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.”

Nets fined $25K for injury-reporting violation

Brooklyn Nets
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Earlier this season, Kyrie Irving missed several weeks with a shoulder injury. Throughout the absence, the Nets provided few details and no clear timeline. Eventually, a report said Irving could miss 2-3 additional weeks with bursitis. The Nets denied it. Later, Irving confirmed he had bursitis then returned nearly three weeks after the report.

Finally, Brooklyn caught the league’s ire.

NBA release:

The NBA today announced that the Brooklyn Nets have been fined $25,000 for failing to comply with league policies governing injury reporting.

It’s unclear what specifically caused this violation. Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Jamal Crawford and Rodions Kurucs have all appeared on the Nets’ injury report during the resumption. As 19-point underdog, Brooklyn pulled a historic upset of the Bucks. Remember, public injury disclosures are primarily about preserving gambling integrity.

For the NBA not to reveal even basic details while fining the Nets for their lack of transparency is ironic. It’s also ironic this fine comes amid a restart that featured the NBA being highly secretive about player heath.

The Clippers got fined $50,000 earlier this season for saying Kawhi Leonard was healthy. What did Brooklyn do that was less egregious but still worth of a fine?

LeBron James says Lakers have off-court issues, out vs. Rockets (groin)

Lakers star LeBron James
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The Lakers’ offense has stumbled so far in the bubble.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

LeBron gave a weird answer about this. He agreed that he and the Lakers were looking for a rhythm on offense. And then he said: “It’s just some things that you can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about, that’s off the floor.”

Mike Trudell of the Lakers:

Was LeBron referring to his groin injury? I wouldn’t call that an off-court issue, but maybe he would.

LeBron knows how to work the media. This subtle comment will draw attention and sets up LeBron to look better if he leads the Lakers through this mysterious issue.

Without more context, it’s easy for imaginations to wander – especially about a team with Dwight Howard, Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith. The Lakers could be facing a major hurdle. Or a minor nuisance. Who knows? But the unknown is scary.

It’ll be difficult to detect the Lakers’ progress during remaining seeding games. The Lakers have already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and without a home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, there’s no reason to chase the NBA’s best overall record. That’s why LeBron missing tonight’s game against the Rockets could be mostly precautionary.

76ers: Ben Simmons suffered subluxation of knee cap, considering treatment options

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Ben Simmons injured his knee during the 76ers’ win over the Wizards yesterday.

The diagnosis is in, and the prognosis sounds worrisome.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

How quickly will Simmons recover? Once he recovers, will he face elevated risk of re-injury?

These questions now haunt Simmons and Philadelphia.

Simmons is a young star who’ll begin a max contract extension next season. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons opened Philadelphia’s championship window, and now rain is drizzling through. Philadelphia can’t reach it ceiling without Simmons healthy and providing value.

Even more modest goals in a disjointed season will be more difficult to reach.

The 76ers were just adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward. Now, they must again re-configure their plan – maybe for a significant chunk of the remainder of the season.

Even more burden falls onto Embiid, who has been shouldering so much with this mismatched roster. Simmons plays across the positional spectrum, so any number of 76ers could fill in while he’s out. Many of those lesser players will complement Embiid more smoothly than Simmons did. But the talent deficit without Simmons can’t be offset.

That’s the scary issue for now – and maybe a while.

Kelly Loeffler calls WNBA players supporting her opponent for senate ‘out of control cancel culture’

Sue Bird wears shirt supporting Raphael Warnock in senate race against Kelly Loeffler
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WNBA players and Kelly Loeffler hit a stalemate.

Players want to oust Loeffler as Atlanta Dream co-owner because Loeffler – a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia – holds political stances they disagree with and is advocating against the league supporting Black Lives Matter. Loeffler said she won’t sell, and the league won’t force her out.

So, players have turned to Loeffler’s senate race, wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts in support of Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock.

Holly Rowe of ESPN:

Loeffler statement:

ATLANTA—Today, political outsider and conservative businesswoman Kelly Loeffler issued the following statement in response to WNBA players wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” t-shirts. The shirts endorse Kelly’s Democrat opponent, Raphael Warnock, following her criticism of the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter political organization.

“This is just more proof that the out of control cancel culture wants to shut out anyone who disagrees with them. It’s clear that the league is more concerned with playing politics than basketball, and I stand by what I wrote in June:

“We come together around sports, but promoting a political agenda divides us rather than unites us. The lives of every African American matter, and there’s no place for racism in our country. But I oppose the BLM political organization due to its radical ideas and Marxist foundations, which include defunding the police and eroding the nuclear family. On the other hand, our flag represents our values of freedom and equality for all. If we can’t unite behind our flag, much less the national anthem during this struggle, then what keeps us together? It’s sad to see that there’s more interest in tearing our country apart than in solutions that bring us together. I’ll continue to defend American values and our flag, because this is not a game – it’s the future of our country. “

“Cancel culture” is a vague term with shifting definitions. But people supporting voting for one political candidate over another? That comes nowhere near any reasonable definition of cancel culture.

WNBA players are not just basketball players. They’re human beings with varied interests – including politics. That should come perfectly naturally to a self-described “political outsider” who’s a sitting senator and running for re-election. If it’s reasonable for Loeffler to be interested in politics (it is), it reasonable for WNBA players to be interested in politics.

As far as Loeffler restating her previous points, she remains errant.