Damian Lillard has made it clear that however he feels about the Portland Trail Blazers, the front office is well aware. He has not made a trade demand or expressed a desire to play with another franchise.
There have been rumors circulating for weeks that Lillard is unhappy, especially because the Trail Blazers were bounced out of the first round of the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Will Lillard become a Celtic? Or Laker? Or a member of the Heat? That’s to be determined.
Right now, he’s just trying to navigate through a controversial coaching search and uncertain future. The Blazers hired Chauncey Billups to coach, which would have been considered a major score until a 1997 sexual assault case surfaced.
The Blazers have withstood considerable scrutiny for the hire. Although Lillard suggested Billups was on his list of preferences a few weeks ago, he now is in the difficult position of playing for a coach who some believe never should have received the opportunity.
“As far as Chauncey and that hire, obviously it’s been talk over the years of him kind of moving into the front office and coaching space and with us letting Terry [Stotts] go after nine years, I think our organization was set on a leader, looking for a leader of men, somebody that players would respect, and went through that process as they felt they should, we felt we should as an organization,” Lillard said this past week. “I had a prior relationship with Chauncey on the friendship level, somebody who had a lot of success at my position and was a champion, Finals MVP. I’m prepared to go in and do my job every year like I always do.
“Hopefully we make strides in a positive direction and we can become a better team with a new coach. That’s where I am with it.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but they are comments reflective of a player whose career is in transition. Lillard is one of the league’s best players never to win a title. He turns 31 Friday and he is watching older contemporaries, such as Chris Paul, approaching their first titles.
“I expected us to have a pretty solid run at the playoffs this year and that was cut short,” Lillard said. “And the fact the season wasn’t expected for me, it was a sour taste in my mouth losing so early to a team that was beat up and injured when I expected to win that series. It gave me that itch to jump back in [for Team USA] and play and have a chance to win. Not have to sit around for a full summer and think about what went wrong.”
Lillard remains committed to Portland, but now he’s going to keep his thoughts private.
“At this point there’s a lot of things being said, sometimes words being put in my mouth, and I haven’t said anything,” he said. “All of the people who’ve covered me since I’ve been in the NBA know that if there’s something to be said, or if I think of something or have something to say, I’m going to say and I’m going to stand on it.
“There’s been a lot of talk and nobody heard me say any of these of these things. But anything that I have to say, I’m going to say directly to [general manager] Neil [Olshey] and I am going to address directly with my team. I don’t really have nothing to say to you guys about it. Everything that I need to say and that I feel has been said to Neil. There’s really nothing else that I have to say about it.”
And Lillard definitely has no plans of getting involved in the coaching controversy.
During Billups’s introductory news conference, a Portland reporter asked the new coach to expound on what he has learned from the 1997 incident. The reporter was abruptly cut off and the organization said Billups would answer no questions about his off-court issues.
The Blazers are hearing criticism, especially since they chose Billups over Becky Hammon, the most experienced female candidate on the coaching market.
“The very first time, right away when we let Terry go, I was asked about names that had been floated out there and of the ones that had been floated out there, I said I like [Jason] Kidd, I like Chauncey, and at that time I had no idea of any of it,” Lillard said. “And when I did learn of it, and the process continued, I never felt like it was my job or my duty to say to do this or don’t do this.”
Lillard said plainly it’s his job to play and the organization’s job to pick the coach. He has stepped back from offering his opinion on front office and personnel decisions. The six-time All-Star just wants to play and see what happens. Not exactly a comfortable position for the franchise.
He has three years left on his contract, but as we’ve learned, star players can maneuver out of what appear to be difficult situations if they desire.
“I do my job. I improve my game and I show up as a point guard of the team,” he said. “In the past, I’ve never stepped on anybody’s toes or demanded anything, or told anybody what to do, and it was no different in this situation. That’s all I can really say.
“I’ve known Chauncey before and I’ve never knew of that until this coaching process came into play. Our organization, they said they did a thorough investigation. They went through everything and they went through the process of hiring a coach in a comfortable way. That’s not my decision. It’s not my job to say this guy’s hired or this guy’s not hired. This is what it is now, so here we are.”
ESPN spat falls in commissioner’s lap
It’s been a difficult week for media coverage of the NBA Finals by ABC/ESPN. The New York Times story that described a recorded conversation between ESPN’s Rachel Nichols and LeBron James adviser Adam Mendelsohn made headlines because Nichols implied that “NBA Countdown” host Maria Taylor, a rising star in the business, got that position primarily because of the network’s quest toward greater diversity.
The network decided to take Nichols off the sideline reporting for the NBA Finals and replace her with another rising star in Malika Andrews. Nichols continues to host ESPN’s daily NBA show, “The Jump,” but the controversy has overshadowed the coverage of the Finals.
“It’s disheartening,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “I’m really not in a position to speak too specifically about what goes on at ESPN because so much of my information came from your newspaper’s reporting and others, so I am not privy to much more beyond that. I will say, apropos of my earlier comments, I think it’s particularly unfortunate that two women in the industry are pitted against each other.
“I know that both Rachel and Maria are terrific at what they do, they work extraordinarily hard. As I said, I think just from the league’s standpoint, while we recognize well, ESPN’s operations are independent of us, I feel we’re all part of a family here in terms of what we do around our sport.”
Silver surprisingly went in depth about the issue. Nichols’s statements were made nearly a year ago and the entire conversation just came to light this past week. Nichols has apologized to Taylor, who has yet to refer to the incident or speak with Nichols on the air.
“I think part of the problem is, that as I said earlier, when people can’t get in a room and talk through these issues, this seemingly has fostered now for a full year,” Silver said. “I mean, this is an incident that happened, I guess, when Rachel was in the bubble a year ago, and I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations, that ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it. Obviously not.
“I should also say, too, that these issues are not unique to ESPN. As I said, the league is working on its own issues in terms of doing a better job with diversity. It’s not just in sports, but in companies around America, there’s a reckoning going on. I think part of it and what we’re seeing in ESPN, it’s one thing to talk about the principles around diversity and inclusion, it’s something else when it comes to somebody’s specific job and how that’s handled.
“What I’ve learned from dealing with these issues in the NBA is that they are incredibly complex, there’s no magic bullets here, and they require a very labor-intensive effort of getting people in the room and working through these issues by talking a lot about them, and then talking even more about them, and creating a climate where people are comfortable saying what’s on their mind, where people are given the benefit of the doubt — especially long-term employees that are in good standing — that when they do make comments, that people recognize that people make mistakes, that careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment, that we should be judging people by the larger context of their body of work and who they are and what we know about them.”
Silver supports keeping the play-in games
The play-in playoff tournament, in which the Celtics participated and earned the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, will stay, according to commissioner Adam Silver.
The concept was initiated to give more teams a chance at making the playoffs during the truncated 2019-20 season and was wildly popular.
This year, there were marquee games such as Warriors-Lakers, Wizards-Celtics, and Grizzlies-Warriors that highlighted the tournament. It was a certainty the NBA would continue the qualifying round, which gives the 10th seed in each conference a chance at jumping to eighth with two wins.
“We, of course, need agreement from our teams and the Players Association,” Silver said. “Know [National Basketball Players Association executive director] Michele Roberts doesn’t have an easy job — she has 450 players, some maybe have louder voices than others at the table. But again, I think ultimately although there were critics, not just LeBron [James] but others, who weren’t in favor of it, and maybe some teams who weren’t thrilled with it, I think overall it was very positive for the league and the players.
“Certainly there’d been some suggestions about some tweaks we should consider, but again, I think once we bring it back to our owners for a vote and the Players Association meets and has an opportunity to consider it, it’s my expectation that it will continue for next season.”
Finally, the NBA remains tepid on expansion. There was a perception that because of the significant financial losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic and no fans for the first two-thirds of this past season, team governors would be more open to expansion — perhaps to 32 teams.
The NBA, according to Silver, is recovering and his position on expansion has not changed: It’s not a priority.
That is a disappointment for cities such as Seattle, Las Vegas, Louisville, and Kansas City who are lobbying for a team. It apparently won’t happen soon.
“I know that was reported that when revenues were down we were looking more seriously at expansion,” Silver said. “I mean, it didn’t work exactly like that, largely because expansion is a multiyear process. So it wasn’t as if the pandemic came, we’re 40 percent down, we can quickly collect some expansion revenue.
“So you know, yes, it’s true that we actually had some time while we were initially shut down and we were meeting more often with our teams to think a little bit more about it. But it seemed the consensus was, certainly during a pandemic, that wasn’t the right time to expand, but that we should continue to consider it.”
Silver explained there isn’t as much cash for owners after expansion as is perceived. The league will also enjoy a financial windfall next season when arenas will be 100 percent capacity and the season will return to 82 games.
“I’ll say what I think is lost sometimes is that from an economic standpoint, the league looks at it is that we’re in essence selling equity in the league,” Silver said. “You have 30 partners and just say, hypothetically, we expanded by two more teams, then you would have 32 partners. So the extent you have a national television deal or global television rights, instead of it being divided 30 ways, it’s divided 32 ways. So it’s sort of cash up front, depending upon what you sell the expansion team for, but it’s not necessarily the windfall that I think people think it is.
“The most important considerations for us when we look at expansion is, will it ultimately grow the pie? Meaning it’s potentially 30 more jobs if you expand with two teams. You expand the league’s footprint. How does that help us in varying ways, sort of increased support nationally. So we’ll continue to look at it.
“I mean, I’ve said this many times before, we’re certainly not suggesting we’re locked at 30 teams. I think at some point it will make sense to expand, but it’s just not at the top of the agenda right now.”
It appears NBA teams will again pass on hiring the league’s first female coach. After Jahmal Mosley was hired this past week by the Magic, there are two openings — the Wizards and Pelicans. The four primary female candidates — Becky Hammon, Kara Lawson, Dawn Staley, and Teresa Weatherspoon — do not appear to be serious candidates for those jobs. So female coaching candidates will have to wait likely until next offseason, and there are still no guarantees it will happen then, which is disappointing. With the flak the Trail Blazers have been receiving for the hiring of Chauncey Billups over Hammon, NBA clubs may pass on interviewing women and then potentially passing for the risk of receiving similar scrutiny. It’s going to take a forward-thinking owner, but it’s absurd to believe there are not some female coaches who would have been better than some of the coaches who have been hired the past few years . . . There were a handful of draft prospects who decided to return to school after going through the process. The most notable was Johnny Juzang, who flourished for UCLA during its run to the Final Four. While it appeared Juzang played like a lottery pick, he was projected as a second-rounder. The draft is still considered loaded with potential standouts who may take time to develop. The Celtics traded their 16th pick to the Thunder along with Kemba Walker in the deal for Al Horford, a sign that new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens didn’t believe the Celtics could get an impact player better than Moses Brown, who was also acquired in the deal. Boston still has its 45th pick, and could take a player with a chance at making the roster. The Celtics also have their two two-way slots available, unless they decide to bring back Tacko Fall and/or Tremont Waters . . . The Hawks made the expected move of hiring Nate McMillan as their permanent coach after he led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals. McMillan reluctantly accepted the interim job when Lloyd Pierce was fired, but immediately transformed the underachieving franchise into a juggernaut behind point guard Trae Young. McMillan gets a four-year deal and now can help sharpen a roster that could be a contender for the next decade.