Dwight Jaynes

Blazers get no respect on Christmas Day -- or any other day, it seems

Blazers get no respect on Christmas Day -- or any other day, it seems

The NBA Christmas Day schedule has been leaked and you’ve probably noticed by now that the Trail Blazers aren’t on it.

But did you notice, too, that the league included ALL of the teams on Christmas that played in last season’s conference semi-finals… except Portland? But that had to be because the league couldn't resist putting its newest anointed star, Zion Williamson, on the tube that day,

Of course, that doesn’t really matter much. Who cares? Well, I’m sure Blazer fans do.

If the Trail Blazers aren’t on the docket for a game on the league’s showcase day, the league and the networks obviously don’t value the team much, right?

But aren't you used to that by now?

Certainly, the prevailing opinion of the Trail Blazers hasn’t changed much over the years.

Under-valued. Under-appreciated.

Last season, Portland had a Christmas game vs. Utah and it was the franchise’s first on that day since 2010.

But when you think about it, preseason predictions and projections have sold the team short for many years. Last season, Las Vegas consensus was that Portland would win 41.5 games. It won 53 – in spite of a couple of late-season injuries to key players and earned the West's third seed for the second straight season. This year, the website FiveThirtyEight.com sees the Blazers with 40 wins in 2019-20 and just a 33 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Like it or not, they are perpetual underdogs.

Neil Olshey: Trail Blazers upgrade personnel, but philosophy remains the same

Neil Olshey: Trail Blazers upgrade personnel, but philosophy remains the same

(The first of a multi-part series providing an inside look at the many moves the Trail Blazers have made this summer)

For the past few seasons, one of the strengths of the Trail Blazers has been their continuity. The team may have frustrated its fans at times by not making many major moves during the off-season but familiarity and continuity combined with player development to produce a playoff berth each season, two No. 3 seeds and a trip to the Western Conference finals.


But this summer, the team has made several key changes, including the addition of shot-blocking center Hassan Whiteside and future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol. And at the same time, two youngsters – Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons – are going to be counted on to provide key support for the team’s veteran players. And as far as continuity is concerned, a piece of that has been ensured for at least the next five years with contract extensions signed this summer by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.


And there is not a lot of concern for fitting the new pieces into the team’s culture and on-court style of play.


“They were all brought in for a specific purpose and a specific skill set,” said Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations. “They will all have a defined role.


“I think when you have trouble acclimating as a player or working somebody into the rotation is when you aren’t really sure, which is why we are always reluctant to do deals at the trade deadline, unless they are significant upgrades. Players are better when they’re comfortable with their role, they know their expectations and you’re not figuring out on the fly.”


For more from Olshey, as he details some of the roles and responsibilities of this year’s players, see the accompanying video.

BREAKING NEWS: Zach Collins sustains ankle injury

BREAKING NEWS: Zach Collins sustains ankle injury

Portland Trail Blazer center-forward Zach Collins is recovering at his home in Las Vegas after sustaining a grade 2 sprain in his right ankle during a workout. Collins suffered the sprain and a torn ligament during a workout a couple of weeks ago, as confirmed by the Trail Blazers Wednesday.


The injury did not require surgery.


He has been on crutches and in a walking boot but is expected to be ready to play by the opening of the team’s training camp. He is scheduled to return to Portland next week.

Pau Gasol: just about as close as you can get to perfect for this team at this time

Pau Gasol: just about as close as you can get to perfect for this team at this time

I wouldn’t say Pau Gasol is a perfect fit for the Trail Blazers. But he’s just about as close as you can get to perfect for this team at this time.

This is a player destined for the Hall of Fame. A player who can play power forward and center. A player who is known for his intelligence, on and off the court. A man with 136 playoff games under his belt. A winner. A champion.

I can’t think of a better player to add to a team that has aspirations of going all the way this season. And yes, he’s 39 years old and sat out a good part of last season with a stress fracture in his left foot.

But this man is going to be a help to the young Trail Blazer players, whether he plays nor not. But healthy, he can still contribute in limited minutes because of his knowledge of the game, passing skills and experience in big games.

Gasol played only 30 games last season due to surgery on his stress fracture, but in the five previous seasons, the fewest games he played was 64.

It is presumed he will fill in as a backup center behind Hassan Whiteside and a backup power forward behind Zach Collins. In his 19th season in the league, he will probably require rest days and management of his minutes.

But this is Pau Gasol. And getting him to come to Portland is a statement:

This franchise, this season, means business. And a player with serious winning credentials is willing to buy in.

An exclusive with Meyers Leonard: Farewell, Portland

An exclusive with Meyers Leonard: Farewell, Portland

Right from the start of his time in Portland, Meyers Leonard was misunderstood in Portland.

“A seven-footer out there at the three-point line launching bombs?"

“Why isn’t he inside at the post?"

“Why isn’t he in the paint where he belongs?"

Leonard was ahead of his time, of course. Big guys are shooting threes routinely these days and traditional low-post centers are not as common as they used to be. The NBA is all about threes, nowdays, like it or not.

Leonard’s playing time went up and down through his time as a Trail Blazer, even in his seventh and best season in a Portland uniform. The backup center shot 54.5 percent from the floor last year, 45 percent from three-point range and 84.3 percent from the free-throw line but still played in only 61 games and averaged just 14.4 minutes per game. Even in the playoffs, when he would show his value as a scorer, he did not play in five of the team’s 16 postseason games.

Throughout that final season as a Trail Blazer, though, Leonard seemed to finally win over the fans. They noticed his athletic ability, dunking skills and confidence in clutch situations. And they probably also took note of his sideline demeanor – even when he wasn’t playing, he was the first man off the bench to congratulate teammates and cheer good plays.

When he exploded in the final game of the conference finals against Golden State, it was a vindication of sorts for those who believed all along he deserved playing time on a team that so often struggled to find floor spacing and outside shooting. Those people who never understood how he could have been playing behind the likes of Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland.

Leonard played 40 minutes and 17 seconds in his finale in a Portland uniform. He made 12 of his 16 shots from the floor while missing just three of his eight three-point attempts. He had 25 points by halftime and 30 for the game, while grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing three assists with just two turnovers.

More than that, he gave the team what it had been lacking the entire series – somebody with the gravity to keep the floor spread for his guards to operate.

That game proved to be a fond farewell for a player the Portland fans were slow to take into their hearts. The fans chanted his name, cheered his every move and he just continued to do what he’d always done – shoot threes and play as hard as anyone on the court.

“The Hammer” as he was called, nailed it in his final game. And it was obvious how much that meant to him – not only how well he played but how he was embraced by the Trail Blazer fans.

But listen to him talk about it in the accompanying video feature as he reflects on growing up in Portland. See the emotion on his face and hear it in his voice – and understand how much this team and this city meant to Meyers Leonard.

Rockets get Westbrook -- Did they watch him play in the Blazer playoff series?

Rockets get Westbrook -- Did they watch him play in the Blazer playoff series?

So the Houston Rockets wanted Russell Westbrook so bad they gave up Chris Paul, two first-round picks and two first-round swaps Thursday?

To get a point guard who seems very close to being an impossible partner for James Harden.

And I really think somebody should ask the question in Houston – did you guys watch any other playoff series but your own last spring?

The Westbrook we saw in the Portland-Oklahoma City, first-round series was one who was far below the public perception of what Westbrook is supposed to be. He’s a guy who thinks he can make all the big shots late in games and doesn’t understand that the reason the Trail Blazers were sagging about eight feet off him is that they WANTED him to shoot.

Don't fall for all that triple-double hype -- this guy is more relentless about that stat than he is about winning. He's prickly with not just the media but most people he comes in contact with, doesn't know how to gear his game down when the situation calls for it and, oh yeah -- he can't shoot.

I think this deal also sets up a situation with the starting Houston guards – Westbrook and Harden – fighting over the ball and ending up resenting each other. The only way I see this working is if Westbrook defers to Harden – because Harden isn’t going to defer to Westbrook. Nor should he.

And I don’t think Westbrook will defer to ANYBODY.

I can’t wait to see this in action. And to watch some Harden eyerolls after Westbrook clanks a few jumpers off the rim in the fourth quarter. And how crazy Westbrook is going to get while Harden is pounding the ball at the top of the circle waiting to beat somebody off the dribble.

Mike D'Antoni is going to need the touch of Houdini to make this work.

And that leaves the final question – Will the Thunder buy out Paul’s contract, freeing him to move to one of the superteams? I can’t imagine him being happy in OKC for more than a minute.

But of course, I can’t imagine anyone being happy in OKC.

Anfernee Simons gets 35 points and an injured ankle in summer-league loss

Anfernee Simons gets 35 points and an injured ankle in summer-league loss

LAS VEGAS – Everything was going very well for Anfernee Simons Tuesday night in Cox Pavilion. He was leading the Portland Trail Blazers in scoring with 35 points in 25 minutes, hitting six of his seven shots, and had the ball in his hands with a couple of seconds to go and his team trailing Utah by a basket. He was in position to tie the game.

But instead, he ended up in a prone position, under the Portland basket after slipping on the way to the rim on an attempt to hit a game-tying dunk or layup.

And with Simons flat on the floor, surrounded by coaches, players and trainers, that was a lot more important than the final score. The second-year guard suffered an ankle injury but was headed for further examination and unavailable for comment.

The injury was not believed serious but there was nothing official at the time of this writing.

The Trail Blazers lost the game 97-93, but Simons was the story – as he’s supposed to be. He’s being counted on to be a rotation player for Portland this season after seeing little action last year. He showed off a lot of his arsenal against the Jazz, hitting six of his seven three-point shots, 13-18 overall, and scoring on drives, a dunk off a lob and assorted other attempts.

“I thought he played really well,” summer league coach Jim Moran said. “I took him out in the first quarter and I probably should have let him go the whole quarter. I still want him to be more assertive and more vocal. Running the team, he needs to be more communicative. But overall, I think he had a really good game.”

Gary Trent Jr., coming off a game when he made seven of his eight three-point goals, saw things even out a bit, hitting 4-15 overall and 2-7 from three for 12 points.

The Blazers’ first-round pick, Nassir Little, made two of seven shots, 0-4 from three-point range and scored four points, with his college coach, Roy Williams looking on from a seat near the Portland bench.

“He’s the most explosive player I’ve ever coached,” Williams said during a halftime interview.

 

When Gary Trent Jr. hits a couple in a row, "It's all over." And it was

When Gary Trent Jr. hits a couple in a row, "It's all over." And it was

LAS VEGAS – Anfernee Simons, who has spent untold hours alongside Gary Trent Jr. in gymnasiums getting up hundreds and hundreds of shots, knows what happens when Trent gets in a groove.

“When Gary hits a couple in a row, it’s over,” Simons said with a smile.

And it was over early Sunday night and Trent hit more than two in a row.

Trent hit all six of his three-point shots in the first half, made 10 of his 12 shots from the field in Cox Pavilion and seven of his eight three-point shots during Portland’s 97-87 win over the Houston Rockets in Summer League play. When the smoke cleared, the second-year guard had scored 31 points in 25:02, along with six rebounds, five assists, two steals and just one turnover in a spectacular performance.

“We just tried to get him the ball and let him go,” said Simons, who had a solid shooting night himself, hitting 6-11 and 4-6 from long distance.

Trent is refreshingly honest about where he is and where he wants to be.

When told what Simons said, Trent offered, “I would like to think that. Me and him work countless hours in the gym with the coaches, just working on our jumpers day in and day out. When it’s time to showcase it and prove it, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Trent spent time in the G-League last season and it was about the only extended playing time he got during his rookie season. With the depth the Blazers had at guard, he was at the back of the line. And when you’re behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum it’s like going to graduate school for basketball. You better get your homework done.

“I’m not going to lie at all, it was tough,” Trent said. “First time in my life not playing at all, for a while. It was great people and fun to me, that I was learning from them, watching them day in and day out, everything they do – how they work, how they stay after, how they eat. I watched every single thing they do. It makes you work even harder, it makes you more hungry. So, I’m just going to continue to work.”

Both Trent and Simons have continually been asked what they’re working on in summer league and both give just about the same answer.

“I’m working on everything,” Trent said. “I’m not a finished product. I’m nowhere near where I want to be, so I’ve got to continue to work on my all-around game – my dribbling, my shooting, my mindset to the game, my playmaking. Everything.”

Trent and Simons did not play well in the team’s 20-point loss Saturday and the two combined to go 8-26 from the floor. Summer League Coach Jim Moran said he went over a tape of the game with the pair and challenged them to take more leadership.

And it worked.

“We had to pick it up,” Trent said. “Coach Jim Moran said that as well. Pick it up at the offensive end and the defensive end, if we want to win. And that’s what we did tonight.

“I think we bounced back pretty well.”

The team gets Monday off before getting back in action Tuesday.

Trail Blazer summer league team struggles in opener vs. Detroit

Trail Blazer summer league team struggles in opener vs. Detroit

LAS VEGAS – The defending-champion Trail Blazers’ summer league team got off to a rocky start Saturday afternoon in the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Blazers were outscored 25-16 in the fourth quarter and dropped a 93-73 decision to the Detroit Pistons.

Portland made just 24 of 70 shots from the floor, including a 5-for-20 effort from three-point range. Meanwhile the Pistons went 15-41 from three.

“It was tough,” said Portland assistant coach Jim Moran, who is in charge of the summer leaguers. “Very tough. I was a little disappointed. We had a really good week of practice and then that game did not resemble what we did. It was frustrating.

“They were hitting threes early but they weren’t contested threes. We dug ourselves a hole early and then had to give up so much energy to get back in the game. I thought ‘Ant” (Anfernee Simons) was good in the first half. We were a little sloppy. We had some possessions when we really guarded, which was encouraging. I think for Ant and Gary (Trent Jr.) being veteran guys, they’re going to have to be more vocal. And it’s hard – they’re second-year guys. They have to learn that and grow into it."

Simons scored 15 to lead the Blazers, but had only one assist and three rebounds. Trent scored 10 on 3-12 shooting and Devin Robinson added 14 points and 10 rebounds.

The Blazers are back in action Sunday at 7 p.m. in Cox Pavilion vs. Houston.

“I’m expecting us to be much better,’ Moran said, “I’m expecting us to guard, not give up open threes, keep the ball out of the middle. There were some positive things and hopefully we’ll bounce back tomorrow.”

Lillard, already an icon in Portland, didn't "pretend" his way to supermax

Lillard, already an icon in Portland, didn't "pretend" his way to supermax

LAS VEGAS – The Trail Blazers spent some of Saturday making things official, tying up loose ends and taking care of business, as they say, now that the free-agent moratorium is over.

The supermax contract extension for Damian Lillard was announced. Rodney Hood’s re-signing was announced. Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver signed their deals. Draft pick Nassir Little signed his contract. And the trade that brought Hassan Whiteside to Portland was officially announced.

What’s the record for most press releases sent out in the span of three hours?

Lillard was on hand for a media availability that announced his deal, a four-year extension that kicks in after two more seasons and is expected to pay him in the neighborhood of $196 million. Lillard earned that contract on the court, but he backs it up off the court.

“I’ve been in the league a long time,” said Portland Coach Terry Stotts. “It’s a players’ league and the best teams are a reflection of their best player. If you’re fortunate enough to have a great leader as your best player, it just makes everything that much better for the coaches, the players, the franchise, the city – whatever – Dame has embodied that.”

He’s become an icon in Portland, an honest face of a franchise that is trying to do things right on the court and off. Lillard is beloved in Portland and recognized wherever he goes in the city. And it’s fine by him. He understands and accepts that role.

“It doesn’t bother me because I am who I say I am,” Lillard said. “I didn’t pretend my way to my first extension and I didn’t pretend my way to this one. If I was pretending, then if I was doing anything out of the ordinary, I would be like, ‘Damn, people are going to notice.’ If they see me in public, I am who I say I am. So, it’s not an issue at all.”

His leadership is said to be among the best in basketball and he has become the guardian of the team’s well-regarded culture. And so when the Blazers swung a deal for Whiteside, whose reputation as a tough player for coaches to deal with is well known, Lillard didn’t bat an eye.

“Anytime you do something outside something that you typically do, it’s going to be a challenge,” Lillard said “I’ve played with Robin Lopez, Nurk, JJ Hickson and guys like that who just kind of are more on the laid-back side … they aren’t going to say a whole lot, just do what they do. Hassan is outspoken, people have said things like that about him, that he’s given them a hard time, things like that. But I think once you come to an environment where it’s just not like that, you look around and say, ‘Nobody else is causing problems. Everybody else is working hard.' It makes it more uncomfortable to be the one guy doing it. People have said those things but I think he’ll come to a place like this and those things can change.

“Maybe he comes here and realizes it’s a better situation for him. He may behave. I don’t see it being an issue, because I’ve known him for a while and we’ve known each other for a while. I’ve already had a conversation with him. When you’re mad when the game’s not going your way, if somebody did something, if the coach said something to you, we have to talk. We’ve pretty much had that conversation already.”

Hood also had a media availability after signing with Portland for the taxpayer mid-level exception. Hood likes the city, his teammates and the situation with the Trail Blazers and said he could have gotten more money from another team, but knew he’d be happy in Portland.

"I think I'm making pretty good money,"  he said. "Not Dame money, but good money. I'm happy."

He was a valuable player off the bench for the team last season but the starting forward spots are wide open this season, with the departure of Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. Does he expect his role to be different this season?

“I don’t personally know,” he said. “It may be bigger and it may be the same. I don’t expect any decrease. I haven’t talked to the coach about.it yet. Probably be a little bit more, but whether I start or come off the bench, I don’t know.”