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.”

Report: Heat tried to trade Goran Dragic away in Jimmy Butler deal

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The Miami Heat are not in control of the Eastern Conference Finals — just two wins from the NBA Finals — without the combination of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. They are the shot creators, the two penetrating into the paint, breaking down the Celtics’ defense, then kicking out to shooters. Butler is an All-NBA player, and Dragic is playing like the All-NBA player he was six years ago.

That pairing almost never happened.

Michael Lee at the Athletic told the story.

What’s hilarious about the Dragic-Butler partnership – a bromance that has found them bonding in the bubble over bottles of Michelob Ultras, cups of Big Head coffee, and singing the “Bad Boys” theme song from “Cops” – is it nearly didn’t happen. The initial three-team trade [Heat president Pat] Riley facilitated to get Butler involved sending Dragic to Dallas. Dragic would’ve teamed up with his Slovenian little homie, Luka Doncic, but would’ve said farewell to what he intended to do with the Heat.

The Mavericks had no interest in taking on Dragic – a 30-something hobbling on a surgically-repaired knee whose best years were way in the rearview – so the Heat had to get more creative, while remaining stuck with seemingly damaged goods. Again, nothing went according to plan.

Don’t blame Dallas on this one. Dragic played 36 games last season, had knee issues, and had looked like a shell of the All-NBA player he used to be, and on top of it he was getting paid $19.2 million. There were not a lot of teams looking to get in the Dragic business before this season started.

Instead, Dragic stayed, got healthy, accepted a sixth-man role (until the playoffs, before that Kendrick Nunn started and Dragic was the change of pace off the bench), and found his stride.

In the bubble, Dragic has taken off as the second scoring/shot-creating option in the Heat offense. Erik Spoelstra, as he does, has put Dragic in positions to succeed.

And, after these playoffs, get paid this offseason when Dragic is a free agent.

Brad Stevens hosts late night meeting with Smart, Brown, Celtics’ leadership

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A frustrated Marcus Smart yelled and vented at teammates after Boston’s come-from-ahead loss to Miami to go down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jaylen Brown reportedly snapped back that the team needed to stick together and not just point fingers. Things reportedly were thrown around in the Celtics’ locker room.

Boston coach Brad Stevens knew he had to get everyone back on the same page before Game 3 on Saturday, so he had Smart, Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker meet and talk through their issues, reported Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It was a smart move by Stevens, and it apparently worked. The Celtics have moved on from the incident, reports A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

But one source within the bubble told NBC Sports Boston that the emotions of Thursday night are “water under the bridge now” as the team prepares for a must-win Game 3 on Saturday.

The Celtics need to match the Heat’s “do whatever it takes to win” intensity on Saturday. It would be a help if Gordon Hayward plays, which appears possible (he is officially listed as questionable but seems to be moving toward playing.

Everything that happened before to Boston needs to be a lesson on what it takes to win at the highest level. Miami is confident and rolling, plus they have the relentless Jimmy Butler in their corner.

One of the four players in Stevens’ room Thursday night — Boston’s leaders — has to be the one to step up and match that intensity. If not, the Celtics will be watching the Finals from home like the rest of us.

Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo: Agents will position me to succeed ‘with the team or another team’

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s moment has arrived.

He won Most Valuable Player, yes. But he’s also the center of speculation as he approached 2021 unrestricted free agency. He could head that off by signing a super-max extension with the Bucks this summer.

In the meantime, every word he says will be scrutinized for clues about his future.

That includes grainy video today from Greece, where – because Milwaukee already got bounced from the playoffs – Antetokounmpo conducted a conference call with reporters and an interview on NBA TV about his award.

The Bucks’ season is so far in the rearview mirror, Antetokounmpo already met with Bucks ownership and returned home. Now, attention turns to his long-term outlook.

Antetokounmpo:

I have two great agents that help with that, and I know they’re going to put me in the best situation to be successful with the team or another team. But at the end of the day, I had a great conversation with the owner. And as I know so far, we’re on the same page. And I want to be in Milwaukee for the rest of my career. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to want the same thing, which is a championship.

As long as everybody is on the same page and as long as everybody is fighting for the same thing … every single day, which is to be a champion, I don’t see why not be in Milwaukee for the next 15 years?

I believe Antetokounmpo prefers to find a way to stay with the Bucks. But even while professing his loyalty, Antetokounmpo had made clear he doesn’t hold blind allegiance to Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s agent, Alex Saratsis, said in February, “Everything is open.”

Yet, this is the first time I recall Antetokounmpo himself so directly mentioning the possibility of joining “another team.”

The other time he supposedly said something like that, he claimed he was misquoted.

Of course, you could focus on other portions of his responses today like: “I want to be in Milwaukee for the rest of my career.” Yet, there’s that “we’ve got to want the same thing, which is a championship” caveat.

Two major questions:

1. How willing are the Bucks to pay the luxury tax to maximize Milwaukee’s title chances?

2. Even with a financial commitment from ownership, how equipped are the Bucks to win after a couple years of shortcuts?

Antetokounmpo must evaluate.

But he’s not just putting the onus on the organization. He spoke about working to continuing to improve, doing his part to achieve his main goal.

When talking about his 2019 MVP, Antetokounmpo said at the time, “Please, after this day, don’t call me MVP because until I win it again next year.”

Is he ready to be called MVP now?

Antetokounmpo:

Don’t call me MVP. Don’t call me two-times MVP until I’m a champion.

LeBron James surpasses Michael Jordan in career MVP voting shares

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Giannis Antetokounmpo won MVP.

As for the rest of the voting?

Here are the results with first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place votes and total voting points (10-7-5-3-1 points from first to fifth):

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks): 85-16-0-0-0-962

2. LeBron James (Lakers): 16-84-1-0-0-753

3. James Harden (Rockets): 0-1-64-10-10-367

4. Luka Doncic (Mavericks): 0-0-14-36-22-200

5. Kawhi Leonard (Clippers): 0-0-9-31-30-168

6. Anthony Davis (Lakers): 0-0-5-14-15-82

7. Chris Paul (Thunder): 0-0-3-1-8-26

8. Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers): 0-0-1-4-6-23

9. Nikola Jokic (Nuggets): 0-0-2-2-2-18

10. Pascal Siakam (Raptors): 0-0-2-1-4-17

11. Jimmy Butler (Heat): 0-0-0-2-3-9

12. Jayson Tatum (Celtics): 0-0-0-0-1-1

No, LeBron didn’t win. Nor should he have.

But the only other player in the top eight of voting still alive in the playoffs? His Lakers teammate, Anthony Davis. LeBron has a prime opportunity to bolster his legacy with another championship.

In the meantime, LeBron also boosts his resumé even with his runner-up finish.

LeBron received 753 voting points. A unanimous MVP would’ve received 1,010 voting points. So, with 75% of that total, LeBron gets .75 MVP voting shares.

That puts him ahead of Michael Jordan on the career MVP-voting-shares leaderboard:

Getting a vote every year of his career, LeBron also tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most seasons receiving an MVP vote:

A big caveat: MVP ballots had just one or three slots prior to 1981, when they went to the current five-player format. So, LeBron has had more opportunities to get lower-ballot votes.

Another caveat: LeBron’s lone fifth-place vote last season came from NBA.com fan voting.

But he didn’t just sneak onto the back end of ballots this year – even at age 35. Only Karl Malone, who won 1999 MVP at 35, has finished top two while so old.

And LeBron has been receiving MVP votes since he was a teenager.

He didn’t get the trophy that will endure. But this silver-medal finish still reflects just how incredible his career has been – and continues to be.