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.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).