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Steadily good Trail Blazers can soon up the ante – in playoffs, with Damian Lillard super-max extension

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No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds had never gotten swept in a best-of-seven first-round series until the third-seeded Trail Blazers by the Pelicans last year. A day after his season ended, Damian Lillard met with the media for an exit interview.

“I’m doing good,” Lillard said. “Things could be worse.

“I don’t want to say I’m over it, but I was just disappointed last night. I got home, held my son, watched the boxing card that happened last night. It was an exciting card. But I think doing both of these things kind of calmed me down.”

Nearly a year later, Lillard sat in the locker room watching boxing on his phone before a game. Evan Turner marveled at how chill his superstar teammate appeared.

The next few months could determine Portland’s course for several years ahead. Or they could leave the franchise in stasis with increased pressure to prove itself next year.

The Trail Blazers can redeem themselves in the playoffs this year, show last year’s loss to the Pelicans was the result of a bad matchup rather than a flawed team getting exposed. But Portland’s postseason chances were undercut by recent injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and C.J. McCollum. This just might not be the Trail Blazers’ year to advance in the playoffs.

Will it be their year to secure Lillard? There was a lot at stake for him to have a big season. If he makes an All-NBA team this year, he’ll be eligible this offseason for a super-max extension that projects to be worth $199 million over four years.

“Honestly, I never, ever even knew that was the case,” Turner said. “I mean, I hang out with him a lot, and he never talked about it. And I don’t think he’s ever concerned.

“He’s well-grounded, I think spiritually, and comfortable with himself. He knows if he goes and works hard and day-in and day-out does what’s right, good things will happen.”

Lillard has set a tone for the Trail Blazers. His leadership is so respected throughout the league.

But while there’s definitely a sentiment within the team to look forward to the postseason, the only place Portland can truly overcome last year’s playoff setback, Lillard wants more appreciation for the Trail Blazers’ 50-28 regular season.

“After what we went through last year, it would have been easy for us just to come back this year and fold,” Lillard said. “The team we lost to last year, you see what they came back and did. And they had a great postseason.”

New Orleans crumbled under the weight of Anthony Davis‘ potential designated-veteran-player contract extension. Before the Pelicans could even officially offer the deal this summer, he requested a trade. Immediately, New Orleans’ season was shot.

Portland has avoided similar drama despite Lillard inching closer to his own super-max decision.

Lillard is a lock for an All-NBA team, likely second team behind James Harden and Stephen Curry at guard. If he qualifies, Lillard “absolutely” expects the Trail Blazers to offer the super-max extension. And if they do, will he accept?

“We’ll see,” Lillard said.

A complication: Because Lillard also made All-NBA last season, he’d already clinch eligibility for a five-year super-max extension to be signed in 2020. That deal would carry the same terms over the first four years as the extension this summer. It’d just add a fifth year that projects to be worth $59 million – bringing the projected overall value to $258 million over five years.

Lillard has repeatedly touted his loyalty to Portland, and he’s under contract two more seasons. But bypassing a super-max extension this summer, even with the intention of signing a longer extension the following summer, would spark numerous thorny questions: Is Lillard unhappy? Why didn’t he lock in when given the opportunity? Does he want to leave?

Even if he answers all those questions by saying he plans to sign the five-year extension in 2020, so much can change in a year. LaMarcus Aldridge once rejected an extension with the Trail Blazers, saying he did so only to re-sign on a larger deal in free agency. But by the time free agency hit, his relationship with Portland had gone south, and he left for the Spurs.

The Trail Blazers also ought to seriously consider a super-max extension from their side. Paying any player, even one as good as Lillard, $50 million per year in his 30s is risky. It can be difficult to build a strong supporting cast with so much money tied to a single player. However, not making Lillard the mega offer he expects could also damage the team’s relationship with its biggest star.

Unfortunately, Portland and Lillard might have lost a key opportunity to evaluate each other this postseason.

McCollum might return for the playoffs, but Nurkic – out for the year – has been so important for these Trail Blazers. He has improved as a playmaker, helping Portland counter the aggressive traps the Pelicans sent at the Trail Blazers talented guards. Nurkic was also rolling harder to finish stronger inside and, perhaps most importantly, anchoring Portland’s conservative defense with his paint presence. Enes Kanter and Zach Collins can replicate dimensions of Nurkic’s game, but Nurkic was the complete package.

For a team banking on stability, that’s suddenly gone.

All six Trail Blazers to start against New Orleans last year – Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless – returned. So did Terry Stotts, who became the first coach in the shot-clock era to get swept in his opening playoff series consecutive years and keep his job.

Stotts has guided Portland to the playoffs six straight seasons, and he knows what’s at stake this year.

“When you’ve made the playoffs six years in a row, the playoffs end up defining your season,” Stotts said.

Maybe that’s unfair. The Trail Blazers were good last year. They’re good this year. A bad matchup or poorly timed injuries can derail everything.

But Portland isn’t giving up on this season.

Led by Lillard, the Trail Blazers are still fighting.

Kevin Garnett says first choice for 2007 trade was Kobe Bryant and Lakers

Celtics great Kevin Garnett and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant
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Kevin Garnett didn’t have a no-trade clause when the Timberwolves were shopping him in 2007. But because he could either sign an extension with his new team or opt out in 2008, Garnett had massive leverage over where he went. Effectively, he could swing whether it was worth a team’s while to deal for him.

Four primary suitors emerged: Celtics, Lakers, Suns and Warriors.

Garnett’s initial top choice? Joining Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.

Garnett on All The Smoke:

I’m just being honest with everybody. I wanted to link with Kobe.

Kobe and I had a different connect. When Kobe-Shaq went on their little thing, a lot of people went with Shaq. A lot of people didn’t even f— with Kob. You know, Kob, whatever. One of the very few to just stay with him. I was a neutral guy, anyway. I show everybody love.

I tried to link with him, and I couldn’t get him on the line.

Garnett was working out at the time with Tyronn Lue, who was close with Bryant and encouraged Garnett to call back. Garnett did, but Bryant still didn’t return the call.

This only reinforces the notation that Bryant cost the Lakers stars. As singularly great as he was, Bryant just wasn’t about recruiting.

Bryant and Garnett would have been a fascinating pairing. They definitely had the talent to compete. Maybe the two notoriously intense stars would have meshed over a shared approach. Or maybe they would’ve driven each other crazy, a lack of balance between them.

The Lakers even had a trade framework in place involving Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.

But Bryant’s unavailability created an opening for Boston.

Garnett:

Danny Ainge flew in, and he just got right to it and showed the vision, the vision he was seeing. You ever have somebody talk to you and as they’re talking to you, you can see what they’re seeing, so much that you’re not even looking at them no more but you see it? That’s how he was painting it. And he was a Picasso. And this is Danny Ainge’s greatness, in him being able to lure you in, his charming ass. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t even know he was finessing me.

Garnett told the Celtics to keep Rajon Rondo, who was apparently initially part of the package going to Minnesota. They did, and it worked out extremely well. Boston won the 2008 title – over Bryant’s Lakers. (The Lakers won the next two championships, including over the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals.)

What about Phoenix, which – featuring Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion – was the best of the four teams at the time?

Garnett:

I actually called Steve Nash just as a courtesy, and I guess the call he hit me back with was, “Yo, if you come down here, we need you to take a major pay cut.” And I was like, “OK, if I come down there, I’m playing with you and Amar’e right?” He’s like, “Yeah, I think they’re going to give Amar’e up for you and Shawn.” And I said, “So, who is it going to be? Just me and you?”

As for Golden State, which – featuring All The Smoke hosts Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes – had just pulled a historic upset of the top-seeded Mavericks:

I was seeing how y’all was, but I needed a superstar.

Report: John Paxson to remain in power with Bulls

Bulls executive John Paxson
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The Bulls are reportedly looking for a general manager to replace Gar Forman.

But the other half of GarPax – Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson – apparently isn’t going anywhere. And of course neither is president/CEO Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that there could be multiple people hired, as the power structure is still being determined.

Paxson and Reinsdorf are still running the show, with Paxson still considered to have a valuable seat at the table no matter what title they come up for him.

Even if it appears that Paxson will be taking a background approach, the source said don’t believe it. The Reinsdorfs still have 100 percent faith in him leading the direction of this organization.

Evaluating individual members of a front office can be extremely difficult from the outside.

But Paxson didn’t cover himself in glory when he effectively declared the Bulls, after going 27-55 in 2017-18, were done tanking. Chicago went 22-60 last season and is 19-36 this season.

The Bulls need an honest assessment of where they are. They’re not good and probably not that close to being good. They have a few interesting young players – Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. But even with a high pick in this year’s draft, Chicago’s young core isn’t strong enough to assume it will rise into a quality team.

Though Paxson has supported Jim Boylen, the Bulls could probably use a new coach.

More importantly, they must understand that remaining at the bottom and securing more high picks is their best path forward. Drafting well would accelerate the process, but drafting is hard. Sometimes, you need more bites at the apple.

Of course, that will require a patience Chicago has rarely shown.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.