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NBA Sunday: The Trail Blazers Mean Business

What rebuild? Despite losing LaMarcus Aldridge, the Trail Blazers are still a contender on the rise.

Moke Hamilton



How far can Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum carry the Portland Trail Blazers?

If you’re general manager Neil Olshey, the answer appears to be to infinity and beyond.

In the contemporary NBA where teams routinely admit themselves to be down with O.P.P.—other people’s property—the Trail Blazers deserve some credit for taking a page out of Sam Presti’s playbook and loving the ones they’re with.

Lillard and McCollum have proven themselves to be the type of young superstars in the making whom a shrewd general manager would dream of drafting. In each their own right, Lillard (taken sixth overall in the 2012 draft) and McCollum (taken with the 10th selection the following year) have already proven to be keepers.

Olshey and his staff obviously bought into that. Last season, the Blazers signed Lillard to a maximum five-year extension worth $120 million. Re-signing Lillard was a no brainer, but this summer, owner Paul Allen proved (yet again) that he isn’t afraid to spend through the roof. With all that is said about ownership groups in Oakland and Cleveland, something needs to be said of Allen and his willingness to spend in the pursuit of winning. It has arguably never been more present than this past offseason.

With a net worth estimated at greater than $18 billion, it’s fairly obvious that Allen gave Olshey the keys to his safe. This past summer alone, the franchise committed about $350 million to its roster.

McCollum was signed to a maximum four-year extension worth $106 million, while the franchise also invested heavily in signing free agents Evan Turner (four years, $70 million) and Festus Ezeli (two years, $15 million). Meyers Leonard (four years, $41 million) and Moe Harkless (four years, $42 million) were each re-signed, and the Blazers simply refused to allow the Brooklyn Nets to pry restricted free agent Allen Crabbe away from them. Matching the four-year maximum offer sheet extended to Crabbe from the Nets cost an additional $75 million over four years.

Will it be enough?

Only time will tell, but maybe that’s a good thing.

* * * * * *

We are embarking on a new economic era in the NBA. Between now and next year, we will see and hear a lot as it relates to the next collective bargaining agreement and, the truth of the matter, is that nobody knows exactly what that deal is going to be.

Fortunately, for NBA fans, one can rest assured that an owner such as Allen would not be a proponent of any sort of catastrophic changes to the NBA’s cap system. We have heard rumblings about a “hard” salary cap, more oppressive luxury tax and even rules related to restricting the amount of eight-figure earners on one roster.

Even without knowing it, the Blazers have somewhat painted themselves into a corner. They are one of a whopping 15 teams in the league that will enter the 2016-17 season with a payroll exceeding $100 million and join the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies as teams that have payrolls exceeding $110 million.

When the representatives from the league and the players union continue their negotiations into the autumn and winters months, the simple truth is that the league will have to understand that it cannot go backwards. After the contracts and monies that were doled out this past offseason, building in any sort of retroactive mechanisms into the collective bargaining agreement to curb spending or redistribute talent across the league is going to face substantial opposition from the teams that have already committed hundreds of millions of dollars into their current rosters.

Agreed, Kevin Durant taking his talents to Oakland is a black eye to the competitive balance that the league hoped to build into the prior collective bargaining agreement, but the conversations I have had with league sources and agents yield a completely different attitude this time around than when LeBron James decided to head to Miami.

First, nobody seems to think that the Golden State Warriors are unbeatable. That was the prevailing sentiment as it related to the HEAT.

Secondly, with Durant’s departure to the Warriors, those whom I spoke to had an attitude more of resignation than contempt, with one agent in particular simply proclaiming, “Players who want to play together are going to find a way. There’s no way to foolproof the system without hamstringing every other team’s ability to improve themselves.”

So if there is a reason to be optimistic about a work stoppage being avoided, it would be that a few in the know believe it to be possible. What it may hinge on is the extent to which the players are collectively willing to fight for removing restrictions on individual maximum player salaries and whether they will insist on reacquiring some of the basketball-related income they agreed to relinquish during the negotiations that led to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.

As we look toward the 2016 collective bargaining agreement, we look off into the distant future. And it is that distant future that has fans of the Portland Trail Blazers giddy with excitement.

* * * * * *

Again we ask, how far can Lillard and McCollum take the Blazers?

At this point, we don’t know. But what we do know is that, so long as the mechanisms governing team payroll restrictions and player movement remain the same, we will have an opportunity to find out. Lillard just recently celebrated his 26th birthday while McCollum is only a few weeks from his 25th birthday. Entering their fourth and third seasons, respectively, Lillard and McCollum’s “advanced” ages more represent the fact that Lillard spent four years in college while McCollum spent three. Their ages do not represent the amount of NBA wear and tear on their knees and, with the improvements in medical technology and player recovery, there is no reason to think that either won’t be able to play at a high level for the next 10 years.

In terms of the younger teams in the league, even those with the brightest futures—the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves immediately come to mind—are several steps behind the Trail Blazers. Their advancing out of the first round and getting some playoff experience this past spring will only pay dividends in the future.

And if things break right for them, so will the heavy investments that were made into the roster this past summer.

In an NBA where fans, owners and front offices are constantly obsessing over which superstar is unhappy with his current situation or who can be had, it’s refreshing to see a franchise double-down and commit to those that are homegrown talents. Over the years, things have changed fairly dramatically in the NBA, but the key to building a winning franchise always has and always will be drafting prudently, investing in talent and augmenting them with the right auxiliary pieces that make the sum greater than the individual pieces.

As it currently stands, the Blazers have $100 million worth of salary commitments for each of the next four seasons. In other words, Olshey has not only firmly committed to the nucleus of Lillard and McCollum, he has already doubled-down on their potential and what they could be. In the wake of Durant’s departure to Oakland and the continuance of the NBA’s modern talent arms race, there is something to be said for a general manager keeping his head down, staying the course, and committing to the players who he himself thought worthy of carrying his legacy.

So no, we don’t know how far Lillard and McCollum will be able to carry the Blazers, but in all likelihood, we will have the opportunity to watch and find out.

Credit Paul Allen and Neil Olshey for ensuring that to be the case.


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Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers

Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.

Spencer Davies



The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.

The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.

With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.

Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:

“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.

“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.

“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”

There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.

Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.

Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.

Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.

LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.

“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”

The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.

The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.

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NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start

Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.

Joel Brigham



There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.

“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”

Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.

“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”

That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.

“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”

As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.

“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”

Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.

“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”

He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.

“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”

The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.

“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”

That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.

“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”

Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.

“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”

He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.

Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.

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Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race

Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.

Jesse Blancarte



When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.

More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.

Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.

Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.

He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”

Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.

“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”

Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.

“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”

Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.

“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”

Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).

The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.

When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.

“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.

He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”

There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.

“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”

Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.

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