Dwight Jaynes

Opening night could be a Moda Center circus

Opening night could be a Moda Center circus

TUALATIN – It’s probably going to be the biggest three-ring circus of an opening night that the Trail Blazers have ever staged.

There is just so much going on to make the event unlike any other home opener –- maybe any other regular-season game – in the 49-year history of the team.

Consider:

  • The Trail Blazers are working on a 17-game win streak in their home openers.
  • Portland also has a 15-game win streak against Thursday night’s opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers.
  • This will be the first home opener in three decades that the team will play without Paul Allen as its owner. Allen passed away Monday after losing a battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
  • The game will be telecast nationally via TNT.
  • And oh yes, a fellow by the name of LeBron James will be playing his first regular-season game as a Laker.

James’ appearance has led to the an unprecedented amount of credential requests from national media. The media sections will be packed.

Even with all those special things going on, it’s important to point out that opening night is always something special for players. In any sport, every team is undefeated before the first game. And those teams have an optimism and even a confidence they may not have later in the season. Even the downtrodden teams don’t know how really bad they are until they play a few games.

“First day of school, that’s a good way to put it,” said Damian Lillard. “I remember my first day of first grade, of kindergarten, I was excited to go to school. Put that new outfit on.

“Same thing in the NBA. I think regardless of how many years you’ve done it, there’s nothing like opening night. The energy’s there, everybody’s expecting it to be their year and it’s another opportunity to go at it.”

The Trail Blazers may go into the game at full strength, which did not happen for any of the preseason games. Maurice Harkless, who missed all of the preseason games, says he’s “probable” for the opener – the same listing he had for the final three exhibition games.

Harkless would be a big help against the Lakers for his defense. The Trail Blazers usually match Al-Farouq Aminu against James but having Harkless in the lineup would allow the two to switch on screens, if necessary, and also give Aminu a rest off James.

If Harkless can go.

If not, it’s anyone’s guess who will fill the small forward spot. Jake Layman had a big preseason as the fill-in but has started only two games in his career. This would be a very big stage for him.

Because of TNT, the game is scheduled for a 7:30 start and special tributes to the team’s late owner will take place throughout the game.

The Trail Blazers will wear a patch on their uniforms bearing Allen’s initials, “PGA.”

“I think everybody in the league is ready to open the season,” said Portland Coach Terry Stotts. “It’s time. There’s a lot going on, a lot of anticipation – I think that’s a good thing.”

New "owner" Darwin Barney on MLB to PDX: "I would bet on it"

New "owner" Darwin Barney on MLB to PDX: "I would bet on it"

The Portland Diamond Project has added another notable investor to its group -- former major-league and Oregon State infielder Darwin Barney.

“The timing is real good for me,” Barney, who just spent his first summer in retirement after an eight-year major-league career with the Cubs, Dodgers and Blue Jays.  He was in spring training this year with the Texas Rangers but decided to walk away from the game. “I never envisioned being an owner of a major-league team but I never envisioned being a major-league player, either.

“You never know what your path is going to be, you just know what your passions are going to be. I quit playing to spend more time with my family. This came up just at the right time.”

Barney is very confident that the PDP is going to be successful in its effort to bring MLB to Portland.

“I don’t want to put a number on it,” he said. “We think the chances are really good. I would bet on it. We could be a part of history here.”

Barney starred on two national championship teams at Oregon State after a high school career at Southridge. He won a Gold Glove with the Cubs after tying the major-league record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman.

He joins Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife Ciara as owners of the prospective team.

“We’ve really tried to bring a diverse group together,” Barney said. “With Russell and his wife we bring a lot of different platforms to spread the word."

“I’ve really been impressed with the leadership of this group,” he said. “They have the right people at the top. They get things done.”


 

Neil Olshey frames Blazers' delicate task: Improving offense without hurting defense

Neil Olshey frames Blazers' delicate task: Improving offense without hurting defense

When the Trail Blazers take the floor on opening night in Moda Center Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s going to be a changed team.

And no, I’m not talking about just the change of a few players on the roster.  But that’s a part of it. Certainly the new players are a piece of a bigger plan.

The Trail Blazers are attempting to make a delicate change in a very basic part of the game – the balance between their offense and defense. And at this point it’s very difficult to predict how that change is going to work out.

The team has changed its offensive focus, vowing to shoot more three-point shots and to make more of them – and has backed that up by adding more three-point shooters to the roster.

Of course there’s an inevitability attached to that kind of move --- unless you’re adding high-priced, big-time players, when you add more offense, it very often costs you at the defensive end. And if you add more defense, well… you know the deal. It's a push-pull situation frequently. You add one thing and subtract another.

“Right now, I don’t think we’re as dialed in defensively as we were last season,” said Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations. “We’re trying to integrate new pieces. We’re trying to increase our three-point rate.

“We brought in more offensive-minded players and we’re transitioning from more defensive minded bigs, like Ed (Davis), to more offensive minded bigs, like Meyers (Leonard).”

Davis’ spot in the rotation will be likely be filled by Zach Collins, who, like Davis, can play both power forward and center.

“Zach’s impact is still 80 percent defense and 20 percent offense,” Olshey said. “The fourth big before was Zach, which was a real good partnership with Ed and that was a real good defensive unit. But now I think it’s going to be a totally different look if Meyers plays 5 with that group. His impact will be opening up the floor, range shooting, spacing.”

Especially when used in concert with newly acquired Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas.

“Seth and Nik give us a totally different element with Meyers, the way he shot the ball in preseason,” Olshey said. “We brought in guys who are going to make more of an impact at the offensive end.

“The new look guys make more of an impact with shooting and spacing, which to be honest, is what we needed. We finished eighth in defense (last season) but were down in the middle of the pack offensively at 13th.

“Our challenge was to add personnel who would give us a better chance at the offensive end, but we’re going to have to hold guys accountable at the defensive end.

“We want to be in the top 10 in both.”

The belief is that with the core players together for another season, the defense will be stable and the new players will provide the needed offensive boost.

“Defense, at times, is individual ability but a lot of times it is scheme and communication,” Olshey said. “The hope is that the consistency of bringing guys back for a third year will help us defensively.

“Offensively, we weren’t going to get better by osmosis. We had to get some more offensive players.”

And with mid-level exceptions or minimum salaries, that wasn’t easy. But the biggest immediate problem for the Blazers will be the possibility of not having Maurice Harkless available for early season games.

The analytics are very clear about the value of Harkless, who has missed the preseason schedule with knee and ankle soreness.

With Harklessas a starter last season, Portland went 24-12. The starters' net rating playing alongside him was plus 7.0. Harkless’ net rating after being put back in the starting lineup on Feb. 5 was plus 9.3. And after the all-star break he shot 55 percent from three-point range and 60 percent overall.

“Obviously the fly in the ointment is Moe,” Olshey said. “We are kind of preparing to play regular-season games without our starting small forward, who when we look at the impact he had when he was a starter as opposed to where we were when he wasn’t – that’s a big difference.

“But we’re pleased about the way Jake Layman has kind of seamlessly stepped into that role. He has shot the ball well. And we will have more support from the bench. Seth Curry finished out the preseason with the highest net rating of anybody on the roster.”

The balancing act starts Thursday night.

The gold standard of owners, Paul Allen loved hoops and his Blazers

The gold standard of owners, Paul Allen loved hoops and his Blazers

Nobody knew it at the time, but 30 years ago, the then-owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, Beverly Hills real estate developer Larry Weinberg, was quietly searching for someone to buy the team.

He knew he had the right man when he met Paul Allen, then a relatively unknown former Microsoft founder.

“He was the ideal buyer,” Weinberg said Monday. “A humble guy. And at that time he was driving around in an old car with a basketball in the backseat.”

Weinberg sold the team to Allen, who lost his fight Monday with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But back then, when Allen bought the Trail Blazers, it shocked the city. Who was this man from Seattle, buying an NBA team at the age of 35?

The answer to that question doesn’t come easy, even now. Allen was not a very public person. He didn’t seek the spotlight and at times seemed to dodge it. But there are things we do know:

  • He first defeated Hodgkin’s disease in his 30s and that fight led to his leaving Microsoft and looking to enjoy his life more – which fueled the passion to own a basketball team.
  • There is no question he loved basketball -- and the Trail Blazers. In the early days, when he was perhaps closer to the team than he was in recent years, he was known for inviting Kiki Vandeweghe and Clyde Drexler to his home in Seattle for games of H-O-R-S-E.  The team even practiced at the full-size gym he had in his home. He loved watching video of possible draft choices and often attended practices, summer-league games and road games in addition to sitting in his traditional baseline seat under the basket at the south end of the Moda Center court.
  • He was a giver. He donated billions to worthy causes or to attempt to solve the world’s problems. He contributed to research in regard to brain mapping, climate change, ocean health and pandemic preparedness. He pledged $30 million to help provide a solution to homelessness in Seattle and his overall philanthropic contributions have been estimated at more than $2 billion.
  • He very likely saved the Trail Blazers for the city of Portland and the Seahawks for Seattle. He spearheaded the drive to build Century Link Field and wrote a check to pay for the Rose Quarter and its arena.
  • He was an accomplished guitar player and when I mentioned to him one day that I enjoyed a cut off an album by his group, “Paul Allen and the Underthinkers” that included the great Joe Walsh, his face lit up. He told me how much he enjoyed doing the music and that he’d actually written the song.
  • Lest we forget, he was a key figure at Microsoft, helping to develop the PC and its software.

For my money, he was the gold standard of owners – enough of a fan to care about winning (and spending untold millions to do so) yet not being the interfering kind of owner who wants to grab headlines and make decisions his basketball people are being paid to make.

I believe he’s going to be a tough act to follow. I’ve been told for years that his sister, Jody, wants no part of running a basketball team so I would expect the team to be for sale soon.

But they will never find another Paul Allen.

 

Trail Blazers amassed plenty of assists in preseason -- but turnovers, too

Trail Blazers amassed plenty of assists in preseason -- but turnovers, too

With the preseason out of the way, it’s interesting to look back at the statistics from the games in order to best understand the performances of some of the Trail Blazer players and the overall team. Here are a few nuggets – but please keep in mind, five games are a very small sample size!:

  • Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum each shot exactly 50 percent from the field. Lillard also made 50 percent of his three-point field goals while McCollum hit 38.9 percent.
  • The Trail Blazers made 41.2 percent of their threes as a team over the five games. They shot 46.4 percent overall.
  • They averaged 17.2 turnovers per game.
  • They averaged 25.4 assists per game.
  • Jake Layman shot 51.2 percent from the field, including 50 percent from beyond the three-point arc.
  • Zach Collins shot 56.3 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three.
  • Meyers Leonard shot 78.3 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from three.
  • Nik Stauskas shot 36.1 percent from the field and 40 percent from three.
  • Seth Curry shot 43.9 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three.
  • Al-Farouq Aminu made 46.2 percent of his threes.
  • Since players don’t get a full load of minutes in these games, it’s best to evaluate their scoring averages based on an average per 48 minutes. Based on that:
  • McCollum averaged 32.4, Lillard 27.3, Layman 31.0, Jusuf Nurkic 30.0 and Leonard 29.3.

Best part about the Blazers' last preseason game was that it was the last one

Best part about the Blazers' last preseason game was that it was the last one

The very best part of the Trail Blazers’ final preseason game Friday night was that it was the Trail Blazers’ final preseason game.

“Man, hey --  I am VERY happy that was the last preseason game,” said Portland captain Damian Lillard. “It’s always fun to get back going to camp and get a few games, but I’m definitely ready for the regular season to start.

“The way I see it is that you need to play some preseason games – we haven’t played in so many months you gotta have those games: get out there and run your stuff and play live action against other people.

“You have to go through all that stuff. I know it’s only my seventh year but I’ve played a lot. From day one I played a lot. Not to say it doesn’t mean anything because preseason games carry value. You learn things about yourself, you see how guys fit and learn what works and what doesn’t work.

“But the longer you’re in the league the more you enjoy those 18-minute preseason games. Get in and get out.”

Lillard played 29 and a half minutes Friday in Portland’s 118-115 win over Sacramento in Moda Center. And that was more than enough.

“Tonight I played 30 minutes and I was like, I’m just going to play the simple game, run, play hard, try not to get hit with some screens. It felt like it took forever.”

It felt that way for a lot of us. Blazer Coach Terry Stotts tinkered with some combinations he wanted to see but for the most part, his starting lineup looked as if it was just counting the minutes until opening night.

The Kings stayed close most of the way and had a chance to win until Meyers Leonard took charge in the fourth quarter, getting 13 of his 17 points in the period off 5 for 6 shooting. Evan Turner collected seven points and six assists off the bench, testing his left shoulder for the first time since sitting out the previous two games.

Turner agreed with Lillard about the preseason.

“Hell yeah, bro,” he said when asked if he was happy to have it behind him. “Definitely happy to be done with that. Very happy.

“Shoulder felt great. It was cool. I took off the pad they thought I should wear. I’m just going to tough it out naturally. If it gets hit, it gets hit.

“I was glad to be out there getting the feel of it. You get a couple of more days of practice in and get ready for the real thing.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re ready. There were a lot of things other guys did tonight to show the kind of depth we have. We have nine or 10 guys who can put the ball in the basket and I think that’s a big deal.”

 As he has a habit of doing, Coach Terry Stotts found something positive in the game.

“Good way to end the preseason,” Stotts said. “We got to look at some different combinations of guys. Got Dame and CJ 30 minutes. I liked the way the group that got a chance to finish off the game found a way to win it.

“I was disappointed with our defense but we’ll talk about that later.

“It is what it is. If we had two more we’d play them but I think everybody is ready for the season.”

For sure.

Up close and personal with an old-school player -- "The Chief"

Up close and personal with an old-school player -- "The Chief"

TUALATIN – He hasn’t gotten a lot of attention during his three seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers.

He hasn’t given many interviews and when he’s done them, he hasn’t exactly been full of charm or information.

Al-Farouq Aminu fully admits that.

“I used to give people a lot of one-word answers… and things like that,” he said with a smile in an after-practice interview Thursday.

An interview with "The Chief"? Yes. A long and enlightening one.

“It’s not what I’m comfortable with,” he said. “I’m comfortable playing basketball.. I just always thought the media was supposed to be the enemy. That’s how it was portrayed when I was growing up. But now… everybody’s the media.”

And things change. People change. Aminu has been doing some homework.

“I started watching more interviews,” he said. “Not to get better at them but just because I like them. I think that’s helped me a lot – just seeing a lot of interviews and seeing how people are able to talk.”

And in a long and revealing conversation, Aminu admitted to being a bit of an old-school guy – as you might expect from a player who puts defense first and doesn’t go around trying to draw attention to himself.

For instance, following up on a story I was told, I asked him if is true he doesn’t have a television in his house.

“Oh, I have one,” he said. “But I don’t have cable, though.”

Ouch. That hurt. No cable?

“I grew up with one TV,” he said. “My mom never liked TVs in the home. My mom always thought – and I think, as well – it separates the family. When everybody has a TV in their own room they just stay in their own room. It kind of isolates you.

“We only have one and we don’t keep it on. We don’t usually have a remote. When we watch something, we usually just watch a movie. We watch the movie and then turn (the TV) off.”

But what about when his teammates are sitting around talking about the league’s favorite show, “Game of Thrones”?

“I watch my shows,” he said. “I still have an iPad. I like a lot of shows. Usually, I watch those when I’m on the road. That’s when I have time. When I’m at home, my wife and I like to watch “Game of Thrones” – that’s the one show.

“We used to be super hardcore about it when my daughter was first born but we realized you have to let her watch some TV. It was more we were concerned about the screen time. We didn’t want to hurt her young eyes.”

After Jake Layman scored 28 points  Wednesday night against Phoenix, he credited Aminu with helping him prepare for games. It’s something the versatile forward is proud of.

“When you’re playing off the ball, you have to do a little more preparation, although I shouldn’t say that because I don’t really know what those guys do,” he said.

“When the game starts and you’re open for a shot in the corner, sometimes you pass up that shot because you don’t have rhythm. You have to shoot that shot because you’re open. That’s what’s supposed to happen.

"You have to have that rhythm when you get in the game. Otherwise it might take 10 minutes before you get another chance and the game might pass you by.

“In high school you could blame it on the coach. ‘The coach isn’t getting me in rhythm.’ At this level, you’re a pro and you’re supposed to get yourself ready.”

Aminu puts a lot of work into his shot and has improved from the three-point line. He has tried to evolve with the league.

“Necessity,” he says. “You see certain things become dinosaurs in this league. You have to watch the league – it’s always changing. The big bruisers – there aren’t many of them around anymore. You have to change with the times.

“People want players who can shoot to create spacing for their star players.”

Through the changes, Aminu remains a man who doesn’t seek the spotlight. He knows he’s being compensated for his efforts.

“They pay me well,” he said. “They appreciate me. I don’t need the interviews or the attention. At the end of the day, they pay me well.  If I’m getting all the attention, it wouldn’t make sense. They pay other guys to be the face of this franchise.

“My mom said when I was kid I didn’t need a lot of attention.”

And she was right.

 

Swanigan in the rotation? He sure hopes so

Swanigan in the rotation? He sure hopes so

As the preseason winds down for the Portland Trail Blazers, there are probably a lot of players thinking along the lines of their teammate, Caleb Swanigan.

“It felt good to get out there and play,” he said after getting 10 points, four rebounds and one assist in 16 minutes of Portland’s 116-83 demolition of Phoenix Wednesday night. “And it’s exciting to see what’s going to happen during the season.  We’ve got a big game the first game (against the Lakers), so right away you get tested.

“It’s exciting to see the season start and see where I fit with this team.”

The fit. That’s what it’s about right now.

This is a tough time for a lot of players throughout the league. So many are on the bubble, one way or another. A few are wondering if they won a starting job. Others are hoping to gain a berth in the playing rotation. Many are trying to figure out of they will be in uniform on opening night or sitting behind the bench in a three-piece suit.

Others, of course, are just hoping to win a roster spot.

The Trail Blazers are pretty set on their roster with 15 players under contract, but after that there are almost as many questions as there are players.

“We’re definitely a deep team and we’ve got a lot of guys who do a lot of different things,” Swanigan said. “We present a problem for our coaching staff and the other coaching staffs.

“(The Blazer coaches) have to make a choice about what’s best for our team and hopefully I’m in that rotation.”

Swanigan is a crowd favorite for his hustle and physical play. He played 14 G-League games last season and played in just 27 NBA games. He averaged 2.3 points in those games.

He’s a power forward trying to find playing time amongst Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard, with the possibility of a slew of wings filling that position should the team decide to play smaller lineups. Swanigan is likely going to have to grow accustomed to getting short stints on the court or going a few games in between appearances.

“No matter how much I play, I play my game and it either fits or it doesn’t fit with the guys on the court,” he said. “You can’t force that so I just try to play my game and help the team win.”

And like a lot of his teammates, he’s going to have to face whatever comes his way when the season starts and embrace it.

“I’m real open-minded,” Swanigan said. “I can’t control how much I play but I have to be ready when it’s my time.”

 

For Jake Layman right now, it's all about defense

For Jake Layman right now, it's all about defense

TUALATIN – Jake Layman has a pretty good idea about what’s going to get him on the court for regular minutes this season for the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I’m really happy with the way I’ve been guarding out there,” he said of his camp performance. “I say all the time, the No. 1 thing I need to do to get out on the floor is be able to guard people.”

Layman is a quiet, low-profile guy. In fact, he may be the most unheralded Blazer of them all. He played only 35 games in each of his first two seasons with the team, averaging 4 points per game. But he has averaged 7.3 points through the team’s first three preseason games.

He’s getting a pretty good look from the coaching staff, too, averaging 14.8 minutes per game.

“He’s another guy who has played well,” Coach Terry Stotts said Tuesday after practice. “He had a good summer league, a good September and a good camp. One of the benefits of Mo (Harkless) not playing has been he’s had a chance to play with the starters and it freed up some minutes for some other guys.”

Layman has lacked consistency during his first two seasons. He’s been streaky from three-point range and has made only 23.9 percent of those shots in his career. But he is explosive and can finish at the rim.

So far in preseason games he’s shown obvious improvement but has to bring it to the court regularly.

“My main focus has been to be consistent and work on my defense,” he said. “I think one of the things I need to be more consistent with is attacking the rim, something I’m still working on.”

Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ director of basketball operations, talked during summer league about so many Portland players showing dramatic improvement in their third season with the team, something Layman understands.

“I’m definitely comfortable out there with the starters or whoever it is,” he said. “I think it’s just my game maturing each and every year. I was really ready to go this year and ready to prove something.

“It’s just that progression each year. You’ve seen it here with a bunch of guys, how that third year is when they get comfortable.

“They understand how to play NBA basketball.”

Certainly a big part of getting playing time on any team at any level is having the trust of the coach. Layman feels he’s made strides in that area.

“I think the coach has more confidence in me and that’s all about defense,” Layman said. ”It doesn’t have anything to do with offense, it’s all about defense.”

Layman is versatile and says he’s comfortable defending multiple positions. As far as earning a spot in the regular rotation when the regular season begins?

“I can’t say. I just don’t know,” he said. “I think I’m doing a good job of putting myself in a good position to be there.”

And that’s just about all he can do.

 

 

Harkless will probably play vs. Suns -- unless...

Harkless will probably play vs. Suns -- unless...

TUALATIN – Maurice Harkless practiced Tuesday morning. Coach Terry Stotts said Harkless will probably play Wednesday night in Moda Center when the Phoenix Suns show up for a preseason game.

Of course, Harkless was listed as probable for Sunday’s preseason contest, too. But once where there was a left-knee injury, there is now a left-ankle issue, too.

“We’re just taking it day by day,” Harkless said about the ankle. “That’s pretty much it.  It’s been a long journey to getting back and feeling good.

“It’s feeling good. I like where I’m at. It’s progressing. I feel stronger than I have.”

Asked if his ankle injury could somehow be related to the knee injury, Harkless said, “I would think so.  It just came out of nowhere -- I didn’t sprain my ankle or anything..”

The knee really isn’t the problem now.

“I was thinking I was going to get back on the court and then this popped up,” he said. “I don’t even know what to call it. It was just sore, so we’ve been doing some things that help ease the soreness and it’s been helping..”

Will he play Wednesday?

“We’ll know tomorrow,” he said. “I thought I was going to play the other day and then my ankle started hurting. I’m not gong to get back on the court from one injury with something else hurting.

“It’s just not smart, especially in the preseason.”

And the knee?

“My knee is feeling really good,” he said. “I‘ve been able to practice. The next hurdle is being able to play in a game.”

And don’t think it isn’t difficult to sit on the sidelines, watching the others play. Harkless has yet to see action during the preseason.

“It’s been tough, man,” he said. “It’s been a tough summer. It’s been tough since last April. I want to be out there playing, especially right now. I’m at the point where I’m warming up with the guys out on the court and that’s probably the worst part – going out there for the pregame warmup, going out there for the layup line and knowing you’re not going to play.

“It’s not fun. But it’s a process. I can’t let that stuff get to me. I have to continue to chip away, day by day.”