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Escaping shadow of LeBron James’ tweet, Shabazz Napier seizing opportunity with Trail Blazers

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DETROIT – When Shabazz Napier led Connecticut to the 2014 national title, LeBron James – then with the Heat and months before free agency – tweeted:

That was atypical thinking. Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis were generally rated higher than Napier, and Elfrid Payton also got drafted higher. Napier was commonly seen as a second-round pick.

Miami traded up to get him with the No. 24 pick, anyway. Though Heat president Pat Riley downplayed LeBron’s involvement in the selection, LeBron was clearly pleased.

But LeBron still bolted for the Cavaliers a couple weeks later, leaving Napier in Miami with an organization that wasn’t necessarily sold on him.

“I knew for a fact they picked me because LeBron,” Napier said. “Which is understandable. I would want to keep the best player on the planet, too. So, that sucked for me.”

Napier tried not to let it affect him, but he couldn’t help but notice how LeBron’s tweet loomed over his pro career.

“To everyone else, it was big. Whenever he says something, it’s big. And that’s because of the impact he has,” Napier said. “But, to me as a person, I always try to live in the moment. I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, this guys said my name.’ He doesn’t make that big of an impact on my life.

“Unless it’s like my mother or something like that, no one else has a big impact on my life to make me feel a certain way.”

Napier said he lacked confidence throughout his rookie year, taking the blame for that and noting he was too immature. But he also clearly believes he deserved more than fringe-rotation minutes.

“I felt like they didn’t really give me an opportunity,” Napier said.

The next offseason, the Heat traded him to the Magic of practically no return.

“When I went to Orlando, I thought there was going to be an opportunity,” Napier said. “But there wasn’t, really.”

Napier’s production regressed, as his role shrunk even further. He didn’t look cut out for the NBA.

After only one year, Orlando sent him to the Trail Blazers – again, for no real return. In Portland, his role remained minor last season and to begin this season.

But Napier appears to be finally coming into his own.

Shooting more efficiently than ever while remaining pesky defensively, Napier ranks sixth among backup point guards in real plus-minus:

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Napier has made solid gains in most facets of his game, but the biggest change has come with interior scoring. At 6-foot-1, he struggled mightily in the paint against bigger NBA players. After shooting 39% his first three years, Napier has made 57% of his shots in the restricted area this season.

His 3-point percentage has also improved – to 40%, up from 35% his first three seasons. The outside-inside game is producing 9.4 points in 21.6 minutes per game, tilting defenses and creating passing lanes.

Napier can sometimes get overpowered defensively, but he makes up for it with a knack for getting steals.

Important for any Trail Blazers role player, Napier also plays well with both C.J. McCollum (+6.7 points per 100 possessions) and Damian Lillard (+10.9 points per 100 possessions).

But Napier might not be long for Portland.

The Trail Blazers already have $110,456,026 committed to just eight players next season, and that doesn’t even account for pending restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic. The luxury-tax concerns don’t dissipate in 2019-20, when Portland has $110,128,053 committed to seven players (including rookie-scale options for Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, but not a probably re-signed Nurkic).

Considering their ability to stagger Lillard and McCollum as lead guards, the Trail Blazers might deem Napier a luxury they can’t afford. Heck, they might not even extend his $3,452,308 qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent.

The way Napier is playing, he might fetch more in free agency. Plenty of teams could use him as a backup point guard, and someone could devote a nice chunk of its mid-level exception to signing Napier.

If he’s bound to leave Portland this summer, could the Trail Blazers preemptively trade him for return before Thursday’s deadline? They should consider it. Shedding him and a minimum-salary player (Pat Connaughton or Jake Layman) would allow Portland to dodge the tax this season.

But tied for sixth in the West at 29-25, the Trail Blazers are also trying to win this season. Having Napier helps. It’s unclear how a cost-cutting move would sit with Lillard.

No matter where he ends the season, free agency will be a big opportunity for Napier. After four years at UConn, he’s already 26. This could be his only shot at a major payday.

Portland coach Terry Stotts credited Napier with working extremely hard last summer in advance of a contract year. That’s why Stotts believes Napier has improved so much, though he recognizes another explanation.

“Probably, if you ask him, he’s given an opportunity,” Stotts said.

In that regard, Napier has finally found a team on the same page as him.

“Everyone talks about I’m playing better,” Napier said. “I think it’s just all about opportunity.”

Trail Blazers: Al-Farouq Aminu out 2-3 weeks

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The Trail Blazers were absolutely right to dump highly paid Allen Crabbe on Brooklyn while they had the chance.

But they were also going to miss Crabbe’s frontcourt floor-spacing complementing Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

Thankfully for Portland, starting power forward Al-Farouq Aminu has stepped up. Aminu has taken half shots this season from beyond the arc and made 43% of them (13-of-30). He also has played solid defense for a team trying to make strides on that end.

But now the Trail Blazers will miss Aminu, too.

Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

Noah Vonleh, who just returned from his own injury, started in Portland’s win over the Lakers last night. He doesn’t nearly provide the floor balance Aminu does.

Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins could also get bigger roles off the bench, but they’re playing like the rookies they are – Swanigan one who’s experiencing up and downs, Collins one who’s in completely over his head. They should get better with experience, but Portland might have to put more on their plates than desirable.

In what’s shaping up to be a stiff competition for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference, Aminu’s absence could loom large.

Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard knows what time it is

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Damian Lillard knows what time it is, drains game winner to beat Lakers. Portland was hot all night from three, starting the game 6-of-7 from deep and racing out to an 18-point lead early. The young Lakers fought back to make it a game in the second and third (thanks in part to the fact Portland is terrible on defense), but more and more as the game went on Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts started calling Damian Lillard’s number, both as the pick-and-roll ball handler, and in isolation. The Lakers had no answer.

Lillard finished the night with 32 points on 18 shots, he got to the line 14 times, and when the game was on the line Stotts called for a Lillard isolation. Luke Walton countered with the very long Brandon Ingram on him (why not Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?), but it didn’t matter. It’s Lillard time.

2) Bad news: Lakers’ Larry Nance Jr. breaks hand. Good news: this is team making strides. The news first: Luke Walton is going to have to find a new starting power forward for a while because Larry Nance Jr. fractured the second metacarpal in his left hand against the Blazers and is out indefinitely. Nance left the game in the third quarter after contact with Caleb Swanigan and did not return, the Lakers say he will be evaluated by team doctors Friday and a timeline will be established. Nance has averaged 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds a game this season. Walton has to now figure out who starts in his place. Julius Randle had the starting job going into training camp and could get it back, but Walton likes Randle as a spark with the second unit so my guess is Kyle Kuzma gets the call (he had 22 points vs. Portland, but he struggles defensively). If Walton wanted to go with a veteran, Corey Brewer or Luol Deng are available.

As for the Lakers, the team is getting a little better each game, but this is what learning hard lessons feels like. The NBA is an unforgiving place. The Lakers battled back from being 18 down early and led by as many as five points in the fourth, and that’s a good sign, but closing out the Trail Blazers in Portland is hard for any team. The Lakers still have a top 10 defense this season (10th now), and they are putting out effort on that end, but their rotations are not sharp and good offenses like Portland’s will pick that apart. The Lakers’ defensive numbers will get worse, but they are improved on that end.

Lonzo Ball was much more passive than normal (0-of-2 shooting, 4 assists), not pushing the tempo in transition and not looking for his shot off picks despite the Portland big man laying off and daring him to shoot. Ball can pass, but he has to become comfortable as a shooter/scorer, that includes being better at attacking off the dribble into that space when teams play back and scoring at the rim. He’s not a threat as a scorer most nights (he scored in single digits six of the eight Lakers game) and the league is adjusting to him. Ball and Brook Lopez also learned some hard lessons about playing pick-and-roll defense, where Jusuf Nurkic tore them up as the roll man and finished with 28 points (the Laker help rotations were slow all night) and in the second half Lillard torched them. It’s a process, but Lakers fans have reason to be optimistic.

3) Spurs come out strong, go up 19 on Warriors… and it doesn’t matter. Golden State is back. San Antonio came out with great energy — they were deflecting passes and knocking the ball out of Warriors’ hands, plus contesting everything. LaMarcus Aldridge had 11 first quarter points, and after a 21-3 run the Spurs had a 19-point lead before the quarter ended.

It didn’t matter. Golden State found its groove, went on a 15-4 run before halftime and a 20-8 run to open the third quarter and that was the ballgame. The Warriors shot 51.8 percent overall, 50 percent from three, and held San Antonio 35.9-percent shooting in the second half. The Warriors we all expected are back, they have cured their championship hangover, and the rest of the league is searching for answers they will not find.

Klay Thompson had 27 points, Kevin Durant 24, and Stephen Curry had 21. Draymond Green pitched in 16 plus was key defensively, as always.

Blazers’ C.J. McCollum suspended for opener for leaving bench during altercation

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The lessons of Amar’e Stoudemire and leaving the bench during an altercation are still being learned.

Portland’s C.J. McCollum has been suspended for one game without pay for “leaving the bench area during an altercation” the league announced on Saturday. He will set out Portland’s season opener in Phoenix next Wednesday.

You can see it clearly on the video below from Wednesday’s game. Trail Blazers rookie Caleb Swanigan gets tangled up with Suns center Alex Len in a fight for rebounding positioning, and it turns into a little shoving match shoving match. Watch the Blazers bench, where McCollum walks off of it toward Len until an assistant coach pushes him back. By then it’s too late.

McCollum owned his mistake, texting to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

“I’ve been in the league way too long to have a mental lapse like that. I want to apologize to my teammates and the organization for putting our team in this situation. The Western Conference is already tough enough as it is. It won’t happen again. Lesson learned. I take full responsibility for those eight expensive and costly steps.”

Expect a little more Evan Turner and maybe Pat Connaughton for Portland with McCollum out.

NBA GMs overwhelmingly pick Warriors to win title, LeBron MVP

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NBA GMs seem to agree with Jeff Van Gundy — this season belongs to the Golden State Warriors.

The NBA released its annual survey of league general managers and they overwhelmingly picked the Warriors to repeat as champions. GMs picked the Warriors at a higher rate than any team in the history of the survey.

They also picked LeBron James to win MVP in a crowded field, Lonzo Ball to be Rookie of the Year (but Josh Jackson to be the best player from this class in five years), Kawhi Leonard as the best defender in the NBA, and Gregg Popovich as the best coach in the game. This survey has certainly not been 100 percent accurate over the years (they picked LeBron to win the MVP last year, too) it’s been pretty reliable.

Here are some of the results of the NBA GM survey for 2017 (when the percentages don’t add up to 100%, there were other teams/players receiving one vote).

Which team will win the 2018 NBA Finals?
1. Golden State – 93%
2. Cleveland – 7%

GM’s ranked the top four teams in the East (in order) as Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto. In the West, it was Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City.

Who will win the 2017-18 MVP?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 50%
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State –29%
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 11%
4. James Harden, Houston – 7%
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 4%

If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota – 29%
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – 21%
3. LeBron James, Cleveland – 18%
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 14%
5. Kevin Durant, Golden State – 11%

Which player forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 48%
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 21%
3. James Harden, Houston – 14%
4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – 7%

Which player would you want taking a shot with the game on the line?
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 55%
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – 34%
3. Kyrie Irving, Boston – 7%
4. LeBron James, Cleveland – 3%

Which player is most likely to have a breakout season in 2017-18?
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota – 21%
2(T). Kristaps Porzingis, New York – 14%
2(T). Myles Turner, Indiana – 14%
4. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland – 10%
5. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota – 7%

Who is the best point guard in the NBA?
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 62%
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – 28%
3. Chris Paul, Houston – 7%
4. John Wall, Washington – 3%

Who is the best shooting guard in the NBA?
1. James Harden, Houston – 83%
2. Klay Thompson, Golden State – 10%

Who is the best small forward in the NBA?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 61%
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – 32%
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 7%

Who is the best power forward in the NBA?
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans – 41%
2. LeBron James, Cleveland – 28%
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State – 17%
4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota – 7%

Who is the best center in the NBA?

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota – 28%
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans – 24%
3. Marc Gasol, Memphis – 21%
4. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans – 14%

Which team made the best overall moves this offseason?
1. Oklahoma City – 43%
2. Boston – 25%
3. Minnesota – 14%
4. Houston – 11%
5. Golden State – 7%

Which one player acquisition will make the biggest impact?
1. Paul George, Oklahoma City – 59%
2. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota – 17%
3. Chris Paul, Houston – 10%
4. Kyrie Irving, Boston – 7%

What was the most underrated player acquisition?
1. Paul Millsap, Denver – 24%
2. Avery Bradley, Detroit – 17%
3(T). Jimmy Butler, Minnesota – 10%
3(T). Jae Crowder, Cleveland – 10%
5(T). Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento – 7%
5(T). Rudy Gay, San Antonio – 7%

Which team will be most improved in 2017-18?
1. Minnesota – 69%
2. Philadelphia – 17%

Who will win the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year?

1. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers – 62%
2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia – 24%
3. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas – 7%

Which rookie will be the best player in five years?
1. Josh Jackson, Phoenix – 24%
2(T). Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia – 21%
2(T). Jayson Tatum, Boston – 21%
4(T). Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers – 14%
4(T). Ben Simmons, Philadelphia – 14%

Which rookie was the biggest steal at where he was selected in the Draft?

1. Dennis Smith Jr. (9), Dallas – 37%
2. Kyle Kuzma (27), L.A. Lakers – 22%
3(T). Donovan Mitchell (13), Utah – 7%
3(T). Caleb Swanigan (26), Portland – 7%

Who is the best international player in the NBA?
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – 69%
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver – 14%
3. Marc Gasol, Memphis – 10%
4. Kristaps Porzingis, New York – 7%

Who is the best defensive player in the NBA?
1. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 62%
2. Draymond Green, Golden State – 21%
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah – 10%

Who is the best perimeter defender in the NBA?
1. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 72%
2. Avery Bradley, Detroit – 14%

Who is the best interior defender in the NBA?
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah – 66%
2. DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers – 24%

Which is the best defensive team in the NBA?
1. Golden State – 55%
2. San Antonio – 34%
3. Utah – 7%
4. Oklahoma City – 3%

Who is the best head coach in the NBA?
1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio – 82%
2. Steve Kerr, Golden State – 11%

Which head coach makes the best in-game adjustments?
1. Rick Carlisle, Dallas – 34%
2. Brad Stevens, Boston – 31%
3. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio – 24%
4. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit – 7%
5. Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta – 3%

Which active player will make the best head coach someday?

1. Chris Paul, Houston – 39%
2. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio – 14%
3(T). Stephen Curry, Golden State – 7%
3(T). Garrett Temple, Sacramento – 7%

Which team is the most fun to watch?
1. Golden State – 90%
2. Houston – 7%
3. Denver – 3%

Which team has the best home-court advantage?

1. Golden State – 76%
2(T). Oklahoma City – 7%
2(T). San Antonio – 7%

Which player is the most athletic?
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – 62%
2. LeBron James, Cleveland – 14%
3. Zach LaVine, Chicago – 10%

Which player is the best pure shooter?
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 71%
2. Klay Thompson, Golden State – 25%
3. Devin Booker, Phoenix – 4%

Which player is the fastest with the ball?
1. John Wall, Washington – 48%
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – 45%

Which player is the best passer?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 36%
2. Chris Paul, Houston – 32%
3(T). James Harden, Houston – 7%
3(T). Ricky Rubio, Utah – 7%
3(T). John Wall, Washington – 7%

What bench player makes the biggest impact when he enters the game?
1. Andre Iguodala, Golden State – 41%
2. Eric Gordon, Houston – 24%
3. Jamal Crawford, Minnesota – 10%
4. Lou Williams, LA Clippers – 7%

Who is the most versatile player in the NBA?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 55%
2(T). Kevin Durant, Golden State – 14%
2(T). Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 14%
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – 10%
5. Draymond Green, Golden State – 7%

Which player has the best basketball IQ?

1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 64%
2. Chris Paul, Houston –14%
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 11%