Damian Lillard, as stature grows, refuses to become content

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BOSTON – Damian Lillard watched in awe as his veteran teammates shared kind words with opponents after each game.

As a rookie, Lillard didn’t know what to make of the friendliness that crossed team lines. He sure didn’t take that approach at Weber State.

“I played against the same guys three years in a row, and I wouldn’t know them at all,” Lillard said. “I wouldn’t speak to them. It was kind of like I had animosity toward them for no reason, because they were the competition.”

Now, he appreciatively describes what he calls the “brotherhood” among NBA players, and he wishes opponents well after games just like everyone else. His old tweets directed at LeBron James and his recent apology illustrate how he felt and now feels about letting his guard down with other players. But more than liking or disliking the camaraderie, Lillard recognizes it as a reality of the league.

Another thing Lillard recognizes: He can’t get too comfortable in his place.

Lillard is one of the NBA’s top point guards, a Rookie of the Year and the first member of his draft class to make an All-Star game. He’s already signed an endorsement deal with adidas reportedly worth more than $100 million. And with a third-team All-NBA selection last season, Lillard is halfway to triggering the Derrick Rose rule and becoming eligible next summer for a contract extension, based on salary-cap projections, that could pay more than $140 million over five years.

Despite all his accolades and wealth, Lillard refuses to rest on his laurels.

“Understanding why you are who you are,” Lillard said. “I know didn’t come here because I was a big-time recruit or nothing. I had to work my ass off to make it happen. Now that I made it, that doesn’t change. You have to stick to what gave you the opportunity.”

Lillard is not the first player to jump from the Big Sky Conference to the NBA’s first round. Rodney Stuckey did at a few years prior, but he ended up at Eastern Washington due only to academic issues. Major teams were recruiting him. Conversely, Lillard was just deemed not worthy by bigger programs coming out of high school. Another major difference: Stuckey played just two college seasons before turning pro, and Lillard played four.

Before the 2012 draft, Lillard encountered many questions about his NBA potential. Specifically, scouts honed in on his competition level and age. Was Lillard truly great, or did he look great just because he was better and older than his opponents?

As much as it’d be convenient to dismiss the concerns as unfair now that Lillard is succeeding in the NBA, they were quite legitimate.

Throughout his entire college career, Lillard faced just seven future NBA draft picks (Jimmer Fredette, Kenneth Faried, Chase Budinger, Carrick Felix, Lance Stephenson, Allen Crabbe and Orlando Johnson). Anyone playing Kentucky this season might trump that number in a single night.

The age issue was probably even more troubling. Lillard, who turned 22 before his rookie year, was the oldest player drafted in the 2012 lottery. In the last 10 years, the only players as old as Lillard drafted so high were Hasheem Thabeet, Wesley Johnson, Shelden Williams, Ekpe Udoh and Yi Jianlian – quite the collection of busts.

Even Lillard acknowledges the age concerns were fair. He brings up Anthony Davis, who still isn’t as old as Lillard was when drafted. Though Lillard entered the NBA more ready than Davis and beat the New Orleans forward for Rookie of the Year, Davis now looks like MVP. On the other end of the spectrum, Lillard has noticed other older players who’ve entered the league since him.

“They just are what they’re going to be,” Lillard said. “They’re not going to improve. If he’s a shooter, he’s going to be a shooter. … There’s not much room for growth.”

Lillard vowed he wouldn’t fall into that trap, no matter how much his advanced age predisposed him to leveling off.

“I’m a worker,” Lillard said. “I always find ways to improve, to better myself. I’m not afraid to challenge myself.”

This offseason, his biggest offseason priority was conditioning. He’s eating better – he really misses Benihana – and looking better on the court. His averages this year (20.2 points and 6.7 assists per game) are pretty similar to last year (20.7 and 5.6), but he’s playing less and and his usage is down, making him much more efficient. He’s shooting 46 percent from the field and, though it should regress to the mean over a larger sample, 47 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also defending better than ever.

All told, Lillard has a PER of 23.3, up from 18.6 last year and up from 16.4 the year before.

Contrary to perception, that steady improvement is not the norm for players who enter the league playing as well as Lillard. Here’s how the last five Rookie of the Years progressed in their first three seasons:

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To look at it another way, here are their PERs as a percentage of their rook-year PER:

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For all the worry Lillard’s age left him too little untapped potential to justify going high in the draft, he’s the one who keeps improving year after year.

Soon enough, Lillard will truly run out of room to keep growing at this rate. He keeps pushing back that date, but it will happen. Even his coach understands that.

“I don’t know about making big leaps,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “His first two years were pretty remarkable, and if you look at other players that have done what he’s done, they do improve, but I don’t think it’s major jumps.”

 

Beyond defense, one key area of growth for Lillard has been finishing at the rim. He’s making 60.0 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 49.9 last season. Over the summer, he worked specifically on driving and making layups as someone hit him with pads.

He still runs into trouble when he has to twist and bend in the paint, as he’s not a great acrobatic finisher. But more often, Lillard has the strength and balance to stand tall amid contact.

Lillard, on and off the court, is an NBA star.

He always believed he’d get here, and after a breakout sophomore season at Weber State, he thought others would notice too. Then he injured his foot, causing him to miss most of his junior year. He knew his already-slim chance at turning pro had just narrowed. So, he dug in deeper for his fourth college season.

“I just got a little hungrier,” Lillard said. “I knew it was going to be a little bit harder. So, I worked a little bit harder.”

Lillard has made it. He’s picking up the NBA’s customs and rituals. At this point, little on the surface separates the small-school success from his major-program peers.

But Lillard still has the same competitive drive that got him out of Oakland and out of Ogden, Utah. He calls last season’s Trail Blazers-Rockets series, which he ended with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, the favorite part of his NBA career so far.

 

Lillard spent most of the series matched up with Houston point guard Patrick Beverley with whom he shares a historya mutual appreciation, if you will.  For Lillard, the series was a throwback to his college approach.

“There was a little bit of anger in those games,” Lillard said.

Though he appreciated that playoff intensity, Lillard can’t always be driven by anger. Not anymore. But, make no mistake, he still remains driven – and that’s why, against such steep odds, he continues to improve even as he climbs higher and higher into the NBA hierarchy.

“Nobody can perfect the game, so that’s the beauty of it, that you’ve got to keep working, try to perfect something that you can’t perfect,” Lillard said. “So, that’s fun.”

Another name to watch at trade deadline: Minnesota’s Jeff Teague

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After a strong start to the season, Minnesota has lost seven in a row and slid back to 10-15. Amazingly, that’s not out of the playoff picture in a West where the back end is much softer than predicted this season, but for the Timberwolves’ brass it’s a reminder they are building towards something bigger down the line.

Jeff Teague, their 31-year-old point guard, is not part of that future.

Which is why they are open to trading him, reports Jon Krawczynski at The Athletic.

The Timberwolves made it known throughout the league last summer that Teague was available for trade and that remains the case right now, league sources said…

For a team that needs a point guard — either a starter or a backup — for a playoff push, Teague could be a nice fit. He has a wealth of playoff experience, is a teammate that generally meshes well in a locker room and in the right system can be an effective scorer.

His $19 million salary is expiring, so the money shouldn’t scare many teams away. But the sheer size of the contract does make it challenging to match up money in a trade.

Teague is averaging 14.4 points and 6.8 assists a game; he’s a solid pick-and-roll point guard who wants the ball in his hands. Which could help a lot of teams, it’s just not how Minnesota wants to play under Ryan Saunders.

It’s unlikely Teague is back in Minnesota next season, which is a big reason he could get moved before the deadline — Minnesota would rather get something than nothing for him.

However, that salary combined with the lack of cap space around the league makes a deal seem difficult, if not unlikely. For all the buzz about trades around the league, this is probably going to be a down trade deadline with only a handful of moves.

Maybe Teague gets moved, but in a related matter don’t expect Andrew Wiggins to be going anywhere.

Could the Knicks get a first-round pick for trading Marcus Morris?

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What are the New York Knicks going to do at the trade deadline?

It’s not a simple question, not with team president Steve Mills is on the hot seat — there’s a long history of GMs/POBOs making bad trades looking for a short-term boost to save their jobs. Will the Knicks trade veterans looking for picks and young players to be part of the future? On top of that, the Knicks are starting to get healthy and have won two in a row. Management may want to let this play out for a while.

The plan is not to make any sudden moves on Sunday — the day most players signed over the summer (nearly 40 percent of the league) can be traded — or early in the trade season. However, the offers are going to come.

Particularly for Marcus Morris.

The veteran forward is leading the Knicks scoring 18.6 points per game, and he’s spacing the floor shooting 48 percent from three. He’s gritty, physical, defends well — exactly the kind of player that can help a team make a playoff run. The Knicks are going to get calls about him, it will be one of the most discussed rumors out there.

Will the Knicks trade Marcus Morris (who is on an expiring contract)? That could come down to can they get a first-round pick, something Mike Vorkunov broke down at The Athletic.

The market for Morris, according to opposing scouts and execs, is probably a team that believes his addition could help push them further into the playoffs. Morris is likely the only player on the Knicks who could get dealt this season who could get a first-round pick back in return, those sources believe. The Knicks could also ask for a young player with upside.

It’s not unanimous, though, that the Knicks would definitely get a first-rounder back for Morris, those scouts and executives say. Drawing a first-round pick is difficult. Last season it was only done by teams willing to take on bad contracts to free up cap space ahead of free agency — something the Knicks were unwilling to do this summer and may not be willing to do now either — and by the Knicks when they traded Porzingis.

This trade season is different from last year because the NBA feels wide open. While there are teams that have separated themselves — Lakers, Bucks, Clippers — those teams have flaws and the gaps to them are not insurmountable. There are teams out there such as Denver, Boston, and others looking at the trade market and thinking one player could make a real difference. Plus, with a very down free agent market next summer, teams feel they may have a better chance of adding now as opposed to waiting until July.

Will those teams throw in a first-round pick to the Knicks for Morris? It seems possible, but it depends on how a quiet market right now starts to heat up and shake out.

It’s going to be an interesting couple of months coming up in New York.

LeBron, what sparked your second half turnaround? “My teammates got on my ass”

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In the first half in Miami Friday night, LeBron James scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, and he had seven turnovers. The Lakers were down eight points at the break and LeBron was -6.

In the second half, LeBron looked more like the guy in contention for an MVP: 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 3-of-5 from three, and just one turnover. He was at the heart the Lakers come-from-behind win, 113-110 win.

What sparked that turnaround? From LeBron’s walk-off interview on ESPN with Israel Gutierrez:

“My teammates got on my ass. They told me you’re playing too passive, thinking about the game way too much instead of read and reacting and doing what you do… [Anthony Davis] got on me, Boogie Cousins got on me and they told me to just be me. So I was like, ‘Thank god we have two halves in a basketball game,’ where I can flush the first one and then come back and try to help us win.” 

After the game, Anthony Davis said it is the entire team’s willingness to accept constructive criticism has been a key to the Lakers’ fast start.

For most of the season it has been LeBron getting on his teammates’ asses that has fueled the 23-3 Lakers. Not only is he playing at the highest level we have seen from him this early in the season since Miami — 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and a career-high 10.8 assists a game — but he’s pushing his teammates defensively and not letting them take plays off.

The Lakers have won six in a row, four of those on the road where they are 13-1 this season. The road tests continue this week, including Friday night against Milwaukee. Also looming out there in 11 days, a Christmas showdown with the Clippers.

LeBron can’t have an off first half in those games, and he knows it.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.