TrueHoop: Portland Trail Blazers

Nicolas Batum checks out, perks up

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
3:19
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Nicolas Batum tried something different during the All-Star break. He went down to a resort in Mexico and limited himself to only one hour of cell phone use every morning, then he turned it off for the rest of the day. He told his mother and his agent to call the hotel if they really needed to reach him.

That strict cell phone diet was a sign that Batum’s struggles this season -- in which his shooting percentage has plummeted to a career low and his scoring average is at its lowest since he was a rookie -- were mental as well as physical. Yes, he was drained from playing for France in international competition so many summers, and yes he has been bothered by wrist and knee injuries this season. But listen to what he said the time off meant to him:

“The All-Star break was a big thing for me. I just relaxed and refreshed my mind,” Batum said. “I’m feeling good now. I’m happy to be back and kind of get my rhythm back, my swag back a little bit.”

[+] EnlargeBatum
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsNicolas Batum had two indispensable 3-pointers in the win over the Clippers.
Swag isn’t something that can be surgically repaired. There’s no rehab program. Something was a little off in Batum and he knew it.

“Nobody’s been harder on Nic than Nic,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s wanted to play well. He’s put a lot of pressure on himself.”

Batum averaged 8.9 points and shot 37 percent from the field and 27 percent on 3-pointers before the All-Star break. In the six games since his phone break, he’s averaging 11.8 points and shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers, 50 percent overall. That includes his 20 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in Portland’s comeback win against the Clippers in Los Angeles on Wednesday night.

He took opportunistic shots. He found LaMarcus Aldridge on lobs off the pick-and-roll. He took over defensive duties on Chris Paul after Paul had his way with Damian Lillard and did a good job of forcing Paul left instead of his preferred right. He was, as he put it, “that all-around player like I used to be.”

At age 26, Batum is too young to be telling back-in-the-day stories. But he did find himself watching video of last season, when he put up numbers more in line with his career averages, when he was that more aggressive player.


The Trail Blazers are a different team with the Batum of the past -- and the post-All-Star present. They’re more dangerous, should be taken more seriously. He's a double-digit scorer and 40 percent shooter in their victories; he averages 7 points and makes only a third of his shots in their losses. They’re not going to go deep into the playoffs without a couple of podium games from Batum.

Apparently it took some time when he didn’t communicate with others for Batum to find himself. He liked what he saw in the old video, he realizes that player hasn’t vanished.

“I was OK last year,” Batum concluded. “I’m good now.”

If the Blazers are going deep into the playoffs, they’ll probably be better off if calls to Batum’s phone go straight to voice mail.

Blazers show fire in overcoming Westbrook

February, 28, 2015
Feb 28
3:26
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard believed the Portland Trail Blazers hadn't been themselves lately.

The evidence was obvious.

Portland, once on Golden State's heels for the best record in the West, staggered into the All-Star break with nine losses over a stretch of 15 games. Then the Blazers stumbled into the stretch run after a full week off with their worst loss of the season in a 92-76 setback in Utah.

"It wasn't the same energy," Lillard said of the recent malaise. "It just didn't feel like us."

A far more familiar feeling returned Friday night, when the Blazers frantically erased a double-figure deficit in the fourth quarter and absorbed a third consecutive triple-double assault from Russell Westbrook to hold off Oklahoma City 115-112 for their most important win of the season.

[+] EnlargeRussell Westbrook, Arron Afflalo
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Blazers managed to overcome Russell Westbrook's third straight triple-double.
Typically, coaches and players don't overstate the significance of a regular-season game, especially in February. But Portland coach Terry Stotts took the opposite approach entering Friday's game against division rival OKC. Stotts spoke before the game about the opportunity the Blazers had to not only build on a productive week, but to move to 3-0 and clinch the season series against the Thunder.

Then, Lillard went out and notched his highest-scoring game in a month with 29 points.

Then, LaMarcus Aldridge followed with a phenomenal outburst in the fourth quarter, when he neutralized Westbrook's impact and finished with 29 points and 16 rebounds. Role players Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews shot a combined 4-for-19 from the field, but it was the shot in the arm they provided on defense to help slow Westbrook that highlighted their efforts.

Then, newly-acquired swingman Arron Afflalo made some key plays in the final seconds to seal the win.

It had all of the ingredients of the type of basketball the Blazers played at the beginning of the season, when everyone was healthy, happy and contributing to one of the best starts in franchise history. The Blazers rallied from an 11-point deficit in the final eight minutes to improve to 9-2 at home this season in games when they entered the fourth quarter trailing.

Some might see that as flirting with danger. The Blazers see it as resilience.

"It was an important win for how we managed to stick with it, come back, fight through some adversity," Stotts said. "I don't think we necessarily played our best, but we found a way. It'll do us well going forward. Like I said before the game, as much as the implications were as far as the division and tiebreaker, it was as much or more about the 20-something games to go and finding ways to win."

It helps when Lillard is engaged and aggressive. Perhaps Westbrook commanded his full attention in the point guard matchup. With 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, Westbrook became the first player since LeBron James in 2009 to post triple-doubles in three consecutive games. Westbrook received a scare late in the game when he was inadvertently kneed in the head by a teammate and was taken after the game to a Portland-area medical facility for further evaluation.

But the Blazers met -- and ultimately -- exceeded Westbrook's energy and tenacity.

It helps when Aldridge, who had been dealing with injuries to both thumbs, grasped the challenge of getting into the paint and dominating that area on both ends of the court. Aldridge admitted afterward that he spoke up aggressively in timeout huddles to spark his team.

"I don't even remember what anybody else was saying, because I was talking," Aldridge said.

He did far more than talk. His actions spoke volumes during a stretch when he had nine points, five rebounds, two assists and a block in the fourth quarter to ignite the Blazers. At one point, Aldridge completely abandoned his feathery-soft perimeter jumper and repeatedly attacked the lane. It resulted in Portland holding an 18-8 edge in free throw attempts in the fourth quarter.

"I just felt like the game was right there for us to take," Aldridge said. "We never believe that we're out of it. We understand that if we turn up our defense and play to the level we're capable of, anything is possible. Our guys played together. Our confidence is back. It wavered for a minute. But our swagger in the fourth quarter has come back to us. And that's good."

And that was the point Lillard made from the outset. In the West, where teams are bunched together in a thrilling race to secure playoff seeds, the postseason intensity has arrived early in Portland.

"The way that we were there for each other -- the high fives, the emotion from everybody -- I think it's back to what we're accustomed to. That's what we do. We play exciting basketball games and get the crowd into it. And that's what we did," Lillard said.

The power of point guards

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16
3:45
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Damian Lillard says it's hard to win without a good one.

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Damian Lillard's game face

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16
3:43
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The All-Star point guard discusses why he doesn't smile after game-winners. ... Or any time.

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The other early MVP candidates

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
4:57
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Marc Gasol, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Kyle Korver are all possible MVPs this season, says David Thorpe.



Damian Lillard vs. Chris Paul

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
12:42
PM ET
By Tom Haberstroh and Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Tom Haberstroh and Amin Elhassan debate which point guard is better right now ­-- Damian Lillard or Chris Paul?

The eclectic Damian Lillard

November, 24, 2014
11/24/14
7:48
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Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Damian Lillard discusses his $100 million deal with Adidas and what first drew him to rap.

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Damian Lillard keeps getting better

November, 21, 2014
11/21/14
1:50
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Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Damian Lillard explains how the Trail Blazers have sharpened their defense, playing without the ball and the versatility of Nicolas Batum.

Trail Blazers still shooting high

October, 20, 2014
10/20/14
11:00
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By Erik Gundersen
Special to ESPN.com
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LillardSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images"The Shot" still rings out in Portland. But do the Trail Blazers have an encore performance in them?
In Portland, the afterglow of Damian Lillard's buzzer-beater to defeat the Houston Rockets hasn’t ended. All of the fan videos, courtside Vines and your friend's friend's stories about where they were when "The Shot" happened has turned perhaps the most memorable moment of the 2014 NBA postseason into a local legend. That the Trail Blazers were dismantled in the next round by Kawhi Leonard and the eventual champions is only an addendum, if that.

The city has fallen back in love with its team. After the “Jail Blazers” years, all the losing seasons that followed, the injuries that struck down Greg Oden and Brandon Roy in their primes, and some more losing, Portland seems squarely behind the Blazers again. A group of 13,500 showed up to a recent Fan Fest, which Terry Stotts, an NBA coach for over 20 years, said was the most he'd seen at such an event.

A lot of that has to do with Lillard. In just two seasons, the 6-foot-3 point guard who hails from little-known Weber State has risen into a bona fide star. Only Oscar Robertson, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Tiny Archibald have totaled as many points and assists in their first two NBA seasons as Lillard, and although he was left off Team USA’s final roster for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Lillard added “All-Star” last season to a résumé that already includes a Rookie of the Year win. He’s even started to show some star power off the court, appearing in commercials and video game covers, and presenting at the ESPYs (in a Dr. Jack Ramsay-style plaid jacket).

Lillard’s exploits mean even more locally, especially when contextualized by the ones that came before his. Six years earlier, Roy was the one beating the Rockets at the buzzer and earning praise as the Blazers’ next leading man. LaMarcus Aldridge, who rose to prominence alongside Roy, has even said that his new running mate is in the “Brandon Roy category.”

But Roy’s celebrity never reached the type of fever pitch that Lillard finds himself in now. With a more subtle game and a less ferocious on-court persona, Roy, who also played his best years before watching basketball evolved into its current, Internet “sharing”-happy state, mostly toiled in relative obscurity. Lillard is the type of player made for going viral. And with an in-his-prime Aldridge by his side, the Blazers might have a core that not only recreates what they lost to injuries, but even surpasses it.

“When Dame came in, I don’t want to say it was like B-Roy but it was kind of the same thing,” said Nicolas Batum, one of four players still on the team who played with Roy. “Now we have this duo we should have had with B-Roy, but now we have Dame.”

But just how much praise Lillard and the Blazers should be receiving remains a point of contention. Though he and Aldridge helped turn the Blazers into one of the big surprises in the league last season, leading them from 33 wins in 2012-13 to 54 in 2013-14, one big question has lingered over the team since they started ripping off wins last winter: Are they for real?

Most still aren’t sure. Oddsmakers don’t consider the Blazers to be serious contenders heading into this season.

"I feel like we are the hunter and the hunted," Wesley Matthews said. "We're still climbing, we still want to get certain places but we know we aren't going to sneak up on anybody. But at the same time, we still feel like we have some hunting to do like we did last year."

There is indeed work to be done.

The Blazers’ bad bench only looked good at times because of a historically bad one the previous season. Their starters played nearly every game and more minutes than only one five-man unit in the NBA. Veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake were signed this offseason via exceptions to help, but the pair is on the wrong side of 30 and entering their 12th seasons in the league.

[+] EnlargeDamian Lillard
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesDespite climbing up the West last season, the Trail Blazers have to prove themselves all over again.
And then there’s the defense. Portland’s offense ranked among the league’s five best last season at 108.3 points per 100 possessions, but the 16th-ranked defense was often pointed to as proof of its inviability. Stotts has taken notice, and has made it the main focus in training camp. Lillard, of course, remains confident in the team’s ability to turn that around, too.

"We did it one time," he said. "To say we are an elite team we have to keep proving it. I think what we did learn last year was that we can be one of those teams."

They learned Lillard can be one of those elite players as well. But despite all of the personal successes in his young career, the 24-year-old point guard feels like he has something to prove. Lillard went ice cold after sinking the Rockets; the San Antonio Spurs pushed him off the 3-point line and he struggled to get back on track. After watching the five-game series twice over the summer, Lillard said he thinks the Blazers simply ran out of gas.

As if that wasn’t enough motivation for his third season, Lillard still seems miffed by the Team USA snub. "Once I was turned away from making the team, I took it as 'you're not good enough," he told reporters at media day.

That type of edge -- surly, chip-on-the-shoulder demeanor -- has defined Lillard’s Portland tenure. And it’s spread to the rest of the team. Stotts certainly has a lot to do with the Blazers’ ability to succeed in tense moments, but Lillard's steady hand and quiet bravado, combined with the brashness of Matthews, give the Blazers the type of scrappiness few other teams can offer.

Whether or not it can translate to scrappy defense remains to be seen. And that’s precisely the uphill battle the Blazers face this season.

Despite all the good they did last season, despite all plaudits Lillard has received for his late-game heroics, they have to prove themselves all over again. They’ll be confined to a glass ceiling until they can prove otherwise.

At media day, Portland general manager Neil Olshey called his starting five “vanilla,” a metaphor he likes for getting the job done. But good might not be enough in a conference stacked with better options.

The Blazers have their star in Lillard, and that alone has seemed to satisfy the basketball-hungry fan base in Portland. But will that be enough for the rest of the nation, too?

Erik Gundersen covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Follow him, @blazerbanter.

The back of the envelope guide to Las Vegas Summer League: The West

July, 11, 2014
7/11/14
10:05
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By D.J. Foster
Special to ESPN.com
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Julius Randle, Dante ExumGetty ImagesWelcome to the NBA, rooks. High-profile picks Julius Randle and Dante Exum finally hit the pro stage.
There's something for everyone at Las Vegas Summer League. For all the prized rookies in this year’s draft class, it’s a chance to get their feet wet. For the prospects who haven’t found luck in the league yet, it’s an opportunity to jump-start a career. For others, it’s simply a shot at getting on the radar.

The following is our annual "back of the envelope" guide to the Las Vegas Summer League teams, highlighting some of the more promising and intriguing prospects who will take the floor. The West guide is below, and the East guide is here.


Dallas Mavericks


Gal Mekel: Perhaps it was a show of confidence in Mekel’s abilities that the Mavericks were willing to send both Jose Calderon and Shane Larkin to New York. Raymond Felton may be the worst projected starter at point guard in the league right now, so there’s a clear path to playing time for the Israeli point guard. A great summer league could go a long way.

Ricky Ledo: The mystery is no longer there, but the appeal still will be. Ledo came into Vegas last year without a minute of college or international playing time under his belt, but he’s showed glimpses of being a capable wing scorer. He plays with blinders on sometimes and can chuck a bit, but the talent is there.

Ivan Johnson: He’s the only player in Vegas with the distinction of being “banned forever” from the Korean Basketball League, but Johnson can really play despite some dustups over the years. In two seasons for the Atlanta Hawks, Johnson averaged a 15.1 PER and was solid on both ends. After playing in China last season, he’d make a nice bodyguard for Dirk Nowitzki off the bench.


Denver Nuggets


Quincy Miller: One play he’ll look like Kevin Durant, the next he’ll look like Austin Daye. Miller is a 6-foot-10 wing with guard skills and a sweet stroke from deep, but he’s a little too slow and a little too soft to really put it all to good use. You’ll fall in and out of love with him multiple times over the course of a game.

Gary Harris: He had one of the more surprising falls on draft night, but the Denver Nuggets were smart to snatch up a young 3-and-D wing for Arron Afflalo to mentor. Afflalo, on his second tour in Denver thanks to a pre-draft trade with Orlando, suffered a similar fate on draft night in 2007 despite a strong pedigree, but he turned himself into something much more with his great work ethic. Harris should take notes.

Erick Green: Last year’s second-round pick struggled a bit in Italy last season, and this is still one of the league’s deepest rosters. Green has a knack for creating space and finding his own shot, but with Harris and Miller needing to be fed and the Nuggets probably looking for a third point guard, he should focus more on distributing.


Golden State Warriors

Travis Bader: There have been a lot of great shooters in college basketball history, but Bader holds a spot above them all as the NCAA Division I leader in 3-pointers made, with 504. With shooting coming at a premium (here’s looking at you, Jodie Meeks) in free agency, smart teams may opt for a cheaper, younger specialist like Bader.

Nemanja Nedovic: Being dubbed the “European Derrick Rose” has been the highlight of Nedovic’s career thus far. He couldn’t find playing time under Mark Jackson last season, but with Steve Kerr taking over, Nedovic will get a clean slate and a chance to unleash some of the much heralded athleticism.

Rob Loe: After the Warriors missed out on acquiring Channing Frye and shored up the backcourt instead, the big man from Saint Louis might get a long look to fill the Warriors' need for a stretch big man with legitimate size. Although his percentages weren’t great in college, Loe’s mechanics are literally perfect when he parks himself on the 3-point line.


Houston Rockets


Nick Johnson: Most expected the Rockets to go with an international draft-and-stash candidate in this year's draft to avoid taking on salary, but Daryl Morey and company liked the Arizona guard enough to take the plunge. Early returns have been positive -- Johnson’s nasty throwdown in Orlando is the early favorite for the dunk of the summer.

Omar Oraby: Plenty of countries are represented in Vegas every year, but Oraby is looking to become the first player from Egypt to play in the NBA. The USC grad has size on his side (7-foot-2), but he’ll need to show he can protect the rim without fouling before warranting any serious consideration.

Isaiah Canaan: He got a little bit of burn with the Rockets last season, but Canaan was most impressive with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the 3-happy D-League affiliate of the big club. Canaan hit a whopping 3.7 3s per game on 38.7 percent shooting with that squad, and after teammate Troy Daniels temporarily saved Houston’s hide in the playoffs, Canaan could find a role.


Los Angeles Clippers


Delonte West: It’s no secret that Doc Rivers has an affinity for veterans and his former players, and West qualifies as both. Since 2010, West has worked for a furniture store, been arrested for carrying guns in a guitar case "Desperado" style, and has played in the D-League, China and the NBA in stints. This would be quite the career revival.

Keith Benson: The Clippers could probably stand to add some more depth in the frontcourt even after the signing of Spencer Hawes, and Benson might fill a need. After seeing what he did with DeAndre Jordan, a similar big man in terms of size and athleticism, Rivers may decide to take on another project big man with all the athletic tools and very little polish.

Jon Brockman: A summer-league tradition like no other. Brockman made his debut way back in 2009, and for years now he’s provided dogged offensive rebounding and physical play in the paint in this setting. The proceedings wouldn’t feel quite right without him here.


Los Angeles Lakers


Julius Randle: Randle will have a leg up on some of the other post prospects in town, as he’ll get a buffet of touches thanks to Kendall Marshall. The seventh overall pick should be able to put on a nice show for the always-present Lakers contingency as a magnet for the ball with superior motor and athleticism.

DeAndre Kane: If you tuned into an Iowa State game last season, it was tough to keep your eyes off Kane. His age (25) and lack of a true position kept him out of the draft, but Kane plays a very similar style to Lance Stephenson and can make his impact felt all over the court. He’s a serious sleeper.

Kendall Marshall: Great tweeter, better distributor. Marshall averaged 11 assists per 36 minutes last season for the Lakers, and while some of that is inflated by noted point guard whisperer Mike D’Antoni, Marshall also knocked in 39.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He’ll have questions to answer in a new system, but he has staying power.


Minnesota Timberwolves


Zach LaVine: Minnesota is just going to keep acquiring UCLA guys to try and placate Kevin Love, apparently, as LaVine is the third Bruin (Shabazz Muhammad, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) to join the roster in the last year. With a ridiculous 46-inch vertical leap and a stylish flair, the raw singman’s dunks should set the internet on fire. Unless there’s an up-and-comer out there named Putmeon LaYouTube, LaVine is probably the most appropriately named prospect we’ve ever had.

Shabazz Muhammad: The Las Vegas native returns for a second run at summer league, this time with a year of NBA experience under his belt. With a new coach in Flip Saunders and a possible youth movement taking place in Minnesota, Muhammad’s sturdy under-the-basket post scoring could be an asset. Question is, can he do anything else?

Gorgui Dieng: One of the lone bright spots in an otherwise lost season, Dieng burst onto the scene late and averaged 12.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. Although he’s stuck behind Love and Nikola Pekovic for the time being, Dieng’s ability to play out of the high post and protect the rim puts him in pretty exclusive company among fellow big men.


New Orleans Pelicans


Josh Howard: Yes, that Josh Howard. At 34 years old, the former Dallas Mavericks forward is hoping to follow in Rasual Butler’s footsteps by performing well in summer league and landing another NBA contract. Injuries have ravaged his career, but given the need in New Orleans for a glue guy at small forward, Howard should get a fair shake if the body is willing.

Russ Smith: The lightning bug Louisville point guard should perform pretty well here, as he’s been blowing by elite opposing point guards for quite some time now. Unlike a few other guards in attendance, the frantic pace Smith played at with Louisville should transfer over nicely.

Patric Young: The Florida big man is a real grinder, and watching him lock horns with other big bodies in the frontcourt is always a treat. Young has some nice role-player potential behind Anthony Davis and Omer Asik in New Orleans, even if he’s limited offensively.


Phoenix Suns


T.J. Warren: NC State gave him all the possessions he could handle, but it’s hard to say how well Warren’s high-usage attack will translate to the next level. He’s a throwback scorer who lives primarily off the in-between stuff like floaters and below-the-rim finishes, but can he survive as an efficient offensive option without a more reliable jumper and better range?

Alex Len: It’s easy to forget that Phoenix battled for a playoff spot without the fifth pick of the 2013 draft involved, but there’s still hope that Len will become the skilled, mobile rim protector the Suns need in the middle. The fight for playing time with Miles Plumlee, who isn’t on the summer league roster, starts right now.

Tyler Ennis: Canada can trot out a pretty dangerous Olympic team all of a sudden, can’t it? Ennis was a somewhat surprising pick since Phoenix has Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe to run the point, but he has the kind of distributing ability and shake off the dribble that could make him a dangerous player down the line. The point guard rich look like they got richer.


Portland Trail Blazers


C.J. McCollum: If McCollum can stay healthy, it’s not hard to imagine him winning a sixth man of the year award in the near future. At the very least he fits the typical profile - a combo guard with the ability to shoot the lights out and create for himself off the dribble. He could be the answer to Portland’s bench woes offensively.

Thomas Robinson: It feels like Robinson should have already moved on from playing in the summer league since he’s bounced around so much, but the fifth pick in the 2012 draft is still just 23 years old and raw enough to justify another appearance. He’s an elite rebounder, but he needs to bring something else to the table to earn real minutes.

Meyers Leonard: Do you trust recently signed big man Chris Kaman to stay healthy for a full season? Me neither. At some point in the near future, Leonard is going to need to soak up minutes at the 5 for a team with legitimate playoff potential. With that in mind, it would be nice if he didn’t float in the background again this summer.


Sacramento Kings


Ben McLemore: It’s been a while since an otherwise legitimate prospect has been crippled by tunnel vision this severe. Last year’s seventh overall pick seems to be lacking a basic feel for his surroundings, but he’s still trouble in transition when he can make straight line drives to the rim. If the jumper starts falling, there’s some 3-and-D potential here.

Nik Stauskas: The problem in Sacramento, as it always seems to be, is that there might not be enough distributors on the roster. We know Stauskas can shoot and shake and bake, but Sacramento may need him to take on more of a creating role, especially if Darren Collison: Starting Point Guard, ends up being a real thing.

Sim Bhullar: Vegas serves as a home for plenty of P.O.U.S (players of unusual size) this time of year, and New Mexico State big man Bhullar is the biggest of them all. Don’t adjust your screen -- Bhullar is really 7-foot-5 and 360 pounds, and he’s a serious threat to crush a cameraman under the basket at some point. If he’s going down, I’m yelling timber. Also, I’m so sorry.


San Antonio Spurs


Kyle Anderson: How did the rest of the league let this happen? Allowing a young Boris Diaw clone to learn from the real Boris Diaw could have serious consequences for the rest of the league down the line. Yes, Anderson is slower than molasses, but his playmaking, size, ballhandling and intelligence are top notch. This is how the Spurs stay the Spurs.

Deshaun Thomas: He can get buckets in a hurry. It’s a little surprising that Thomas hasn’t found a C.J. Miles-type role for an NBA team yet, but at 22 years old, there’s still plenty of time for that to happen. San Antonio’s roster is understandably crowded, but this guy is too good offensively to ignore for much longer.

Vander Blue: Marquette has a history of pumping out pesky perimeter defenders, and Blue certainly qualifies. If his 3-point stroke finally starts to cooperate, Blue could hold down a steady roster spot. For teams that miss out on Kent Bazemore in free agency, Blue should be an option worth considering if his mechanics are cleaned up.


Utah Jazz


Dante Exum: No more chopped up footage from four years ago -- we’re finally getting the real thing. The Australian guard and fifth overall pick in this year’s draft certainly appears to have all the natural tools you love to have from a lead guard, and he could take on a role in the same vein as someone like Brandon Roy once occupied. That kind of star power is exactly what a franchise like Utah needs.

Trey Burke: How’s the potential backcourt of the future going to co-exist? On paper it seems like a good fit, as both Burke and Exum can swing the ball side-to-side and attack against recovering defenses. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship if the two play off each other instead of simply taking turns, which is always tempting in these types of games.

Rudy Gobert: After exploding onto the scene last season in Orlando Summer League by showing surprising mobility, good hands and natural shotblocking ability, it’s easy to dream on what Gobert might look like with a little more seasoning. Big men typically develop a little slower, but here’s hoping he gets unleashed yet again in the Jazz’s first ever summer-league appearance in Las Vegas.

D.J. Foster is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com, ClipperBlog and others. Follow him, @fosterdj.

Gift of Love: 29 trades for 29 teams

May, 21, 2014
5/21/14
11:07
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Kevin LoveBrad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports
The end is nigh. Or so it seems. Reports about Kevin Love’s uncertain future with the Minnesota Timberwolves are coming out left and right. Every team in the league is positioning itself to capture the star power on the market right now.

With the draft a little more than a month away, it would behoove the Timberwolves to maximize the trade market now while cap flexibility, draft picks and crushed lottery night dreams are fresh in the minds of the potential suitors.

The Wolves don’t have the upper hand in this situation, but they do have the ability to leverage ravenous front offices against one another and create a trade-market bidding war. As team president Flip Saunders and owner Glen Taylor face a gut-check moment of whether to risk Love leaving for nothing in summer 2015, here are the deals I would blow up their phones with if I were in charge of one of the 29 teams in the league.


Atlanta Hawks


The deal: Trade Machine

Hawks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder, the rights to Lucas Nogueira, No. 15 pick in 2014

This is a big haul for the Hawks to give up, with three rotation guys plus the pick going to Minnesota. But pairing Love and Al Horford together in Mike Budenholzer’s offense would be an alien invasion without Bill Pullman and Will Smith to fight it off. For the Wolves, Millsap is a nice option you can win with now and flip if he isn’t happy; Schroder is the backup point guard they crave; and Nogueira would give the Wolves a tandem with Gorgui Dieng that makes Nikola Pekovic and his contract expendable.


Boston Celtics


The deal: Trade Machine

Celtics receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Phil Pressey, Vitor Faverani, Nos. 6 and 17 picks in 2014, Celtics’ first-round pick in 2016

Here, the Wolves are basically getting the picks and then a bunch of cap filler and former first-rounders. There’s no reason to pretend Olynyk and Sullinger would be pieces for the Wolves at all. Being a Wolves fan since they've come into the NBA, I am pretty good at recognizing overvalued first-round picks who won’t be as good as you hope they are. This is about the picks, and with Nos. 6, 13 and 17 in this draft, they could load up or move up.


Brooklyn Nets

The deal: Trade Machine

Nets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: The 2003 Kevin Garnett

Look, I don’t know how owner Mikhail Prokhorov got his hands on a time machine, either, but billionaires have access to things we don’t. Let’s just take advantage of the opportunity to grab 2003 Kevin Garnett and get this team back into the playoffs.


Charlotte Hornets


The deal: Trade Machine

Hornets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Gary Neal, Nos. 9 and 24 picks in 2014

The Wolves never got to truly test out the Al Jefferson-Love big man tandem because Love wasn’t that great yet and Jefferson hurt his knee. They get a redo in Charlotte in this scenario, and with coach Steve Clifford’s defensive stylings, it could actually work.

Wolves would get a former No. 2 pick with potential; Zeller, whom they were enamored with before last year’s draft; and two first-round picks. The Pistons conceding the No. 9 pick to the Bobcats makes this a very attractive deal.


Chicago Bulls


The deal: Trade Machine

Bulls receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, the rights to Nikola Mirotic, Ronnie Brewer, Nos. 16 and 19 picks in 2014

Of the most realistic trade scenarios for the Wolves in unloading Love for assets, cap relief and picks, this is probably the best move they could make, unless Phoenix is willing to be bold. You could also swap out Boozer for Taj Gibson, but his long-term money isn’t ideal for a rebuilding team. The Wolves could flip him to a contender later. The Bulls would be giving up a lot, but a big three of Joakim Noah, Love and Derrick Rose (assuming he's healthy) is an amazing way to battle whatever the Heat end up being after this season.


Cleveland Cavaliers


The deal: Trade Machine

Cavaliers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, No. 1 pick in 2014

Why would the Cavaliers possibly trade the No. 1 pick in a loaded class, plus three rotation players, for Love? Because they seem to have a pipe dream of bringing LeBron James back to Cleveland this summer and this is the way to do it. It’s not stockpiling a bunch of young role players for James to play alongside. He wants to play with stars, and having Love and Kyrie Irving in tow would go a long way.


Dallas Mavericks


Mavericks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: 2011 NBA championship banner and one free pass for a business idea on “Shark Tank”

I’ve always had a problem with teams hanging up “division title” banners in an arena because it seems like a lower-level franchise thing to do. Considering the Wolves are about to lose their best player and potentially miss the playoffs for an 11th straight season, it’s safe to consider them on that lower level right now.

It would be nice to take down the 2003-04 division title banner and replace it with a championship banner. And the extra revenue from getting a business idea funded through “Shark Tank” could give this organization a little extra money to play around with during the next few years. The Wolves are renovating their arena, so they could use the cash.


Denver Nuggets


The deal: Trade Machine

Nuggets receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Darrell Arthur, Randy Foye, No. 11 pick in 2014

Coach Brian Shaw gets his coveted big-time power forward and a nice offensive complement to Ty Lawson in the backcourt. While Martin isn't even close to being a defender, he at least has some size to utilize on offense.

The Wolves get a lot of quality players and a couple of veterans (Arthur and Foye) they can flip. They could even add a lottery pick here in this draft, although this sort of feels like a lot in return. Oh, who cares? The Wolves get to be greedy here.


Detroit Pistons


Pistons receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Stan Van Gundy

I don't want your horrible Josh Smith contract and shot selection that makes most government agencies look like well-oiled machines. I don’t want an improbable sign-and-trade deal with Greg Monroe. I don’t want any of the young players. I don’t even want the pick. I want SVG in all of his coaching glory and I’m willing to relinquish this fake GM power to him when the trade is completed. I’m going full-on Veruca Salt on this one. I want Stan Van Gundy to coach the Wolves and I want it now!


Golden State Warriors


The deal: Trade Machine

Warriors receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: David Lee, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, right to swap picks in 2015 and 2016

I don’t actually think this is a good trade, but it allows me to bring up a point. I get the mindset of wanting to maximize the value you receive in a trade versus what you’re sending out. But there are Warriors fans worried about giving up Thompson and Barnes in a deal for Love, while ridding themselves of Lee’s contract. Back when the Clippers were trading for Chris Paul, there were fans and writers who thought it was a bad idea to include Eric Gordon. Think about that now. Sometimes it can get out of hand for players who probably won’t be All-Stars.


Houston Rockets


The deal: Trade Machine

Rockets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jeremy Lin, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons, Jordan Hamilton, first-round picks in 2015 and 2017

This is an incredibly tricky situation because while the Rockets have lots of assets to move, the inclusion of Parsons makes the deal really difficult. The Wolves would need to pick up his team option for next season, but that means he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2015. How likely is it that he will want to stay in Minnesota?

Lin’s contract will cost more than owner Glen Taylor wants to pay for a non-winning team. Motiejunas would be the best prospect in the deal and you’re taking late first-round picks in the future. Can we just forget this deal and ask Hakeem Olajuwon to be an adviser to the Wolves instead?


Indiana Pacers


The deal: Trade Machine

Pacers receive: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Wolves receive: Roy Hibbert, David West

I want to see just how good of a coach Frank Vogel is. The Wolves were 29th in defending the restricted area this season, and I would guess the only reason they weren’t the worst is because of Dieng’s late-season rim defense. The Pacers were the best at defending the rim this season. Can Vogel keep that defensive prowess with these non-shot-blockers? Can the Wolves defend the rim with these two big men? These two teams don’t match up at all in the trade department, so we might as well experiment.


Los Angeles Clippers


The deal: Trade Machine

Clippers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford

I don’t know why the Clippers would ever do this trade, but it’s unfair for other fan bases to have all of the fun and none of the depression. Griffin gets to receive alley-oop passes from Ricky Rubio while Crawford dazzles the media members with his dribbling and charm.

The Clippers get another shooter to stretch the floor to allow DeAndre Jordan to further develop. Martin wouldn’t exactly add anything to what the Clippers do now, but again, I’m sick of all the depression in these scenarios, so just take one for the team, please.


Los Angeles Lakers


The deal: Trade Machine

Lakers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, Nick Young, MarShon Brooks, No. 7 pick in 2014, future first-round pick, Flip Saunders gets a statue outside Staples Center, Minneapolis Lakers’ title banners

In this scenario, I suffered a head injury when I tried to pull off one of those 360 layups Swaggy P loves to do so much and I fell into the celebrating elbows of Sacre. It left me a little woozy, but I think I came up with a good deal to finally get Love to Los Angeles. Nash's deal is expiring, Sacre and Ronny Turiaf form the greatest bench-cheering duo ever, Young gets to teach me that layup and Brooks is cap filler. Those Minneapolis Lakers banners will look great at Target Center, too.


Memphis Grizzlies


The deal: Trade Machine

Grizzlies receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Zach Randolph, James Johnson, Jon Leuer, Jamaal Franklin, first-round pick in 2017

This does one thing that’s pretty cool: It gives a Grizzlies team that struggled to score in the half court two very good half-court scorers. They lose some toughness but they can actually round out their overall game quite a bit. For the Wolves, it gives them the potential for a Pekovic-Randolph-Johnson frontcourt, which, if Randolph opts in this summer, will protect Minnesota when the zombie apocalypse happens. Nobody is taking out that frontcourt.


Miami Heat


The deal: Trade Machine

Heat receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, right to swap first-round picks in 2016 and 2018

The Wolves are torn between a full-on rebuild (try selling that to the fans again during this decade-long playoff drought) and trying to still find a way to sneak into the playoffs. Granted, Bosh has to agree to this deal by not opting out of his contract this summer, but the Wolves would at least remain hyper-competitive on the playoff bubble. They’d also grab a backup point guard who isn’t as erratic as the incumbent, J.J. Barea.

The Heat get younger and give LeBron the chance to really have a great second scorer with him in his next deal in Miami.


Milwaukee Bucks


The deal: Trade Machine

Bucks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, No. 2 pick in 2014, Wisconsin has to pretend the Vikings are the best team in the league

Sure, Sanders has the potential to be a nice defender in this league for a long time, Mayo would be a possible cap-relief trade chip in a year and the No. 2 pick, whoever it ends up being, could be a major star in this league. But the win here for Minnesota is Wisconsin having to pretend the Vikings are the best. A fan base that was 27th in attendance in the NBA and 13th in attendance in the NFL doesn't really care how they make out in any Love deal. They just want the football win. Vikings fans aren't used to getting a lot of those.


New Orleans Pelicans


The deal: Trade Machine

Pelicans receive: Kevin Love, Chase Budinger
Wolves receive: Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon

Sure, you guys are laughing at me and how ridiculous this is, but in my head the deal has been made and I’m doing a little dance of celebration. Have your laughter, and I’ll have my delusional mind, and never the twain shall meet.


New York Knicks


The deal: Trade Machine

Knicks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: [processing ...]

The Knicks gave up a first-round pick to get Andrea Bargnani. Comparable value means they’d have to give up the entire Wall Street district for Love. I can’t even pretend there is a combination here that works for the Wolves. Maybe they could do a double sign-and-trade and swap Love for Carmelo Anthony? Someone ask cap guru Larry Coon if this is allowed. Can we get a reality show just recording La La’s face when Melo has to tell her they’re moving to Minneapolis?


Oklahoma City Thunder


The deal: Trade Machine

Thunder receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Hasheem Thabeet, Mavericks’ first-round pick in 2014, Thunder’s first-round pick in 2017

I’m not going to be unrealistic and pretend Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook are in play here, but there’s no reason the Wolves can’t ask for Ibaka, while also unloading Martin’s deal (three years, $20 million left) and picking up young talent in Lamb and Jones, a first-round pick this year and an unprotected pick in 2017. Why 2017? Let’s pretend this Thunder thing doesn’t work out and Love and Durant both leave in 2016. In this scenario, the Wolves position themselves to take advantage of a team falling apart. It’s like what every team does to Minnesota every single time it trades a draft pick.


Orlando Magic


The deal: Trade Machine

Magic receive: Kevin Love, No. 13 pick in 2014
Wolves receive: Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson, Jameer Nelson, No. 4 pick in 2014

I recognize that the Wolves getting the No. 2 pick from last year’s draft plus the No. 4 pick in this draft seems like a lot, but Love is a lot better than Oladipo and it’s not all that close. Even if Oladipo maximizes his potential, he’s probably not reaching Love’s status. Flip was enamored with Oladipo heading into the 2013 draft and would probably be willing to swap firsts with the Magic this year in order to complete this trade.


Philadelphia 76ers


The deal: Trade Machine

76ers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Thaddeus Young, Jason Richardson, Nos. 3 and 10 picks in 2014

The Wolves get a young asset, cap relief and two lottery picks in this draft in exchange for Love and getting rid of Martin’s deal. It sounds like the Sixers are giving up a lot here, but they have assets to spare. You’re teaming Love with a defensive-minded center in Nerlens Noel and a pass-first point guard in Michael Carter-Williams. Plus, the Sixers still have room to add another major player.


Phoenix Suns


The deal: Trade Machine

Suns receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Eric Bledsoe, Timberwolves' first-round pick in 2015

This is the dream scenario. The Wolves would have to convince Bledsoe to want to play in Minnesota, and then execute a sign-and-trade. Most likely, they’d have to max out Bledsoe in the process. The Suns do it because of the knee concern for Bledsoe, and Love is a much better player who fits coach Jeff Hornacek’s style of play. Getting their top-12 protected pick back for dumping Wes Johnson in Phoenix helps, too. It’s a risk by the Suns and a concession by the Wolves, but this is the “fingers crossed” scenario.


Portland Trail Blazers


The deal: Trade Machine

Trail Blazers receive: Kevin Love, medium-quality bike lanes from Minneapolis
Wolves receive: LaMarcus Aldridge, second-best bike lanes from Portland

This needs to happen and it doesn’t have anything to do with basketball. I just want to see both fan bases reverse course on the vitriol thrown each other’s way when discussing which power forward is better. The Blazers fans would have to embrace Love as the top PF while the Wolves fans pretend they never meant the things they said about Aldridge’s rebounding.

The bike lane aspect of this trade would really help Portland take back its title as top cycling city in the country.


Sacramento Kings


The deal: Trade Machine

Kings receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Williams, Jason Terry

This one doesn't even involve a draft pick because Cousins has so much potential. The Kings can take a big man with the No. 8 pick this year and pair him next to Love. Martin returns to Sacramento and doesn't have Tyreke Evans to hog the ball and make him want to get out of town. Terry is salary-cap relief for the Wolves, and they can to try a do-over with Williams. This trade can’t happen until after July 1, so that and reality are the only two hang-ups right now.


San Antonio Spurs


Spurs receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Gregg Popovich

This works out perfectly in a couple of ways. Let’s say the Spurs win the title this year and we see Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili ride off into the sunset. Love would immediately be the replacement for Duncan and give the Spurs a bridge from this era into the next successful one.

For the Wolves, I don’t even want to subject Popovich to coaching the team. He should just be a consultant for a month and let the organization know all of the awful ways in which they do things and the way the Spurs “would never consider something like this.” He’d essentially be The Wolf in "Pulp Fiction" for Minnesota.


Toronto Raptors


The deal: Trade Machine

Raptors receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, John Salmons, No. 20 pick in 2014, Knicks’ first-round pick in 2016

It would leave the Raptors searching for a big man to protect the paint, but in today’s NBA, you could get away with a Love-Amir Johnson frontcourt against a lot of teams. The Wolves get the young assets they crave, the draft picks they need and the cap relief necessary to keep their options open. They’d have to move Pekovic next, and they don’t get rid of Martin's contract in this scenario, but it’s a good start to the rebuilding plan. This might be a lot for the Raptors to give up, but general manager Masai Ujiri can just fleece the next four trades he makes and even it all out.


Utah Jazz


The deal: Trade Machine

Jazz receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Derrick Favors, Jeremy Evans, John Lucas III, Rudy Gobert, No. 5 pick in 2014

Requesting the Jazz’s top big man and the fifth pick is asking Utah to do the Wolves quite the ... Favor(s) ... you know? No? Wait, where are you guys going? I still have one more team to poach players from!


Washington Wizards


The deal: Trade Machine

Wizards receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Bradley Beal, Nene

This would be an incredibly tough decision for the Wizards to make. They have one of the best young shooting guards in the NBA, and pairing him with John Wall would produce an awesome tandem for a decade. And yet, they could upgrade for Love while still keeping a scorer at the shooting guard position. In the process, they’d rid themselves of the long-term money owed to Nene. They would owe long-term money to Martin, though.

It’s not an ideal scenario in a few ways, but you’d be making this team a big threat. Plus, it would give coach Randy Wittman a chance to apologize for telling a young Love that he should abandon the 3-point shot.

Learning from the masters

May, 16, 2014
5/16/14
10:15
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Portland Trail BlazersChris Covatta/Getty ImagesRip City's revival needs more reviving. Portland can learn a thing from the team that just booted it.
There were no miracles in store for the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5. Like most of the series before it, the game was a trouncing, with the Blazers unable to counter the San Antonio Spurs’ defensive pressure or ball movement. Not even Tony Parker’s tight hamstring, which limited the Spurs’ guard to 10 scoreless minutes, could help the Blazers. They were beaten with and without Parker, with big games from their stars and without -- outclassed in just about every respect.

The series was punctuated, fittingly, in the third quarter. Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard came up with a steal in the backcourt, split between Wes Matthews and Damian Lillard on the break, and finished with a stunning double-clutch slam. For Leonard, the play was striking for its audacity, an explosive, if brief, departure from his ultra-stoic demeanor. It was also, in its way, a representation of the difference between his team and the Blazers.

Comparing a losing team to the one that eliminates them is sort of inevitable; what is an elimination, after all, if not the differences between two organizations made literal? In this case it’s particularly inviting because the Spurs, as I wrote earlier in the week, are so magnificent at finding and exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses. The Blazers’ season-long defensive malaise became a crisis at San Antonio’s hands, and Portland’s lack of depth approached grim humor at times throughout the series. But Leonard’s development, and the explosiveness he brings to San Antonio’s trademark efficiency, is as good a summation of what Portland lacks as any.

In the past two years, the Trail Blazers have rebuilt their organization with shocking speed and almost uninterrupted success. Less than two calendar years ago, general manager Neil Olshey inherited an organization reeling from a season of chaos, palace intrigue and frustrated losing. The Blazers had bottomed out after a run as one of the league’s most promising teams, and at the time of Olshey’s appointment, in 2012, they boasted a lottery pick, a borderline franchise player and little else by way of foundation pieces.

That they have come so far so quickly is impressive, but even more so is that they seemed to have simply skipped over organizational growing pains. It is true that the team ended up in the lottery last year, finishing the 2012-13 season with a 13-game losing streak, but at the time, it hardly felt like a catastrophe. The Blazers were strapped for assets and in need of that lottery pick, and were also giving minutes to the worst collection of reserves in the league. While the finish was disappointing, it never threatened the equanimity of the locker room in a serious way.

This season, that equanimity became the team’s definitive aspect. From coach Terry Stotts to LaMarcus Aldridge to the old-for-his-years Damian Lillard, the Blazers coalesced into a shockingly stable group for their relative youth. When they were torching defenses in November, they refused to get too high, and when they were being roundly doubted as a paper tiger, they remained unaffected. Steady, never questioning themselves, they felt much more like a team in Year 10 than Year 2 of their time together.

The flip side of steadiness, though, can look an awful lot like complacency, and against the Spurs it was hard to keep the word out of mind. The Blazers are a proud team, especially Lillard and Wes Matthews, but they’re never particularly demonstrative aside from Matthews’ willingness to throw his body around on the court. It seemed as if the team was limited by their sense of composure, unable to tap into the sort of intensity that risks boiling over.

Perhaps this is why fans were so thrilled by Game 4, when Thomas Robinson and Will Barton came off the bench to electrify the home crowd and infuse a little mania into the team. Barton is rail-thin and in constant motion, a blur of hands, while Robinson, for all his flaws, still possesses athleticism that few players do. As the Spurs exposed Portland’s lack of top-end athletes, running their offense more or less untroubled, Robinson and Barton appeared, very briefly, to be the missing ingredient.

[+] EnlargeLaMarcus Aldridge
AP Photo/Eric GayThe Trail Blazers were a big surprise this season, but there's still much work to be done moving forward.
It didn’t last, of course. Put simply, Barton and Robinson just aren’t good enough to actually matter in a playoff series. Not yet, and maybe not ever. But this summer, they are where Portland fans will fixate, because they are just about the only variables in Portland’s foreseeable future.

The Blazers don’t have a pick in this year’s draft. They don’t have much cap space. They’re paying a host of nonentities and decent but overmatched players at the end of their bench, with only Earl Watson scheduled to come off their books. If they are going to get more athletic, if they are going to provide themselves the means to find a gear they seemed to lack this season, it’s very likely going to have to come from within.

That’s why Leonard’s double clutch was such a vivid illustration of where the Blazers still have to go. Leonard was brought to San Antonio to lend their well-worn engine a little more horsepower, to provide not just a talent they might build around in the future, but a dose of the sorts of things the Spurs just couldn’t do anymore. The Blazers, of course, are not as old as the Spurs, and Damian Lillard and Nic Batum will likely still improve, but there’s no Leonard in the pipeline.

There are a host of factors at work in this discussion, and I don’t mean to oversimplify: Leonard works in San Antonio because of their remarkable player development, his own maturity and intelligence and a host of other reasons. He was no riverboat gamble now paying off for the Spurs. But he does serve as a representation of how a structure, once in place, can allow the unexpected to flourish.

The Blazers have a structure, and they built it remarkably quickly. It’s a structure that will likely sustain this level of success, or close to it, for a few seasons at least. But in the next phase of their development, they’re going to have to find a way to add a little volatility to their mixture, a spark that they can nurture and channel into some productive heat. It’s not clear, exactly, where it will come from, but it is clear that’s what separates them from the teams still playing.

Trail has gone cold

May, 12, 2014
5/12/14
12:00
PM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Brook Lopez Tim DuncanAP Photo/Rick BowmerAnything seemed possible for Portland last week, but San Antonio is dishing out the cold, hard truth.
When a team is down 3-0 in a series, every media availability becomes a dance. What’s most frustrating? Well, we need to focus for the full game. What’s most disappointing? Well, obviously it’s tough to lose a game on your home court, or obviously it’s tough to let the other team get off to a hot start. And so on, for somewhere between four and six minutes. The questions must be seen as tough but not insulting, and players have to acknowledge responsibility without admitting any real emotion. As Wes Matthews put it perhaps a dozen times between Saturday night and Sunday’s practice, “It’s not ideal.”

For the Portland Trail Blazers, this is more or less the norm. A second-round series between them and the San Antonio Spurs was never going to produce off-court fireworks; both simply put too much effort into cultivated steadiness (or dullness, depending on where you’re sitting). But on the court, this series has been nothing short of revelatory when it comes to the scope of the Blazers’ limitations, which was difficult to see as recently as a week ago.

For three games, the Spurs have ferreted out every possible advantage they have over the Blazers and pressed it for everything it’s worth before moving on to the next Portland weakness. In each game, the Spurs have gotten out to a massive early lead, and in each game, the Blazers have shown signs of life before finally succumbing to San Antonio’s superiority.

The Blazers’ defense is built to encourage midrange shots; Tony Parker was built to drop floaters in from the elbow. The Blazers, despite making efforts to upgrade their bench, are now perilously thin after a groin injury to Mo Williams; a sequence in Game 3 saw a Kawhi Leonard post-up bucket over Will Barton immediately followed by a Tim Duncan post-up bucket over Thomas Robinson.

What’s particularly striking is that the Spurs are doing this without likely a single All-NBA player or even a stable of top-flight athletes. Their execution is such that even the slightest of mismatches -- mismatches that, in the hands of other offenses, might scarcely be recognized as such -- can topple a defensive structure. You wouldn't think, for instance, that Matthews switching on to Leonard to cover a weakside screen would expose much vulnerability. But several times as the Blazers fought back into the third quarter of Game 3, Leonard sealed Matthews, took an entry pass and worked to shoot over or, more frequently, fire a skip pass to the opposite corner. A mismatch of the slimmest margins -- a difference in wingspans, basically -- became a viable target for entire sets.

In a sense, it’s Matthews who embodies this dynamic from Portland’s perspective. He’s had a remarkable season, and his intensity and defensive selflessness are sources of strength for the entire team. But Matthews has always been just a little undersized, and a little slow. Over 82 games, against the entire league, he’s an inspiration. Against the Spurs, for seven, he’s a collection of small deficiencies thrown under a magnifying glass. It’s not ideal.

It’s easy to extend that sort of thinking to the entire team. The Blazers were one of the league’s least injured teams, and rode a subpar defense to a win total (54) that seemed at least a year early. It’s hard, now, to see where they might suddenly grow over the next week.

It’s unlikely that Damian Lillard becomes capable of staying in front of Parker, but it’s unlikely that having Nicolas Batum check Parker for more minutes won’t yield some sort of advantage the Spurs can contort into a massive leak.

It’s unlikely that the bench -- which, thanks to Williams’ injury, now prominently features players who wouldn’t be trusted even in meaningful regular-season moments -- will be able to curb the onslaught from Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli, as unlikely as that sentence seems. San Antonio has had so many answers that it’s hard to imagine the Blazers introducing a question that might help.

It’s fitting, in a grim way, that this series should follow the elation of Portland’s victory over the Houston Rockets. The Rockets were willing to match the Blazers stylistically, and lacked the discipline to consistently put the Blazers on their heels. The Spurs, though lacking Houston’s top-end star power, are years into their reign as the league’s most disciplined offensive team, and so the Blazers’ limitations are inescapable.

At practice Sunday, LaMarcus Aldridge was asked whether a sweep in this series would taint Portland’s season. He paused a bit, before offering a noncommittal, “I can’t look at all that right now.”

My own feeling is that it shouldn't -- that as thorough as this demolition has been so far, the Blazers far exceeded even internal expectations, and that their season is beyond tainting. But now that the Blazers have announced themselves as an upper-echelon team, if they can’t manufacture some source of improvement, this may be the sort of loss that taints the next few seasons.

Daily Postseason MVP rankings

May, 6, 2014
5/06/14
12:28
PM ET
Thorpe By David Thorpe
ESPN.com
Archive
Check back daily for our latest Postseason MVP rankings. Here's the current Top 3:



Also, check out our weekly Insider column on the Top 10 Postseason MVPs every Friday.

The Trail Blazers are here to stay

May, 6, 2014
5/06/14
10:45
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Damian LillardSteve Dykes/Getty ImagesDamian Lillard's series-clinching buzzer-beater announced the Trail Blazers' arrival on the big stage.
The Portland Trail Blazers are once again a marquee team. There are qualifiers to be made and some nuance to add, but let’s treat Portland’s series win over the Houston Rockets -- and the Damian Lillard buzzer-beater on which it occurred -- as what it was: a step from the league’s periphery to its center, from a potential team of tomorrow to a team of today.

That’s sort of a sticky claim, I realize, so let me elaborate. In many ways, the Blazers have already had a legitimizing season. They came in with playoff expectations, won 54 games and established themselves pretty soundly as one of the more enjoyable viewing appointments in the league. But they were nonetheless more spice than entrée, a refreshing diversion from the title pursuits and metropolitan melodrama that keeps the focus of an NBA season elsewhere.

That has changed because of what the Blazers proved in the first round. When next season tips off, fans nationwide will make note of Blazers games. Matchups with teams chasing titles will become portentous measuring sticks. Visits from superstars will become showdowns. Over the course of this season, the Blazers were a team to tune in for; over the past two weeks, they proved themselves a team to invest in.

Legitimacy in the age of constant analysis is a fickle concept. Mostly, fans are smart enough now to understand that close losses aren’t really an indication of quality. If the Blazers had dropped the Rockets series -- after the Jeremy Lin-to-Troy Daniels prayer and the Chandler Parsons miracle putback preceding Lillard’s dagger -- most would understand that a good team caught some tough breaks. There would probably have been relatively quiet doubts about their toughness, and a few somewhat louder doubts about late-game execution, but the Blazers were already playing with house money.

All of which is an accomplishment, but not what you strive for. Broadly speaking, the NBA season is a drama starring LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and maybe four other teams whose play seems to organize the long months. There are other players who can enliven a few scenes, but the gap between character actors and star teams is a big one. And what the stars have in common, I contend, is their ability to contradict the sum of what we know about them, which is now a good deal more than it used to be.

We return to the Blazers. They peaked early, played intermittently acceptable defense and were anchored by a big man who shot more midrange jumpers than any other player in the league. We knew them. Until, that is, LaMarcus Aldridge went for more than 80 points in the first two games and Lillard buried what may be the most important shot in Blazers’ history.

More about that shot, because it deserves it: What will endure for me is not just that Lillard got off such a clean look, or that he buried it, but the way he clapped for the ball as he ran free around a double screen, already realizing what was coming. After the game, Nic Batum admitted that the first option for the play was Aldridge, but Lillard was clapping so confidently that Batum knew he had to get him the ball. For me, it’s the clap that elevates the shot to a place where it elevates the whole team.

Essentially, I am arguing that the NBA’s ruling class -- dysfunctional or competitive -- is the class of teams that have proven an ability to exceed fans’ imaginations, and in doing so hold their attentions. They elevate what could not happen to that which happens. Nobody, in their first NBA postseason, gets a wide open 28-footer with less than a second left to clinch a series on their home court. It’s simply too neat. Until Damian Lillard does.

With a series, and with a shot that changed the series, the Blazers join the small class of teams fans will entrust a season story to, because they have now proven an ability to go farther than reason could take them. We watch to see whether LeBron will become the indomitable force he did when he scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points, to see whether the Knicks can best their own standard for dysfunction. To see whether Portland’s young point guard can possibly continue to be one of the league’s most dangerous options in the clutch.

If they were playing with house money before, the Trail Blazers are perhaps doubly so now. Though they’ve matched up well with San Antonio this season, they’re getting long odds on a series upset. If they lose, they will be remembered for their wildly entertaining series and that incredible shot, and they are positioned to improve for the foreseeable future. Of course they have more to play for, and of course they aren't just happy to be here. But after a series in which they took fans to a higher state than we could have predicted, they've proven they belong here, where everybody is watching.

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