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NBA PM: Damian Lillard as MVP?

Can Damian Lillard carry the Blazers to a high seed and win the Most Valuable Player award?

Cody Taylor

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It hasn’t even been a week since the NBA season started and we’ve already seen plenty of incredible performances.

Russell Westbrook has already dropped two triple-doubles, Anthony Davis recorded a 50-point outing on Opening Night and LeBron James turned in a triple-double of his own. If the first week is any indication, this season could go down as one of the most memorable in recent years.

One player who has certainly made his own headlines through the first three games of the season is Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. Given the outstanding performances of Westbrook, Davis and James, it seems as though Lillard’s play so far has gone a bit unnoticed.

Had those players not gotten off to incredible starts, Lillard would be the one stealing all of the headlines. Instead, his averages of 35 points, eight rebounds, 5.3 assists and one steal seem like an ‘Oh-by-the-way’ stat line across the NBA. He opened up the Blazers’ season by dropping 39 points on the Utah Jazz and he followed up that performance with 29 points and 37 points in the next two outings.

His last game on Saturday against the Denver Nuggets was likely his most impressive of the three games. He had 37 points, seven assists, five rebounds, three steals and a block in a 115-113 overtime win. It was Lillard that came up with two clutch shots in that game to help the Blazers pull out the win. He converted a catch and finish at the rim with 2.1 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime, and then hit the game-winning floater with less than a second left in overtime.

Lillard’s two buzzer-beating shots further solidified his place among the game’s best clutch players. Of course, we all remember his game-winner against the Houston Rockets in the 2014 playoffs, but he’s among the best in the league when it comes down to the final five minutes of close games. Last season, he scored 125 points in the final five minutes of games in which his team was either ahead or behind by five points, which ranked 15th. He also scored the third-most points in the league during the fourth quarter.

This year’s Most Valuable Player race seems to be wide open. After Kevin Durant opted to sign with the Golden State Warriors in free agency, pairing two former MVPs in Durant and Stephen Curry on the same team could prove to be tough for either player to take home the award. Each player isn’t afforded the same amount of scoring opportunities they might have seen in previous years and could hurt their chances of winning. Even Warriors head coach Steve Kerr predicted that Curry and Durant would hurt each other’s case, and Kerr predicted Lillard would win the MVP award.

With a player like Lillard, it’s clear that he’s the Blazers’ top scoring option night in and night out. They have other options as well in C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and others, but Lillard is the team’s go-to player and their top option. That will ultimately help his chances all season long to continue to put up huge numbers. It’s fair to say that he likely won’t continue to score over 30 points per game, but it seems like a safe bet to assume he’ll put up big numbers each night.

Lillard entered the 2016-17 season with high expectations for himself. He said very directly to the Portland Tribune that he wants to be MVP. He believes that with his workload on the Blazers that an MVP campaign isn’t out of the question. Last year, Lillard finished sixth in the league in scoring at 25.1 points per game and helped the Trail Blazers surprise many around the league by advancing to the second-round of the playoffs.

“I want to be the MVP,” Lillard said. “If we come out and do the things we’re capable of doing as a team, if we win games, that means my performance will be at the level of an MVP.”

After finishing sixth in scoring last year, Lillard was named to the All-NBA Second Team but wasn’t a member of the All-Star team. Lillard often uses his snubs from the All-Star teams as motivation to continue to prove that he’s among the best in the league. The point guard position is the strongest it’s been in recent years and ranking the league’s top floor generals can often lead to some heated discussions among fans.

With so many talented players at the position in the league, it’s easy to see how overlooking Lillard can be a possibility. Players like Curry, Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving are often mentioned as some of the best in the league with no mention of Lillard. It seems as though he’s trying to change that notion and is off to a great start this season. He had an infamous quote after his All-Star snub in 2015 that is still floating around the internet.

“I just want to thank the coaches who feel I wasn’t good enough, the fans that didn’t think I was good enough and Adam Silver also for not thinking I was good enough,” Lillard said. “This isn’t unfamiliar territory for me, it’s actually what my life has been inspired by. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed or that I don’t feel disrespected, but it’s not too much to handle.”

Based on what we’ve seen from Lillard in three games, it seems reasonable to think that he can be a legitimate MVP candidate. The Trail Blazers finished 44-38 a season ago and advanced to the second-round of the playoffs. This came after many people didn’t believe they had the pieces to even make the postseason. Lillard finished eighth in MVP voting last season and it seems likely the Trail Blazers will need to be even better for Lillard to have a chance at the award.

Of course, he’s going to have a lot of competition all season long. Westbrook has already turned in two triple-doubles performances in just three games and was one assist away from making it three triple-doubles. If Westbrook keeps up that pace, it could be a one-man race this year. Other players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden among others figure to be in contention as well.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture

James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.

Michael Scotto

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James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.

Over the summer, Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with Miami, as first reported by Basketball Insiders. The deal included a fourth-year player option.

“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”

Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).

Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.

“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?

“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”

Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.

“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”

While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.

Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?

“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”

Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.

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NBA Daily: Quincy Pondexter Has Grown With New Orleans

Quincy Pondexter did two stints with New Orleans four years apart, both of which changed his life forever.

Joel Brigham

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By the time the New Orleans Hornets traded for the draft rights to Quincy Pondexter in the summer of 2010, the city was just starting to see some real progress in the reconstruction efforts that followed the half decade after Hurricane Katrina.

In February of that year, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, a victory that the city badly needed, and Pondexter found himself dropped into the sports culture of the league’s most unique city.

Now with the Chicago Bulls, Pondexter would only play in New Orleans for his rookie year before getting dealt to Memphis and signing a multi-year extension, but in late 2014 he was traded back to New Orleans, who had rechristened themselves the Pelicans by that point. He couldn’t believe how much had changed in just four short years.

“You stopped seeing the spray paint on the houses, and the prices start going up on real estate. It was definitely a lot different coming back,” Pondexter told Basketball Insiders. “I remember I had a house there, when I first got there as a rookie, and it was very, very cheap. But when I came back, I had a place probably twice as small for almost double the price. The city had just grown and developed a lot more, especially the downtown areas where you could start seeing buildings being built. You’d start to see the city come back to form, come back to life, and I really, really got to enjoy it my second time.”

That sort of progress was slow to come by 2010, however. Despite five years having passed since the initial devastation of Katrina, New Orleans was finding slow progress toward physical and emotional healing. The team had just moved back to the city full-time a couple of seasons prior after having played a good number of games in Oklahoma City during Louisiana’s recovery, but Pondexter remembers the Hornets giving the people of the city something to root for, too.

“The Saints, when you win a championship, when you’ve been there for years, of course you’re going to be the favorite, but, when the Hornets were part of that, too,” he said. “When you win games, and I had the chance to go to the playoffs with two different stints with them, I think it’s embracing how much the city comes together once you make an achievement like that, and whether you’re at the grocery store, gas station, whatever, people are always going to talk to you about the game of basketball. They don’t talk to you like a fan in New Orleans; they talk to you like a family member. It was really cool to be in a city like that.”

He also admitted that it was exciting to play even a small role in helping New Orleans continue to heal.

“It was a unique experience because the city was rebuilding, and being able to be a part of helping put it back together, it was really special,” he said. “We had an unbelievable star in Chris Paul, and you just don’t realize how much people lean on sports to get through tough times. We bridged that gap, and it was a real unique community to help refurbish the city of New Orleans.”

Coming back four years later, Pondexter had grown up a lot, and while a lot of his next few years with the Pelicans would be plagued by a torrent of medical problems ranging from knee issues to a staph infection, he did get to spend a lot more time in the city after having been there for only a year as a rookie in 2010-2011. That’s when he really fell in love with New Orleans.

“The culture, the melting pot culture, the rich history, it’s so much different from anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I grew up in Fresno, California, went to school at the University of Washington, and New Orleans is just something unique, and I could always say I learned so much from a city like that, about our country, about life, about so many things. About music, about food, about everything in that city, you just really learn so much. It’s a city where you get to put your hair down, and just enjoy being alive.”

Time passes quickly in any NBA career, but playing two times for one team several years apart can’t help but give a person some perspective, which is what it has done for Quincy Pondexter.

“You grow up, you learn the game of basketball, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see what you want in life more,” he said. “I think that was a really big pivotal moment in my life, one I’ll never ever forget.”

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The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns

Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.

Moke Hamilton

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Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.

On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.

Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.

For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.

Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.

“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.

“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.

So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.

What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.

Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.

Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.

With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.

Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.

On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.

The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.

So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.

After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.

Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.

Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.

Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.

“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.

“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.

“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”

* * * * * *

When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.

It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.

So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.

As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.

Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.

If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.

That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.

* * * * * *

Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.

And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.

Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.

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