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.

Watch LeBron’s big night: Moves into fourth in assists, triple-double, win over Knicks

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LeBron James always saves something special for Madison Square Garden.

LeBron had a triple-double of 28 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds — he became the first player in NBA history to have a triple-double in his 20th season.

That wasn’t the only bit of history, with those 11 dimes he moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into fourth on the NBA’s career assists list. And if that wasn’t enough, the 28 points moved him within 89 points of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record: Abdul-Jabbar has 38,387, LeBron is now at 38,299.

For LeBron, however, what mattered most was the win — 129-123 in overtime, giving a Lakers team starved for wins its first on this road trip out East.

“I didn’t get to this point in my career by thinking about records or how many points I have, whatever the case might be,” LeBron said, via the Associated Press. “I just play the game the right way. I approach the game every night only trying to be a triple threat by scoring, rebounding, assisting, defending, and may the chips fall where they may.”

LeBron had help, with Anthony Davis adding 27 points and nine rebounds. The Knicks got 37 from Jalen Brunson, and Julius Randle had 23 points and 12 rebounds.

LeBron needed that help as he wasn’t the sharpest he had been this season, starting 2-of-8 from the floor, then missing a couple of long jumpers in the game’s final minutes when the Lakers had the chance to seal the win. But he was good enough and put on a show for the sold-out crowd in New York.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
89

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,299

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, although that would be by one point, so Feb. 9 against Milwaukee is certainly a possibility.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Paolo Banchero, Scoot Henderson highlight player pool for Rising Stars during All-Star weekend

Orlando Magic v Miami Heat
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The big winner in last year’s All-Star Friday night Rising Stars game was the new format (and Cade Cunningham). The new setup saw players onto four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score — something that actually had the young stars defending and playing hard. Things too often lacking All-Star weekend.

That format is back, and an impressive crop of players is involved: Rookie of the Year favorite Paolo Banchero, last year’s ROY Scottie Barnes, and expected No.2 pick in the upcoming draft Scoot Henderson of the G-League Ignite. Here is a complete list of the players competing (the rookies and sophomores will be drafted into three teams of seven players each, and the G-League players will make up their own team).

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic)
Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons)
AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks)
Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons)
Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz)
Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers)
Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings)
Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers)
Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets)
Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs)
Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans)
Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors)
Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Jalen Green (Houston Rockets)
Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks)
Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets)
Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans)
Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets)
Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite)
Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite)
Mojave King (G League Ignite)
Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle)
Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats)
Leonard Miller (G League Ignite)
Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

There are former NBA stars to coach each of the teams: Former All-Stars Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Deron Williams will coach the three Rising Stars teams, while former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry will coach the G League team.

There will be three games Friday night during the Rising Stars challenge, with each game played to a target score of 40. If it’s anything like last year, it’s worth tuning in.

Needing defense, Kings reportedly eyeing 76ers Thybulle for trade

Philadelphia 76ers v Sacramento Kings
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At 28-21, the Sacramento Kings sit as the No.3 seed in the West with the second-best offense in the league — they seemed destined to break their 16-year playoff drought and very well could even host a first-round playoff series.

However, their 23rd-ranked defense (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers) will undo them come the playoffs.

That has the Kings looking for some defensive help and they are eyeing Sixers wing Matisse Thybullereports Marc Stein in his latest Substack newsletter.

Sacramento is said to be monitoring the availability of Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle as the Kings, unexpectedly holding the West’s No. 3 seed after a league-record 16 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, ponder the pursuit of a more defensive-minded option on the perimeter.

Thybulle has lived in the rumor mill for a while, this is nothing new. However, those rumors carry more weight because Thybulle’s role in Philadelphia has shrunk considerably with the additions of De'Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker as defensive-minded forwards who can provide more offense than Thybulle. Doc Rivers also leans into Georges Niang more off the bench because of his shooting.

Thybulle is in the final year of his contract and is headed for restricted free agency, the Kings might be interested in re-signing him (depending on the price and his fit with the roster). The Kings can match salaries easily enough with Davion Mitchell, Terence Davis or Alex Len, the question is who will the 76ers want back, and will the Kings need to throw in a second-round pick?

There’s some logic to this trade getting done in some form, it’s worth keeping an eye on.