Getty Images

C.J. McCollum on how Portland’s defense, and his, became respectable

Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES — Portland’s much-maligned defense has been one of quieter turn-around stories of this NBA season.  It went from bottom 10 the past two seasons — and the reason the team has stalled out in the playoffs — to being 11th in the league this season, 2.8 per 100 possessions better than the season before.

Change doesn’t just happen. It started with work last June and July in the gym and has continued into the film room during the season. 

And it started with Portland’s leaders C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The two elite guards were tired of hearing about their sub-par defense, so they prioritized defensive drills every off-season workout to get better on that end. They focused on their film study to how to get more stops. They made defense a priority and started to better use their experience in the league on that end.

“We work a lot with our strength and conditioning staff, we work with our assistant coaches on breaking down film, figuring out ways to find better angles, figuring out ways to move through screens better,” McCollum told NBC Sports of his improved defense. “But I think defensively understanding offenses a little better helps you be in better positions, understanding schemes, tendencies for certain players allows you to become a better defender. A lot of it is this is the NBA, guys are good and they’re going to score, you just have to make it as difficult as possible. Any advantages you can have make it a little bit easier.”

McCollum has been better this year. While all the defensive analytics metrics are flawed, McCollum’s defensive rating is 2.2 per 100 better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.2 percent against him this season, down from last season by more than a percentage point. McCollum has become a solid defender, which is a step up, and with Jusuf Nurkic more of his mistakes can be erased.

For McCollum and Portland, the improvement is in part about continuity. One of the strengths of the Blazers is they have kept their core together for years and kept coach Terry Stotts on the sidelines. It leads to a familiarity both with each other and the opponents they face.

“We’ve had the same guys, same staff, the schemes have been the same, our approach has been the same, just our practices have been a little bit different in terms of concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish throughout the season,” McCollum said. “Our shell has been great, a top 10 team defensively (they are currently 11th after a rough stretch before the All-Star break). Obviously, there will be slippage at times, you’re going to give up points here or there, but we’ve been pretty consistent.”

“I just think our shell has been tighter, making them skip the ball across the court a lot of times, and picking it up if they try to hit the roll man or penetrate, making them have to work a little more in the halfcourt and prevent second-chance points.”

McCollum could have easily been an All-Star — the fifth-year guard out of Lehigh University is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three — but instead was in Los Angeles for the weekend with Verizon Up, the company’s reward program for its mobile customers available through the My Verizon app (of which McCollum said he’s a member). The program offers the chance to redeem points for a lot of experiences, such as being close to Justin Timberlake for a concert. At All-Star weekend members could get premium access to all of the weekend’s events, including the Verizon Up Member’s Lounge – a space to relax, eat and drink, and meet NBA players.

NBA players were looking to relax last weekend, too. McCollum said at this point in the season players (and coaches, and referees, basically everyone) needs the mental and physical break of a few days off. Portland returns to action tonight (Friday) against red-hot Utah, and the Blazers could use the win — they are the current seven seed in the West, but just 1.5 games up on missing the playoffs completely (and just two games up on the Jazz). On the other hand, Portland is just 2.5 games out of the three seed in the bunched up West.

“We go into every game thinking it’s crucial, every game we got to perform, you got to not lose at home, you got to not lose to teams under .500,” McCollum said of the team down the stretch run. “One bad week could have you at 10th, 11th place, one good week could have you at four or five.

“There comes a time (late in the season) when there’s a drop-off. Some teams are going to be a little more inconsistent down the stretch, but you just got to rise above.”

Portland leans on Lillard and McCollum not to let the team be inconsistent down the stretch. Those two have evolved into one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.

“We do a good job of balancing each other out, of figuring out when to attack and when to pass off to the next guy,” McCollum said of him and Lillard. “I think it just comes with continuing to develop a relationship off the court where you have more trust, where you figure out how to communicate more effectively.

“A lot of it is non-verbal stuff on the court because it’s too loud and you can’t hear, or you just notice something and you look to see if he noticed it too then you just kind of play off of that.  A lot of times you learn on the fly. You get in a situation, you see certain things, and five games later it might be the same thing happening again and you kind of look like ‘you remember this?’ And you just kind of figure it out.”

Other team’s game plan against Portland is generally clear — get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands. Don’t let them get hot and beat us. Just good luck pulling that off, it’s not easy. Also, the improved play of Shabazz Napier has helped, giving Portland another shot creator off the bench.

“He’s been great, really shooting the ball well from the field, a good plus/minus… it helps when you have other guys out there who can handle the ball and create,” McCollum said.

But in the end, Portland’s playoff dreams will rise and fall with McCollum and Lillard, and that improved defense. McCollum and Lillard will get buckets. Will the Blazers get stops?

That’s where the offseason work, the continuity, and the experience all need to come together for Portland.

“(The improved defense) comes with experience, playing in big games, playing in certain environments where you get a better understanding of the play calling,” McCollum said. “We’ve played the Warriors like 16 times the last two years, so you start to understand certain tendencies (the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors just before the All-Star break). You know what guys like to do, certain plays they do out of timeouts, and just different options throughout the game, and as you play in the league more you play against certain players more and you get to figure out their tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations.”

Isaiah Thomas to Danny Ainge: ‘If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back’ to Celtics

AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Leave a comment

Isaiah Thomas had a rough year.

The Celtics traded him to the Cavaliers. He missed most of the season with a hip injury. In between, he played destructively bad for the Cavs and Lakers and got run out of Cleveland, in part, for making waves in the locker room. Free agency was especially cruel, Thomas’ Brinks-truck dreams ending in a minimum salary from the Nuggets – a historically low figure for someone who finished top-five in MVP voting just two seasons prior.

On a bright note: Thomas ended his feud with Celtics president Danny Ainge. In fact, those two spoke during Thomas’ free agency.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Before finalizing the agreement with Denver, Thomas had reached out to Boston GM Danny Ainge. They talked for 15 to 20 minutes, Thomas says, and he told Ainge: “If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back.”

Ainge says his mind was open to the idea, but the Celtics needed to work through Marcus Smart‘s restricted-free-agency discussions before they could consider making an offer to Thomas. Ainge was willing to continue the conversation, but Thomas accepted the Nuggets’ offer before Boston had reached its new deal with Smart.

“S—, I’d have gone back,” Thomas says. “I don’t hold grudges.”

Thomas played his best basketball in Boston. Brad Stevens empowered Thomas as a go-to offensive player and successfully hid him on defense. I understand the appeal of going back.

But that Thomas could never return to those Celtics. He’s older, and his hip injury might have sapped his athleticism. Boston acquired Kyrie Irving, and Terry Rozier broke out. Marcus Smart remains.

A reunion would have likely ended in disappointment.

Instead, Thomas will try to prove himself in Denver, backing up Jamal Murray. Thomas is aware of his standing, and his interview is both endearing and sympathetic. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and carries a chip on his shoulder – the reason so many of us are drawn to him. And he’s keenly aware that, in a league where so many players are paid based on past performance, he’s judged by a hip injury teams believe will hinder him going forward.

Thomas, as always, seems driven to prove himself. And maybe he will. Returning to a reserve role isn’t glamorous, but there’s an opportunity with the Nuggets.

But I also fear, no matter how well Thomas plays next season, teams will be apprehensive of a 30-year-old 5-foot-9 point guard with a history of hip problems in 2019 free agency. He might be stuck in a no-win situation and just can’t get his big payday.

Especially after this interview, though, I’m excited to watch him try.

Report: Carmelo Anthony to sign minimum contract with Rockets

J Pat Carter/Getty Images
5 Comments

Carmelo Anthony signing with the Rockets has been a near-certainty for a while.

The final steps – the Thunder trading him to the Hawks, Atlanta waiving him, Anthony clearing waivers – are close enough that specifics are emerging.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Carmelo Anthony is planning to sign with the Houston Rockets upon clearing waivers in coming days, according to two people with knowledge of his plans.

He is expected to receive a one-year deal from the Rockets at the league’s veteran minimum salary

The Rockets have the $5,337,000 taxpayer mid-level exception available, but clearly wary of an expensive payroll, they’ll get Anthony for much less.

Anthony will count just $1,512,601 toward the cap and luxury tax. He’ll pocket pocket an extra $1,871,635 – in addition to the $27,928,140 paid by the Hawks. Not a bad summer for him, as he’ll get all his money plus a little more and get to join his desire team.

For the Rockets? It’s a classic tale. They let more expensive players – Trevor Ariza ($15 million from Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute ($4,320,500 from Clippers) – leave and settled for minimum-salary players: James Ennis and Anthony.

Ennis fits well in Houston, but he lacks the talent of the departing players (who also fit well). Anthony brings name recognition, but unless he works to complement James Harden and Chris Paula huge question mark – this won’t go well. That’s why he’s leaving Oklahoma City, and there are many reasons to be skeptical he’ll acquit himself better with the Rockets.

You get what you pay for.

John Wall calls Washington’s off-season moves “pretty interesting”

Getty Images
1 Comment

After another season where the Wizards underwhelmed — due to injuries, due to chemistry issues, due to a lot of things — what were the bold moves of this summer in our nation’s capital? Well, they signed Jeff Green. And in a trade they got Austin Rivers.

The other part of that Rivers’ trade was the big news — they sent center Marcin Gortat to the Clippers. That cleared the way to sign Dwight Howard this summer. The idea of adding Howard to a locker room with questionable chemistry is a bit of a punch line.

In a podcast with Chris Miller of NBC Sports Washington, Wall called the Wizards’ summer “pretty interesting” and praised Howard.

“Even though [Howard] is older, he’s still an athletic big averaging 16 [points] and 12 [rebounds],” Wall said in the pod. He talked up Howard as a pick-and-roll threat lob threat as he rolls to the rim, saying defenses can’t cheat off of him.

“Not only do you get more layups, probably, you get more wide open threes.”

That’s great, but Howard got the ball back as the roll man on 12.5 percent of his possessions last season — it has never been something he wants to do a lot. Post-ups, however, accounted for 40.1 percent of his possessions, once you include his passes out of the post (and the Wizards scored a rather meh 0.85 points per possession on those post ups). Howard has long been better as the roll man, he just dislikes to do it.

Last season, Marcin Gortat got 20.9 percent of his shots out of the pick-and-roll and just 18.2 percent on post-ups. The Wizards don’t want to take the ball out of Wall’s hands. Nor should they.

Howard, even at this point in his career (when he is not the force of nature he was back in Orlando), can be an upgrade for the Wizards at center, but not a massive one. Nothing else GM Ernie Grunfeld did this summer moved the needle in Washington.

It’s all “pretty interesting” I guess. The Wizards look like another middle-of-the-pack team just not living up to all the potential on the roster, and it’s hard to see what changes about that this season.

 

Report: Tobias Harris turned down $80 million extension from Clippers

Getty Images
5 Comments

Is $80 million enough for Tobias Harris? Tobias Harris certainly doesn’t think so.

The lengthy Los Angeles Clippers forward is just 26 years old, and is in line for not one but probably two more significant contracts. That being said, according to a report from TNT’s David Aldridge, Harris recently turned down an extension offer from the Clippers in the area of four years, $80 million.

That reported number would have been a significant increase over the contract Harris signed with the Orlando Magic back in 2015. That deal was for four years and $64 million, but it appears that Harris is biding his time and waiting for the summer of 2019 when more teams have cap space.

Via Twitter:

Harris turning down this extension sort of leans into something I’ve been mentioning lately, and that is that some of these mid-range or cusp-level stars might end up taking less than they expect while waiting for 2019.

Yes, there is cap space to be had next summer. But there’s not an unlimited amount, and I believe that many GMs will be reticent to spend money the way they did a couple of years ago after the cap spiked. Teams handed out some crazy contracts in 2016, and several GMs will have learned their lesson.

Eighty million dollars is completely reasonable for Harris, so it seems he is either wanting more cash or perhaps he wants a change of scenery. What LAC reportedly offered Harris was an extension, and now it appears he will head straight into unrestricted free agency.

Harris is still young, and he is a good 3-point shooter. He shot 41.4 percent from deep for the Clippers last season, and he has the ability to play several positions. It’s possible that a team who wants to move into the modern, small ball type of play we’ve seen over the last couple years steps up with a big offer.

The question is who that might be.