Gordon Hayward

The Trail Blazers have done everything possible to avoid Utah's Hayward calamity

The Trail Blazers have done everything possible to avoid Utah's Hayward calamity

Yes, it was too bad Utah couldn't have held on to Gordon Hayward instead of losing him to Boston in free agency. The Jazz had something good percolating in Salt Lake City but lost an all-star player with no compensation, a monumental setback for a small-market franchise.

But in analyzing what happened to Utah, it's easy to see how the Trail Blazers have taken a much smarter approach to building a franchise in a market that's not likely to attract premium free agents.

The Jazz messed up with Hayward. They blew it. And forget market size and all those alibis, Hayward should still be in a Utah uniform. Back in 2014, the Jazz had the chance to sign him to a five-year rookie extension and did not do that. Sure, Hayward had not yet shown he would become an all-star, but his career arc was on the rise. I'm not certain whether the Utah front office was simply penny pinching or just didn't know how talented Hayward was -- but really,  a big underrated skill for those operating a team in the NBA is knowing your own players and their potential better than anyone else does.

And when you draft and develop players with all-star potential, you better be 100 percent, rock-solid sure they don't blossom someplace else. You just cannot afford to make mistakes with players you have drafted and had on your roster for multiple seasons.

Utah could have signed Hayward to that extension at five years and $80 million but sat back, hoping to re-sign him on the cheap. However Charlotte came in and offered him a four-year, $63 million deal with the final season a player option. Of course, Utah matched the offer -- but as you can see, it cost the Jazz two years of Hayward and those two seasons could have turned out to be successful enough to convince him to stay in Utah even longer.

Now do you understand why Neil Olshey took no such chance with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? They are tied to the Trail Blazers for as long as contractually possible, though the 2020-21 season. And oh, by the way, all those other contracts Portland signed last summer -- Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner -- that people complain about, had strategic value. The Trail Blazers preserved cap space by making those deals before signing McCollum to his extension. Had they not made those deals when they did, very little cap space would have been left to fill the roster after CJ's deal was signed.

And seriously, do you think Portland could have signed a free agent this summer as talented as McCollum? No way. In a situation like Portland's, it's best to draft wise, trade smart and make sure your key players don't get away.

Because replacing them can prove to be very difficult.

 

Damian Lillard sets franchise scoring record, puts Blazers on cusp of playoffs

Damian Lillard sets franchise scoring record, puts Blazers on cusp of playoffs

A record-setting performance by Damian Lillard has put the Trail Blazers on the cusp of a playoff berth.

Lillard on Saturday scored 59 points, setting the franchise mark for points in a game, as the Blazers beat Utah 101-86 at the Moda Center to reduce their magic number to one for clinching the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Lillard made 18-of-34 shots, including 9-of-14 three-pointers and 14-of-16 free throws. He added six rebounds and five assists and played 42 minutes.

Lillard broke the franchise record of 54 held by Damon Stoudmaire (2005) and the Moda Center record of 52 held by Brandon Roy (2008).

"Damian was phenomenal,'' coach Terry Stotts said.

The performance couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Blazers played without Allen Crabbe (left foot soreness) and endured an off-night from CJ McCollum, who went 4-of-20.

“I realized what time it was for our team,’’ Lillard said. “We’ve worked too hard, and came too far … we have to win … we gotta get it done.’’

Lillard’s big night also moved the Blazers 1.5 games ahead of Denver with two games left. Denver plays at home Sunday against Oklahoma City. The Blazers can clinch with a Nuggets loss.

The Blazers also tied a franchise mark with only three turnovers. 

The Blazers next play Monday at home against San Antonio and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after Saturday’s game that he would not rest any Spurs players for the final two games because he has been unhappy with the team’s physicality recently.

Lillard tied his franchise record by scoring 26 points in the first quarter, leading the Blazers to a 34-20 lead. The big start by Lillard and the Blazers didn’t carryover in the second quarter as Utah clawed to within 48-42 by closing the half on an 18-8 run. The run was keyed by a stalled Blazers’ offense that went nearly five minutes without scoring.

“I knew it was important for us to get off to a good start,’’ Lillard said.

Stotts also called the game the Blazers' best defensive effort of the season. He credited the switching abilities of Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless and Noah Vonlehon pick-and-rolls to holding Utah (49-31) to 40.3 percent shooting.

Next up: San Antonio at Blazers, 7 p.m. Monday (CSN)

Podcast:

Playoff race tightens as McCollum's 25 not enough for Trail Blazers in Utah

Playoff race tightens as McCollum's 25 not enough for Trail Blazers in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY – Buckle your seat belts, Portland, the Trail Blazers’ pursuit of the playoffs is looking like it will be a wild ride.

Portland had its lead over Denver reduced to a half-game Tuesday when Utah pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 106-87 win at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Coupled with Denver’s 134-131 win at New Orleans earlier in the night, the Blazers (38-40) and Denver (37-40) look like they will take the race for the final playoff spot in the West into the final week of the season.

Portland will have its four remaining games at home, where it has won five in a row. The Blazers will close against Minnesota, Utah, San Antonio and New Orleans. Denver has five games left: at Houston, at home against New Orleans, at home against Oklahoma City before finishing the season on a road back-to-back at Dallas and Oklahoma City.

The Blazers might have the favorable schedule, but they will have to do it without starting center Jusuf Nurkic, whose absence was felt again Tuesday in his third game out with a broken right leg. One game after Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns went for 34 points and 12 rebounds, Utah center Rudy Gobert had 20 points and 11 rebounds and reserve center Jeff Withey added 10 points and two rebounds.

The Blazers are 1-2 without Nurkic, and against Utah coach Terry Stotts shuffled his starting lineup, putting Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward and moving Noah Vonleh to center. The move never had time to materialize, however, as Vonleh picked up two early fouls and headed to the bench with 8:57 left.

Vonleh’s early foul trouble was just the start of the Blazers’ troubles. They missed their first seven shots and fell behind 11-0 as Rudy Gobert hurt them inside and Gordon Hayward from the outside.

It didn’t help either that star point guard Damian Lillard had a rare off night, making just 5-of-20 shots for 16 points, tied for his third lowest output of the season.

But behind some offensive spark from McCollum and Meyers Leonard, and a defensive jolt from Evan Turner, the Blazers scrapped back and took a 31-30 lead in the second quarter. The lead was short-lived, however, as Utah called timeout and responded with a 13-2 run that helped them take a 47-41 halftime lead.

Portland was within 72-64 near the end of the third quarter, but Joe Johnson hit a three-pointer with 0.5 seconds left – the second of four consecutive three-pointers he hit in a three minute span that turned a 65-58 game into an 83-68 blowout in the fourth.

Utah (48-30) stretched its lead to as many as 20 in the fourth quarter, even though they were playing without three starters – point guard George Hill, shooting guard Rodney Hood and power forward Derrick Favors. Gordon Hayward finished with 30 points, and Johnson  13 off the bench. Utah is now one game ahead of the Clippers for the fourth seed in the West.

McCollum led Portland with 25 points while Aminu had 11.

Next up: Minnesota at Blazers, Thursday 7:30 p.m. (TNT)

Blazers put NBA-record win streak on the line opening night

Blazers put NBA-record win streak on the line opening night

Portland Trail Blazers (0-0) vs. Utah Jazz (0-0)

Tuesday, Moda Center, 7 p.m.

Television: Rip City Live (5:30) CSN; Utah vs. Portland (7 p.m.), KGW; Talkin' Ball (9:30), CSN.

There are traditions, and then there are traditions. The Trail Blazers have established a meaningful tradition that has been in the making since the turn of this century and it's an NBA record.

Portland has won a league-record 15 consecutive home openers and that's the task facing the visiting Utah Jazz Tuesday night in Moda Center. Utah lost to the Trail Blazers twice during the exhibition season. But those games were meaningless and, quite obviously, for these two teams on the rise that are often predicted to be fighting over the same playoff berths this season, this game is not.

Utah and Portland are loaded with young players expected to develop into cohesive units. The Jazz has made its reputation on defense, built around shotblocking center Rudy Gobert. Portland is a high-scoring unit that is offensively efficient and looking to improve at the defensive end.

I would expect these teams to be fighting for the fourth or fifth playoff spots in the Western Conference. And I certainly believe Portland, if healthy, is capable of churning out 50 wins this season. The Trail Blazer leader, Damian Lillard, says his team is ready for the season.

"Seven preseason games and a lot of workouts, I think we're prepared to go," Lillard said Monday after practice. "We played them twice in the preseason and over the years, we know that they're going to defend. they have great length, they play hard -- they're a competitive team capable of coming in here and beating us. We've got to be sharp. We've got to put our best foot forward.

"It's always great to open up the season at home. You know you're going to get that excitement from the crowd. Our guys will be pumped to play in front of crowd and have that homecourt advantage. But just because we're the home team doesn't mean it's going to be a fun, easy game. We have to go out there and attack the game and be ready to play."

Terry Stotts believes his team is prepared.

"I think everybody is ready," he said. "October was good, the preseason games were good and I think everybody's ready to go."

"I think they're going to have a very good season," Stotts said, when asked about the Jazz. "Just the addition of some veteran guys like George Hill and Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson -- guys who have played at a high level on 50-win teams. One of the problems the Jazz had last year was closing out some games. I think that experience will help them along with just that internal growth that they'll have. Obviously without (Gordon) Hayward it will be a little bit of a challenge for them."

Hayward is out a few more weeks with a broken finger on his left hand and forward Derrick Favors is nursing a sore knee that kept him out of the latter part of the preseason schedule. The Trail Blazers will be without center Festus Ezeli, who did not participate in the exhibition season because of a medical procedure on a knee.

As of Monday afternoon there were still a limited number of tickets available for the game.