Trail Blazers have embarked on a new, younger path
They are likely headed for the lottery, but they will be athletic and exciting.
After years trying to remain a contender, the Portland Trail Blazers are essentially starting over, going young after losing premium free agent LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs.
It was an expected blow. The Trail Blazers knew it was highly likely Aldridge would leave, and they didn't have enough talent to lure an impact free agent. So they signed Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, former Celtic Phil Pressey, and ex-Kansas player Cliff Alexander, acquired Maurice Harkless, Mason Plumlee, and Haverhill native Noah Vonleh, and drafted Notre Dame and Arlington native Pat Connaughton to begin a youth movement alongside All-Star Damian Lillard.
Portland coach Terry Stotts is viewing this season as a retooling process with the opportunity to compete with a younger core in coming years. The Trail Blazers signed Lillard to a five-year contract extension and have most of their roster under control for several years.
The Blazers are likely headed for the lottery, but they will be athletic and exciting.
"I think everybody is really looking forward to it," Stotts said. "I know for myself and the coaching staff, it's going to be a fun year. There's a lot of young talent and I think it's really exciting for them. We've got a lot of guys who are looking for the opportunity to get more playing time and show what they can do in the league."
Stotts has posted back-to-back 50-win seasons but the Blazers couldn't make it past the conference semifinals.
"When I got here three years ago, we were in somewhat of a rebuild situation and I look at our roster and they're going to play hard, they're going to learn, they're going to get better," Stotts said. "That's what coaching is, teaching and watching players improve.
"I'm really proud of the last two years, and I think everybody who was involved in that took a lot of pride in that. But this is the NBA and things like that happen. LaMarcus left and other guys had other opportunities.
"The way [general manager] Neil [Olshey] has constructed the roster, it's a strong plan with a lot of young players that have room to grow. I think it's a plan that is going to be challenging, fun, and very rewarding."
Lillard will be the leader of this rebuilt roster, but Olshey and Stotts are banking on players such as former first-round picks C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard developing into dependable players after solid playoff efforts last season against the Grizzlies.
Harkless was underutilized in Orlando and is looking for a fresh start. Vonleh, only 19 years old, was a beast during the Las Vegas Summer League and has developed a consistent 3-point shot.
Management is hoping those players develop to compensate for the loss of Aldridge, who left Portland after nine years for a chance to win a championship in San Antonio.
"I knew it was going to be a close decision — it wasn't an easy decision for him and it came down to the last minute," Stotts said. "I certainly respect his decision and it was a difficult one. And personally I thanked him for the three years I was here with him. He earned the right to be a free agent and we're certainly going to miss him. But we move on."
The Trail Blazers acquired Vonleh for the expiring contract of Nicolas Batum. He showed a more chiseled frame and polished game this summer. He spent an injury-plagued rookie season with the Hornets and has yet to get a genuine opportunity to play.
"I feel a lot better, just trying to show my versatility, being able to shoot the three," Vonleh said. "Drive the ball from the top, create action for other guys, just try to get to the rim and get fouls. Last year was tough. I had a lot of veteran guys in front of me — Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller —
Vonleh could compete for a starting job. He has the strength of a power forward in a small forward's body. He was able to take advantage of matchups in the summer league when centers or big forwards had to guard him on the perimeter. Vonleh averaged 17.2 points in summer league games, converting 5 of 10 3-point attempts, including all three against the Celtics.
"I've been shooting threes as long as I can remember and I've always been confident with it," he said. "Most guys don't really shoot the ball with confidence like that. I feel like this is a good opportunity for me. We're going to have a young team and I could definitely get a lot of minutes here and showcase what I can do and keep getting better."
Anderson making Dallas look good
It's been a difficult offseason for the Mavericks but one of management's best decisions was drafting former Virginia swingman Justin Anderson, who flourished in the summer league, averaging 17.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in six games.
Anderson is a personable, fearless, hard-working player who should fit well in the Dallas culture. The Celtics passed on him to take Louisville guard Terry Rozier, but there was definite interest from Boston. Anderson appears prepared to establish a role as a solid defender and perimeter shooter.
"I've learned that I'm still hungry, I still want to learn, and I still want to get better," Anderson said of his summer league experience. "I just can't wait to learn more, being around my teammates, being around those vets. I started to realize that in college, it was a lot more slower, a lot more packed in the paint. In this [game], you can get to the rim at ease, it's a lot of space."
Anderson, selected 21st overall, suffered a hand injury and also experienced appendicitis during his junior season, ailments that likely affected his draft position. He wasn't at 100 percent when he returned late in the season but was able to endure the predraft process and summer league. What impressed scouts is his outside shooting, which was once a weakness.
"It's not time to reinvent the wheel, they know exactly what I'm capable of, our coaching staff," he said. "I want to be really good at things I'm already pretty good at. So I just want to take that next step, being good defensively, on ball, and being able to operate out of those corners [offensively]."
Anderson is a brutally honest individual and was candid about his biggest surprise of summer league.
"The effort of some players on opposing teams, kind of like one effort and that's it," he said. "You would think because everybody's athletes that if one guy gets blown by and gets to the rim, a big 7-footer is coming over and trying to throw your shot into the second row. I thought that would happen more because you hear about the athletes in this league but I'm an athlete myself, so I fit in pretty well."
Anderson joins a team of veterans still reeling from DeAndre Jordan's decision to return to the Clippers after verbally agreeing to terms with Dallas. Yet the Mavericks will still be competitive with Wesley Matthews, Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons, and newly signed Deron Williams. Anderson, with the departure of Richard Jefferson to Cleveland, could play a big role.
The Mavericks have filled their roster with young players such as Anderson, former Celtic Dwight Powell, and ex-Hawk John Jenkins now that their hopes of challenging in the Western Conference have dwindled with Jordan returning to Los Angeles.
"I'm lucky, I'm in a situation where I'm coming to play with great wing vets in Parsons and Wes," he said. "It's amazing to be at this level. [I'm paying attention to] everything that they tell me, from nutrition, to on the court, off the court, sleep at night, breakfast in the morning, everything. It's a whole new level. It's different level. Even though I may know some things, it never hurts to get them reiterated. I just want to listen and apply everything as much as I can because I think that's how you get your career going."
Battle lines drawn for labor talks
You would have assumed that with the escalating and exorbitant free agent salaries this summer, with the Clippers being purchased for $2 billion, and with the smaller-market Bucks going for nearly $600 million, that team economic struggles would not be a topic at the upcoming collective bargaining agreement discussions.
Yet, during his state of the league address, commissioner Adam Silver perhaps set the tone for labor discussions that will begin in August. Both sides want to avoid a lockout but the NBA Players Association likely did not expect the league to begin with the premise that "a handful of teams are losing money."
Such claims created mistrust during the last CBA talks that led to the 2011 lockout.
"I don't know the precise number and don't want to get into it, but a significant number of teams are continuing to lose money and they continue to lose money because their expenses exceed their revenue," Silver said in Las Vegas.
"Even with revenue sharing and fairly robust revenue sharing where some teams are receiving over $20 million checks from their partners. That in order to compete across this league with a relatively harsh tax, teams are spending enormous amounts of money on payroll. Some of the contracts we talked about.
"They still have enormous expenses in terms of arena costs. Teams are building new practice facilities. The cost of their infrastructure in terms of their sales people, marketing people, the infrastructure of the teams have gone up, and in some cases their local television is much smaller than in other markets. In some cases because of historical deals, and in some cases just because the market won't command the kinds of dollars that you can get in the larger markets."
So the question becomes whether players are responsible for helping owners control themselves in their desire to compete with their peers. Teams such as Minnesota and Philadelphia have developed new practice facilities to be more attractive destinations for free agents.
NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told the Globe in March that the league shouldn't try the "poverty" angle in these next negotiations, especially when Detroit's Reggie Jackson signs for $16 million per season and Toronto agrees to a $15 million-per-season deal with DeMarre Carroll. Neither of those two has played in an All-Star Game.
"The bottom line is I was surprised to see the comments," Roberts said of Silver's remarks. "I have been reading the same, I thought, team reports the commissioner was and I have a different take on how well the game is going. Based on what we've been watching, it's surprising to me to hear that.
"It's a difficult pill to swallow given all that even the commissioner said about the health of the game. I can't speak for what may have motivated that. I assume he was given information but that's not the information I have."
On June 4, before Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Oakland, Silver said this about the state of the game:
"My feeling is the league is doing incredibly well. The players are doing really well. Popularity is at an all-time high. So I think it would be very constructive to sit down sooner than later to start talking about to the extent there should be changes in the collective bargaining agreement, what both sides would like to see."
One of Roberts's first major chances as the union's executive director was developing the NBA Players Awards, which aired last week on BET. Players voted on their own awards as opposed to the annual league awards voted on by the media. The awards took place at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, with all-time greats such as Allen Iverson and Ray Allen attending, along with current stars James Harden, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Paul Pierce.
The awards were a prelude to NBPA meetings, designed to prep the players on upcoming CBA talks and on league issues.
"When I heard players say, 'Why can't we do something?' the answer is we can," Roberts said. "Obviously, any opportunity the players have to be able to sit down and celebrate each other is a good opportunity."
Roberts also added she had no issue with veteran David West opting out of a contract that would have paid him $12.6 million this season to accept a $1.4 million veteran's minimum from the Spurs.
"It's all about freedom," Roberts said. "If David West says, 'I made sufficient money that I can make that move,' I'm not going to be [angry] with that. All I want is that they have the right to make that choice. He's made a decision. That's fine."
Meanwhile, Paul, the NBPA president, said he is pleased with the union's solidarity and was directly involved with one of the summer's most interesting twists in the free agency decision of teammate DeAndre Jordan. Jordan, reportedly because of a troubled relationship with Paul, committed verbally to the Mavericks on a four-year, $80 million deal before changing his mind at the 11th hour and returning to Los Angeles following a meeting with Paul, Blake Griffin, Pierce, and Clippers coach Doc Rivers in Houston.
Jordan said rumors of a poor relationship with Paul were overblown, and he has worked out his issues with the organization.
"DeAndre, he's like my big little brother," said Paul. "We talk a lot more than people realize but the only thing that matters is that he's back. We brought in Paul [Pierce], which I'm probably the happiest about because of his championship pedigree and that voice in our locker room.
"It was a big summer for us."
While Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly professed his support for point guard Ty Lawson on the day Lawson checked into an alcohol rehabilitation center, he was trying to move the former standout after a series of mishaps and two DUI arrests in the past six months. Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay was so impressive during summer league the Nuggets were set on starting him at point guard, and did not want Lawson and Mudiay to even be teammates. So Connelly sent Lawson to the Rockets, strengthening the Houston backcourt and allowing Mudiay to begin his career unimpeded. Lawson is expected to be ready for training camp but the Rockets are taking a calculated risk. Lawson helped the process by agreeing to make his 2016-17 salary nonguaranteed, meaning it's a one-year experiment for the Rockets . . . Speaking of calculated risks, after a putrid performance in the NBA Finals, J.R. Smith opted out of a contract with the Cavaliers that would have paid him $6.4 million next season and made him a free agent when the salary cap soars. Now he remains a free agent and will likely have to sign for considerably less than $6.4 million. Smith's value around the NBA is mediocre at best. He struggled in crunch time when the Cavaliers needed an outside shooter and also served a two-game suspension for his backslap of the Celtics' Jae Crowder during the Celtics' series . . . As the free agent market begins to dry up, there are going to be quality players available at bargain prices, such as power forward Carlos Boozer and center JaVale McGee. There are a limited number of teams with available salary cap space, meaning some of those players are unlikely to sign for anything but veteran's minimum or perhaps the mini mid-level. Teams are still maneuvering to maximize salary cap space, which is why several expected deals have not been announced. Cleveland's Tristan Thompson is waiting to sign his long-term extension, as is guard Matthew Dellavedova . . . Six or seven teams are talking with Jonathan Holmes, who sparkled during for the Celtics during their summer league games in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. The Celtics are not likely to sign Holmes unless they clear salary cap space. They already have 16 guaranteed contracts and don't have space for Holmes, who is seeking at least a partially guaranteed contract.
From hopefuls to locals to those on their last legs, there is always a wide variety of players at the NBA Summer League. Here's a look at how some of the more interesting names did it: