Damian Lillard: ‘I’m not going to be the hero’

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — It was Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts who first addressed the elephant in the room.

General manager Neil Olshey took the stage to face the media at the start of fall camp, and Stotts jokingly lobbed the first question: “Why didn’t you sign LaMarcus?”

LaMarcus, of course, is LaMarcus Aldridge, a fixture on the Trail Blazers’ roster for the past nine years, who left for San Antonio as a free agent in the offseason.

Aldridge wasn’t the only starter to leave: So did guard Wesley Matthews (Mavericks), center Robin Lopez (Knicks) and fellow forward Nicolas Batum (Hornets). Those four, along with point guard Damian Lillard, anchored a team that went 51-31 before getting bounced from the first round of the playoffs by Memphis.

Lillard, the only starter standing once the summer was over, now shoulders the “face of the franchise” tag.

He’d prefer the focus be on team.

“I’m not too interested in all this leadership talk to be honest with you. It’s kind of funny that it has become the story,” he said. “Everything that we’re doing is going to be based on the group. I’m not going to be the hero.”

Lillard, an All-Star who signed a five-year, $120 million contract with Portland in the offseason, averaged a career-high 21 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds last season.

He’ll be surrounded by a yet-to-be announced cast of starters, from a roster that ranks the third-youngest in the NBA.

Some other things to watch for when it comes to the Blazers’ upcoming season:

MCCOLLUM AT POINT: Coach Stotts in the preseason played guard CJ McCollum at point guard, suggesting he will be Lillard’s backup. McCollum saw minutes at shooting guard late last season, stepping in after Matthews tore his Achilles, averaging 17 points and four rebounds in the postseason, including a career-high 33 points in Game 5.

“It’s a comfortable role for me, and one that I can thrive in, I just have to get more reps at the NBA level,” McCollum said.

OH MEYERS: 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard, poised to break out in his fourth season with Portland, made seven starts for Portland last season and appeared in all five playoff games. Athletic for a big, he also emerged as a surprising 3-point threat and came off the bench for a double-double (13 points, 13 rebounds) against Memphis in Game 4 of the playoffs.

It’s possible the Blazers slide him to power forward because of his athleticism and shooting ability.

NEW FACES: The new guys include 6-foot-11 Mason Plumlee, who spent his first two NBA seasons with the Brooklyn Nets. He was acquired, along with the draft rights to rookie Pat Connaughton, from the Nets in a deal that sent guard Steve Blake to Brooklyn.

The most veteran of the newcomers is Gerald Henderson Jr., with six years in the league, and center Ed Davis, who has played for the Lakers, Toronto and Memphis over five NBA seasons. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu signed as a free agent after five seasons with several teams.

CONNAUGHTON GOES WITH BASKETBALL: At least for now, it appears Connaughton has settled on chasing his hoop dreams. The rookie out of Notre Dame has a 96 mph fast ball and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2014 before deciding to return to the Fighting Irish for his final season of basketball.

The 31st overall pick by Brooklyn, Connaughton averaged 12.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season at Notre Dame.

SO THAT STARTING 5?: Only the Blazers know for sure, and they’re probably still trying to figure it out, too. Portland is still waiting on Henderson to get healthy from offseason hip surgery. But it appears that it will be Lillard at point (McCollum at backup), Henderson at shooting guard, Aminu at small forward, Davis or Leonard at power forward and Plumlee at center.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.

Watch Russell Westbrook drain two buzzer-beaters against Blazers

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The Portland Trail Blazers had to know it was not their night when Russell Westbrook knocked down a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer just before the half.

Westbrook wasn’t done, he had one more buzzer-beater in him at the end of the third.

Westbrook wasn’t the only guy in the building draining half-courters — for the second-straight game a Laker fan knocked down a half-court shot, this time to win $25,000.

It was a good night all around for the Lakers and their fans at home against the shorthanded Trail Blazers. They got 31 points from LeBron James, plus 27 points and 12 boards from Anthony Davis. Austin Reaves added in 22, and the Lakers took control in the third and cruised in for a needed win.