Shabazz Napier

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C.J. McCollum on how Portland’s defense, and his, became respectable

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LOS ANGELES — Portland’s much-maligned defense has been one of quieter turn-around stories of this NBA season.  It went from bottom 10 the past two seasons — and the reason the team has stalled out in the playoffs — to being 11th in the league this season, 2.8 per 100 possessions better than the season before.

Change doesn’t just happen. It started with work last June and July in the gym and has continued into the film room during the season. 

And it started with Portland’s leaders C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The two elite guards were tired of hearing about their sub-par defense, so they prioritized defensive drills every off-season workout to get better on that end. They focused on their film study to how to get more stops. They made defense a priority and started to better use their experience in the league on that end.

“We work a lot with our strength and conditioning staff, we work with our assistant coaches on breaking down film, figuring out ways to find better angles, figuring out ways to move through screens better,” McCollum told NBC Sports of his improved defense. “But I think defensively understanding offenses a little better helps you be in better positions, understanding schemes, tendencies for certain players allows you to become a better defender. A lot of it is this is the NBA, guys are good and they’re going to score, you just have to make it as difficult as possible. Any advantages you can have make it a little bit easier.”

McCollum has been better this year. While all the defensive analytics metrics are flawed, McCollum’s defensive rating is 2.2 per 100 better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.2 percent against him this season, down from last season by more than a percentage point. McCollum has become a solid defender, which is a step up, and with Jusuf Nurkic more of his mistakes can be erased.

For McCollum and Portland, the improvement is in part about continuity. One of the strengths of the Blazers is they have kept their core together for years and kept coach Terry Stotts on the sidelines. It leads to a familiarity both with each other and the opponents they face.

“We’ve had the same guys, same staff, the schemes have been the same, our approach has been the same, just our practices have been a little bit different in terms of concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish throughout the season,” McCollum said. “Our shell has been great, a top 10 team defensively (they are currently 11th after a rough stretch before the All-Star break). Obviously, there will be slippage at times, you’re going to give up points here or there, but we’ve been pretty consistent.”

“I just think our shell has been tighter, making them skip the ball across the court a lot of times, and picking it up if they try to hit the roll man or penetrate, making them have to work a little more in the halfcourt and prevent second-chance points.”

McCollum could have easily been an All-Star — the fifth-year guard out of Lehigh University is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three — but instead was in Los Angeles for the weekend with Verizon Up, the company’s reward program for its mobile customers available through the My Verizon app (of which McCollum said he’s a member). The program offers the chance to redeem points for a lot of experiences, such as being close to Justin Timberlake for a concert. At All-Star weekend members could get premium access to all of the weekend’s events, including the Verizon Up Member’s Lounge – a space to relax, eat and drink, and meet NBA players.

NBA players were looking to relax last weekend, too. McCollum said at this point in the season players (and coaches, and referees, basically everyone) needs the mental and physical break of a few days off. Portland returns to action tonight (Friday) against red-hot Utah, and the Blazers could use the win — they are the current seven seed in the West, but just 1.5 games up on missing the playoffs completely (and just two games up on the Jazz). On the other hand, Portland is just 2.5 games out of the three seed in the bunched up West.

“We go into every game thinking it’s crucial, every game we got to perform, you got to not lose at home, you got to not lose to teams under .500,” McCollum said of the team down the stretch run. “One bad week could have you at 10th, 11th place, one good week could have you at four or five.

“There comes a time (late in the season) when there’s a drop-off. Some teams are going to be a little more inconsistent down the stretch, but you just got to rise above.”

Portland leans on Lillard and McCollum not to let the team be inconsistent down the stretch. Those two have evolved into one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.

“We do a good job of balancing each other out, of figuring out when to attack and when to pass off to the next guy,” McCollum said of him and Lillard. “I think it just comes with continuing to develop a relationship off the court where you have more trust, where you figure out how to communicate more effectively.

“A lot of it is non-verbal stuff on the court because it’s too loud and you can’t hear, or you just notice something and you look to see if he noticed it too then you just kind of play off of that.  A lot of times you learn on the fly. You get in a situation, you see certain things, and five games later it might be the same thing happening again and you kind of look like ‘you remember this?’ And you just kind of figure it out.”

Other team’s game plan against Portland is generally clear — get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands. Don’t let them get hot and beat us. Just good luck pulling that off, it’s not easy. Also, the improved play of Shabazz Napier has helped, giving Portland another shot creator off the bench.

“He’s been great, really shooting the ball well from the field, a good plus/minus… it helps when you have other guys out there who can handle the ball and create,” McCollum said.

But in the end, Portland’s playoff dreams will rise and fall with McCollum and Lillard, and that improved defense. McCollum and Lillard will get buckets. Will the Blazers get stops?

That’s where the offseason work, the continuity, and the experience all need to come together for Portland.

“(The improved defense) comes with experience, playing in big games, playing in certain environments where you get a better understanding of the play calling,” McCollum said. “We’ve played the Warriors like 16 times the last two years, so you start to understand certain tendencies (the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors just before the All-Star break). You know what guys like to do, certain plays they do out of timeouts, and just different options throughout the game, and as you play in the league more you play against certain players more and you get to figure out their tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations.”

Report: Trail Blazers trade Noah Vonleh and cash to Bulls, dodge luxury tax

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The Trail Blazers are just 29-25 and owner Paul Allen is investigating where to assign blame.

There was no way he was going to pay the luxury tax for this team.

So, Portland is dumping Noah Vonleh and his $3,505,233 salary on the Bulls.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This moves Portland below the luxury-tax line – the culmination of a process that started last summer. It’s logical economically, but it’ll be interesting to see how the Trail Blazers disassembling his supporting cast sits with star Damian Lillard.

At least shedding Vonleh is unlikely to be a flashpoint.

Vonleh has mostly struggled in his four NBA seasons, and he was out of the rotation. There’s a reason Portland dumped him as opposed to, say, Shabazz Napier and a minimum player.

But Vonleh is just 22 and still has the talent that made him the No. 9 pick in 2014. This is a good flier by Chicago – especially if the Trail Blazers cover all or a portion of his $1,227,822 remaining salary. If all goes well, the Bulls can make him a restricted free agent this summer. If not, they’re not on the hook for anything beyond this season.

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:


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.”

Three Things We Learned Monday: East playoff chase will go to final day of season

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There are just two more days left in the NBA season, so you should be paying attention, but if you were busy tweeting to help a kid get free chicken nuggets, we’ve got you covered. Here are the takeaways from a busy Monday night around the NBA.

1) Eastern Conference playoff picture will go down to the final day of regular season. The West playoff matchups are set, with the only question being whether the Clippers/Jazz series starts in Los Angeles or Utah. But out East, we will not know the final standings and who is in until the Wednesday, the last day of the regular season.

Let’s start at the top, where Monday Boston beat the Brooklyn Nets 114-105, while the Cavaliers blew another lead and lost in overtime to a desperate Miami Heat (more on that later, but Cleveland rested LeBron James and Kyrie Irving for that one). That puts Boston in the top slot in the East, one game ahead of Cleveland with one to play. However, the Cavaliers have the tiebreaker between the squads (they won three of four head-to-head), so Boston needs to beat Milwaukee on the final night of the season to secure the top slot — and the Bucks may have something to play for, depending on what the Hawks do in their last two games (Hornets Tuesday, Pacers Wednesday). The Bucks could be playing to get the five seed. Cleveland will play Toronto in the final game and will rest LeBron James again, and considering the Cavaliers have not won this season when he sits it’s good to be the Celtics right now.

Who gets the seventh and eighth seed — meaning will play Boston and Cleveland in the first round — and which team will be the odd-team out in the East also will come down to the final day.

Miami was on the verge of being eliminated, down 11 to the Cavaliers entering the fourth quarter of a must-win game, when James Johnson led a desperation comeback that got Miami a dramatic overtime win 124-121. Tyler Johnson had 24 points to lead the Heat. Also Monday night the Bulls thrashed the Magic 122-75, and the Pacers beat the 76ers 120-111 behind 26 points from Paul George. That leaves Indiana in seventh, a game up on the tied Bulls and Heat tied for the last spot, but nobody is safe yet.

Here’s the Wednesday scenario: Miami has to beat Washington or they are out (the Wizards are locked into the four seed and are expected to rest John Wall and others). Even if the Heat win, they need help in the form of a Bulls loss to the Nets or a Pacers loss to the Hawks. So it’s simple for Chicago and Indiana: Win and you’re in.

It’s going to be a dramatic Wednesday night in the East.

2) Daryl Morey publishes a string of Tweets pushing Harden for MVP based on winning. There has been a lot of momentum toward Russell Westbrook for MVP in recent weeks, and while him getting the triple-double records is part of that it has more been his clutch play, bringing the Thunder back to key wins they had no chance of getting without him.

Supporters of James Harden for MVP (and, for that matter, Kawhi Leonard) argue that the NBA MVP award has traditionally gone to a player from one of the top teams in the league, a team that wins around 55 games or more. While Westbrook has put up numbers and gotten his team wins, the Thunder will finish with 46 or 47 wins, well below the usual threshold, while the Rockets have 54 wins with a game to play. Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out this series of tweets to make the case for Harden:

Of course, all of this brings in the other context to the debate, like the fantastic job Morey did putting a team around Harden that is much better than the one around Westbrook, as we broke down.

I love that Morey is now a fan of convention when it suits him. However, the MVP debate this season, with four qualified candidates, is more of a philosophical discussion of how you choose to define MVP than anything clear cut. Is it just value to a player’s team? How much do wins matter? How much do raw stats matter? Advanced data? Blending all that is more art than science, if there was some hard-and-fast criteria everyone would vote the same way. And the fun of the MVP award in all sports is the debate of what makes an MVP. This season it just may not fall the way Morey and Harden want it.

3) Portland’s Noah Vonleh with a game-winner you and I could have made.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Down one with six seconds left in the game, Portland had the chance to knock off San Antonio at the buzzer Monday night. (For the record, both teams were playing their second units in this ultimately meaningless game.)

The Blazers inbounded the ball to Shabazz Napier, who comes off the pick and drives but has the ball poked away, in the scramble it seems to hit David Lee but ends up rolling under the basket to a wide-open Noah Vonleh, who picks it up and puts in the uncontested layup to win the game.

Napier had a career-high 32 points for the Blazers.

Blazers’ Noah Vonleh with easiest game winner you will ever see (VIDEO)

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Down one with six seconds left in the game, Portland had the chance to knock off San Antonio at the buzzer Monday night. It should be noted, both teams have their second units out there in what is ultimately a meaningless game.

The Blazers inbounded the ball to Shabazz Napier, who comes off the pick and drives but has the ball poked away, in the scramble it seems to hit David Lee but ends up rolling under the basket to Noah Vonleh, who picks it up and puts in the uncontested layup to win the game. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Napier had a career-high 32 points in the win.