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NBA PM: Appreciating Damian Lillard

Jusuf Nurkic provided Portland with a boost, but Damian Lillard has also been thriving recently.

Jesse Blancarte

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Should Russell Westbrook or James Harden win this year’s MVP? Should Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic win Most Improved Player? Can anyone really challenge the Golden State Warriors for this year’s NBA title? These are some of the questions that are currently occupying the minds of NBA fans and media members as the regular season comes to a close. Often lost in the shuffle of awards season is the stellar performances of players who are on non-contending teams or aren’t candidates for one of the major awards. With this in mind, we turn the spotlight to Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who has been playing at a very high level this season, especially since the All-Star break.

Yesterday, the NBA announced that Damian Lillard was named the Western Conference player for the month of March.

Here is a short excerpt from the NBA’s Press Release detailing some of Lillard’s impressive statistics for the month of March:

Behind Lillard, the Trail Blazers went an NBA-best 13-3 in March to surge into eighth place in the Western Conference.  Lillard ranked third in the NBA in scoring (29.1 ppg) and tied for fourth in three-pointers made (55) to go with 6.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.44 steals in 16 games.  The 26-year-old guard shot 48.3 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three-point range and 87.7 percent from the free throw line.  Lillard posted eight games with at least 30 points, including a season-high 49-point performance in a 115-104 road win over the Miami Heat on March 19.  He matched a career high with nine three-pointers and hit 12-of-12 at the free throw line against Miami.

Lillard is currently seventh in the league points per game (26.8), but is averaging 29.3 points per game since All-Star Weekend. The only player scoring more points per game over that same time period is Westbrook (34.3), though it should be noted that he is also taking nearly five more shots per game than Lillard.

Lillard may not be receiving much attention this season (relative to his peers) since the Trail Blazers have been struggling to keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race until very recently. After losing eight of eleven games from late January through the end of February, the Blazers have won 14 of their last 18 games and have taken control over the eighth seed. As of this writing, Portland holds a 1.5 game lead over the Denver Nuggets, who have won five of their last 10 games.

The Blazers will have to endure the fact that Nurkic will be sidelined for the rest of the regular season at the very least with a non-displaced fibular fracture in his right leg. The loss of Nurkic definitely hurts, but Lillard is one of the few players in the league who has the talent and attitude to put his team on his back and carry it in a situation like this. He, along with teammate C.J. McCollum will have to be particularly sharp on the offensive end of the court now that the team doesn’t have a reliable threat in the post with Nurkic sidelined. The Blazers certainly could have used Nurkic in their recent matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves as Karl-Anthony Towns erupted for 34 points and 12 rebounds. Lillard had a shot to win the game on a buzzer-beating jumper but missed, which resulted in a 110-109 loss.

Lillard will need to quickly bounce back from this loss and start putting together some of his better performances, such as his 49-point outing against the Miami HEAT.

“That was one incredible performance,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “There’s less than five players in this league that you have to do something different on your pick-and-roll coverage. Lillard obviously is one of those guys. Once he got going … he was outstanding.”

Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was also impressed with Lillard’s performance.

“I love the effort that we’re playing with,” Terry Stotts said. “Damian Lillard’s performance goes without saying. But it was a really good team effort and a great end to the road trip.”

While the recent run has been a nice boost for Portland, Lillard still seems to lament that it took the majority of the season to get to this point.

“We feel like we’re the team right now that we should have been all along, the way we’re playing. And all that matters is getting that playoff spot,” Lillard said recently. “I guess it’s good to be .500, but nobody comes into the season saying, `Let’s play .500 basketball.’ We wish we were in a better position.”

The Blazers have been playing much better than .500 basketball since the All-Star break and will need to carry that momentum into the postseason as they will likely face the Golden State Warriors. Since All-Star Weekend, the Blazers have had the third best offense (112.5 points per 100 possessions) the 14th best defense (105.9) and the third best net rating (6.6). Unfortunately, Golden State has been the hottest team in the league and is on the verge of getting superstar Kevin Durant back from injury. With Nurkic’s status in doubt, it will take a transcendent performance from Lillard and exceptional play from his teammates for Portland to have any realistic shot of upsetting the Warriors.

Whether the Blazers can compete with the Warriors or not, the fact is that Lillard hasn’t received enough recognition for his recent play. Of course, a lot of credit needs to go to Nurkic, who brought incredible energy and played with a chip on his shoulder before suffering a fracture in his right leg. However, Lillard is the engine that makes the Blazers go and they will only go as far as Lillard can take them. Considering how well he has been playing since the All-Star break, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Lillard and the Blazers could give the Warriors a scare or two in their first-round matchup.

He may not be in the running for the MVP or any other significant award this year, but Lillard deserves some serious recognition for his recent play. Winning Western Conference Player of the Month is a nice gesture, but somehow it still seems like we aren’t paying enough attention to how well he has been playing since All-Star Weekend.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#2 – Marvin Bagley III – Sacramento Kings

The Sacramento Kings selected Duke’s Marvin Bagley III with the second overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Ben Dowsett

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After a draft process that reportedly involved them also considering Luka Doncic and perhaps Jaren Jackson Jr., the Sacramento Kings appeared to narrow in on Marvin Bagley III of Duke. Bagley, a 6-foot-11 big man, played one year with the Blue Devils before making the leap to the NBA.

Bagley is an intriguing prospect, one who combines elite athleticism with a high motor and the potential to stretch the floor with his shooting stroke. He’s extremely quick both laterally and vertically, with as much potential as any player in this class if he can harness these athletic properties into basketball skills. His jump shot came and went at Duke, something he needs work on, and there are real questions about his ability to think the game, especially defensively. He doesn’t have the length to project as a top rim protector at the NBA level unless he makes major strides mentally.

Still, Bagley projects to step in to a productive role right away in Sacramento. He was one of the only players in the upper echelon of the lottery to show real interest in playing for the Kings, including providing medical information other agents withheld. The Kings could rue passing on a prospect of Doncic’s stature, especially if the only reason they did so was concerns about ball-handling time with De’Aaron Fox. But they’ve got a high-ceiling player here who could become a star with the right physical and mental development.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#1 – Deandre Ayton – Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns have drafted Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Jesse Blancarte

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One of the few certainties heading into this year’s draft was that the Phoenix Suns would select Deandre Ayton with the first overall pick. In Ayton, the Suns get an elite center prospect with the potential to be a dominant player on both ends of the court.

Ayton stands at 7-foot-0 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He has a big, muscular frame but still has plenty of room to continue developing his body. Ayton is also extremely athletic, coordinate and nimble for a player his size. While some have wondered whether a player with Ayton will be limited by the NBA’s continuing movement toward playing smaller and faster, there’s plenty of reason to believe he is worthy of the first overall pick. If Ayton can become a more consistent weak side defender, improve his consistency in making the correct rotations and improve on his rebounding fundamentals, he could become a Rudy Gobert level defensive anchor. No one should expect Ayton to reach Gobert’s level but it’s a possibility and that alone is arguably enough justification to draft him first overall.

Additionally, Ayton has a diverse offensive game. He is an effective player in the post, can finish at the rim with either hand, he runs the floor well in the open court, is a constant lob threat and can stretch the court all the way to the three-point line. He isn’t necessarily elite at any single thing offensively but he has the potential to be an offensive threat from all over the court.

There’s almost zero risk that Ayton will be a bust and plenty of reason to believe he could be a star-level player sooner rather than later. While there may be other players with higher upside in this draft, Ayton has the ability to contribute today and the potential to be a superstar in the future, which makes him a great addition for Phoenix.

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NBA

NBA Draft Watch: Should You Expect a Flurry Of Trades?

Should you expect a flurry of trades during tonight’s NBA Draft? History says yes!

Lang Greene

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Draft Day. The event that rebuilding teams have been planning months for is finally upon us. The next wave of NBA stars await their opportunity to play under the brightest of all lights on the biggest of stages. But outside of the rising and falling status of the prospects, each year draft week is filled with a flurry of trade activity and there’s no reason to believe things will be different in 2018.

On Wednesday, the trade market kicked off with the Charlotte Hornets shipping former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for veteran center Timofey Mozgov. The move isn’t all that surprising considering one of the biggest advocates for the Hornets in acquiring Howard from Atlanta last year, Steve Clifford, was fired back in April. In addition to a new head coach, James Borrego, Charlotte also hired a new president of basketball operations and general manager in Mitch Kupchak.

In the deal, Charlotte was able to avoid paying the luxury tax while also creating immediate salary cap flexibility to be players in this year’s market should they choose. For Brooklyn, the team acquires a veteran presence for their youth movement and a consistent double-double anchor on the interior.

The trade also marks consecutive years that Brooklyn was active on the trade front during draft time. Last year, the team acquired former lottery pick D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the Nets haven’t had the luxury of prime draft assets in recent years, the team has had to resort to trades (Russell, Howard) and free agency (Allan Crabbe) to reshape the roster.

Transitioning to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the question can be asked whether this will be the third straight year involving a draft day trade. At the top of the Warriors’ lineup max players reside which means the team has had to find talented gems in the back half of the draft to contribute to their success.

In 2016, the Warriors acquired the rights to the No. 38 overall pick, Patrick McCaw, from the Milwaukee Bucks for cash considerations. In 2017, Golden State acquired the rights to another No. 38 overall pick, Jordan Bell, from the Chicago Bulls for cash considerations.

Notice a trend?

With the Warriors needing to lock NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant into a long term deal this summer and future free agency looming for All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the franchise will need to continue finding young role players to complement their collection of stars.

There could also be a deal involving All-Star level talent.

The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Victor Oladipo back in 2016 in a draft week deal with the Orlando Magic. While Oladipo didn’t emerge as an All-Star caliber until the following season (after being dealt to Indiana), there are usually a couple of big names in play come draft night.

Consider the 2017 draft day deal that saw the Chicago Bulls send Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for talented two guard Zach LaVine.

This year, the most prominent name potentially on the market is San Antonio Spurs All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard. The rumor mill reports Leonard is frustrated and wants a trade to the Lakers. The Spurs are, of course, attempting to keep their franchise player with a series of meetings. Leonard could become an unrestricted free agent next summer and his public trade demand limits what San Antonio could demand in return. Teams will be hesitant to give up prime assets for a player that won’t commit to their franchise long term. While San Antonio doesn’t have to make an immediate deal their leverage hasn’t been compromised with Leonard’s specific trade destination request.

The NBA Draft can best be described as a crapshoot with prospects being hit or miss. There are teams that make their bones via draft day acquisitions, or working between the lines, which is a storyline to watch during the draft tonight.

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