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.”

Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell headline televised NBA video-game tournament

Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell
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The NBA season isn’t returning any time soon.

So, the closest thing you’ll get to live basketball on television is a video-game tournament between NBA players. The bracket has been revealed.

The Boardroom:

1. Kevin Durant (Nets)

2. Trae Young (Hawks)

3. Hassan Whiteside (Trail Blazers)

4. Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

5. Devin Booker (Suns)

6. Andre Drummond (Cavaliers)

7. Zach LaVine (Bulls)

8. Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

9. Domantas Sabonis (Pacers)

10. Deandre Ayton (Suns)

11. DeMarcus Cousins (previously Lakers)

12. Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)

13. Rui Hachimura (Wizards)

14. Patrick Beverley (Clippers)

15. Harrison Barnes (Kings)

16. Derrick Jones Jr. (Heat)

I have questions:

  • How does Hassan Whiteside have the same rating as Donovan Mitchell and a higher rating Devin Booker?
  • Does being extremely online bode well for Kevin Durant?
  • Is Donovan Mitchell, who spent his coronavirus isolation playing video games, in the best game shape?
  • Will Zach LaVine redeem himself?
  • Will players use their own teams? If so, will Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton both use the Suns, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley both use the Clippers? If not, the most interesting aspect of this tournament – to non-esports aficionados – could be reading way too much into which teams players pick.

Jeff Van Gundy predicts NBA will cancel rest of season

NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy
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Kirk Herbstreit sent waves through college football when he predicted the upcoming season will be canceled due to coronavirus.

Now, NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy is sharing a similar assessment of the sport he covers.

Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:

He doesn’t believe the 2019-20 season will resume.

“I understand how you can start again, but what’s the plan if the next person gets sick, like another Rudy Gobert-type of situation, we’re going to play through it? We’re going to cancel it again? That to me is why I don’t see any of these things taking place.

“I have no idea how they can pull off the season, and I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I hope next season isn’t impacted.”

Van Gundy is spot-on with his warning about another sick person. Can the NBA effectively test players, coaches, referees, etc. then keep them isolated? Until a vaccine is available, that’s practically essential. A single case of coronavirus would undermine the entire operation.

Holding games in one location would reduce risk. It wouldn’t eliminate risk.

Remember, the NBA planned to continue games (without fans present) until Gobert’s positive test necessitated a shutdown. Controlling coronavirus is far easier said than done.

I don’t share Van Gundy’s concern about next being impacted, though.

Next season will likely be impacted. Multiple future seasons could be impacted.

That’s worth the tradeoff.

The NBA is approaching its playoffs – the most lucrative and compelling portion of the season. It’d be a mistake to throw away the postseason just to keep future regular seasons on track.

After all, haven’t we spent the last year discussing declining interest in the regular season? A shorter regular season next season would be a perfectly acceptable tradeoff in order to hold this season’s playoffs. Heck, the NBA could shorten multiple upcoming regular seasons as it phases back toward a normal calendar.

Van Gundy is right to express caution about resuming play. The NBA shouldn’t restart anytime soon. But no matter when it’s safe to hold games again, the league should finish the season. Figure out future seasons from there.

China again delays basketball season due to coronavirus

Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) chairman Yao Ming
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As the NBA contemplates how and when to resume its season, China – on an earlier coronavirus timeline – can serve as a model.

The Chinese Basketball Association suspended its season in February and planned to resume in April. Then May. Now, it’ll be even later.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

In a setback to the resumption of professional sports, the Chinese government issued an order Tuesday delaying the restart of the Chinese Basketball Association and other group sporting events, according to documents obtained by ESPN.

CBA teams have been informing players that they still intend to return to play and hope to have more clarity in a few weeks, sources told ESPN’s Jonathan Givony.

There’s probably a bigger lesson here about not blindly trusting messaging from China.

For the NBA, it’s a grim warning about the difficultly of restarting a basketball season amid an ongoing pandemic.

ESPN moving up Michael Jordan documentary to April

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ESPN threw cold water on hopes its 10-part Michael Jordan documentary on Jordan and the Bulls, originally scheduled for June, would premiere early with the sports world lacking content due to the coronavirus.

Apparently, that was a misdirect.

ESPN release:

Today it was announced that the premiere of “The Last Dance,” the highly anticipated 10-part documentary series will air on ESPN in the U.S. on Sunday nights over five weeks from April 19 through May 17. The series will also be available outside of the U.S. on Netflix.

The series, directed by Jason Hehir (“The Fab Five,” “The ’85 Bears,” “Andre the Giant”), chronicles one of the greatest icons and most successful teams in sports history, Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, and features never-before-seen footage from the 1997-98 season as the team pursued its sixth NBA championship in eight years.

ESPN statement: “As society navigates this time without live sports, viewers are still looking to the sports world to escape and enjoy a collective experience. We’ve heard the calls from fans asking us to move up the release date for this series, and we’re happy to announce that we’ve been able to accelerate the production schedule to do just that. This project celebrates one of the greatest players and dynasties ever, and we hope it can serve as a unifying entertainment experience to fill the role that sports often play in our lives, telling a story that will captivate everyone, not just sports fans.”

In the fall of 1997, Michael Jordan, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and head coach Phil Jackson agreed to let an NBA Entertainment film crew follow the team all season long. The result would be a remarkable portrait of an iconic player and a celebrated team – a portrait only now being revealed, more than two decades later, in “The Last Dance.”

As the series weaves its way through the tumultuous 1997-98 season, viewers will be transported back to how it all began – from Jordan’s childhood roots, the Bulls’ dire circumstances before his arrival and how the team was built after drafting him in 1984, to the struggles that eventually led to the team’s first NBA championship. As the series takes the audience through the Bulls’ first five championships, viewers will experience the off-court challenges, struggles and triumphs that were a part of the culture-shifting phenomenon created by Jordan and the Bulls.

It’s an unlikely scenario that serves as a fascinating backdrop for the inside tale of the 1998 championship run, with extensive profiles of Jordan’s key teammates including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr, head coach Phil Jackson, and featuring dozens of current-day interviews with rivals and luminaries from basketball and beyond. All throughout, the tension and conflict that defined that final championship run are very much on display.

“Michael Jordan and the ‘90s Bulls weren’t just sports superstars, they were a global phenomenon,” said director Jason Hehir. “Making ‘The Last Dance’ was an incredible opportunity to explore the extraordinary impact of one man and one team. For nearly three years, we searched far and wide to present the definitive story of an era-defining dynasty and to present these sports heroes as humans. I hope viewers enjoy watching our series as much as we enjoyed the opportunity to make it.”

ESPN

Sunday, April 19

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 1

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 2

Sunday, April 26

7 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 1

8 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 2

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 3

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 4

Sunday, May 3

7 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 3

8 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 4

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 5

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 6

Sunday, May 10

7 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 5

8 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 6

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 7

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 8

Sunday, May 17

7 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 7

8 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 8

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 9

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 10

NETFLIX (outside of the U.S.)

Monday, April 20 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 1 and 2

Monday, April 27 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 3 and 4

Monday, May 4 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 5 and 6

Monday, May 11 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 7 and 8

Monday, May 18 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 9 and 10

This is welcome news, but April 19 for the Michael Jordan documentary is still a ways off. The wait is about as long as the NBA has already been on hiatus.

In the meantime, NBC Sports Chicago has a fantastic feature on Michael Jordan’s 1995 comeback.