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The Race To Eighth In The West

Basketball Insiders takes a look at who will likely secure the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Jesse Blancarte

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So far this season, the Western Conference Playoff race has been tight. As of today, the eighth seed Phoenix Suns are six games behind the third-place Memphis Grizzlies, whereas in the Eastern Conference, the eighth seed Miami HEAT are 8 ½ games behind the third seed Wizards. To put this in perspective, the Suns, at 18-15, would be the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, and the tenth seed Oklahoma City Thunder would be the eighth seed at 15-17.

The eighth seed in the West is currently being wrestled for by five teams. Though the season is still relatively young, the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves have fallen outside of contention for the final Playoff spot in the West. There is enough time for things to change, but this article focuses on the teams that are most likely to be fighting for the eighth seed based on the current standings, assuming the top seven teams don’t encounter any significant setbacks.

Factors that are considered most significantly include recent performance, strength of schedule, the amount of road games to be played, tough stretches (e.g., back-to-backs, long road trips), injuries, and future performance indicators like offensive and defensive efficiency and net rating.

With that said, let’s take a look at which Western Conference teams have the best shot at securing the eighth and final Playoff spot.

5. Denver Nuggets (12)

Record: 13-19
Games Remaining: 50 (24 Home, 26 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500 teams: 25, West: 34, East: 16
Strength of Schedule: .522 (6)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 3-7
Efficiency: Offensive 101.5 (three-way tie for 20 with the Thunder and Bucks), Defensive 105 (22), Net Rating -3.5 (22)

The Denver Nuggets have had a disappointing start to the 2014-15 NBA season. The return of several players from injury, including Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson, JaVale McGee, and Nate Robinson, the trade for Arron Afflalo, the impressive FIBA World Tournament performance by Kenneth Faried and a second year under head coach Brian Shaw were all reasons for optimism in Denver entering this season. But Gallinari has been inconsistent and is now out with a meniscus injury, McGee is also sidelined, Afflalo has been underwhelming, Faried has played poorly until recently,and the team has not shown any real improvement in its second year under Shaw.

So far this season, the Nuggets have suffered through three losing streaks of three games or more (the longest one being six after winning their season opener against the Detroit Pistons). To their credit, the Nuggets have had the sixth toughest schedule in terms of opponents winning percentage (.522 overall), but losing to weak opponents like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t help their cause.

The Nuggets open 2015 with a tough road game against the Chicago Bulls, and a home game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Then, starting on January 14, the Nuggets enter a tough stretch where, over a two week period, they will face the Dallas Mavericks twice, the Golden State Warriors on the road, the San Antonio Spurs, the Washington Wizards, the Los Angeles Clippers, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies. The games against the Clippers, Pelicans and Grizzlies will be especially difficult considering they are all road games and are played over the course of four days. The only easy matchups in that two week span come against the Minnesota Timberwolves (who nearly beat the Nuggets in Denver on December 26), and the Boston Celtics.

Fortunately for the Nuggets, February opens with three road games against easy competition, including the Philadelphia 76ers, Celtics and Pistons. The Nuggets then have another road trip starting on March 15. In the span of a week, the Nuggets will face the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Rockets, HEAT and Magic. Assuming the Nuggets are still in range of the eighth seed at this point in the season, this road trip could be a critical stretch. It’s not likely Denver will be able to beat both the Grizzlies and Rockets on the road, but they should have a chance of knocking off the Pelicans, HEAT, and Magic.

But even if the Nuggets are in striking range entering the last few days of the season, they may still fall short. The Nuggets’ season ends with two road games, the first against the Clippers, and the second against the Warriors.

Another major issue for the Nuggets moving forward is that they have more road games than the teams they are competing against for the eighth seed (with the exception of the Sacramento Kings). So far, the Nuggets are 4-11 on the road (36.4 win percentage), including bad losses to the Kings, Knicks and Charlotte Hornets. The Nuggets need to figure out how to win big games on the road if they want to have any shot of securing the eighth seed.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, their -3.5 net rating indicates that they are a long shot at best to make the playoffs this season. The Nuggets’ defense and offense are both well below league average, and the players continue to struggle with ineffective play, frustration over playing time and injuries. The quad injury suffered to Wilson Chandler, who has been one of Denver’s most consistent players this season, is the most recent setback and another cause for concern.

Standing 5 ½ games behind the Suns is a huge issue, which means the Nuggets will need to sort out their lingering obstacles immediately in order to have a shot of stealing the eighth seed away from the competition. At this point in the season, there is little reason to expect that to happen.

4. Sacramento Kings (11)

Record: 13-18
Games Remaining: 51 (23 Home, 28 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 26, West: 29, East: 22
Strength of Schedule: .522 (7)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 2-8
Efficiency: Offensive 104.5 (13), Defensive 106.3 (24), Net Rating -1.8 (18)

The Sacramento Kings opened the 2014-15 NBA season as one of the hottest teams in the league. Through Sacramento’s first six games, the Kings knocked off teams like the Trail Blazers, Clippers, Nuggets (twice), and Suns. The Kings have been up and down since their fast start for several reasons, including the loss of star center DeMarcus Cousins for several games due to viral meningitis, and the unexpected firing of head coach Mike Malone on December 15.

Since December 9, the Kings have gone 2-8 and are in a complete nosedive at this point. Fortunately for Sacramento, the Kings’ next three opponents are the Celtics, Timberwolves and Pistons (all road games). The bad news is that once they complete their four game road trip, the Kings face, over the course of 11 days, the Thunder, Nuggets, Cavaliers, Mavericks, HEAT and Clippers (all home games). To close out January, the Kings have one home game against the Brooklyn Nets, and six road games against some stiff competition, including the Trail Blazers, Warriors, Raptors and Cavaliers.

The schedule doesn’t get much easier heading into February as the Kings’ first two games are against the Warriors and Mavericks. After this, the Kings play four games in five nights, including a key matchup with the Suns on February 8. February closes just as difficultly as it started with games against the Clippers, Grizzlies and Spurs.

Sacramento’s next long road trip starts on March 4 and ends on March 14. Over 11 days, the Kings will face a mixed bag of opponents and only one back-to-back against the Magic and HEAT. It will be critical for the Kings to knock off the teams they are supposed to, while upsetting some of the tougher opponents like the Hawks and Wizards. However, the fact that the Kings are 5-8 on the road so far this season, with bad losses to the Magic, Lakers and Pistons does not bode well for their chances on the road moving forward.

Assuming the Kings are still in contention for the eighth seed by late March, they will have a crucial four game road trip, which includes matches against the Suns and Pelicans (who are both candidates for the eighth seed), followed by a home game against the Pelicans on April 3.

Working in the Kings’ favor is that their regular season closes against some easy competition (unlike the Nuggets who close the season against the Clippers and Warriors). In their last three games, the Kings face the Nuggets on the road, and the Lakers twice in the span of three days. But the chances of the Kings being in striking distance for the eighth seed by the end of the season are not great at this point. Cousins and Rudy Gay have been great this season, but the loss of Cousins was a major blow, and the fact that the Kings are playing under an interim coach (Tyrone Corbin) does not provide much reason to expect a late playoff push from Sacramento.

3. New Orleans Pelicans (9)

Record: 16-15
Games Remaining: 51 (27 Home, 24 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 22, West: 30, East: 21
Strength of Schedule: .535 (2)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 106.4 (7), Defensive 107.3 (26), Net Rating -0.9 (16)

The argument could be made that the Suns should be ranked third on this list. The Suns just lost to the Pelicans last night, have played the 29th easiest schedule in the league so far (.460 win percentage of opponents), and are still figuring out how to best utilize their point guard heavy backcourt. However, the Pelicans get this spot mostly because of their surprisingly poor defense, injury concerns and lack of depth.

The Pelicans start the new year with two tough home games against the Rockets and the Wizards and then have a five-game road trip starting on January 12 and ending on January 19. Fortunately for the Pelicans, they face weak opponents like the Celtics, Pistons, 76ers and Knicks. Their toughest matchup of the trip is against the Raptors on January 18.

The Pelicans open February with two tough home games, the first against Atlanta, the second against the Thunder. They then face the Thunder on February 6 in Oklahoma City. These two games will be huge for the Pelicans since they are currently a game and a half ahead of the Thunder, who figure to keep pace in the West with the expected return of Durant from his recent ankle injury.

After February 6, the Pelicans don’t face any particularly tough portions of their schedule until March 19 when they go out on a three-game road trip to face the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers (March 19-22). Three days later, they will face the Houston Rockets at home. Their last tough stretch will then begin April 4 and end on April 12. During that stretch, the Pelicans will face the Trail Blazers (in Portland), Warriors, Grizzlies (in Memphis), Suns and the Rockets (in Houston).

Working in the Pelicans favor is the fact that they have played much tougher competition than the Suns thus far, and are still just a game back in the standings. New Orleans has less road games to play, and less games against Western Conference teams. However, the Pelicans’ net rating of -0.9 is cause for concern. While New Orleans’ offense is performing well (7th best in the NBA), their defense has been a disaster. This is surprising considering that head coach Monty Williams emphasizes defense first, Anthony Davis leads the league in blocks, Omer Asik is a good rim protector, and Jrue Holiday does a decent job of pressuring opposing ball-handlers. The loss of Gordon, who has been a solid wing-defender throughout his career, and insertion of Austin Rivers partially explains the defensive issues, but not completely.

The fact that players like Rivers, Luke Babbit, and John Salmons play significant minutes is another issue. After Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis, Asik and Ryan Anderson, there aren’t many above average players on the roster (Rivers, Babbit, Salmons, Dante Cunningham and even Gordon have PER ratings well below the league average of 15).

If the Pelicans can’t get their defense up to snuff quickly, they will eventually lose pace with the Suns and Thunder for the eighth seed, no matter how efficiently their offense is performing.

2. Phoenix Suns (8)

Record: 18-15
Games Remaining: 49 (27 Home, 22 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 29, West: 34, East 15
Strength of Schedule: .460 (29)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 106.5 (6), Defensive 104.2 (tied for 18 with the Los Angeles Clippers), Net Rating 2.3 (12)

On December 20, I wrote about the Phoenix Suns’ recent struggles and their dimming hopes of making the Playoffs. Since then, Alex Len has improved his play significantly and the Suns have won five of their last six games to fortify their hold over the eighth seed (however, they lost a big game against the Pelicans in New Orleans last night). There is no time for the Suns to dwell on the loss, however, as they face the Oklahoma City Thunder later tonight.

To start the new year, the Suns have seven games in 11 nights, including a four-game road trip where they will face top Western Conference opponents like the Spurs and Grizzlies. The pace of their schedule will slow down after playing the Grizzlies on January 11, however, after facing the Timberwolves and Lakers, the Suns close out January against the Trail Blazers, Rockets, Clippers, Wizards, Bulls, and Warriors.

Then, to start up the month of February, the Suns will face the Memphis Grizzlies, and Portland Trail Blazers. Things lighten up somewhat after that, but they will again play four games in six nights from February 20 through February 26 (including an important home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on the 26th).

March starts out with another road trip, which includes four games in six nights. However, each opponent is a beatable Eastern Conference team (HEAT, Magic, Nets, Cavaliers). March ends with four tough games from March 27 through April 2. The first two matchups are at home against the Trail Blazers, and then the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Suns will then hit the road and face the Trail Blazers in Portland, and then travel to face the Warriors.

The Suns’ season ends with five crucial games from April 7 through April 14. Four of the five games are on the road against tough opponents like the Hawks, Mavericks, Pelicans and Spurs. Then the Suns finish out the regular season against the Spurs and Clippers, two games that could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.

Working in the Suns’ favor is the fact that they have less road games remaining than any of their competition, and their offense has risen to sixth best in the league. Defense remains an issue, though that may become less of a problem if Len continues to be a significant contributor. Protecting the rim has been a problem for the Suns all season, but Len provides some hope of addressing that.

But even with a 2 ½ game lead over the Thunder, the Suns are very vulnerable now that Durant and Westbrook are (reportedly) healthy. The Suns had an opportunity to distance themselves more from the Thunder earlier in the season, but now will have to avoid any major setbacks if they hope to hold onto the eighth seed. But with just a 2 ½ game lead over the Thunder after playing one of the easiest schedules so far, and with a defense that is below league average, the Suns will have a tough time fending off the Thunder moving forward.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (10)

Record: 15-17
Games Remaining: 50 (26 Home, 24 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 29, West: 32, East: 18
Strength of Schedule: .486 (23)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 101.5 (three-way tie for 20), Defensive 99.9 (5), Net Rating 1.6 (13)

Near the end of November, I wrote about whether the Oklahoma City Thunder could still make the Playoffs after going 5-12 through their first 17 games without Kevin Durant, and (for the most part) Russell Westbrook. By applying the Thunder’s performance last season to their remaining schedule, it appeared that the Thunder had a shot at making the playoffs, so long as they didn’t face any major setbacks. Not long after that, Durant sprained his ankle and missed six games.

However, Durant is set to return tonight in a key matchup against the Suns. If the Thunder beat the Suns, they will be just one game behind Phoenix in the loss column. The Thunder then face the Wizards and the Warriors. This is an important and tough stretch for Oklahoma City, which makes Durant’s return timely.

Then the Thunder set out on a five game road trip starting on January 18 and ending on January 25. On the road trip, the Thunder will face the Magic, HEAT, Wizards, Hawks and Cavaliers. This is another tough stretch for the Thunder, but with Durant back, and hopefully healthy, they should be competitive in each game.

They then return home for an easy home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 26 before hitting the road again to face the Knicks and then the Grizzlies.

In early February, the Thunder have some big games, starting with back-to-back matchups with the New Orleans Pelicans (February 4 in New Orleans, February 6 in Oklahoma City). Two wins over the Pelicans would be a big boost for the Thunder, who have lost to the Pelicans twice already this season.

The Thunder then have a tough stretch of games starting on February 19 and ending on February 27 (six games in nine nights). Through nine days, the Thunder will face the Mavericks, Hornets, Nuggets, Pacers, Suns, and Trail Blazers. Oklahoma City then has a stretch of four games at home with three very winnable games against the Celtics, HEAT and Lakers. However, they face the Atlanta Hawks on March 20, which should be a tough matchup considering Atlanta’s recent play.

Then, on March 29, the Thunder have a big matchup against the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix after playing the night before against the Jazz in Utah. Following their match up in Phoenix, the Thunder have four tough games in a row, against the Mavericks, Grizzlies (in Memphis), Rockets and Spurs.

The Thunder close out the season with some winnable games against the Kings, Pacers and Timberwolves, but face the Trail Blazers on April 13.

Working in the Thunder’s favor is the recent play of Russell Westbrook, who has been a one-man wrecking crew recently. With Durant back, the Thunder should quickly improve on offense, where they are currently ranked 21st. Last season the Thunder were the seventh best offensive team in the league, and though they may not reach that level this season, they are certainly a top 10 offensive team with both Westbrook and Durant healthy. Coupled with a top five defense, the Thunder are primed for a strong push for the eighth seed. However, this assumes that Durant and Westbrook don’t miss any more significant time moving forward. Another significant injury to either player would make the Suns the favorite to secure the final Playoff spot in the West.

With early season injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Suns, Pelicans, Kings and Nuggets all had a huge opportunity to outpace the Thunder and grab a firm advantage in the race for the last playoff seed. However, for a range of reasons, none of these teams managed to do so. Now, even though they are 2 ½ games behind the Suns for the eighth seed, the Thunder are primed to climb the ranks and secure a Playoff spot. Though in the wild Western Conference, where just a few games separate the top Playoff teams from the bottom, anything is possible.

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

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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