On scars, sutures, and healed wounds in Portland

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From Mount Tabor to Slabtown, Rip City has been waiting for this. After a 19-year hiatus, the Portland Trail Blazers are headed to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000.

CJ McCollum was the hero at Pepsi Center on Sunday, scoring 37 points and grabbing nine rebounds, closing the game with an incredible fourth quarter effort as the Blazers beat the Denver Nuggets, 100-96. It’s a game that fans in Portland will be talking about long after this season concludes, whenever that may be.

Right now it’s a celebration. In Oregon, Instagram stories have filled with posts of people screaming, crying, and hugging their friends, sometimes back-to-back and often all at once. Twitter has been set ablaze, the caps lock button stuck for some, a form of Internet yelling omnipresent. Phone calls have been made between fathers and daughters, e-mails sent, and horns honked down Hawthorne, Burnside, Couch, and Flanders streets.

After a long winter, the sun is shining in Portland. But this story started long before May 12, 2019.

At a distance, it might not be obvious that Sunday meant more than just a redemption of what went wrong last season for this team. Their Game 7 win over the Nuggets was, for many fans, cosmic payback for so much of what has been “almost” for the Blazers; a salve to heal the wounds of nearly two decades.

For the sweep at the hands of the Pelicans last year.

For the LaMarcus Aldridge-led teams that saw their hopes dashed when Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles against the Dallas Mavericks in 2015.

For the injury-plagued teams who had to do without No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden.

For the shortened legacy of Brandon Roy, whose career finished having never made it past the first round, and who never played in a Game 7.

For the fourth quarter collapse to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, a Game 7 disaster that saw that team fail to make it out of the first round again.

Quietly, an underlying opinion in Portland is that the franchise is snakebitten. A culture of supporting their lovable losers — even if “losers” isn’t a fair description — was how Blazers supporters operated. Deprived of stars to injury, coming up short, failing projections… all of it wired the synapses in the collective brains of Portlanders to expect the worst. And with a hum-drum offseason in 2018, who could blame Rip City on their lack of belief that this spring would be any different?

That thinking started to shift as the 2018-19 season started to gather steam. Before, the Blazers were criticized for keeping its major core intact. But at a certain point, that consistency began to be additive for Portland. This year, outside of Lillard, this team’s chemistry slowly became its best asset.

The Blazers swelled forward, with Jusuf Nurkic coming forth as Portland’s second-most important player on both sides of the ball. Mid-season additions of Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter bolstered Portland’s bench, and guys like Zach Collins, Seth Curry, Evan Turner, and Jake Layman all produced for Portland in a way they hadn’t before.

Still, heading into this postseason, gallows humor was the vernacular of choice in Multnomah County. Nurkic broke his leg with three weeks left in the regular season, and despite a strong coming on by Moe Harkless late in the year, it wasn’t a guarantee that the plucky Blazers would be able to get out of the first round.

Now Portland is heading to the Western Conference Finals to take on the Golden State Warriors. That in and of itself is medicine for the soul of Rip City.

Portland has been one of the best franchises in the NBA since 2000. That’s due to their dedicated fanbase and because of their former owner, the late Paul Allen. The Microsoft billionaire’s willingness to spend was only surpassed by his desire to win, and Portland has had just five losing seasons since the last time it was in the WCF.

Call it small market disease, underdog syndrome, or a chip on their shoulder, Blazers fans have craved the respect they’ve felt they deserved. They have wanted it for being good but not great; for loving this team without question; for being an outlier in success for a city its size. And yet, real or imagined, the answer has always come back: what have you done lately? In beating Denver, Portland now has something real — something material — to offer in support of how they’ve felt about this team all along.

So injuries, “almosts”, and alley-oops be damned. This one you can’t take away from the Blazers.

Magic Johnson: Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps leaked Anthony Davis trade-talk details

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The Pelicans reportedly blame the Lakers for details of Anthony Davis trade negotiations leaking.

Former Lakers president Magic Johnson blames former Pelicans general manager Dell Demps.

Johnson on ESPN:

I told Dell Demps, “Let’s just do it in private. What we offer, let’s keep it between us.” Well, Dell didn’t do that. So, that’s how it got out.”

The Lakers have intriguing assets – Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the No. 4 pick, all their own future first-round picks. Los Angeles will likely try again to land Davis.

Johnson and Demps are out. So, maybe these sour grapes don’t matter.

But enough people remain in each organization – including Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, whom Johnson blasted today – from those winter trade talks. Whether or not there’s an edict in New Orleans forbidding new lead executive David Griffin from sending Davis to the Lakers, there’s clearly mistrust between these franchises. That makes it harder to reach a deal.

Lakers haven for failed coaches

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In the last two decades, 16 teams changed coaches, gave a majority of their minutes to returning players the following season and won 15 more games than the year prior (or equivalent in lockout-shortened season).

Only one of those 16 deposed coaches has gotten another non-interim NBA head-coaching job.

The Lakers will introduce him today.

His lead assistant is also one of the 16. Another member of the 16 was instrumental in hiring them.

Frank Vogel, Jason Kidd and Kurt Rambis make quite a trio.

The Lakers’ new head coach, Vogel is only one year removed from guiding Orlando to a 25-57 record. The Magic’s roster seemed to be the main culprit when they fired him, but Steve Clifford led a similar roster to a 42-40 record. That certainly didn’t reflect well on Vogel.

Ditto how the Bucks responded to Kidd’s departure. After going 44-38 and losing in the first round last season, Milwaukee ascended to 60-22 and is leading the Eastern Conference finals this season under Mike Budenholzer. Yet, Kidd – who’ll assist Vogel – was clearly a priority for the Lakers.

In 2011, the Timberwolves finished 17-65 and fired Rambis. Minnesota went 26-40 the following year under Rick Adelman. After bouncing around other jobs, Rambis is now playing a leading role in Rob Pelinka’s front office.

Every team changes between seasons. Players come and go. Those who stay get older and develop. Injuries happen inconsistently. The NBA hardly runs controlled experiments on coaches.

But these situations don’t instill confidence in Vogel, Kidd and Rambis. That they’re all working together now is remarkable.

Vogel has the most prominent role. Fortunately for the Lakers, he’s also the one least likely to be defined by his fixed-after-he-left tenure. Before Orlando, Vogel had plenty of success with the Pacers.

Kidd also did some positive things with the Bucks. Rambis…

People can learn from their mistakes. Second chances are sometimes warranted.

But the Lakers have LeBron James, whose prime years are dwindling. They’re a prestigious franchise in a premier market. High-end coaches and executives are particularly important and attainable.

The Lakers have given power to this group – maybe for good reason, maybe not.

I hope they explain why today, though there are several other issues they’ll have to address, too.

Magic Johnson on Lakers GM Rob Pelinka: ‘If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob’

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Around the time Magic Johnson stunningly resigned as Lakers president, rumors swirled about his poor work ethic. The source of that rumor was suspected to be Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. Johnson acknowledged an internal problem the night he quit, citing “backstabbing” and “whispering.”

“If you’re going to talk betrayal,” Johnson said in an incredibly candid interview on ESPN today, “it’s only with Rob.”

Johnson admitted to spending only limited time on the Lakers. But he said Lakers owner Jeanie Buss approved that plan when hiring him.

“I told her, I said listen, ‘I can’t give up all my businesses. I make more money doing that than becoming president of the Lakers. So, you know that I’m going to be in and out. Is that OK with you?’ She said yes,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Do I have the power to make decisions?’ Because that was important for me to take the job, as well. She said you have the power to make the decisions. So, I said, ‘OK, let’s go do it.’ She said, ‘I’m going to put you with Rob Pelinka,’ because I didn’t know Rob.

“And then I started hearing, ‘Magic, you’re not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office.’ So, people around the Lakers office was telling me Rob was saying things – Rob Pelinka – and I didn’t like those things being said behind my back, that I wasn’t in the office and so on and on. So, I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball, saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball. Now, not just in the Lakers office anymore. Now, it’s in the media and so on.

“Just Rob. Other people didn’t bother me. It’s really funny, as I sit here. I don’t worry about those type of things. I’m not a guy who is like, oh man, he said this about and I worry about it. What happened was I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore – especially when I’ve got to work beside you knowing you want my position. And I’m OK with that. Because this is what happened, Stephen A. I told him in year two, I’m only going to be here three years. So, my job is, Rob, to get you ready for this position. So, I was going to help elevate him to the president’s position. And so, when all this was coming back to me and guys calling me saying, ‘You better watch out for him’ – and then what crazy was, when I took the job, you know how many agents called me and said, ‘You’ve got to watch out for him.’ And I said, ‘Eh, I’ve got to give the guy a fair chance.’ I can’t listen to people. But he was a hard-worker, smart guy. But now you have that position, so I’m good with that.”

Though he said the backstabbing came from only Pelinka, Johnson clearly had friction with other members of the organization.

Johnson described mentoring Joey Buss (Vice President, Research & Development) and Jesse Buss (Assistant GM / Director, Scouting). Johnson made clear he had no problem doing so and liked those Buss brothers. But he also indicated he saw ambition that created complications.

“They felt they should have been in powerful positions, whether that’s the general manager or the president,” Johnson said.

And there’s Tim Harris President (Business Operations, Chief Operating Officer).

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was, I wanted to fire Luke Walton,” Johnson said. “And we had, Max, three meetings. I showed her the things he did well and the things he didn’t do well. And I said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to get a better coach. I like him. He’s great. Former Laker, the whole thing.’ The first day, ‘Well, let’s think about it.’ Second day, ‘OK, you can fire him.’ Then, the next day, ‘No, we should try to work it out.’ So, when we went back and forth like that and then she brought Tim Harris into the meeting with some of the guys. And Tim wanted me to – he wanted to keep him, because he was friends with Luke. Luke’s a great guy. He’s a great guy. So, when I looked up and said wait a minute, I only really answer to Jeannie Buss. Now, I’ve got Tim involved. And I said it’s time for me to go.”

Walton, since hired by the Kings, has been accused of sexual assault.

There’s a ton to digest here, but I can’t escape two ironies:

Johnson – who had never worked in a front office before, didn’t work hard enough running the Lakers, felt his power wasn’t concentrated enough, didn’t build a winner – said people should ascend in the organization only  “once you show that you can drive excellence.”

Johnson – who described the Lakers as a mess, called their general manager a backstabber, said their owner is failing to define clear roles – plans to help them recruit free agents this summer.

Report: Tim Connelly rejects Wizards, staying with Nuggets

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Nuggets president Tim Connelly could have led the Wizards’ front office, worked close to his native Baltimore and presumably gotten a raise from his reported $2 million salary.

Instead, he’s stay in Denver.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is a huge win for Denver and even bigger setback for Washington.

Connelly has put the Nuggets into a great position. They’re young and good in a combination rarely seen in NBA history. Connelly drafted Nikola Jokic in the second round then built around him a short time later. This season, Denver won 54 games and reached Game 7 of the second round with 24-year-old Jokic flanked by Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

More decisions always lie ahead – notably Millsap’s $30 million team option for next season. But the Nuggets’ core is already in place and mostly under team control.

The Wizards need far more work. John Wall‘s contract is arguably the NBA’s worst. Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard are also roadblocks. Several key players will be free agents this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, Bradley Beal be eligible for a super-max extension – a tricky decision for the club.

It would have been great for Washington to entrust Connelly with all that. He has proven excellent at his job.

Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry or Tommy Sheppard might do well for the Wizards. But they’re candidates who offer far less certainty.