“It’s championship time.”
That was the message Arron Afflalo delivered to Portland Trail Blazers fans on Instagram shortly after the team acquired him from the Denver Nuggets on Thursday afternoon. Afflalo and Alonzo Gee landed in Portland in exchange for Will Barton, Victor Claver, Thomas Robinson, a protected first-round pick and a second-round pick.
The 29-year-old shooting guard hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2011-12 season, when he made it as a member of the Nuggets and lost in the first round to the Los Angeles Lakers. After enduring 154 losses over the last two and half seasons with the Orlando Magic and Nuggets, he’s thrilled to be in a winning organization and excited about the chance to contend for a title.
In his first interview after the trade, which was available on the Blazers’ website, he didn’t back down from his championship comment.
“I’m confident in saying that and I feel that way,” Afflalo told local reporters. “For me, that’s the goal. That’s why I play the game.”
Looking back on the last two and half years of his career, Afflalo admits that there were many times when he grew frustrated. However, during that time, he also made significant improvements to his individual game. In his two years with the Magic, he was asked to be the team’s veteran leader and number one option on offense. This was new for Afflalo, who had always been a role player, and he responded by expanding his game, becoming more efficient and putting up career-best numbers. Still, the losing got to him. Now, he’s ready to take the individual improvements he made and put them to use on an elite team where his success can finally translate into wins.
When asked about making his return to the playoffs, a huge smile appeared on Afflalo’s face. He couldn’t contain his excitement about being able to compete on the NBA’s biggest stage once again.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Afflalo said. “Most of my playoff experience came earlier in my career when obviously I wasn’t the player that I am today. To have the skill set and the confidence and the experience that I have now and to take that into the playoff atmosphere, I’m truly excited.
“As I’ve grown as player individually, unfortunately I haven’t been in a team environment that was built to win it all. I’m looking forward to taking advantage of that [in Portland].”
When Afflalo learned of the trade from Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly, he was ecstatic. The 2014-15 season in Denver had been a major disappointment for everyone involved. Afflalo thought he’d be able to end his postseason drought this year with the Nuggets, as everyone in the organization expected to make the playoffs even in the competitive Western Conference because they had veteran talent and were constructed to win now. However, the team failed to live up to expectations and currently have the fourth-worst record in the West. With the team struggling, the Nuggets decided to go in a different direction and shipped off a number of their veterans including Afflalo, Gee, Timofey Mozgov, Nate Robinson and JaVale McGee.
“I was excited,” Afflalo said when asked about his reaction to the trade. “How the season had been going for me individually and for the team I was on, it was somewhat of a frustrating situation that we were all going through. To come from that [end of the] spectrum to this team here that’s right in the thick of things and trying to contend for a championship, I couldn’t help but be happy.”
Afflalo has been an every-night starter for the last six years of his career, but he says has no problem coming off of the bench in Portland. He knows he was brought in to improve a bench that was ranked 28th in bench scoring prior to adding him, and he insists he’s willing to accept any role that is asked of him.
“This group here was obviously a very good team before I even got here and they have great chemistry together; with an in-season trade, I don’t think [my role] matters,” Afflalo said. “I’ll just come in here and play any role, doing whatever it takes to help the team win.
“I’m a utility guy. I’ve had to adjust so much. I’ve been the last guy on the bench. I’ve been a bench player. I’ve been a starter who played just a defensive role as a defensive stopper. I’ve been a primary option offensively. I look at myself as a person who just gives the team whatever it needs. If this teams needs depth, scoring off the bench or a defensive stopper for [stretches], that’s what I’m going to be.”
Blazers general manager Neil Olshey felt that the team needed to add a veteran wing who could provide some offense off of the bench, and he has history with Afflalo. When he was working with the Los Angeles Clippers, he got to know Afflalo since he attended high school and college in California. When Afflalo entered the league with the Detroit Pistons, he would return to California in the summer and Olshey would put him through workouts to help him improve his game.
“[Our relationship] goes a long way back,” Afflalo said of he and Olshey. “He’s seen where I’ve come from, going back to my draft days, my college days and my high school days. He knows my character and the culture that I would thrive in. To not be judgmental on the situation that I was in and understand that I could really help this team, [our history] did help. He used to work me out in the morning. Six in the morning, he’d get up and work out with me… It was in the summertime, during my early pro days. I used to stay in California, so even when I played in Detroit, I would go back home. He was working with the Clippers, and he would always invite me to come work out with him and a few other guys.”
“Arron and I go way back to our days in Los Angeles, to the time he was a high school player and then at UCLA,” Olshey told reporters and Blazers.com. “I worked him out during his summers; Coach [Tim] Grgurich and I were running around the Clippers’ facility with him.”
Because Olshey knew Afflalo so well and liked his game and attitude, he was confident that the veteran shooting guard would help his team – possibly putting Portland over the top and allowing them to compete for a title. The Blazers have some young talent on their roster, but they also have a number of veterans and upcoming unrestricted free agents (such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez) so there is a sense of urgency to compete for a title this season.
“I know he can help us,” Olshey said. “We had a very specific set of criteria for anybody that we were going to acquire and Arron met every single criteria that we had established. I think our veteran players are happy to add him because he gives us a better chance to win at a higher level, and that’s the goal this year. We’re in a win-now mode. We’ve got a window here. We want to keep this group together, but in order to do that we have to prove to the veterans who are here that we’re willing to acquire players who will impact our chance to win at a high level.
“We had been working on [the trade] for a couple of weeks because we felt like we had a specific need. We needed a veteran presence off our bench on the wing. We have really good, talented young guys who are still here like Allen [Crabbe] and C.J. [McCollum], but the playoff push we’re trying to make requires veterans. It requires guys who have been battle-tested throughout the playoffs.”
Several of the team’s veterans have history with Afflalo, just as Olshey does. Afflalo was in the same high school class as Aldridge, and the two were actually roommates when they played in the McDonald’s All-American Game. Afflalo also has a relationship with Dorell Wright since they both grew up in Los Angeles and have known each other since high school. As Olshey mentioned, Portland’s core players seem pleased with the trade.
Aldridge, Matthews and Damian Lillard admitted that it was difficult seeing Barton, Robinson and Claver go in the trade since Portland is a tight-knit team, but they all felt that Afflalo could be a difference maker.
“He’ll be another scorer off of the bench and he can guard his position really well,” Aldridge said. “I think he’s good offensively and defensively, and I think he can fit into our system pretty easily – moving the ball, playing unselfishly and knocking down shots for us.”
“With Afflalo and Gee coming in, it’s winning time,” Matthews said. “Hopefully they can help us do just that.”
“He’s a guy who can come off of the bench and provide a scoring punch and he plays hard on both ends of the floor,” Lillard said. “He’s a vet, who has been on good teams and has been on bad teams. I think he can come in and help our team.”
Head coach Terry Stotts is looking forward to having Afflalo in his rotation as well.
“Arron has played big games, he’s a very good defender, an excellent three-point shooter and I think he fits our style of play on both ends of the court,” Stotts said. “He’s a tough-minded player and, like I said, he fits into our style and culture. That’s important.”
Afflalo can opt out of the final year of his contract (worth $7,750,000) this summer to become an unrestricted free agent and secure a new long-term deal. That scared a few teams away in trade talks with the Nuggets, but the Blazers felt acquiring him for this season was worth the risk and they hope to keep him beyond this season. When asked if this would just be a temporary stop in Portland or his new long-term home, Afflalo was non-committal and said he’s not focused on that now.
“I think that’s just one of those things you address in the offseason,” Afflalo said of his free agency. “I don’t think that’s a point of focus right now. For me, it’s about taking advantage of this opportunity and bringing what I can to the team. Then, we’ll see where it goes from there this offseason.”
At the end of the day, bringing in Afflalo was about one thing: winning now. The Blazers are determined to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this season and believe they have the roster to do it. They currently have the sixth-best record in the NBA this season despite getting little production from their bench for much of the year; that’s how good their starting lineup has been. Now, after adding a strong veteran scorer to their second unit, the Blazers suddenly look like one of the scariest teams in the league.
Clippers to Add Jordan Hamilton
One other team that tried and failed to land Arron Afflalo was the Los Angeles Clippers. L.A. pursued a number of wings prior to the trade deadline, but didn’t have the trade assets to acquire an upgrade at that position.
So rather than dealing for a wing, the team is prepared to sign one.
Jordan Hamilton, who had been playing with the Reno Bighorns of the NBA D-League, will sign a 10-day contract with the Clippers, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.
The Clippers looked at a number of free agents and settled on Hamilton, who averaged 16.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists this season in D-League. Hamilton, who’s a Los Angeles native, is the 40th D-League call-up of the 2014-15 season.
Hamilton is no stranger to the NBA, as the 24-year-old has played for the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets. He was a first-round pick (No. 26) back in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Throughout the course of Hamilton’s three-year NBA career, he has averaged 5.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in 13.3 minutes per game. It remains to be seen if he’ll have a significant role with the Clippers, but he does provide the team with more depth on the perimeter.
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