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Blake Griffin On Offseason Training, LA’s Moves, More

Blake Griffin discusses his offseason training, the Clippers’ additions, wanting to finish his career in L.A. and more.

Alex Kennedy

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Last season, Blake Griffin led the Los Angeles Clippers to 56 wins and averaged 21.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 50.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range.

BlakeGriffinInsideOnly12Griffin became just the second player this decade to average at least 21 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5 assists over a full season, with the only other player to accomplish the feat being LeBron James. And as if you need more evidence of how well-rounded Griffin was this past year, consider that he averaged more points than Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard, he averaged more rebounds than Al Horford, LeBron James and Roy Hibbert and he averaged more assists than Irving, Tony Parker and Goran Dragic.

Griffin has established himself as one of the league’s best players, and it’s in large part due to the work he does in the offseason.

Basketball Insiders caught up with Griffin recently for a wide-ranging Q&A, discussing his offseason training, the Clippers’ additions, the DeAndre Jordan situation, potentially finishing his career in Los Angeles, his acting and improv work, the possibility of being in Space Jam 2 and much more.

Basketball Insiders: You’ve added different things to your game each summer. Where are you working out this offseason and what aspects of your game are you working on?

Blake Griffin: “I did a lot of my offseason stuff here in L.A. I like to get out of the training facility and I work out with my trainer, doing strength and conditioning stuff in El Segundo in his gym. I’ll use just random gyms, like I use this high school gym down in Manhattan Beach sometimes. Then, I kind of bounced around a bit. I did some workouts in New York because I had to be there for a little bit so I worked out there. As far as what we worked on, a lot of face up, off the post, off the elbow, a lot of short roll stuff, getting into the lane, floaters – just because we get so much of that with our spacing of the court and how many pick and rolls we run with CP. [I worked on] a lot of stuff actually off the dribble too, just like one dribble pull-ups and things like that. A lot of post-ups too. This summer, I really did a whole lot and kind of mixed it up. Like last summer, I did so much shooting – a lot of catch and shooting, a lot of pick and pop – and I still did that this summer a lot, but I just tried to kind of focus on literally everything this summer.”

Basketball Insiders: As you mentioned, you spent a lot of time in the gym working on your jump shot last year and it translated to success during the season. Now, after another offseason of work, where is your confidence level with your jump shot?

Blake Griffin: “Every summer and every year, it really gets better and better. I feel a lot more confident going into this season, definitely more so than last season. Each year and each offseason, I try to kind of reflect on the last season and see what I did – what I maybe did too much of, what I didn’t do enough of – and I think last year sometimes I settled [for jump shots] a bit too much. This year, I’m really trying to perfect that balance of pick and pops versus putting it on the floor and making plays, so that’s kind of why I focused on everything this summer. Just being able to use the spacing of our floor, having J.J. [Redick] out there spacing the floor and the same thing with CP when he gets doubled team, [I] just really wanted to being able to have an array of shots and not just focus on pick and pops and catch and shoots.”

Basketball Insiders: I don’t think people realize how hard you work. I’ve known Jamal Crawford for years and he always raves about your work ethic, saying you’re always the first guy in the gym. Can you walk me through one of your typical summer workouts, just so people can get a glimpse of what you do?

Blake Griffin: “A typical day, when I’m really into the full swing of things in the offseason, starts early in the morning because I don’t really sleep in. I wake up around 6:45 a.m. and I’m starting by 7:30 a.m. or sometimes 8:00 a.m. Every now and then, I do kind of a crazy week where I start my workouts at 6 a.m. just to kind of mix it up and make me concentrate a little bit more, taking me out of my comfort zone a little bit. I do that for a week once a month. But once I start with my trainer, we do a lot of corrective stuff early like balance, all of my stuff for my back and any type of little problems I have, we just work on correcting those things. Then, we move on to weights and then for conditioning we do like basically a heart rate training program. It’s kind of a more efficient way of training and doing cardio. We mix it up though. I did a lot of pool stuff this summer, a lot of swimming this summer, which I love. I did a lot of that two summers ago, so I got back into the pool a lot, did a lot of swimming, I’ll do some sand workouts and just kind of mix up the cardio just so I’m not constantly just doing the same thing – running on the treadmill or on the court. After weights, we do that, then I go straight into basketball and we’ll do ball-handling and then we do a lot post-up moves like hooks and things like that and then kind of work our way out. So that’s probably another hour and a half. I try not to be on the court for a ton of time. For me, it’s more about me doing everything [in] game speed and [taking] game shots rather than just catching and shooting and going through the motions. That’s about an hour and half and then a lot of times I mix in yoga. And this summer I really focused a lot on my body, just unloading just as much as I loaded. I’ll do a lot of yoga, do a lot of deep tissue stuff, a lot of stretching and things like that. I thought last summer I worked really hard, but I also didn’t do as good as job of taking care of my body from a deep tissue and stretching standpoint so I made that more of an emphasis this year. It’s a long time working, like five or six hours a day, but I see the difference now in the way my body feels. Going into training camp, I probably haven’t felt better so I’m excited about the work we put in this summer.”

Basketball Insiders: You guys were very active this summer, adding players like Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith and others. What are your overall thoughts on the offseason additions?

Blake Griffin: “I’m very excited, man. Obviously with the whole DJ (DeAndre Jordan) thing – that was a priority bringing him back and everybody kind of knows about that – that kind of almost overshadowed all the other things we did. Adding Josh Smith to our bench is huge, adding Lance Stephenson, adding Paul Pierce with all of his his experience, I thought we did a really good job this summer of just putting a plan together of guys that we wanted and positions that we wanted and then going out and actually getting it done. I feel really good about our bench, but obviously, like every team, we have to put it together. But I’m excited, especially since the past of couple weeks we’ve started having more guys in [L.A.] and our team is starting to take a little shape just through our workouts and playing pick-up. I think this could be a special season for us.”

Basketball Insiders: Do you think this will be the most talented team you’ve played on?

Blake Griffin: “Yeah, it absolutely has a chance to be. I’m always hesitant to say that because you know how it is, guys get a roster and it all seems great but sometimes it doesn’t work out. But I think the thing I’m most excited about is just everyone’s eagerness. Like Lance and I were just talking earlier in the summer he was like, ‘I’m just ready to come in and play basketball, I’m ready to help win games,’ and everybody is saying those things. When that’s the main focus, I think it just kind of puts you in a position for success. Obviously, like I said, we have to see how everything turns out and we have to put in the work, but we definitely have the chance to be one of the most talented teams. I think three years ago, when we had Eric Bledsoe coming off the bench, we had Lamar Odom, we had Grant Hill and we had that whole team, we were talented and we had a lot of experience too. This team is a little bit different in that we might not have the same experience and championship experience, but we do have guys that have been in the league and been successful and are very talented as well.”

Basketball Insiders: I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the DeAndre Jordan situation because it’s been covered a lot. But in your Players Tribune article, you mentioned the moment you started realizing DeAndre was having second thoughts about his decision to go to Dallas. But what was going through your head when you initially heard DeAndre had agreed to a deal with the Mavericks? It obviously all worked out, but that must have been a scary few days.

Blake Griffin: “Yeah, it was, it was. When he first told me that [he was going to Dallas], before it had even come out, it was hard. Because, at the time, that’s what he said he wanted and I thought that’s what he wanted so I was happy for him. But at the same time, it’s like, ‘Uh oh, now we got to really go find guys and put a team together.’ I’m a believer in, ‘Okay, that didn’t work so we got to find something else.’ I didn’t want to just automatically say, ‘Oh, we’re not a contender anymore,’ even though the reality is he is a huge part of our team. I try not to even let myself think like that, being one of the leaders of this team. But I remember talking to CP that day and he was just like, ‘What do you think?’ And I’m like, ‘We’ll be alright, we just got to figure it out…’ But obviously having him back is just a huge relief.”

Basketball Insiders: From the outside looking in, it seems like that DeAndre situation was great for the team. Things were put out in the open, relationships were evaluated and it seems like there was progress made. Is that accurate, and do you think that situation helped the team moving forward?

Blake Griffin: “I think so. You could say it was a team building experience and team building exercise, in an unplanned way. But that whole article I wrote was kind of just trying to show that it wasn’t quite what everyone thought it was, from the drama standpoint. You know, he was having second thoughts and of course, as his teammates and his friends, we want to be there for him. It wasn’t like we were like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to go in here secretly and do all of this stuff and try and get him back.’ And in that sense, it kind of goes the same way for our team. Like, I think people think that our team has all of these personal relationship problems, but it’s not really like that – it’s not really like that at all. Yes, it did help, but it’s not like we were just in turmoil, you know what I mean? I do think it’s going to help though because anytime you do something like that and you sit down and really talk about things I think it helps because it’s communication and that’s necessary within the team. But again, I don’t think people really understand our dynamic as a team and they don’t understand that we all are very close and there’s nobody that hates each other on our team. [Rumors like that] couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Basketball Insiders: When I look at your team, you have two Most Valuable Player candidates (yourself and Chris Paul), a former Coach of the Year (Doc Rivers), a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (DeAndre Jordan), a Finals MVP (Paul Pierce), a two-time Sixth Man of the Year (Jamal Crawford) and a combined 23 All-Star appearances. Yet, there’s this perception that you aren’t a legitimate contender. Last year, I predicted that you guys would make the Finals and I was mocked and laughed at on Twitter. Does that motivate you or piss you off?

Blake Griffin: “You know, all of those things are true. We do have a guy in DJ that is a defensive force and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. CP, year in and year out, is one of the best point guards in the league, if not the best. Doc obviously has a great reputation and has had a lot of success. But for us, we haven’t done anything and we know that. Paul Pierce is an NBA champion and obviously a future Hall of Famer, but this is his first year with us so I don’t think we as a team look at it as us being automatic contenders because we haven’t done anything, man. We’ve all been together and we’ve won two division titles, you know what I mean? That’s not getting it done and I think if you talk to our team, everybody will say that. At the same time though, yeah it does motivate you because you want that respect. But you have to earn that respect and I think we’re still in the process of earning that respect and we have to accomplish something. So it’s kind of a weird thing: we should use that as motivation, we should want that respect and that should be our chip on our shoulder, but we understand it a bit. I get it, you know? No one is going to give you the title until you’ve actually earned it and we haven’t earned that title of being a contender yet because we haven’t even been to the Western Conference Finals yet. That’s the fight though, that’s the battle that we have to overcome and I think we’re all ready for that.”

Basketball Insiders: How nice is it to be one of the best teams in the league while the Lakers are struggling. I know the Clippers have often been viewed as the little brother and the worse team in L.A. You experienced it early in your career when they were winning titles and you guys were struggling. How nice is it to be the dominant team in L.A. by a huge margin?

Blake Griffin: “The Lakers have had so much success in the past that this town is a Laker town and people love the Lakers. But that being said, we’re gaining some [ground], we’re gaining some fans. The funniest thing to me, and I think this kind of sums up the relationship between us and the Lakers, is during my rookie year – the year I was hurt – when I was sitting out I would go to our game when it was a Lakers home game and we’d run on the court and the Lakers fans didn’t really boo. There might have been, like, two or three people booing, but they’re the ones who always boo. Now, when we run out, it’s the whole stadium and you kind of feel that hate, and I think that’s because now we have a team that can compete with them every year and we have a team that has won games against them, whereas we never really had that before we were all here. Like I said, what the Lakers have done with their championships, those are never going to go anywhere and they’ve earned those and we’re trying to get to that level. I think you kind of feel the pressure a little bit and the change in the way that the Lakers fans treat us, but you get that. I think it’s great for basketball, I think it’s great for L.A. and I think it’s great for us.”

Basketball Insiders: You’ve done some improv work with hilarious comedians and actors, including one of my favorites: Ben Schwartz. When did you start getting into improv and acting, and do you aspire to have an acting career?

Blake Griffin: “I’ve been into comedy and improv for as long as I can remember. I remember watching Saturday Night Live for as long as I could remember. I use to watch improv shows and standup comedy, just any kind of comedy. I’m a huge fan of comedy. Now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to kind of do some cool things and meet some awesome people, like Ben, but I’m not an actor. I don’t think acting is the route I’m going to go. I’m a fan of all of that stuff and I like doing it, and there may be sometime where I get to do something. But down the road, after my career, I probably won’t be acting [full-time]. It’s not really my thing, because right now it’s just all basketball and all of the stuff I get to do is on the side and it’s extra. But it is a lot of fun for me and I really do enjoy it.”

Basketball Insiders: Do you know what you want to do when your playing career ends? Would you be interested in broadcasting, coaching or anything like that?

Blake Griffin: “Right now, I will tell you this: I definitely will not get into broadcasting. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say definitely, but I probably won’t get into broadcasting. That’s just not something I’m looking to do. But I do enjoy helping kids and helping guys, so maybe coaching or helping guys workout, something like that. Then, away from the court, there’s different things. I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of awesome people out here who have helped me a lot, so maybe a long time down the road I could get into the production side of things. But basketball is what I know and what I love, so maybe down the road [I’ll do] a little bit of coaching. But as of now, it’s pretty much a no on the broadcasting front.”

Basketball Insiders: Well, there is one movie everyone can imagine you in and that’s Space Jam 2. Your recent Marvin the Martian commercial got some Space Jam fans excited. Would you like to be in a Space Jam sequel if it ends up being made?

Blake Griffin: “Oh absolutely, absolutely. I’d love to be involved in any capacity, really. Space Jam was a huge part of my childhood. I actually had a Space Jam themed birthday party as a teen. Then, when I turned 21, my friends got me a Space Jam cake again just to re-live the glory days. It has been a big thing for me so being able to be involved in any capacity would be great, even just being one of the guys that’s in there would be cool. I think it would be a lot of fun. If you told me when I was 8 years old that I could possibly have a chance to be in Space Jam 2, it would have blown my mind. That would just be like another check off the bucket list.”

Basketball Insiders: Los Angeles seems perfect for you given your interests and laid-back personality. Could you see yourself finishing your career with the Clippers?

Blake Griffin: “Yeah, I mean L.A. is my home now. This is where I got drafted and I’ve been here since the beginning. I’ve been with this franchise during some bad times. You know, it hasn’t always been like it is now; anytime you have a chance to go from that to this, you feel invested. I’m not looking to go anywhere. With that being said, you never know [in this business]. But I’m happy here, I love it here, and I would love to finish my career here.”

Here are some more of Alex Kennedy’s offseason interviews:

Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard

Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green

Los Angeles Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell

Sacramento Kings’ Rajon Rondo

Orlando Magic’s Elfrid Payton

Los Angeles Clippers’ Jamal Crawford

Los Angeles Lakers’ Lou Williams

Denver Nuggets’ Emmanuel Mudiay

New York Knicks’ Arron Afflalo

Indiana Pacers’ Myles Turner

Portland Trail Blazers’ C.J. McCollum

New York Knicks’ Kyle O’Quinn

Portland Trail Blazers’ Ed Davis

Los Angeles’ Larry Nance Jr.

Brooklyn Nets’ Willie Reed

 

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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The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

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The X-Factors: Portland

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.

Spencer Davies

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.

In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.

Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.

We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?

For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.

Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.

Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.

Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.

Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.

Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.

Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.

Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.

Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.

Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.

All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.

Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.

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NBA

The X-Factors: New Orleans

Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back, baby.

Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.

Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.

To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.

Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.

But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.

Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.

Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.

And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.

Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.

Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.

The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.

Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.

At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.

But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.

Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.

Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.

With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.

At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.

But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.

In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.

If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.

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