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NBA PM: Lillard Enters Season With Extra Motivation

After Team USA cut, Damian Lillard lived in the gym and changed his diet. That’s bad news for opposition.

Alex Kennedy

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Lillard Enters Season With Extra Motivation

After Washington Wizards point guard John Wall was cut from Team USA over the summer, the 24-year-old made headlines when he said that the slight would serve as extra motivation entering the 2014-15 season. Wall said that he was being “overlooked again” and added, “I guess have to prove myself one more time.”

Well, Wall wasn’t the only one who felt that way when his name was left off of the USA Basketball roster. Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard was one of the team’s last cuts prior to the FIBA World Cup in Spain, and he had a similar reaction.

Hearing that he didn’t make the team’s final roster prompted the 24-year-old Lillard to work even harder over the offseason and completely change his diet. Like Wall, Lillard is determined to prove himself this season and silence his doubters.

“My first thought when they told me that I didn’t make the team was, ‘They don’t think I’m good enough,’ or, ‘I’m not good enough,’” Lillard told NBA TV when asked about being cut from Team USA. “Any time that happens, you just have to go back to the drawing board and get back into the gym. I made some changes. I just made sure that I got a lot more rest. I changed my diet up. I started to be smarter with my workouts. I started to focus on certain things, like getting my legs stronger and getting my core stronger, to be prepared for a longer season because I kind of wore down late in the playoffs. It just made me hungrier and reminded me that I still have something to prove.”

Lillard’s diet change could really help him, because he went from eating whatever he wanted (like many young men do) to having a very strict meal plan that’s designed to make him feel much better throughout the course of the season.

“At first, I knew that I worked out a lot so I was just like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna get it in, I can eat whatever I want,’” Lillard said with a smile. “I would go to Benihana. I would go to Wingstop. I would eat pretty much whatever I felt like eating at any time. Now, it’s much more strict. No salt, not much sugar – just what’s in the fruit – you know, beans, corn, baked chicken, tilapia, fish, the simple stuff. It’s really strict. Everything is laid out, I’ve got meal plans so I’m not getting hungry and don’t end up going to McDonald’s or something like that. Everything is more focused and I know what I’m going home to eat and what time I’m eating it.”

Young players often break out in their third season (which Lillard is about to enter) because they start to realize the things they need to do in order to be great. The NBA’s top players are obviously extremely talented, but what often separates them from the pack is their willingness to do everything they can to give them an edge over their peers. The elite players are often the ones who work the hardest, sacrifice the most and make significant life changes that will help them play to their full potential.

By doing things like changing his diet and getting more rest, Lillard seems to understand what it takes to elevate his game to the level and he’s doing everything in his power to make that leap.

Lillard appreciates the opportunity that USA Basketball gave him, and he believes that competing against top guards like Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and James Harden was a fantastic experience that he took a lot away from. But that doesn’t mean he was okay with being cut.

”Definitely, [it will motivate me],” Lillard said. “The best part was just being able to compete against top players every day. You don’t get that opportunity a lot of times, so I was thankful for that. … That was the best thing that I could take away from it. You usually don’t get to play against D-Rose, Steph, Kyrie and James Harden every day, but that’s the opportunity I got and I think I got a lot better from it.

“But I also felt like it was them telling me that I wasn’t good enough. I’ve always been one to throw wood on the fire anytime that I got the opportunity and once I was turned away from making the team, I basically took it as, ‘You’re not good enough.’ That was just another reason for me to go back to work and keep trying to improve as a player.”

Last season, Lillard had an incredible sophomore campaign, earning his first All-Star appearance, first All-NBA nod and first playoff berth. He averaged 20.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds in the regular season, and further elevated his game in the postseason, averaging 22.9 points, 6.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds and a steal. Not to mention, Lillard hit the series-winning three to defeat the Houston Rockets in the first round, which will be played in NBA highlight reels for years to come.

Lillard has been exceptional since entering the NBA two years ago and he has all of the tools to be a superstar. He can score from anywhere on the court. He is one of the most clutch players in the league. He makes his teammates better, as an elite floor general should. He thrives in the pick-and-roll as well as isolation.

At the end of the day, being cut from Team USA may actually have been the best thing that could’ve happened to Lillard, as it pushed him to get back into the gym and significantly alter his diet so that he could play his absolute best this season.

Lillard has already proven that he’s one of the game’s best point guards, but he’s only been in the NBA for two years so his best basketball is almost certainly ahead of him. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the league, especially considering Lillard spent this summer pouring fuel on his fire.

New-Look Cavaliers Starting to Jell

It’s obviously going to take time for the Cleveland Cavaliers to get everyone on the same page. That’s a given when a team adds two new focal points (LeBron James and Kevin Love) as well as a new head coach (David Blatt) and many new role players to their supporting cast (Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Brendan Haywood, James Jones, etc.).

There’s no disputing that Cleveland is stacked on paper. But that doesn’t guarantee a title, just ask the 2010-11 Miami HEAT or the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers.

With that said, this team could be the best team in the NBA if all of their pieces come together. They could also be a perennial contender for years to come, since James is in his prime while Irving (22 years old), Love (26), Tristan Thompson (23) and Dion Waiters (22) should only continue to get better.

For now, the Cavs are just trying to jell and get through this adjustment period. They recently played their first preseason game against Blatt’s former team – Maccabi Tel Aviv – and won, 107-80. There were certainly positives to take away from the game, but all of the Cavs said that they still have a lot of work to do.

“We were looking forward to getting on the floor together for the first time,” Love said. “Guys, 1-15, are going to get a chance to play here in the preseason. We’re going to have to clean some stuff up, some of the rust, and just continue to keep growing. It’s a process, like anything else. But we know we’re talented and we just all have to get on the same page and we plan on doing that. … We were happy to be out on the floor. We were happy to finally put on that jersey in front of the home crowd. There was a lot of things we have to clean up, but we’ll go over film. We mention all along, every day is a chance to get better. It’s going to be a long haul for us, but we’ll be okay.”

“Honestly, I wanted to see us play against someone other than ourselves,” Blatt said. “We’ve been going at it for eight days and guys are a little tired of beating each other up and facing guys that are on the same side. I wanted to see how we would react and respond to playing in a game where there was a real opponent on the other side. I had hoped that we would share the ball. We did. I had hoped that we rebound the ball well. We did. I wanted to see us defend better in the first half. We didn’t but we did make very significant adjustments at halftime and recognized where the problem was. We addressed it, we came out, we executed and we obviously played much, much better defense in the second half.”

“It’s still a work in progress,” James said. “We still haven’t put in everything defensively. But I think for the most part, for 48 minutes, we played the type of basketball we want to play. We moved the ball, we shared the ball, guys got open looks, defensively we tried to cover for one another… It’s a good start.”

One thing that is becoming clear is that the Cavs are a very unselfish team, with a lot of playmakers who look to make the right play and do what’s best for the team. As the San Antonio Spurs have showed, ball movement is crucial in the NBA and it seems the Cavaliers will be excellent at spreading the ball around.

“When you have unselfish guys, it’s going to automatically translate to everybody,” James said. “Myself and K-Love and Kyrie are natural passers and so many other guys, it just trickles down to everybody else. You’ll pass up a good shot for a great shot and that’s what we can get because we have so many guys that can put the ball on the ground, so many guys that can attract double-teams or just multiple eyes.”

“It’s great [to play with James],” Love said. “He’s a great player, distributes the ball well. He does many things out there on the floor, scores for us when he needs to and he’s already been here so we’re looking to him and several other players to be out there and make plays. We know what he’s capable of, but we all have to step up and help the team in any way that we can.”

Rebounding should also be a strength for Cleveland. Love is obviously one of the best rebounders the league has seen in years, and Thompson and Anderson Varejao will help on the glass as well. In the first preseason game, the trio combined for 39 rebounds.

“I think we can be a great rebounding team,” Love said. “You saw it tonight. We kept a lot of plays alive. Tristan and Andy did a spectacular job on both defensive and offensive rebounds. It’s something that we’ll definitely pride ourselves on and that’s going to help us on both ends of the floor for many different situations. I’ve played against those guys in the past and they’re tough guys to go against.”

James received an amazing ovation from the home fans, and he’s enjoying being back in Cleveland.

“It feels great,” James said. “It’s going to feel great for a long time. For me to run back on the floor with these fans and my new teammates, I’m excited. It’s great to always leave victorious, it doesn’t matter if it’s preseason or not.”

All eyes will be on the Cavaliers throughout this season, to see if they can reach their full potential.

 

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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