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.

Dwight Howard will join Lakers for restart, donate check to social justice cause

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“Basketball, or entertainment period, isn’t needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction… I would love nothing more than to win my very first NBA Championship. But the unity of My People would be an even bigger Championship, that’s just too beautiful to pass up. What better time than now for us to be focusing on our families? This is a rare opportunity that, I believe, we as a community should be taking full advantage of. When have we ever had this amount of time to sit and be with our families? This is where our unity starts. At home! With Family!!”

Those are the words of Dwight Howard, who was among the players questioning the NBA’s restart in Orlando.  He was grieving the loss of Melissa Rios, the mother of his 6-year-old son, David, and was looking at his family as the biggest priority in his life. As it should be. Howard also is committed to the Black Lives Matter movement and, as he stated, saw the NBA’s return as a distraction.

In the end, he has decided to play in the NBA restart and donate his checks the rest of this season to charity, something Howard announced on CNN (hat tip Dave McMenamin).

That is about a $700,000 donation by Howard to Breathe Again.

Howard played a central role as a big man off the bench on a Lakers’ team that is the odds-on favorite to win it all. A ring would be the cherry on top of his Hall of Fame career.

Howard wants to be a part of that, but it means sacrificing time with family. He said it was not an easy decision, and he is putting his money where his mouth is donating his earnings to charity.

The thoughtfulness behind those decisions shows the kind of maturity Howard has grown into, even if fans never see it.

Jaylen Brown heads to restart with Boston, plans to use voice for social justice

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The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown has been one of the most active NBA players in the Black Lives Matters movement — even driving from Boston to Atlanta to lead a protest.

That’s not changing because he’s going to Orlando for the NBA restart.

Brown admitted he considered not playing in Orlando due to the pandemic, but the opportunity the NBA’s platform provided to speak on social issues was too great to pass up, Brown said in a conference call with reporters Monday, via the Associated Press.

“Once I thought about the opportunity that the organization and the NBA presented to play for something bigger than myself, I was signed up,” he said. “I plan on using my voice while I’m down there. I plan on spreading light on things that are getting dimmed and hopefully the NBA and our organization can understand.”

Brown is not alone in thinking that. Portland’s CJ McCollum is on the executive committee of the National Basketball Players Association as well and said a lot of players see the same opportunity.

“But now [the talk is] more around what impact we can make to support what is going on in the real world, to continue to support Black Lives Matter and the things we’re facing as a society,” McCollum told NBC Sports. “Those are the calls we’re having now. How can we impact? How can we spread awareness on certain things in the world that are going on?…

“The biggest thing is to take advantage of the platform [in Orlando], to coincide with the NBA and figure out productive ways we can continue to spread information, to continue to educate, to continue to put light on things that have often been behind closed doors and never been brought out to the public eye, so I think those are the conversations we’ll continue to have.”

One way players can make a statement is by replacing the name on the back of jerseys with a message pre-approved by the league. Brown, like 76ers forward Mike Scott, is not a fan of how the NBA handled it.

“I think that list is an example of a form of limitations,” Brown said. “I think we should be able to express our struggle just a little bit more…

“The bottom line is there are improvements that need to be made,” Brown said. “The NBA has a great voice, a lot of resources and a lot of influence. We’re appreciative that they’re helping and aiding in a lot of those things that we care about. That’s really important.”

Brown understands the NBA’s voice, and he heads to Orlando planning to use his.

76ers’ Mike Scott on social-justice messages on NBA jerseys: ‘That was terrible. It was a bad list’

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The NBA approved a list of social-justice messages players can wear on their jerseys:

  • Black Lives Matter
  • Say Their Names
  • Vote
  • I Can’t Breathe
  • Justice
  • Peace
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Enough
  • Power to the People
  • Justice Now
  • Say Her Name
  • Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can)
  • Liberation
  • See Us
  • Hear Us
  • Respect Us
  • Love Us
  • Listen
  • Listen to Us
  • Stand Up
  • Ally
  • Anti-Racist
  • I Am A Man
  • Speak Up
  • How Many More
  • Group Economics
  • Education Reform
  • Mentor

76ers forward Mike Scott, via Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

They gave us some names and phrases to put on the back of jerseys,” Scott said. “That was terrible. It was a bad list, bad choice. They didn’t give players a chance to voice their opinion on it. They just gave us a list to pick from. That was bad. That’s terrible. Just voice your opinion, how you feel.

“I don’t know how you can use your platform. I don’t know. Vote. Of course, vote. See what laws we can change. But I’m all about just doing, instead of just saying or posting or putting something on the back of your jersey. I don’t think that’s going to stop anything. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know.

Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, via Darren Hartwell of NBC Sports Boston:

“I would like to see — because I think it can still happen — more options available to put on the back of our jerseys,” Brown said Monday in a video conference with reporters. “We understand anything vulgar our league doesn’t necessarily represent, but for histories and causes such as now, I think that that list is an example of a form of limitation. I think we should be able to express our struggle just a little bit more.

” … I was very disappointed in the list that was agreed to. I think things were tried and attempts were made to add to that list, but the NBA agreed that that list was satisfactory. Hopefully we can get some more names on that list.”

“Maybe ‘Break the Cycle,’ ‘Results’ — that’s what everybody is really playing for — ‘Inequality by Design,’ ” Brown said, “things like that I think may have a deeper impact than some of the things that were given to us. I think it was a little bit limiting.”

As far as Scott’s complaint about players not having a voice in the list, the plan was presented as developed in conjunction with the National Basketball Players Association. Perhaps, this is another example of union leadership not being on the same page as its members. But to be fair, it’s difficult to satisfy everyone. Scott and Brown don’t necessarily speak for players en masse.

Of course the NBA – a multi-billion-dollar company – was going to allow only sanitized phrases. The middle has shifted, but not enough for mainstream support for a sharp criticism like Brown’s “Inequality by Design.” (He’s right, though.) The NBA doesn’t want too much controversy.

However, simply by operating, the league gives players platforms and resources .

Nobody should have expected these jersey messages to be the primary means of change. They’re fine and can help draw attention.

But players can do more outside the league’s formal structure, including speaking up in interviews – like Scott and Brown did today.

Pelicans sign Sindarius Thornwell as substitute player. For whom?

Sindarius Thornwell vs. Pelicans
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Three Pelicans tested positive for coronavirus. At least.

Is one of them not playing in the NBA’s resumption at Disney World?

Despite having a full roster, New Orleans is signing Sindarius Thornwell.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans today announced that the team has signed free agent guard Sindarius Thornwell as a substitute player for the remainder of the 2019-20 season.

Thornwell will wear #12 for the Pelicans.

Christian Clark of The Times-Picayune:

At this stage, only players who can’t play due to coronavirus or choose to it out can be replaced. That’s not Darius Miller, who’s still recovering from an Achilles injury.

With Zion Williamson looking fit, the Pelicans could be dangerous. They’re in a tight race to force play-in games. But they don’t have much margin for error in the playoff race.

So, keep an eye on whom Thornwell is replacing.