The Damian Lillard era is underway in Portland.
The two-time All-Star is unquestionably the centerpiece of the Trail Blazers. In fact, general manager Neil Olshey has even said that Portland will only target players who complement Lillard’s skill set and are on the same career arc as the 25-year-old point guard.
Portland’s front office has been extremely active this summer. Gone are veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez, replaced by younger players like Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless among others. Lillard is the lone returning starter for the Blazers, and he’s ready to carry the franchise on his shoulders.
Like the Blazers, Lillard has been incredibly busy this offseason as well. He signed a five-year, $120 million extension to stay with the Blazers long-term. He traveled across the globe promoting his signature adidas shoes. He dropped five rap tracks under his stage name Dame Dolla. He ran his annual Lillard Camp in Oregon. Not to mention, he’s put in extensive work with his trainer to improve his game.
With so much going on, Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy recently caught up with Lillard to discuss the Blazers’ additions, LaMarcus Aldridge’s decision to join the San Antonio Spurs, Lillard’s contract extension, Portland’s expectations for next season and, of course, Dame Dolla’s success in the rap game. Here is the full Q&A:
Basketball Insiders: The Blazers have been very active this summer, adding Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Gerald Henderson and Maurice Harkless among others. What do you think of the new additions and how they’ll fit alongside you?
Damian Lillard: “I like all of them. I’ve always been a huge fan of Moe Harkless. I really like Ed Davis. Overall, put all of them together, and I love the size and length and athleticism that they offer. Obviously all of them are younger, which means we can all grow and get better together. We’ll have time to get more familiar with each other and get comfortable with each other, so I like that part of it.”
Basketball Insiders: Ed Davis recently told me that one of the main reasons he wanted to join the Blazers was to play with you. Have you ever recruited free agents and is that something you’re open to doing in the future?
Damian Lillard: “I have never recruited anyone. I’ve spoken to guys with games that I like to see if they wanted to be in a different place and things like that – guys I thought would fit with our team. That was that, but I’ve never gone out and recruited people. I’ve always felt like people will go where they want to be, where they feel most wanted, where they can most benefit and benefit the team, so I let people make their own decisions. It’s kind of up to the player. If you go out there and you recruit somebody and, I guess, butter them up and they come and it’s not what you made them believe it to be then that can be bad, so you got to let people feel it out for themselves and work it out that way.”
Basketball Insiders: You signed a five-year extension with Portland this summer – congratulations, by the way. Lately, a lot of players have been signing shorter deals so that they can hit free agency again sooner. Why did you want to lock in the longest deal possible with the Blazers?
Damian Lillard: “First of all, as much as you want to have the greatest financial situation possible, I don’t play the game for money. I’m not trying to have a plan like, ‘Oh, I can make this much money and I can do this and this.’ I know right now I qualified for what I signed for and I know that I’m playing where I want to be playing at, and I know that the team I’m playing for wants me here. I think both sides just committed to another. It wasn’t about free agency and all those things like that. I don’t play that game.”
Basketball Insiders: I know Blazers fans were thrilled when you signed that deal. If all goes as planned, can you see yourself finishing your career in Portland?
Damian Lillard: “Definitely. I mean, I love it here. I love living here. I love the people here. This is just my kind of place. After growing up where I grew up, you just want to be in a nice, peaceful place. You want to be somewhere where people respect you and somewhere that you have built something. And I feel like I’ve built something great in my first three years here and I will continue to build on it. I consider this a second home. As long as they’ll have me, I’ll be here.”
Basketball Insiders: During Summer League, Neil Olshey said that he expects you guys to play more of an up-tempo style since you have a lot of young athletes on the roster. Are you excited about that?
Damian Lillard: “I am. I think playing faster is going to be the best thing for our team. We have a lot of really athletic guys that can really run. It’s not like we can play the same way [as last year] because we don’t have the same personnel. So I really like that idea of playing a faster game because of where we’re at. It’s something we can really take advantage of, and it’s something that we can do well. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Basketball Insiders: Because the roster features so many young players, some people are writing you guys off entering next season. Does that motivate you and do you think this group will surprise people?
Damian Lillard: “I do think we can definitely surprise people. I’m not sure why they would expect anything. We have myself, who’s been doubted. This is not my first time being doubted and second-guessed. And then we have a lot of young guys who are going to be put in certain roles and situations that they haven’t been in the past. Their responsibility is going to change. I think things like that is why we’ve been second-guessed or written off, but I think we’ll be fine.”
Basketball Insiders: With so many of last year’s veterans gone, are you looking forward to taking on an increased role next season?
Damian Lillard: “Definitely. I mean, the way I see it, anytime you get an opportunity to rise, grow and face a challenge, I’m all for that. This will be my first time being in that position in the NBA. It kind of reminds me of my sophomore year in college. I played my freshman year with a lot of good players and the MVP of the league and then everybody left. A new group of guys came in and I ended up being the leader right away. I did what I had to do. I just embraced the situation and took it for what it was. People have no expectations for us, so I mean that takes the pressure off. We’re just going to see what happens.”
Basketball Insiders: How much of an adjustment will it be not having guys like LaMarcus, Wesley, Nic and Robin around on and off the court? I know you were close with some of those guys.
Damian Lillard: “I mean, it’s definitely going to be an adjustment because you take a four-time All-Star out of the picture, you take a small forward who can do everything out of the picture, you take a shooting guard who is a lights out shooter and great defender out of the picture you take out a center who is as low maintenance as they come, who just wants to rebound, protect the paint and just cares about the team wining. You take guys like that away and of course everything changes. But like I said, the position we’re in, it’s all a part of growth. We just got to embrace that. Embrace the fact that the challenge is in front of us and this is what we’re faced with. We just got to step up to it like men and if it does work out, great; if it doesn’t go perfect, then that’s what it is. We just got to be ready to embrace the challenge.”
Basketball Insiders: Were you surprised to see LaMarcus leave to go to the Spurs?
Damian Lillard: “No, it didn’t surprise me. He spent nine years of his career in Portland. Last year we went to the second round, and this past year we lost in the first round and he’s at that point in his career where he’s thinking about a championship. Not that we couldn’t win it, but it’s not uncommon for a guy at his age to make changes for themselves and for what they want for their careers, so I wasn’t surprised by it at all.”
Basketball Insiders: What aspects of your game have you been working to improve this offseason?
Damian Lillard: “I’ve been doing a lot of stuff. Just working on different spots, different types of shots in different spots. I’m working on my balance, my core, ball-handling, my passing, things like that – a lot of stuff that’s going to allow me to make things easier for myself. Like you said, all the threats that I’ve had around me these first three seasons [have left] so now I’ll get a lot more attention on the offensive end. I have to be able to do other things, whether that’s getting to a certain spot on the floor, making the play to pass the ball out and sprint to another spot for an open shot instead passing the ball out, standing out and watching. I’ve been working on a lot of stuff like that.”
Basketball Insiders: Let’s talk about your rapping. First of all, you are ridiculously talented. Are you putting out an album and is there a timetable for that to drop?
Damian Lillard: “Well, I plan on putting out a short album. I want to do it way before the season is even creeping up on us; I want to get something done early. But it’s already done. If I do put something out, it’s not something that I need to do now, it’s already done. I recorded a lot stuff. But the crazy thing is, I don’t spent a lot of time doing it. I have things that I do. I work out twice a day, I get my lift in, I hang out with my family and I’ve just been relaxing a lot. But some nights, I decide to go the studio and do some music just to give myself some balance, to put my mind in a different place and kind of put my emotions out there a little bit. I don’t spend a lot of time doing it, so it’s been kind of funny to see people like, ‘Oh he better get in the gym!’
Basketball Insiders: I hate people who say stuff like that, like you guys are supposed to live in the gym.
Damian Lillard: “This is how I can break that down to you. So, they want us as professionals to be humble, right? They like for us to be humble and not act like we’re this and that, but at the same time you need to treat us like a normal person. Put it like this, for my mom growing up, she had two jobs. You praise the average person for working two jobs. But the fact that I have like a second career, possibly, people want to say just focus on [basketball]. So it’s kind of like you’re automatically making me not a normal person. You’re almost, in a way, taking my normalcy away by saying just focus on one thing, when you praise the average person for having a second job. That just doesn’t make sense!”
Basketball Insiders: Finally, I want to ask you about Lillard Camp. You go all out for this – working directly with the kids, bringing in talented coaches and even taking all of the campers to a movie theater to see Ant-Man! What made you want to do this camp and take it to that level?
Damian Lillard: “People pay their money to come get a great camp, and for their kids to learn something. I just want to give people what they signed up for and [what they paid for]. I just want to have that presence [at the camp] because making an impact on the kids is everything, man.”
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old