51 Q: Beyond Lillard, who steps up for Blazers?

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ outlook changed in a hurry this summer. They went from a 51-win team that looked like a legitimate contender in the Western Conference before a season-ending Achilles injury to Wesley Matthews, to losing four of five starters (including LaMarcus Aldridge) in the offseason and replacing them with young, mostly unproven players. They’re all but certain to be one of, if not the worst teams in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard is their only dependable, proven scorer, and he’ll have a greater burden than ever on the offensive end. But with the new, lower expectations comes a lot of opportunity for some of the other players to prove themselves.

Lillard will see a lot of time in the backcourt alongside C.J. McCollum. That unit won’t be able to defend anybody, but there’s plenty of scoring potential there. McCollum averaged just 15.7 minutes per game during the regular season but blossomed in the playoffs, scoring 17 points per game and shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range in the Blazers’ first-round loss to Memphis. That’s an extremely small sample size, and it remains to be seen whether McCollum can keep up that level of production playing an expanded role for a full season. His ideal use is probably as a sixth man leading the second-unit offense. But the Blazers are severely lacking in shot creators outside of Lillard, so McCollum will have plenty of opportunities to put up numbers, even though that likely won’t translate into wins.

One of the most intriguing players on the Blazers’ roster is Lilliard’s 2012 draft classmate, Meyers Leonard. Miscast as a center because of his size for the first two years of his career, Leonard found a role last season as a stretch four, shooting 42 percent from three on 112 attempts. As a rookie, he looked completely lost on the defensive end, which made him almost unplayable in the years when Portland was trying to contend. But he’s made strides on that end, to the point where you can at least keep him on the floor. As the longest-tenured Blazer along with Lillard, he’s the most familiar with Stotts’ system, which will be an advantage for him trying to earn playing time against a stable of newcomers.

The rest of the Blazers’ frontcourt rotation sans Aldridge and Robin Lopez will be interesting to figure out, too. Besides Leonard, the players are all new, with varying track records. Noah Vonleh, acquired from Charlotte in the Nicolas Batum trade, is a complete unknown as an NBA player. The former No. 9 overall pick barely played in his rookie season, but looked good in Summer League (whatever that’s worth), displaying a solid midrange game, ballhandling skills and athleticism undiminished by the back surgery that limited him last season. He’s still extremely raw, but he’ll have opportunities to be a contributor. Free-agent signee Ed Davis is more limited but more of a known quantity. He’s a great rebounder and scorer around the basket, and could be an effective pick-and-roll partner for Lillard. His skillset is largely redundant with that of Mason Plumlee, whom the Blazers traded for on draft night and will probably start at center.

Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers’ biggest and most controversial free-agent signing, is going to anchor an otherwise dreadful perimeter defense that’s losing Batum and Matthews. He’s versatile and athletic, capable of playing both forward positions. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give them much in the way of shooting, which will be tricky in Stotts’ movement-heavy offense. He’ll likely start at small forward, since there’s virtually nobody else there on the roster, but he’s been most effective in Dallas and New Orleans as a smallball four.

Stotts is going to have a lot of room to experiment with all of this stuff.. The likeliest starting lineup to kick the season off is a Lillard-Gerald Henderson-Aminu-Leonard-Plumlee unit, with McCollum as the sixth man. But there will be many different lineups. One of the benefits of a season with no expectations outside of a high lottery pick is plenty of space to try stuff. This roster and rotation is not going to look in April like it does in November. The Blazers, with among the lowest payrolls in the league, have plenty of space to make a move at the deadline and should be highly motivated to do so to hit the salary floor. Lillard is poised for an all-time huge-numbers-on-a-bad-team season with the dearth of offensive talent around him. It’s going to be a lot of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Lillard is the only sure thing, and the Blazers locked him up long-term with a five-year extension. That part of the rebuild was easy. Sorting out which of these young pieces are a part of their future will take more time.

Joseph Tsai to buy rest of Nets, Barclays Arena for $3.4 billion

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NEW YORK — Joe Tsai has agreed to buy the remaining 51 percent of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals that two people with knowledge of the details say are worth about $3.4 billion.

Terms were not disclosed Friday, but the people told The Associated Press that Tsai is paying about $2.35 billion for the Nets – a record for a U.S. pro sports franchise – and nearly $1 billion in a separate transaction for the arena. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the transactions have not yet been completed.

Tsai is the co-founder and executive vice president of the Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant. He already had purchased a 49 percent stake in the team from Prokhorov in 2018, with the option to become controlling owner in four years.

Instead, he pushed up that timeline for full ownership of a team on the rise after signing superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in July.

Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, became the NBA’s first non-North American owner in 2010 and oversaw the Nets’ move from New Jersey to Brooklyn two years later. He spent big in the first couple years after the move in a quest to chase a championship, but the team soon became one of the worst in the NBA before rallying to return to the playoffs last season.

“It has been an honor and a joy to open Barclays Center, bring the Nets to Brooklyn, and watch them grow strong roots in the community while cultivating global appeal,” Prokhorov said in a statement. “The team is in a better place today than ever before and I know that Joe will build on that success, while continuing to deliver the guest experience at Barclays Center that our fans, employees, and colleagues in the industry enjoy.”

The deal is expected to be completed by the end of September and is subject to approval by the NBA’s Board of Governors.

That would put Tsai, a native of Taiwan, in full control of the team by the time the Nets head to China to play two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Lakers in October. That comes at the start of a season of renewed excitement for the Nets, who just three seasons ago won an NBA-worst 20 games but are set to make a big move up the standings after landing two of the best players on the market when free agency opened.

“I’ve had the opportunity to witness up close the Brooklyn Nets rebuild that Mikhail started a few years ago. He hired a front office and coaching staff focused on player development, he supported the organization with all his resources, and he refused to tank,” Tsai said. “I will be the beneficiary of Mikhail’s vision, which put the Nets in a great position to compete, and for which I am incredibly grateful.”

Brett Yormark, the CEO of BSE Global, which manages the team and the arena, will oversee the transition before leaving for a new role.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder tells Donovan Mitchell to ‘be a sponge’ around Gregg Popovich

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While other players continue to pull out of the USA Basketball roster — De'Aaron Fox was the latest, and P.J. Tucker before him — Utah’s Donovan Mitchell has been outspoken in his commitment to the team.

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that…” Mitchell said Friday night after Team USA’s exhibition game win over Spain. “For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

A lot of players have left — or just not put their names in the hat in the first place — saying they wanted to focus on preparing for the regular season, especially players in the Western Conference, which is deep with outstanding teams. The Utah Jazz, now with Mike Conley at the point, are one of those teams with high expectations.

Mitchell, however, has the full backing of his coach Quin Snyder to stay with Team USA and learn from Gregg Popovich, as Snyder told Marc Stein of the New York Times.

“Both Donovan and I have been excited for this opportunity, not just the chance to compete for his country but to play for Pop. I think he has an appreciation for the fact that he’s playing for the greatest coach that’s ever coached…

“Just try to throw yourself completely into it,” Snyder said he told Mitchell. “And try to communicate with Coach as much as you can. Be a sponge.”

Popovich has had an impact on the young players on the roster. For example, there’s more maturity to Kyle Kuzma‘s game, and Popovich recognized him on the court Friday night when Kuzma made a couple of smart plays against Spain.

Just having different coaching voices — not just Popovich but his assistants Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce, and Villanova’s Jay Wright — can help a young player. The message may be consistent, but said in a different way, one that better gets through to the player. Styles matter.

Mitchell led Team USA in scoring against Spain with 13, but Snyder and Jazz fans are hoping for more. Not just gold at the World Cup in China starting Sept. 1, but that Mitchell comes back energized and with a broadened game after having been a sponge next to Popovich.

Marcus Smart reportedly cleared to play for Team USA

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Through two weeks of training camp, first in Las Vegas then in Los Angeles, through one intrasquad scrimmage and one exhibition game, Marcus Smart has sat in street clothes.

The Celtics guard has a calf injury that has sidelined him. On Thursday in Los Angeles he took part in the shooting parts of practice during training camp, but not the full-contact scrimmages against the select team. All he could really do was this.

Friday night he never got out of his warmups and did not play against Spain, but he did say on the broadcast he would be back.

Turns out, he was cleared to be back the next day according to Mark Stein of the New York Times.

This takes away a little of the sting of De'Aaron Fox deciding to withdraw from the team just before it left on Saturday for Australia.

It also means four Celtics are on the USA roster: Smart, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. USA assistant coach Steve Kerr jokingly said to me last week he asked Brad Stevens for a thank you gift for running Celtics mini-camp.

Smart is one of the 13 players headed down under for a series of tune-up games before the World Cup (against Australia and Canada). If he’s fully healthy enough to go, Smart is a lock to make the roster because of his physical perimeter defense and ability to shoot the three (36 percent last season in the NBA, and the international line is a little closer in). He likely would come off the bench at the two behind Donovan Mitchell.

Bill Walton broadcast White Sox vs. Angels game and was nothing short of brilliant

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Bill Walton is brilliant.

The Hall of Fame hippie and big man was in the broadcast booth Friday night — not for basketball, but for the White Sox vs. Angels MLB game. Walton loves baseball even if his understanding of the sport is… unconventional.

I want Bill Walton to narrate my life.

The world missed him while he battled serious back issues, it’s so good to have him out and around and being himself again.