Trail Blazers will go as far as these two bench players take them

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The Portland Trail Blazers started the season slow. Right until the New Year, Terry Stotts’ squad was struggling to keep their heads above .500 in a Western Conference that wasn’t as tough as everyone assumed it would be this past July.

Then, it all changed.

Portland found its footing midway through January, going 7-1 from Jan. 16 to Jan. 31. Shabazz Napier hit a hot streak, and paired with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers had a triumvirate of scoring guards many teams found difficult to stop.

Meanwhile, Ed Davis helped cover for the gaps in the game of rookie Zach Collins, who found his way into the lineup as the second big man off the bench. Everything was clicking, even with former starter Maurice Harkless racking up DNP-CDs.

That’s when something switched for Harkless. The 24-year-old wing saw himself in game tape, riding the pine, with an awful look on his face. He felt like he had let his teammates down, and in doing so had let himself down. Harkless made a vow to change his attitude and his effort. He was back to playing heavy minutes to start February.

The Blazers struggled to start the month against the likes of the Raptors, Pistons, and Celtics, but eventually rallied. We all know what happened next. Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 14, Portland broke off 13-straight victories for their best winning streak of the season.

At the heart of that winning streak? Strong play from both Davis and Harkless.

Harkless, who signed a 4-year $40 million deal with the Blazers in 2016, added a much-needed 3-point shooting option that the Blazers were sorely lacking. While the reputation of the team and Stotts’ Flow offense is as a scoring one, the fact is Portland still only finished 11th in 3-point percentage and 19th in shots taken behind the arc. Al-Farouq Aminu, having an up year beyond-the-line after a disastrous 2016-17 campaign, was simply not enough to draw defenders away from Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner, a non-factor from 3-point range, didn’t help either.

So when Harkless changed his attitude, it changed the offensive makeup of the team. In February and March, Harkless shot 48% and 56% from deep, respectively. His gravity allowed him confidence in his playmaking, too, as his assist totals went up as defenders stopped packing the lane or trapping Portland’s star guards.

Meanwhile, a fully-healthy Davis had helped the Blazers’ big man rotation all season long. Jusuf Nurkic — who only started to respond to direct and open pleas for aggressiveness from coaches and teammates around the All-Star break — was up and down. Davis, whose shoulder bothered him last season, was back to his normal self. His box score statistics were typically drab; more often than not a nine-rebound, six-point effort belied the importance of his contribution.

Davis helped cover up for some of the rotational mistakes of the youngster Collins, who showed defensive prowess and skill as a screener, adding range on offense where Davis could not. It was not atypical to see a play in which Collins grabbed an offensive rebound and keenly dished to Napier for a quick 3-pointer before the defense could reset, all while Davis engaged and neutralized an opponent’s best glass cleaner.

With both Davis and Harkless operating at full tilt, Portland’s rotation seemed to have fewer valleys between their peaks. Along with Nurkic becoming more aggressive, the Blazers transformed over the winter from one of the most uneven teams in the Western Conference playoff race to one of the deepest.

And thus, how Davis and Harkless go come playoff time will largely dictate how the Blazers move through the postseason.

The unfortunate fact for Portland fans is that Harkless underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the beginning of the month. He could be out for up to six weeks, and a recent status update puts Harkless as up in the air for the first round. Without the young forward, Portland closed the year 3-4, just barely making the third seed as they trumped the Utah Jazz in the final game of the year.

Davis, meanwhile, is at least some kind of consolation. He’s not perfectly healthy either — Davis suffered a turned ankle at the same time as Harkless, and had to sit out four games (it should be added that, in those four games without Davis or Harkless, Portland went 1-3). Yet Davis has powered through, and was a positive impact against the long arms of Rudy Gobert in that final matchup vs. Utah. No surprise here — with Davis back in the lineup against the Jazz, Collins went back to contributing positively after a few games of subpar play.

Portland has many weapons that will likely carry them beyond the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. Lillard is playing solid, and McCollum appeared to break out of whatever funk he was in during the last game against the Jazz. Nurkic seems attached, and guys like Aminu and Turner know their roles and can be relied on each game. New Orleans is no easy out, but the series was split between the teams in the regular season and it’s best to pick talent come playoff time.

Even if Anthony Davis is the best player on the floor during times in this upcoming series, Portland’s bench talent is what pushed them to that 13-game win streak earlier in the year. If their other constituent parts perform near their ceiling, it’s players like Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless who will decide how deep the Blazers go in the playoffs.

Now, Rip City just needs New York Moe to get healthy as they try to chase the semifinals for third time in five seasons.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.