Magic Johnson

The Lakers got off way too easy on that tampering charge

The Lakers got off way too easy on that tampering charge

There are a couple of things that really bothered me about that $500,000 fine the Lakers got for tampering with Paul George, who was then under contract to the Indiana Pacers.

First, it was not enough of a penalty for a team that was previously warned about tampering with George. By now, you've probably seen this clip from the Jimmy Kimmel Show that features Laker President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson joking about tampering with George. After that show aired, the league specifically sent a warning to the Lakers.

But the Lakers later defied that order when General Manager Rob Pelinka spoke to George's agent. To me, that takes the tampering to an entirely different level. I was shocked the league didn't either take a draft choice away from Los Angeles or, better yet, bar them from signing George a year from now when he becomes a free agent.

The Lakers were caught with their hand in the cookie jar and instead of pulling the hand away, they just dug deeper. That tells you something about the respect that franchise has for the league office.

Does $500,000 sound severe to you? Well, certainly not as tough as when the league took $3.5 million and five draft picks away from Minnesota for an illegal agreement with Joe Smith. That deal also led to front-office suspensions and the Timberwolves being prohibited from signing Smith. On the surface, making an illegal deal seems much worse than whet the Lakers did but really, making illegal contact with the agent of a player a year away from free agency is very serious, too. Particularly when you've been warned not to do it.

I think back to the Trail Blazers being fined $250,000 in 1984 for illegal contact with Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. It was a huge sum at the time and all the Trail Blazers did was agree to explain the salary cap to the players prior to the draft. At that time, a quarter of a million was a whole lot of money. And at a time when the league wasn't nearly as prosperous as the NBA is now.

Of course, those fines were levied by then-commissioner David Stern. I believe the current administration led by Adam Silver is much softer -- on players and ownership. It's a go-along, get-along kind of league now. Everything is cool. Silver just keeps smiling.

Fining the Lakers a half million in today's NBA is a joke. The Lakers -- a company worth billions -- probably spend that much on post-game spreads in the family room. Sure, there is all sorts of tampering going on now -- but what a perfect time to make an example of a team breaking the rules. Certainly a $500,000 fine isn't going to deter a team from illegal contact.

I mean, why bother with those tampering rules if you aren't going to enforce them?

And does anybody think the Pacers would have gotten the same treatment had they tampered with a Laker player? I don't think so. It's no secret the NBA wants the Lakers strong again and wasn't anxious to do anything that would impede their growth.

It's too bad.

 

Trail Blazer summer-league team represented the franchise well

Trail Blazer summer-league team represented the franchise well

LAS VEGAS – Before the start of the annual Las Vegas Summer League tournament, I made the offhand remark that when it was finished, every team but one would tell you the truth -- that winning a summer-league championship is about as big a deal as a single melting ice cube on a typical 113-degree day here.

The other team – the one that won the tournament – would tell you, though, how meaningful and important it was. That it is a sign of good things to come.

But I didn't expect the Los Angeles Lakers to take it to the extreme, with Magic Johnson telling the assembled crowd and a national television audience, “The Lakers are back.”

Sorry, I don’t buy that. Especially with the Lakers, They have a long way to go to be “back” – that is, at the point when they were “Showtime” and the most popular team in the NBA.

Johnson knows better than anyone that summer league stuff is mostly meaningless and no guarantee of future success (or failure).

Portland’s summer-league experience was a little different than most teams here. The Trail Blazers were not loaded with a crop of youngsters who will someday be wearing a Portland uniform.

Sure, you’you'll be seeing more of Jake Layman, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins and (maybe) Pat Connaughton. But the Trail Blazers’ march to the championship game was fueled by some very tough and experienced free agents here playing for a job.

It would be nice to say that a few of those guys will be in training camp this fall trying to win a roster spot with Portland, but barring a trade that frees a couple of roster spots, that isn't’t likely to happen.

The free agents wearing Portland uniforms likely played well enough to earn invites to teams that offer a much better chance of them earning a spot. The Trail Blazer roster is, for right now at least, on lockdown.

So what does this fun run to the last night of the tournament mean for the Portland franchise? I’m glad you asked.

I think it was important. First, the franchise showed it could make some shrewd moves in bringing in experienced free agents who could help its roster players in important ways – like getting them the ball where they needed it, on time, and were unselfish enough to defer to those players when necessary. The group followed orders and played hard.

Of course the summer also showcased the Portland coaching staff, which I’m more impressed with every season. Jim Moran was the head coach and looked very comfortable in that position.

But all the assistants have input in the summer and they did a terrific job of instituting the Portland system and getting the most out of the players they had.

This Portland team played to its strengths, which meant pounding the ball inside with Swanigan and Jarnell Stokes. And this was a physical group that did that very well.

I think the showing of this team was good for the franchise, reflecting favorably on its organizational abilities and system. And it was especially good for Swanigan and Layman, who showed they could handle the responsibility of being important players. Both improved with each game.

I believe Swanigan will earn rotation minutes with sheer effort and versatility. He is a willing banger and a very good passer who chases every rebound.

Of course doing those things against veteran NBA players is a lot different than doing it in summer league.

And come on, Magic, you know that as well as anyone. I love the guy but for now, the only thing "back" with the Lakers is Johnson himself.

Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard winning Magic Johnson Award only half the story

Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard winning Magic Johnson Award only half the story

Since entering the NBA five years ago, Damian Lillard has maintained two streaks of which he is proud:

He has never declined to sign autographs before games, and he has never skipped out on speaking with the media after games.

“Never,’’ Lillard said. “Not once.’’

On Tuesday, the Professional Basketball Writers Association announced Lillard as the 2016-2017 Magic Johnson Award winner, which is awarded by writers who cover the league to the player who best combines excellence on the court with cooperation with the public and the media.

 “It comes with the job,’’ Lillard said. “There will come a day when people won’t want my autograph … and there will come a day when the media doesn’t care what I have to say. So I think you have to appreciate it, and that’s what I try to do. I don’t take either for granted.’’

Lillard was a finalist for an unprecedented third consecutive year. This year, he beat out Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Indiana’s Paul George, Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and Golden State’s Draymond Green. Last season, Stephen Curry of Golden State won, and the year before Pau Gasol, then of the Chicago Bulls.

Lillard becomes the second Trail Blazers player to win the award, joining Brandon Roy, who won in 2008-2009.

The award is not just a reflection of how accessible Lillard is with the media, it’s also a recognition for what he has to say. He has become one of the more thoughtful and transparent players in the NBA, both unafraid to tell it like it is while also maintaining a grounded and reasoned tone.

He could be blunt, like in November after a blowout loss in Houston, when he said “We kind of suck right now. It’s that simple.

He could be inspiring, like in February, after his late turnover contributed to a home loss against Atlanta: “Sometimes I just tell myself that you have to go through a struggle. Sometimes it has to be hard on you … and sometimes you have to grind it out and stay with it, and it will come back to your favor as long as you stay true to what you’ve been doing.’’

And he could be prophetic, like in Salt Lake City, when he succinctly captured the Blazers entering the break: "You've got two options: You can either run from it or ... man up. I know, personally, I'm going to … man up. Period. That's what has to happen."

He is, as writers like to say, locker room “gold” … a player whose candid remarks can carry your story … a can’t miss interview.

Keep in mind, this is a league where some players decline to be interviewed after a poor performance or a painful loss. And more in more in all pro sports, players are increasingly viewing the media as the enemy.

In Portland, the players treat the media with respect, and only rarely – Maurice Harkless in playoff frustration and CJ McCollum escaping out the door while everyone interviews Lillard -- does a player skip out without talking. Lillard, meanwhile, answers every question after every game, regardless of his performance or the outcome.

“It’s my opportunity to share what is going on, or what I think about something,’’ Lillard said. “That way, I can limit people having to assume things, or make things up. I can explain myself, or share my thoughts. It’s my opportunity to take the stage, so to speak, to say my part.’’

For the Blazers’ organization, the award likely doesn’t come as a surprise. Lillard has been serving as the team’s unofficial spokesman since his rookie season. But to those around the franchise, how Lillard handles the public and represents the organization through the media is only half of the story.

Lillard over the years has established what can best be described as a culture inside the Blazers. It is a culture rooted in hard work. In accountability. In relationships. And in caring.

You have heard his interviews, and read his quotes which have earned him the Magic Johnson Award.

Here is a deeper look at what you don’t see or hear when the microphones and cameras have gone away. They are little moments that stand for big concepts, and it is where Lillard separates himself.

**

The day after the Blazers were eliminated from the playoffs with a disappointing sweep at the hands of Golden State, Lillard still had one task to perform: Getting the rest of the team to sign off on donating their playoff checks.

When a team makes the playoffs, they are awarded a bonus check. This season, any team participating in the first round of the playoffs was given $223,864 to be divided among players. For the Blazers, that is roughly $16,000 per player.

As captain for the past two seasons, Lillard has made it clear to his teammates that their playoff checks should be donated to the Blazers’ support staff, which consists of everybody from massage therapists to the trainers at the practice facility.

With some Blazers teams, the locker room leadership was not always as generous. Three seasons ago, when veteran Chris Kaman joined the team, he became appalled that the Blazers were keeping their playoff checks. Kaman, who became close with Lillard, told him if he ever led a team he should insist on getting the guys to donate to underscore the importance of unity and having one’s back.

Once again this season, with Lillard going from player to player to assure they followed through, the team voted to give up their full shares. The money was divided among 25 support staff, with some getting more than others depending on their role.

“We divide our playoff shares to give to the people who we work so closely with because they spend as much time away from their families as we do, and they are just about as invested as we are,’’ Lillard said after the season. “They also do as much as possible to make our lives easier, even if it makes theirs more difficult – all while making far less. So it’s a further way of showing appreciation beyond a thank your or a handshake.’’

**

In October, both Lillard and CJ McCollum paid a surprise visit to the home of a Portland cancer patient. At the time, the Blazers requested the visit be kept private because it wasn’t made for publicity.

But the day after, the patient posted a picture on social media of himself with Lillard and McCollum, and the two players were peppered with questions. Both seemed taken aback at why it was such a big deal.

“I mean, I do stuff like that all the time,’’ Lillard said in October. “But I do it because I want to, not because the team says I should, or because I think it looks good. I understand in this position I can help people, and I try to do that as much as I can.’’

He has stopped at a young boys’ birthday party in West Linn, he has visited people in the hospital and he has donated everything from backpacks to tickets to shoes.

“We have to realize we are in position to make an impact on people’s lives,’’ Lillard said.

One of the bigger impacts has been made with Portland teenager Matty Vachter, who has cerebral palsy.

A partial season ticket holder, Vachter has formed a special bond with the Blazers players, coaches and front office. When he attends games, the team allows him backstage access. Positioned in the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the Moda Center court, Vachter slaps high fives with each player as they head and from the court, with each player knowing his name and some stopping to chat. The coaches went as far as charting how often they won with Matty in attendance after they noticed a spiked in wins when he attended.

Lillard, who is a global ambassador for Special Olympics, spends the most time with Vachter.

“I care to make him feel part of our team,’’ Lillard said. “Every guy shakes his hand on the way to and from the court, and he’s as big a Blazers fans as anyone. He was even at a road playoff game this year.’’

**

When Evan Turner arrived for his first tour of the Blazers’ practice facility after signing a free agent deal this summer, he got a first-hand view of what it meant to play for the Blazers.

It was just past 9 a.m., and in the gym, covered in sweat on a July morning was Lillard. And his workout still had another hour left.

Later, as the team struggled and teetered on falling out of the playoff picture, it was Lillard setting a different example.

In interview after interview, often times with his teammates pausing at their lockers to hear what he had to say, Lillard persisted in keeping a positive outlook. He kept reminding that the struggle would make the reward more meaningful, and he kept urging for personal accountability.

In a day and age when stars want to leave teams for the comfort of success, Lillard continues to relish playing in Portland, embracing the challenges and the fight it takes to build a winner.

Lillard can’t say how close the Blazers are to becoming a championship team. He figures it will take some development from some players, probably some key moves, and likely some time. But he knows the first step of the foundation – the team’s culture – is secure.

“Our culture is great and beyond solid,’’ Lillard said. “From the relationships, to the work ethic, and that is not one bit fabricated.’’

Magic Johnson Award winners
2000-01 Ray Allen, Milwaukee Bucks
2001-02 Elton Brand, L.A. Clippers
2002-03 Jalen Rose, Chicago Bulls
2003-04 Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers
2004-05 Antawn Jamison, Washington Wizards
2005-06 Grant Hill, Orlando Magic
2006-07 Shane Battier, Houston Rockets
2007-08 Derek Fisher, Los Angeles Lakers
2008-09 Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers
2009-10 Chris Bosh, Toronto Raptors
2010-11 Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
2011-12 Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
2012-13 Shane Battier, Miami Heat
2013-14 Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
2014-15 Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls
2015-16 Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors