. It takes 10 months or so to get back on the court, and usually another few months (at least) before the player really trusts the leg and starts to play with the same intensity and abandon.

For the Knicks, hopefully when Porzingis does get back on the court next season — whatever the date — he is close to his old self. The league is better with him in it.

Also, hopefully, there will be a coaching system in place in Madison Square Garden to maximize KP’s talents when he does return.

Former Kings players DeMarcus Cousins, Matt Barnes reach out to pay for funeral of Stephon Clark

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Whatever Kings fans thought of DeMarcus Cousins on the court — it was a divisive topic with changing opinions over time — he was fully committed to the city of Sacramento. He was all in.

Still is, despite playing for New Orleans. Cousins and another former King, Matt Barnes (a Sacramento native), have reached out to the family of Stephon Clark — the unarmed young black man shot by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard a week ago — and offered to pay for the funeral, reports Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee.

It is a generous gesture. The family had set up a gofundme page and has raised enough to pay for the funeral expenses through it as well.

Clark’s shooting has sparked protests throughout Sacramento, including blocking entrance to a Kings game on Thursday night. According to reports and the Sacramento PD’s own account, the shooting occurred when police were looking for a car burglary suspect and officers had tracked the suspect through yards, then confronted Clark in the backyard of his grandmother’s house, where he lived. Police allegedly thought he was armed and shot him 20 times, but he was holding only a cellphone.

The shooting has sparked reactions around the nation and from NBA players, including Barnes.

Steve Kerr and David West of the Golden State Warriors had these comments, via Logan Murdock of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I was very proud of how the Kings handled it, the way the NBA handled it,” Kerr said Friday. “I thought they did everything they could…

“The main sentiment, though, is horror and sadness for the family involved and there’s not much else to say,” Kerr said.

“You want to go through this song and dance again?” West asked. “I’m done. I stopped. I don’t have the optimism anymore.”

“We’ve been dealing with these issues for hundreds of years and so they continue.” West continued. “We won’t look at real solutions so these things continue to happen.”