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.

Damian Lillard opposes idea of later NBA season start running into summer

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At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a few weeks back (although it feels like a lifetime ago), Atlanta  CEO Steve Koonin suggested the NBA should permanently shift its schedule to a mid-December start with the Finals running into August. The idea was to stop going head-to-head with the NFL and college football at the start of the season. Then the pushed back playoffs forced by the coronavirus have made that discussion more relevant. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said everything is on the table.

Damian Lillard is not a fan of the idea.

He likes the schedule just the way it is, something he said during a video conference with the media on Tuesday, hat tip to Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Portland.

“I just don’t see it. I mean, the season starts when it starts now, then February all-star weekend, getting toward the end of the season in April and then getting into the playoffs. You get that early June Finals and then you get to go off into your summer…

“You get to enjoy real-time summer,” Lillard said. “Our break is into the summer and then you get to come back as summer is leaving. I think that’s been perfect…

“It’s been perfect for us,” Lillard said. “So, for that to change and for things to be pushed back, I’m definitely not a fan of that and I don’t see many guys being a fan of that.”

Lillard is not alone in thinking this way, but Silver is more open to change than most sports commissioners. That said, changes that break with long-standing traditions are hard to make a reality.

There would be a lot of questions around a schedule change. Would the ratings still be as high for a Finals series in the heart of the summer? The NBA season no longer would sync with the NCAA or international leagues’ schedules, leading to questions about the draft and timing for players who want to test the waters. There would need to be reworked television contracts, both regionally and nationally. It could make scheduling a challenge at arenas used to having more concerts and other events in the summer.

Plus, all of this would need to be negotiated with the players union — and Lillard speaks for a lot of players on this issue.

If the NBA could somehow convince players that starting later meant more money in their pocket, those union negotiations would take on a different tone. But would the move increase revenue? That’s not an easy sell.

With this NBA season likely running late, the start of next season could be pushed back, and this theory could get a little bit of a test. Or, the next season could be shortened a little to get the league back on its regular schedule.

Which would make Lillard happy.

Report: NBA deprioritizing playing regular-season games for local TV

Steve Kerr and LeBron James before NBA game
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The NBA is financially incentivized to play more regular-season games to satisfy local-TV contracts.

How does that square with resuming play – currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic – with a play-in tournament and playoffs?

It doesn’t.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to one source, getting some teams to a magical number of 70 regular-season games had been a goal, but in the last week has taken on less of a priority.

This stoppage is going to cost the NBA a lot of money. There’s no way around that. Not every source of revenue can be preserved. It’s about finding the optimal setup.

Importantly, canceling games could allow the NBA to reduce player salaries through force majeure. Of course, the union would consider that action when negotiating how to proceed.

LeBron James advocated for playing some regular-season games before the playoffs so everyone could get back into shape. But Steve Kerr called it very unlikely the Warriors would play another regular-season game. Perhaps, playoff-bound teams like the Lakers will play tune-up regular-season games while Golden State – the only team officially eliminated from the playoff race before the hiatus – doesn’t. It’d be a little odd to have such different formats, though. (Then again, these are odd times).

Considering this report, we ought to give more credence to the idea that Kerr knows something about the NBA’s plan and that the regular season is finished.

Lakers update that all players ‘currently symptom-free of COVID-19’

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Nearly two weeks ago, the Lakers announced that two of their players tested positive for the coronavirus. “Both players are currently asymptomatic, in quarantine and under the care of the team’s physician… All players and members of the Lakers staff are being asked to continue to observe self-quarantine,” the Lakers said at that time.

On Tuesday, the team provided an update saying nobody on the team is showing any symptoms after a couple of weeks of quarantine.

“All Lakers players are currently symptom-free of COVID-19. The team will continue to follow the health and safety guidelines set by government officials, the Lakers and the NBA,” the statement said.

The Lakers’ players who tested positive were never publicly identified (in fitting with HIPAA regulations).

A total of 10 NBA players — plus five members of staff associated with teams — have tested positive for the virus that has upended life in the United States. None reportedly have had to be hospitalized. Players such as Marcus Smart and others have recovered and free from the virus.

The NBA remains suspended, with the league hoping to jump-start the playoffs in June, possibly with all the teams in one location.

Report: NBA won’t hold draft until after season

NBA draft
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The NBA draft is scheduled for June 25. Most expect that date to change as the coronavirus pandemic causes postponements around the world.

Apparently, the draft will come after the NBA season – whether the season is completed in a modified format or just cancelled.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I think everybody in the league feels it’s almost impossible to have a draft if you still have a season that’s ongoing.

You can’t have a draft while teams are still playing. You can’t have some teams able to do trades because their season’s done and then some teams unable to do trades because they’re still playing.

It doesn’t strike me as difficult to hold the draft before the season ends. Teams wouldn’t be allowed to trade current players. The restriction would apply across the board, just like the interrupted pre-draft process. That’s not ideal, but compromises must be made amid this chaos.

Importantly, holding the draft sooner could appeal to both sides of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

It’d be an opportunity to hold a revenue-producing TV event. Obviously, drafted players wouldn’t attend a mass gathering. But with sports fans starved for content, people would watch the selections. A handshake with NBA commissioner Adam Silver is only a small part of the festivities.

The National Basketball Players Association should also push for an earlier draft. Prospects want information sooner so they can prepare for their next step – whether that’s the NBA, returning to college or playing overseas. That said, the union has bigger priorities than potential future members.

So, it’s easy to see why postponing the draft has gained momentum, even if that’s not a no-brainer solution.