Five reasons Blazers could be better than you think: A 'new' Meyers Leonard

Five reasons Blazers could be better than you think: A 'new' Meyers Leonard

On the surface, it would appear this offseason brought little to no help to the Trail Blazers amid the NBA’s whirlwind summer of blockbuster trades and free agent acquisitions.

Aside from a salary-cap motivated move of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn, and the drafting of 19-year-old center Zach Collins and Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan, the Blazers are largely the same group that went 41-41 and finished eighth in the Western Conference.

The Las Vegas betting line on Trail Blazers wins for the 2017-2018 season is 42.5 games, which would place them eighth in the West:

1. Golden State (67.5)

2. Houston (55.5)

3. San Antonio (54.5)

4. Oklahoma City (51.5)

5. Minnesota (48.5)

6. Denver (45.5)

7. LA Clippers (44.5)

8. Portland (42.5)

Of course, Las Vegas has been wrong before about the Blazers (remember 2015-2016 when the Blazers won 44 games after Vegas set the line at 26.5?), and it’s easy to get swept up in the headlines from an offseason that saw Chris Paul move to Houston, Paul George to Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and Paul Millsap to Denver.

But behind the sexy headlines and tumultuous turnover, the Blazers have been  doing what has become a hallmark of this franchise: relying on improvement from within.

With that in mind, CSN this week will unveil five reasons the Blazers this season could exceed 42 wins and be better than people think:

Today: A 'new' Meyers Leonard

Tuesday: A full season of a more fit Jusuf Nurkic

Monday: A healthy Ed Davis

**

One of the first things Meyers Leonard did this summer with Drew Hanlen, his new trainer, was watch the Trail Blazers’ final regular season game against New Orleans.

Leonard started that game and played 36 minutes, finishing 3-for-11 from the field and with seven points and nine rebounds.

“It was hard for me to sit there and watch it,’’ Leonard said.

He couldn’t score in the post against guards. He noticed he wasn’t attacking rebounds. And the form of his shot was disjointed and his attempts off the mark.

“It was eye opening,’’ the 7-foot-1 Leonard remembered. “I was making it so difficult on myself.’’

The regular-season finale was a microcosm of his frustrating fifth season in Portland, when he averaged 5.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and shot 38.5 percent from the field.

After the film session, Hanlen -- whose resume includes training NBA players Bradley Beal, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Clarkson, Joel Embiid and Dwight Howard to name a few -- developed a plan.

“It was a plan to prepare him for this kind of ‘New Meyers,’’’ Hanlen said.

The major bullet points of the rebuild were to tighten Leonard’s shooting mechanics; get him to play lower and less upright; and to develop a plan on how to approach various scenarios, such as when defenders rush at him at the three-point line.

“But the first area we had to attack was the cloud that was holding him back – his confidence,’’ Hanlen said. “When he first arrived in the summer I asked him ‘From 1-to-100, how confident are you in your game?’

“He said, ‘If I’m being honest, probably around 30,’’’ Hanlen said.

Fast forward four months to today, less than a week away from the start of training camp.

Leonard says his confidence level is “in the 80s” and Hanlen says in all his years of working with NBA players, Leonard’s progress is remarkable.

“From a confidence level, it’s one of the biggest jumps I’ve seen a player make in a summer,’’ Hanlen said. “And from a skill level standpoint, Meyers elevated himself multiple levels.’’

Apparently, Leonard and Hanlen aren’t the only ones noticing.

Leonard this summer took part in the renowned NBA pickup games at UCLA two or three times a week, and Hanlen said several of his clients approached him about the 7-footer from Portland.

“I was getting compliments from NBA players like ‘Meyers is a beast … I don’t know why Portland is not using him,’’ Hanlen said. “Other players, they were bragging to me about him.’’

Leonard said those games included players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, DeMar DeRozan, and one week the entire Oklahoma City team played.

“I was out there as confident as I’ve ever been – hitting shots … down in the post … and having a plan of what I wanted to do,’’ he said. “I had a couple different people tell me they heard things, stuff like ‘If Meyers plays like this he will be just fine … it will be eye opening … ‘’

Leonard stopped short and retreated. He is wary of what he says these days, knowing all too well how much of a divisive force he is among the Blazers’ fan base, and how many “remakes” he has supposedly undergone during his five seasons in Portland.

Both he and Hanlen agree that the proof will be in his performance this season.

“I will say this: This is the most laser-focused I have been in my life. For sure,’’ Leonard said. “I no longer have thoughts in head of ‘Do I really belong?’  – I no longer have that and never will again. I’ve proven that to myself.’’

That confidence was born out of 6:15 a.m. wakeup calls for daily workouts with Hanlen in Los Angeles.

The biggest changes: Hanlen has changed Leonard’s shooting mechanics, most of which deals with balance. He found that Leonard would often lean back on his shots and/or have his feet to close together. So now, Leonard focuses on his shoulders being forward and establishing a wide base with his feet.

Also, he has trained Leonard to play lower, which allows him to move better, both offensively and defensively.

Finally, Hanlen developed what he calls a “plan” for Leonard in how to thrive within the Blazers’ system.

“He has to be able to play within that system, but before he would set a screen and then float around the perimeter,’’ Hanlen said. “He didn’t have a purpose.’’

So they worked on a series of options –  pick-and-pop …  a dive to the basket where he worked on finishing with both hands … a short roll to the basket … a one-dribble and attack the basket.

“That way he can keep defenses off balance and open more space for Damian and CJ while becoming more of a threat himself, instead of just drifting around the perimeter,’’ Hanlen said.

To accentuate Leonard’s new skills, Hanlen wanted Leonard to lose weight.

“Today in the NBA, thin is in,’’ Hanlen said. “You not only move better, you recover quicker.’’

Leonard played between 262 and 265 pounds last season and initially thought he wanted to bulk to 270 pounds this season. But with the urging of Hanlen to lose weight to become more mobile, Leonard says he is at 257.5 pounds as he enters training camp.

“I feel great,’’ Leonard said. “This is the healthiest I’ve been since I’ve been in Portland.’’

Now comes the hard part: proving it.

The Blazers’ have a stable of big men with Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu and a burgeoning rookie in Caleb Swanigan. In order to break into the roation, Leonard will have to earn it and he knows it will take time.

 “It’s going to be a day-by-day thing,’’ Leonard said. “A lot of people know in the back of their mind that I can play. Did I show that last year? Occasionally, but not really. So gaining the players’ trust to throw me the ball, gaining Coach Stotts’ trust to put me in to help the team win … I’m going to have to keep chipping at that. And I’m sure there will be bumps in the road.

“In the meantime, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,’’ Leonard said. “It was a good summer. I’m in a really good place. And I just want to continue to do the right things.’’

Damian Lillard represents well in All-Star Game

Damian Lillard represents well in All-Star Game

Damian Lillard got some early run in the 2018 All-Star game, logging nine minutes of playing time for Team Steph in the first half where he put up seven points, grabbed two boards and dished out an assists. Lillard's lone made three pointer in the first half was a deep one from the logo.

In the second half, Lillard turned it up another notch including two more three pointers and a nice fadaway jumper. Lillard was taken out of the game with about six minutes to go and finished with 21 points on 9 of 14 shooting with three rebounds and two assists. His 20 minutes of playing time was a solid contribution and when he exited the game, his 21 points was tied for the game high with LeBron James. Team LeBron made a big come back late in the fourth quarter (when teams actually started playing defense)  and ended up with the 148-145 win. 

For a complete recap on Damian's All-Star journey, be sure to check out The Bridge (live 6pm) and Trail Blazers Outsiders (live 7pm) on Monday night!

 

Maybe Kerr should have let the players coach...

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USATI

Maybe Kerr should have let the players coach...

The Blazers head into the All-Star break with a huge win over the Golden State Warriors at Moda Center! Damian Lillard led the way 44 points as the Blazers came out hot in the 1st quarter and hung on for the win. 

Box Score: Portland 123, Golden State 117

Rapid Reaction:

The curious case of Jusuf Nurkic

The curious case of Jusuf Nurkic

It seems that suddenly Nurkic Fever has turned into Nurkic Flu. And it's spreading like wildfire.

Once the darling of Portland fans, Portland center Jusuf Nurkic has become a Twitter punching bag and a controversial figure. This seems to be sparked by his absence from both the Portland lineup and his recent media availabilities. And of course there is a growing wave of discontent based on Nurkic's recent play, too. His lack of consistency has been maddening and it seems to have finally worn out the patience of fans, coaches and media. Probably even his teammates.

Let's make a few things clear right off the bat. Nurkic is averaging 14 points, 8 rebounds and nearly 2 assists per game. That's not bad and I'm not sure where else the Trail Blazers could find a center who could chalk up those statistics. And oh yes, he's still just 23 years old.

But there is more, of course. He is shooting only .479 from the field this season, pretty terrible for a man who takes most of his shots in the paint. And he's at an incredibly terrible .442 within three feet of the basket -- a career low. The Trail Blazers often take great pains to go to him early in games in an effort to get him off to a good start but he often responds as he did against Utah Sunday -- by missing his first four shots, three of them virtual layups. That's a discouraging situation for Nurkic and his team.

Why is this happening? I don't think anyone knows. My guess is that his coaches are at wit's end trying to unlock the secret to finding the whereabouts of the Nurkic who looked so promising through 20 games last season. After a summer in which he lost weight and came back promising to be tougher and more effective he only rarely reaches the level of play we saw so briefly last season. He appears tentative and contact averse.

He often seems to be taking a casual approach to his game, not finishing easy shots and avoiding contact. There are times when he just doesn't seem to be into the whole thing.

He is listed as "questionable" for tonight's game in Moda Center against the Golden State Warriors and there couldn't be a more fitting description of him right now. He's become questionable on a lot of levels.

But if he's hurt, he's hurt. It's careless to question that. But he does seem to get injured frequently, which has led to many questioning his toughness. I must say, as the guy who was screaming "Nurkic Fever" so frequently last season, I've fallen into that category. He's also appeared pouty, which was his reputation in Denver.

Could nagging injuries be a part of his disappointing season? I have no idea. But I do know this, for a player heading into free agency -- even restricted free agency -- he's not doing himself a lot of good. In a summer when it appears the free-agent money pool will be shallow, next season he may not end up earning anywhere close to what he probably anticipated.

Who is Jusuf Nurkic? Right now, I don't think many people have a clue.

And he's running out of games this season to show us.

Greg Oden making a comeback...

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USA Today Images

Greg Oden making a comeback...

The BIG3 announced today that former Trail Blazer Greg Oden will be participating in the BIG3 Draft Combine.

Oden has agreed to join the BIG3 draft pool with the league getting set to enter its second season this summer.

The BIG3 league is a 3-on-3 pro basketball league that was founded by Ice Cube in January 2017 featuring All-Stars, Hall of Famers and a few World Champions.  The league currently features eight teams who travel from city to city with all eight teams facing off in tournament style play through the summer months.   

CBS Sports reporter Colin Ward-Henninger is reporting that Baron Davis, Metta World Peace, Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer are among a few other players that have signed up for the 2018 season.

How to stream Blazers vs. Jazz

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USA Today Images

How to stream Blazers vs. Jazz

If you already get NBCS Northwest on your TV at home, but you are not able to be home during a Trail Blazers game, you can now stream the game live at the NBC Sports App.  You can download the NBC Sports App at www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile.  Or, you can stream the game online at our live stream page, NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream.

The Portland Trail Blazers (31-25) are coming off back-to-back wins, with the most recent victory coming against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night, 118-100.  The Blazers are now back home to host the Utah Jazz (27-28) on Sunday night.  

In Friday’s win, it was all about Damian Lillard.  Lillard scored 50 points in just three quarters of play.  He now joins teammate CJ McCollum and Warriors guard Klay Thompson as the only players in NBA history to score 50 points in under 30 minutes of action. Lillard went 16-of-26 from the floor and that included going 8-of-13 from deep.  He also had six assists.

Reaching the 50-point milestone on Friday was the fourth time in Lillard's career.

Moe Harkless got his third consecutive start on Friday and vs. the Kings, he had 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 8-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99! Click to learn more and buy]

Utah is one of the hottest teams right now having won eight straight games, which is currently the longest active winning streak in the league.

The Jazz most recent win was on Friday night; a 106-94 home victory against the Charlotte Hornets. Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell had a team-high 25 points, while veteran Joe Ingles added 23 points, six assists and five rebounds.

For Sunday’s Blazers and Jazz matchup, the Blazers are not reporting any injuries, while the Jazz have listed Ricky Rubio (left hip soreness) as questionable and Thabo Sefolosha (right knee surgery) and Dante Exum (left shoulder surgery) are both out.

Sunday’s contest will be the second of four meetings between Portland and Utah this season.  The Jazz beat the Trail Blazers 112-103 in overtime back on November 1st in Utah. In the loss, Jusuf Nurkic had 19 points and 11 rebounds.

The Blazers are currently riding a nine-game home winning streak.

Our coverage of the Portland and Utah game starts with Rip City Live at 5:00pm on Sunday as Dan Sheldon, Dwight Jaynes, Orlando Williams, and our Blazer Insider Jason Quick get you ready for all of the action.

 


Quick Links:

Damian Lillard’s 50-point night brewing since flight home from Detroit

Lillard’s Top Plays in his 50-point performance in Blazers win over Kings

Stotts, Blazers’ newest dilemma: What to do with the resurgent of Mo Harkless?


 

Video:  Dame has dropped a 50 spot

Video:  Dame Dominates: 50 points in 3 quarters… sound familiar?

Video:  To whom much is given, much is expected.

Video:  ICYMI: Damian Lillard went off vs. the Kings  


 

Game Details:

Where:  Moda Center, Portland OR    

Tip-off: 6:00pm

Television: NBCS Northwest

Live NBC Sports Northwest coverage:  Rip City Live (5:00pm) and Talkin' Ball  (Immediately after the Blazers postgame show)

Live streaming of the game: Watch the game on your phone on the NBC Sports App.  Download the  app at http://www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile .  Or check out NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream online.

Live streaming coverage on Facebook: The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. 

Radio: Rip City Radio 620

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

SACRAMENTO – A developing subplot in the Trail Blazers season has been the reemergence of Maurice Harkless over the past week.

In what has largely been a disappointing season for the one-time starting small forward, Harkless has recently flourished while being reinserted into the rotation because of injuries.

Last Sunday, he hit all five three-point attempts in Boston en route to a 19-point, 8-rebound performance. And late in an overtime win against Charlotte on Thursday, he made a key block and a flushed a game-clinching dunk off an offensive rebound. He then scored 15 points Friday at Sacramento, and was a key element in the Blazers putting away the Kings in the fourth quarter.

Coach Terry Stotts, who through the first two months of the season went through a somewhat trying exercise in reaching a nine-man rotation, now has an intriguing decision ahead of him: What to do with Harkless?

“Let’s just talk about tonight,’’ Stotts said Friday when asked about his dilemma.

Harkless started the first 19 games of the season, but drifted into anonymity and eventually onto the bench amid poor shooting and energy-less play. To his credit, he remained ready after his demotion. He was the driving force in a December victory at the Lakers, scoring 22 points, and he was a boost with 19 points in a January home win over San Antonio.

This latest development was spurred first by a toe injury to Shabazz Napier, creating an opening in the Boston game, then a calf injury to Evan Turner, which has pushed Harkless into the starting lineup as Turner missed one game and has been on a minutes restriction the past two games.

Stotts started the season with Harkless in the starting lineup because he liked the defensive versatility he provides while paired with power forward Al-Farouq Aminu. The two long and lanky forwards can switch defensively on pick-and-rolls, and when energized, Harkless has athleticism unique to the Blazers.

Plus, with Harkless in the starting lineup, it allows Turner to assume an offensive role off the bench that is more suited to his strengths. With Turner on the second unit, he can be more of a ball-handler and initiator, and it puts less pressure on him to be a spacer alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

So, what does Stotts do?

On Friday at least, the coach conceded that he will probably extend his rotation from nine to 10, at least for the time being. Most coaches -- particularly late in the season -- like to limit their rotations to nine players in order to give them adequate playing time to establish a rhythm. If Harkless forges a regular spot back in the rotation, it will likely have to come at the expense of Napier, the team's third guard.

 “Moving forward I’m sure (Harkless) will be playing,’’ Stotts said. “Evan with the minutes restriction, you know, kind of makes it a little easier on me. Now, I assume Evan’s minutes will be going up, so they will have to come from somewhere. ‘’

This development almost mirrors how Harkless broke onto the scene in Portland two seasons ago. Lost and out of the rotation in February, he flourished as a spot starter in place of the injured Noah Vonleh and became a key element to the team’s late season push.

Now, Lillard is seeing some of the same things from Harkless.

“We get those sprint backs, those block, the deflections, the finishing in the paint, the offensive rebounds, knocking down 3s … when we get that from Mo we are a completely different team,’’ Lillard said. “I literally get excited when I see him doing those things. That’s why I will be the first guy to tell him: ‘We need you like this all the time. Nobody else on our roster can do what you do, and what you bring to the table.’’’

Harkless on Friday said nothing has changed for him, except the opportunity.

“I think it’s just being back in the rotation,’’ Harkless said. “It’s hard to not know if you are going to play, how much you are going to play, then get thrown out there for six minutes. It’s tough to play like that and be consistent.’’

For the immediate future, at least, it sounds like Stotts will give him another shot. What he does with it might determine the course of the Blazers rotation, and season.

“I will be ready to play, whatever role it is,’’ Harkless said.

Damian Lillard's 50-point night brewing since flight home from Detroit

Damian Lillard's 50-point night brewing since flight home from Detroit

SACRAMENTO – In the days leading up to his 50-point game Friday in Sacramento, it was evident something was brewing inside Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard.

He had become shorter in conversation. And his normal countenance ran deeper, and more focused.

It was not that Lillard had become distant or unfriendly to those around him, but it was as if something was weighing on his mind.

Turns out, there was.

On the flight home from Detroit on Monday, still fresh the sting of a blowout loss to the Pistons that gave the Blazers a three-game losing streak, Lillard said he had a personal pep talk.

“It’s time to go,’’ Lillard recounted saying to himself about the season.

By “go” he meant it was time to put his foot on the gas and accelerate the Blazers’ season.

“Take control of the situation,’’ Lillard explained. “That’s what you have to do sometimes – take control of the situation and take it upon yourself.’’

His first game after the Detroit declaration was Thursday against Charlotte in Portland. It was one of his worst games of the season – 6-for-22 from the field and more turnovers (4) than assists or rebounds. The Blazers held a 22-5 lead to open the game, and then had a 17-point lead with seven minutes left, yet still had to eke out the win in overtime.

So on Friday, when he arrived in Sacramento – a place the Blazers lost earlier this season – there was a perfect storm of motivation, dedication and predication.

“I had a certain feeling about this game,’’ Lillard said. “That we had to have it.’’

For two in a half quarters, whether the Blazers would beat the Kings was in question. When Zach Randolph rebounded his own miss with 4:25 left, the Kings were within 75-74.

Then, Lillard took over.

It started with Lillard driving for a layin. Then he stripped Kings’ prized rookie De’Aaron Fox. Then he passed to CJ McCollum for a layin. Then he scored the next 13 points in a row.

All told, the Blazers had gone on a 17-0 run and Lillard had scored 15 of them, pushing him to 50 points at the end of the third quarter in just 29:29 of playing time.

By now, impassioned play at crucial times have become a hallmark of Lillard’s career. Each season, he seems to sense when, and how, the Blazers need their boost. In 2014, his second season, he initiated a spirited team meeting in the San Antonio locker room. In 2016, he led a late-season charge with a flurry of high-scoring first quarters that helped the Blazers win three straight road games. And last season, with, some help from Jusuf Nurkic, he willed them from nine games below .500 in January to the playoffs, thanks in part to a franchise-record 59-point game against Utah in April.

What is different this season, is Lillard says he feels a little more “urgency” for the Blazers to show progress, and that may be why his hallmark playoff-push is coming earlier than ever.

He said this Blazers team has experienced too many lulls throughout the season – going 4-1 on an East trip only to lose four straight at home, and a recent span of seven wins in eight games followed by a three-game losing streak.

It’s why somewhere over the Midwest, on the return from Detroit, that Lillard had his mental declaration.

“When we were on the flight home, I was like, ‘Going into the (All-Star) break, we have to do this. It has to happen,’’ Lillard said.

So on Friday, he made it happen.

Again.

If the weight of a team, and a franchise, has become a burden for Lillard, he is not showing it. Before leaving the Sacramento locker room to share his momentous night with a large segment of his family, Lillard deflected any notion that he was carrying a heavy load.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,’’ he said. “I’m not a three-time All Star in six years for no reason, no matter how you want to slice it. I’m not a max contract player for no reason. That’s what I signed up for.’’