How the Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard

How the Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard

NBA Twitter was on fire Friday morning when news broke that Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants out of San Antonio. There isn’t a team in the NBA that wouldn't want to add Leonard to their roster, but trades are always easier said than done. That being said, let’s see how the Portland Trail Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard:

Two things to keep in mind before we lay this out: The Seven Year Rule and the Stepien Rule.

  • The Seven Year Rule states that teams can trade future first-round draft picks up to seven years in advance. Since it is still technically the 2017-2018 season, the Blazers can trade their first-round picks from now through 2024.
  • The Stepien Rule states that teams cannot trade future first-round picks in consecutive years. For example, if the Blazers trade the 2018 first-round pick right now, they cannot trade their 2019 first-round pick.

Now that these two rules are out of the way, let's break down how the Blazers can land Leonard.

Option 1 – Evan Turner + Picks in exchange for Kawhi Leonard.

  • This option is unlikely, but we suggest it because it is the simplest trade financially. Turner makes $17.1 million, while Leonard makes $18.9 million. This works within the NBA’s 125% rule for taxpaying teams. Since the return on talent to San Antonio isn’t high, Portland would likely have to throw in every pick they can – following the Seven Year Rule and the Stepien Rule, Portland tosses in multiple first-round picks to San Antonio. 
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard
  • Spurs get Evan Turner and the Blazers first-round picks in multiple years (maximum four 1st rounders).

Option 2 – Any two-player package of Meyers Leonard/Maurice Harkless/ Al-Farouq Aminu + Picks in exchange for Kawhi Leonard.

  • Financially, any pairing of those three Blazers would work to get Kawhi Leonard. However, for what the Spurs would need talent wise the best package would be Aminu and Harkless. Sending away Kawhi would leave a void at small forward that both Harkless and Aminu could fill. But still, like the Turner trade, the Spurs would need more to sweeten the pot. This is where the picks come into play. This deal may be able to get done by adding two future first-round picks, but if you want to leave zero doubt you might have to add more.
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard
  • Spurs get Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and multiple first-round picks

Option 3 – CJ McCollum + 2019 1st Rounder for Kawhi Leonard and Derrick White (As suggested by ESPN)

  • For the Spurs to realistically part with Leonard they are going to need a substantial amount of talent in return. Enter CJ McCollum. McCollum is the most talented player the Blazers have outside of Damian Lillard and could be an attractive piece for any team on the trade market. However, it is a tough trade to work out financially with the current cap holds and impending free agents each team has. So, in this scenario, the Spurs send Derrick White to make the financials work. The Spurs get a a ball-dominant guard in McCollum to run the offense. The Spurs core could be McCollum, Danny Green (if he picks up his player-option), LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol. That's really not bad considering they are losing Kawhi Leonard. Portland may still have to add picks in this trade, but would probably try to keep the No.24 pick to draft a guard.
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard and Derrick White
  • Spurs get CJ McCollum and the Blazers 2019 first round draft pick.

Isn't summer fun?

Trail Blazers upgrade Maurice Harkless to questionable for Game 2

Trail Blazers upgrade Maurice Harkless to questionable for Game 2

After a Monday workout session in which he dunked and defended, Maurice Harkless is nearing a return to the Trail Blazers.

The Blazers on Monday upgraded Harkless to questionable – meaning a 50/50 chance of playing in Tuesday’s Game 2 against New Orleans. 

With Dr. Don Roberts watching, Harkless on Monday went through his third extensive workout since his March 28 surgery to remove loose bodies from his left knee. After Roberts examined him following the workout, the team upgraded Harkless from out to questionable. 

In February, Harkless regained his spot as the Blazers’ starting small forward and the Blazers’ season took off. With active defense and accurate three-point shooting, Harkless sparked the Blazers to a 13-4 record when he played. He missed three games in March with a left knee sprain, then missed the final nine games of the season to have the same knee cleaned out. 

“He ended up, in my opinion, really changing our season because of what he turned into during that (13 game) winning streak,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He was the X-factor in a lot of those games.’’

Harkless had a private workout with Blazers assistants on the eve of Game 1, then did some resistance band exercises on Sunday before going 1-on-1 with Caleb Swanigan on Monday. 

He began the season as a starter, but lost his job 18 games in and eventually dropped out of the rotation. But a minor injury to Evan Turner in Boston thrust Harkless back into the rotation and he flourished. For the season, he averaged 6.5 points  and 2.7 rebounds, but after the All-Star break he averaged 10.3 points while shooting 59.5 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from three-point range.

A Rip City Rebirth: The stories behind the Blazers' resurrecting careers

A Rip City Rebirth: The stories behind the Blazers' resurrecting careers

When the playoffs begin Saturday in Portland, the games will mean a little more to three Trail Blazers.

After they were doubted, labeled and discarded early in their careers, something happened when Maurice Harkless, Shabazz Napier and Wade Baldwin arrived in Portland.

Their careers were resurrected. 

“Rejuvenated,’’ star Damian Lillard noted of the three players.

All three were former first round picks who had one foot out of the NBA after their teams gave up on them. Baldwin was waived by Memphis after one season. And in separate trades, Orlando sent Napier and Harkless to Portland for next to nothing. 

All three are expected to play a role in the Blazers’ first round series against New Orleans. Harkless, an energetic starting forward, is hopeful to return from knee surgery sometime next week. Napier, a jitterbug guard, has become one of the team’s top scoring reserves. And Baldwin, a barrel-chested guard, late in the season emerged as a defensive weapon that coach Terry Stotts said could be an option in the playoffs. 

While each player’s Rip City rebirth took different paths, and included much of their own work, each ascension spawned from what have become the defining traits of the Blazers’ franchise: astute scouting, nurturing and hands-on coaching, and an inclusive locker room culture. 

And of course, there is timing.

[WATCH: The Blazerlist - '77 Champions]

“What we have tried to do is get guys when we know they are ready for basketball to be the most important thing in their life,’’ said Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations.

Here are their stories, and the background to how Olshey, Stotts and his staff have become one of the NBA’s best player development success stories.

**

When Maurice Harkless flew to Las Vegas in the summer of 2015 he was anxious.

He had just been traded to the Blazers from Orlando, where he was trending toward being a first-round bust, and he was scheduled for a workout in front of the Blazers’ coaches. 

 “I was like … over excited,’’ Harkless remembers. “It was almost nerve-wracking.’’

His emotions were on tilt because he knew he was getting a fresh start. Three seasons into his NBA career, two teams had traded him, and he was coming off a season in Orlando where he sat the bench more than he played. 

“Any time you can get a fresh start, it’s motivating, because it’s like you can create your own destiny at that point,’’ Harkless said.

In the Vegas gym, Harkless was a ball of energy. In fact, he and assistant coach Nate Tibbetts recently chuckled at the memory of how amped he was in the workout.

“I was just bouncing all over the place,’’ Harkless said. “I was … yeah, I was pretty good.’’

To Olshey and the Blazers’ coaches, Harkless’ impressive workout wasn’t a total surprise.

[RELATED: 1st Round Playoffs on NBCS Northwest]

Olshey said he nearly drafted Harkless in 2012 with the 11thoverall pick, but after much deliberation he instead selected center Meyers Leonard. Harkless went to Philadelphia at No. 15, then was later traded to Orlando as part of the massive three-team deal that included Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala.

 “The big takeaway from the first workout was that he had far more potential as a shooter than he had shown,’’ Olshey said. “And he was thrilled to be given a new lease on his basketball life.’’

Harkless has a hard time talking about his time in Orlando, mostly because he doesn’t fully understand what happened. 

“It was a weird situation in Orlando – brand new coach, whole new front office – they were trying to figure things out,’’ Harkless said. “And for some reason in my third season, I couldn’t get on the court, no matter what. We had guys playing, starting games, that aren’t even in the league anymore. Rookies, second-round picks, starting games.’’

In his three seasons in Portland, Harkless has averaged 71 games a season and he has started 120 times. He is widely credited this season with helping turn the Blazers’ season around with his defense and three-point shooting after he recovered from an early season benching. 

[RELATED: Top Storylines of the Season, Part 1]

“The way they run things here, as long as you work hard, eventually your opportunity is going to come,’’ Harkless said.

Harkless’ emergence also underscored one of Olshey’s most consistent traits since becoming the team’s top executive in 2012: scouting. 

“I think the one thing that has to be recognized is Neil has an eye for talent,’’ Stotts said. “There are a lot of players you can take a chance on; you just can’t pick anybody. You have to have an eye for a guy who is worth taking a chance on.’’

And in the summer of 2016, nobody wanted to take a chance on Shabazz Napier. 

Except Olshey.

**

Napier’s once proud resume as a two-time NCAA champion at Connecticut, which garnered him much ballyhooed praise from LeBron James, had been tarnished two years into his NBA career.

His rookie season in Miami, he admits he was headstrong and difficult.

“In Miami, I was very stubborn. Very stubborn,’’ Napier said. “I guess they felt I was entitled to something, but I never felt entitled. I just never felt I got an opportunity. I was being told different things, and I became moody, and they didn’t appreciate it. And looking back, I couldn’t agree with them more.’’

After one season, the Heat traded him to Orlando, where he played sparingly. Then, after acquiring D.J. Augustin, it became clear to Napier he had no future in Orlando.

The former first round pick was traded to Portland for $75,000.

[RELATED: Top Storylines of the Season, Part 2]

When he arrived in Portland, he found a coaching staff different from his previous two stops. They listened to him, and they didn’t judge his past. 

“The staff here understands different stories. It’s not about just one guy. They understand Dame’s story, Pat’s story, Shabazz’s story … and they all want to not comfort, but support and push you,’’ Napier said. 

One of the tenets of Stotts’ coaching philosophy is giving everyone a chance, which requires an open mind.

“I don’t like having preconceived notions of guys coming in,’’ Stotts said. “There are situations that are created and everybody has a history – but you don’t know the whole story. So when I get a player, I don’t even want to call a previous coach … because now you are getting a bias. Whatever it is with a player – their personality, their character – it’s going to come through sooner or later. So why not start out with a clean slate?’’

What they found with Napier was a strong work ethic, a tenacious playing style, and a player who had learned from his past mistakes. 

This season, he emerged as a game-changing reserve whose offense played an instrumental role in keeping the team afloat during a trying early season. 

And to think, two seasons ago, he was worth $75,000 to an NBA team.

“This league is all about having an opportunity,’’ Napier said. “Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.’’

And as Wade Baldwin found out, sometimes it’s how you handle that opportunity.

**

When Memphis raised eyebrows across the league in October by releasing Baldwin, one year after they selected him 17thoverall, Olshey decided to take a chance, with one stipulation: Baldwin would have to prove himself in the G-League.

“There’s a reason why we didn’t just bring Wade right to Portland,’’ Olshey said. “We made him go to the G-League for two months. It was to humble him. And it was an important lesson.’’

In the weeks before he was released by Memphis, coach David Fizdale said Baldwin needed to “be a better teammate” and veteran Mike Conley said Baldwin was “too cocky” as a rookie.

“My attitude might have been misconstrued,’’ Baldwin said.  “That’s all I can really say.’’

Still, the reports were enough to give Olshey pause.

“I wouldn’t have traded for him,’’ Olshey said. “I wouldn’t have given up a second-round pick because I don’t know if that humbles him to the point where he is broken down and you can build him back up.’’

Olshey said the first step in Baldwin’s reclamation was “showing him love.’’

He needed thumb surgery, and the Blazers flew him to New York for the procedure, then guided and monitored him through six weeks of recovery.

After a 17-game stint in the G-League, when he averaged 18.2 points, 4.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals for the Texas Legends, it was time to call him up to Portland.

On his first day, a Jan. 31 game with Chicago, Baldwin said he knew things would be different with the Blazers.

Veteran Evan Turner was one of the first to approach him.

“He invited me over after the game,’’ Baldwin said.

They sat on Turner’s couch and watched television, and shot the breeze. 

The next day, the team flew to Toronto, and when the team landed, Baldwin was asked out to dinner by the team’s two stars, Lillard and CJ McCollum.

And when they returned to Portland, Lillard again invited Baldwin to dinner, this time at Lillard’s home.

“That’s coming from starters, you know, seasoned vets. And I’m coming in as a two-way player from the G-League,’’ Baldwin said with a chuckle. “That’s not really supposed to happen. But it did.’’

Turner, for one, was keyed on the attitude of the second-year player. He figured attitude problems led to his release in Memphis.

“I was actually waiting to see it, to tell you the truth,’’ Turner said of Baldwin’s attitude. “I mean, it had to be something if they cut their lottery pick. But I was a guy who got the bad rap too, so I had sympathy. I know how it can be: The right (jerk) made the wrong decision and said it loud enough.’’

From the rap sessions on the couch, to the dinners on the road and in Portland, Baldwin had become accepted, something he said he never really felt in Memphis.

“The initial feeling I got here … like when I got drafted it was totally different feeling than joining the team here. I was welcomed, invited, and it kind of makes you want to give back,’’ Baldwin said. “What you receive you want to give back. It makes it easy.’’

Baldwin’s comfort became another layer in the Blazers’ storied culture. The players, led by Lillard, are about inclusion, and the coaches are dedicated to development.

“When Wade came here, nobody looked at him like a two-way player,’’ Lillard said. “That first day coaches were pulling him to the side, going over film, and he was being invited to dinners … it’s almost like a family. When players come here, they feel like they are being looked after, and that somebody actually cares about you. And I think you get more out of them when they feel like that.’’

**

As the playoffs start today, perhaps no team is getting more production for so little. Between Harkless, Napier and Baldwin, the Blazers had to give up a grand total of $75,000.

How do they do it?

While Olshey points to the Blazers’ exhaustive scouting, the development skills of the assistant coaches and Stotts’ ability to utilize and maximize that development, another factor is at play.

Maybe more so than any other NBA power structure, the Blazers can relate to the underdog story.

In their own careers, Olshey and the Blazers coaching staff know what it feels like to be a Harkless, Napier or Baldwin. They’ve been doubted, fired, and deemed not good enough for the NBA. 

Olshey admits he has an “underdog mentality” because he went from soap opera actor to player development coach to front office executive. And Stotts notes that every coach on his staff either coached or played in the minor leagues. 

“I think that is very unique,’’ Stotts said. “If you’ve spent time in the minor leagues, there is an appreciation for what you have, what it takes to get there, and what it means to be a guy who has to get better to take root with a team.’’

Added Olshey: “There’s an empathy here. What we have built, and what we take great pride in is we are a team, and we want to be in the gym helping guys get better.’’

It’s one reason why amid the rain clouds and Douglas Firs so many players have found an oasis of opportunity in Portland. Some, like Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum, Mason Plumlee, JJ Hickson, Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland have had career years. And others, like Tim Frazier, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe used the chance to springboard to bigger and better things.

What will be the final verdict of the Blazers’ latest reclamation projects? Neither Harkless, Napier nor Baldwin wanted to say. 

“All I know is I love it here,’’ Napier said. “But I don’t call it resurrection or reclamation, because it’s just starting.’’

Source: Maurice Harkless tracking toward a return next week

Source: Maurice Harkless tracking toward a return next week

The Trail Blazers got encouraging news on Maurice Harkless on Wednesday.

According to a Trail Blazers’ source, Harkless is “tracking toward a three-week timeline” in his return from left knee surgery, placing his possible return in the middle of the Blazers’ first round playoff series against New Orleans.

Harkless, who missed the final nine games of the regular season to clean out his left knee, was evaluated Wednesday before the Blazers’ regular season finale. 

Minutes before the evaluation, Harkless said he was encouraged by the progress his knee was showing since the March 28 surgery. He said he had only done rehabilitation exercises and some light shooting.

“Making progress … I’m just taking it day-by-day now,’’ Harkless said. “I just don’t want to do too much, too fast. If I’m feeling good then we will try to do more, if it doesn’t feel good, then we will go back to the plan.’’

The Blazers will open the playoffs this weekend against New Orleans and will be in New Orleans for Games 3 and 4 in the middle of next week. The schedule will be released after tonight's game against Utah.

According to the source, the Blazers will not rush Harkless back because his game is predicated on athleticism, and they want him to feel comfortable and able to do everything in his repertoire. 

“It literally just has to go on how I feel,’’ Harkless said. “If you ask me if I could play today – no. So, I just have to take it day-by-day.’’

Harkless was one of the catalysts in the Blazers’ mid-season turnaround, especially during their 13-game winning streak. In 12 games after the All-Star break, he averaged 10.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 59.5 percent fro the field and 54.5 percent from three-point range, all while playing stellar defense. 

For the season, he averaged 6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds while shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from three-point range. 

Memorable Trail Blazers season has notable night in New Orleans

Memorable Trail Blazers season has notable night in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS –In a season that is becoming as memorable as it has been notable, the Trail Blazers outdid even themselves on Tuesday.

It was a night of suspense and drama both on and off the court, and by the time the Trail Blazers left New Orleans they had two fewer players, one more victory, and a mood that was somewhere between emboldened confidence and tenuous optimism.

On the court, the Blazers won their seventh straight road game behind another remarkable fourth-quarter outburst from Damian Lillard and some gritty perseverance that is becoming a hallmark for this team.

Off the court, the team was hit with both expected and unexpected news after it entered the locker room following the 107-103 victory over the Pelicans.

First, coach Terry Stotts delivered some unexpected news: starter Maurice Harkless needed surgery on his left knee. Although it is believed to be a minor procedure – an arthroscopy to remove a loose body -- the team won’t know how long Harkless will be sidelined until after Wednesday’s surgery.

Shortly after, the players learned that Lillard had received word from Portland that his girlfriend was nearing birth of their son, ending a more than week-long waiting game. As players dressed, Lillard packed a carry on bag and said goodbyes.

It created one of the more unique departures of the season: a chartered jet with the Blazers aboard leaving for Memphis and a private jet carrying Lillard and Harkless pointed toward Portland.

Both takeoffs mirror the trajectory of what has become one of the NBA’s hottest teams. Portland (46-28) has won 17 of 20 and has all but secured the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference. With eight games left, the Blazers hold a 2.5 game lead over Oklahoma City and 3.5 game lead over San Antonio and New Orleans.

Portland can clinch a playoff spot as early as Wednesday with a win over Memphis (20-54) and a loss by the Clippers at Phoenix.  

All in all, it was a whirlwind of a night, with yet another tense and suspenseful game in which the Blazers didn’t blink almost taking a back seat to the unease of Harkless’ surgery and the elation of Lillard’s impending fatherhood.

The fun started when the team bus rolled into the Smoothie King Center.

“It just so happened that when I hopped off the bus, Coach said ‘You might not know this, but Mo ain’t playing tonight,’’’ Evan Turner said. “And I was like … I would have taken a nap if I knew that.’’

**

Turner and the rest of the Blazers looked like they were sleeping when the game started.

Both CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu missed their first six shots. The team missed nine of its first 10 three-pointers. But even though New Orleans would hold several nine-point leads, it could never distance itself.

It has become one of the more encouraging traits of this Blazers team – the team’s success is not predicated on shots falling.

Behind some solid interior play by Jusuf Nurkic (21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks) and dirty-work duty from Aminu (seven offensive rebounds, three steals, one block) the Blazers were able to hang around, even when Anthony Davis (36 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks) helped push the lead to as many as 11.

“I was really proud of the way we just kept competing,’’ coach Terry Stotts said.

Stotts said his message throughout the game was consistent: Even though the shots aren’t falling, keep playing.

It was a message that took extra meaning at the end of the third quarter. It was then that he and Lillard crossed paths and found they were thinking the same thing:

This game called for Lillard Time.

**

It is unusual, but not rare, that Lillard starts the fourth quarter. Because he plays so many minutes during the game, Stotts tends to rest Lillard for the first three to four minutes of the fourth to have him fresh for crunch time.

But on Tuesday, with the Blazers trailing 75-71, both he and Lillard agreed this was one of those games where the team couldn’t afford to have him sit.

“I was like, man, we have to roll. I don’t want to come out,’’ Lillard said. “I didn’t want the game to change, them to go on a roll. I didn’t want anything to be out of my control and me not be able to have an impact on whatever happens.’’

Stotts said between the third and fourth quarters Lillard asked to stay in the game, but Stotts said he had already made the decision that Lillard would remain in.

“I thought he had a good bounce all game ,’’ Stotts said. “An I made the decision early that I wasn’t going to take him out. Don’t know if he got tired or not, but I thought having him on the floor was really important.’’

Truth be told, Lillard said he was gassed. But he had the sense the game was there for the taking.

“Sometimes when I (ask), he will be like, Dame I gotta get you out,’’ Lillard said. “But he trusted me. We’ve developed a relationship that when I do it – I don’t just say it all the time – I say it when I really feel a way … so we’ve really grown into a trust with that.’’

Immediately, Lillard made an impact.

“Bang, bang, bang,’’ Lillard recalled.

He scored seven quick points to open the fourth and the Blazers suddenly had the lead. It would be the start of a 20-point quarter and the finishing touches on a 41-point game.

“We needed every bit of them,’’ Stotts said.

**

Tonight in Memphis, without Lillard and Harkless, the Blazers will need every bit of their roster, even though the Grizzlies have the NBA’s second worst record. Earlier this week, Memphis won in Minnesota.

“I think a bunch of us are going to have to step up,’’ Turner said. “It means more minutes for Pat (Connaughton) , more minutes for myself … and bench wise even Jake (Layman). … We’ll figure it out.’’

It has been a defining trait of this team. Some how, some way, they figure out a way.

“The biggest thing is we are being battled tested right now, sometimes with backs against the wall you respond in the right way,’’ Turner said. “And that’s huge coming into the playoffs and the last stretch.’’

The team knows Lillard will only miss the Memphis game, and will be back for Friday’s home game against the Clippers. As for Harkless? The players were optimistic their defensive ace and game-changing forward could return soon.

Lillard said his first reaction was to ask the severity of Harkless’ injury.

“Once they told me it would be something light, something quick, I was like ,cool,’’ Lillard said. “We have some time. The next guy has to step up. The fact that it wasn’t serious, I wasn’t too bothered by it.’’

So now the Blazers enter the final stretch, emboldened by their latest road wins over Oklahoma City and New Orleans. They have proven they are a playoff team, and they have proven they can win on the road, and they have proven they can beat elite teams.

What’s left to prove?

“That we can sustain it,’’ Lillard said. “The last two (wins) we’ve shown that we weren’t just feeling ourselves in a winning streak. We’ve been able to create and sustain these habits and this style of play. I think it shows our growth, and that we are a different team.’’

How good are these Blazers? Maybe better than we thought

How good are these Blazers? Maybe better than we thought

During this entertaining span of 13 wins in 15 games, the thought has popped into my head many times: How good is this team?

And at this point, I must admit that it seems to be a lot better than I thought.

How could this happen without adding a player at the trade deadline? How would it be possible? What happened?

All I can think of is what I always come back to with the Portland Trail Blazers. Their coaching staff is very good at developing players.

During the last 15 games, it's very appropriate to say that the usual starting front line -- Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless -- has played the best basketball of its career.

Over the last 15 games, Jusuf Nurkic has averaged 15.1 points per game, 10.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots. His career averages are 10.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 48.1 percent shooting. Harkless has played in 11 of those 15, is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 60 percent from the field, including 58 percent from three-point range. His career numbers are 7.3 points, 47.4 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from distance. Aminu is averaging 2.2 points and 2.1 rebounds per game more than is career numbers.

Of course, Damian Lillard has been other-worldly through much of those 15 games and CJ McCollum has been solid, too. But the improvement of the players up front -- particularly with their shooting -- is a direct product of the hard work of those players and their coaches.

There are no shortcuts to better shooting. You get a ball and go shoot. Thousands of times. Yes, you can tinker with your form a little, but sweat equity is the surest way to get better. And there is no doubt that hard work has led to individual improvement, which has led to team improvement.

You can talk all you want about injuries to players on other teams when the Blazers have played them, but all teams benefit from that during a season. The bottom line is that this has been an eight-team race for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and Portland has responded to that challenge and taken almost total command of that spot to this point.

This team has improved appreciably during the season and now a new challenge is in front of it -- playing a few weeks without Harkless, who has been a critical component at both ends of the floor. But during this streak, the team is undefeated in the five games Evan Turner has stepped into Harkless's starting spot.

And even though this season still seems a bit of a mystery to me due to some bewildering losses to teams that should have been wins, the Trail Blazers have made big strides during this season with the improvement of their frontcourt.

Yes, they are better than we thought.

Lillard heading home, Harkless heading to surgery

Lillard heading home, Harkless heading to surgery

NEW ORLEANS – The Trail Blazers left New Orleans with a huge victory Tuesday night, but as the team flew to Memphis, it did so without two of its key players: Damian Lillard and Maurice Harkless.

Damian Lillard, who scored 20 of his 41 points in the come-from-behind 107-103 victory, boarded a plane for Portland after the game to attend the birth of his first son, Damian Jr.

Harkless, meanwhile, was on the same plane with Lillard to Portland to undergo surgery on his left knee. Harkless will have a “loose body” removed from the knee, after which a timetable will be given.

Harkless, the team’s starting small forward, said he’s heard recovery could be anywhere from 10 days to 4-to-6 weeks.

Lillard’s girlfriend was due on March 19, and the star has been on call for the past week. After his big game Tuesday, he said he came into the locker room to a message: GET HOME.

“Finally,’’ Lillard said.

Harkless, meanwhile, was coming off a sterling performance Sunday in Oklahoma City, when he had 16 points and four blocks. He said he could tell something was wrong with his knee when he awoke on Monday. He said he doesn’t believe it is related to the knee sprain he suffered on March 1 that kept him out of three games.

Lillard and Harkless will miss Wednesday’s game in Memphis against a Grizzlies team (20-54) that has the second worst record in the NBA.

The Blazers' path toward trust started with a Maurice Harkless vent

The Blazers' path toward trust started with a Maurice Harkless vent

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the Trail Blazers season has turned from mediocre to meteoric.

But coaches and players say Portland’s recent 13-game winning streak was not the product of an ah-ha moment when something clicked, nor was it a brilliant strategic move, or that of a lineup suddenly clicking.

Rather, this late season run was the culmination of several subtle factors coming together – some earlier than others – to form what has become one of the more entertaining, team-oriented brands of basketball in the league right now.

Looking back, there are some red-letter dates that stand out.

In Oklahoma City on Jan. 9, Terry Stotts implored the team to start taking more three-pointers.

During the All-Star Break, Jusuf Nurkic vowed to clean up his shots around the basket.

But the earliest seeds of change were planted in November, in the hours before the calendar turned to Thanksgiving Day.

That’s when team-captain Damian Lillard read a just-published story detailing the frustrations of teammate Maurice Harkless following a 20-point loss in Philadelphia earlier that night.

Harkless felt the team’s offense had become stagnant, and was too centered on three players – Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. While those three players took the majority of shots, Harkless said he felt he was just “running track” up and down the court.

“We gotta figure out ways … not only for me, but ways to get other people going,’’ Harkless said that November night in the Philadelphia locker room. “Every game it’s the same thing … we play through three people.’’

By the time the team reached New York later that night, Lillard had finished the article, and had something to say.

In the hotel, he found Harkless.

“I see what you are saying,’’ Lillard remembers telling him. “I hear you.’’

That hotel conversation would initiate the steps in achieving what has become one of the defining traits of this late-season run: trust.

**

For much of the early season, there was something between tension and unease inside the team.

There wasn’t any personal friction – it was and still is a team that enjoys each other - but there were a handful of players who felt under utilized, yet they were unsure of how to address it.

Nobody questioned that Lillard and McCollum were the best offensive players, and they all said the two should take the majority of the shots. And with Nurkic, everybody remembered how he helped carry them into the playoffs, and they could see the size and skill of the 7-foot center.

But somewhere along the way, players like Harkless and Evan Turner felt they were just roaming and drifting to the corners while watching the Lillard and McCollum go to work.

Looking back, Lillard didn’t disagree.

“It had always been that way,’’ Lillard said of he and McCollum being ball dominant.

It created a predictable and often times stagnant offense, which in turn resulted in bouts of 1-on-1 play, or shots that were difficult, and forced. And when the role players did get chances, they often hesitated or passed up shots.

“Not taking an open shot can mess up an offense,’’ McCollum said.

By late November, the lack of movement, both player and ball - was just one facet of things going wrong for the Blazers.

Nurkic was missing point-blank shots at an alarming rate. The volume of three-point attempts, once among the tops in the league, had dramatically dipped. And the team’s assists were at or near the bottom of the league.

The result was a ho-hum 10-8 record against what computed to the easiest schedule in the league, which included losses at home to Brooklyn and at Sacramento.

For Lillard and McCollum, the clunky start added to their already heightened sense of responsibility to carry the team. And when Nurkic’s struggles mounted, Pat Connaughton’s hot start cooled, Al-Farouq Aminu badly sprained his ankle, and Harkless began to drift into anonymity, the star duo took even more upon themselves.

“I think you try to control your destiny,’’ McCollum said. “When we win or lose games, it starts at the top … and a lot of times you feel like it’s on you to win games.’’

Added Stotts: “When things aren’t going well offensively – and at that time we weren’t finishing well, we weren’t shooting well -- so when that happens, guys like Damian and CJ feel like they have to take more responsibility. And that can kind of snowball in one direction or another.’’

After the 20-point blowout loss in Philadelphia, it was clear to Harkless which way the snowball was headed. So he vented.

As Lillard read Harkless’ comments that November night, he paused.

“I automatically looked at (Harkless’ comments) and I looked at myself,’’ Lillard said.

**

When Lillard approached Harkless in the New York hotel, it opened a dialogue.

“That night, Dame came up to me and showed me the article, and was like, ‘Talk to me.’ And we had a conversation about it,’’ Harkless said. “I think it opened his eyes, because there’s a lot on Dame’s shoulders, and because of that, sometimes he doesn’t realize what’s going on around him sometimes, you know?

“He didn’t see the frustration I had, or that ET had … but (Lillard not noticing) was never malicious. He is always trying to do what’s best for the team, and that’s the 100 percent truth,’’ Harkless said. “So I knew when he came to me, it was genuine. And that goes a long way. Because a lot of guys might have gotten an attitude about it. But the way he came to me, he knew I wasn’t really mad at him, I was just frustrated with the way we were playing.’’

Throughout December, Lillard said he and McCollum started watching game film with an added focus.

They looked for examples of where they could have made an extra pass. How they could cut and move to create better space for Nurkic. Or instances where they missed Al-Farouq Aminu or Turner open on the weak side for a corner three.

By January, things started to turn.

On Jan. 1, the Blazers beat Chicago, and Stotts noted that McCollum had his best passing night of the season.

The next night, in Cleveland, the Blazers lost, but the offense was as good as it had been up to that point. The ball was moving, players were cutting hard, and shots were falling.

A team that had been averaging 18 assists a game, had in back-to-back nights recorded 25 assists.

“The Chicago game was where we turned things around offensively,’’ Stotts said. “That was kind of the turning point, and then the month of January continued to be a good offensive month for us.’’

Much was going on during January. The team started taking, and making, more three-pointers after Stotts’ made a quip about the need to shoot more as he boarded a team bus in Oklahoma City. Lillard became healthy after battling hamstring and calf injuries. And Nurkic started to work out his kinks around the rim.

But perhaps the biggest development was a realization by both McCollum and Lillard.

Lillard noticed that the more Aminu was given the ball, the more locked-in he was on defense. The more Harkless touched the ball, the more involved he became in the game. There was a direct correlation to effort and how much a player felt the ball.

“Everybody,’’ McCollum said, “needs to touch the leather to stay engaged.’’

**

Of all the theories and factors used to explain the Blazers’ success, the players unanimously point to one: trust.

The more Lillard and McCollum set up players, and made the extra pass, the more it became contagious among the team. Soon, Harkless’ play started to elevate. So too did Aminu. And Turner. And Zach Collins.

By the time the All-Star break arrived, Lillard and McCollum no longer felt they had to carry the load for the team to win, and as a result, the role players were as engaged and empowered as ever. Eventually, the Blazers became a team in the truest sense.

The latest example was Tuesday’s streak-ending loss to Houston, when Aminu, Nurkic, Harkless and Turner had big nights, which was nearly enough to beat the NBA’s best team, even though Lillard and McCollum struggled offensively.

The guards still play much the same, but they think the game differently.

“In reality, you have to make the plays that are there,’’ McCollum said. “So I think we’ve grown, and guys have stepped up and are more comfortable at doing certain things.’’

It is the culmination of months of film study, and games where players like Aminu, Turner and Harkless have backed up the growing roles the stars have afforded them.

It started on that November night, when Harkless vented his frustration, and opened Lillard’s eyes – and ears. After that night, the team captain began to notice more, hear more.

“I don’t think guys were upset, but it was just like, we could be better if we do some other things sometimes,’’ Lillard said. “That’s what they want … they are NBA players who want to help the team win.’’

And now, it’s all the Blazers helping the team win. One of the telling traits of the Blazers’ late-season run has been the different contributions up and down the roster on different nights.

“When everybody touches it, it keeps the defense honest and it keeps everybody engaged and motivated,’’ Harkless said. “Any competitor is going be to be frustrated running up and down the court. That’s not fun basketball. And the biggest thing about how we are playing lately is it’s been really fun. We are trusting each other, and it shows.’’

Harkless says he has no regrets about making those November comments, except maybe making them publicly before talking to the team first. But Lillard said he is glad Harkless aired them.

“When he said that, I’m sure everybody saw it, but nobody took offense,’’ Lillard said. “Everybody was like, ‘Well, maybe he has a point.’ … The thing is, it made us better. It needed to happen.’’

Harkless 'probable' to return against Warriors, which Lillard thinks is key

Harkless 'probable' to return against Warriors, which Lillard thinks is key

On the eve of the final regular season matchup against Golden State,  Trail Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard was asked if there is a player who he thinks is a catalyst to Portland’s chances to beat the Warriors.

“I could name multiple guys … but I automatically think of Mo (Harkless),’’ Lillard said. “Just the impact he can have guarding pretty much (point guard through center) in that game … I just feel like this is the kind of game where Mo can have his hands all over the game.’’

Right on cue, the previously injured Harkless on Thursday went through practice, albeit in limited fashion, and has been upgraded to probable for Friday’s game against Golden State.

Harkless, who had started nine consecutive games before missing the last three with a left knee strain, was not made available to the media after Thursday’s practice.

It seems likely coach Terry Stotts will re-insert Harkless back into his starting small forward position, considering Harkless was in the lineup when the Blazers’ started their eight-game winning streak with a 123-117 win over the Warriors on Feb. 14.

“He’s had some good games against them,’’ Stotts said. “The way they play and the matchups they have, being able to guard multiple positions is important.’’

The Blazers (39-26) have won 14 of their last 15 at Moda Center, and have beaten the last four opponents with winning records to climb to third place in the West. But nobody inside their Tualatin practice facility on Thursday was viewing Friday’s game as a measuring stick.

“I think we are in a good place regardless (of Friday’s outcome), but I think tomorrow is a great opportunity to make a statement of the team we’ve become,’’ Lillard said.

Added McCollum: “It’s a good test, but where are now and where we will be (17) games from now is totally different,’’ CJ McCollum said. “And I’m sure they will be better when the playoffs start as well. So it’s a good test, but I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all, because teams continue to get better.’’

Golden State is in second in the West, entering Thursday one game behind Houston, and will be playing a back-to-back after taking on the Spurs on Thursday in Oakland. The Blazers are one of four teams within 1.5 of each other.

“At this point in the season, it’s not about a measuring stick,’’ Stotts said. “It’s about getting as many wins as possible.’’

Added McCollum: “It’s just another game, honestly. I think that’s how everyone is approaching it. It’s an important game because of the standings and where we are at in the Western Conference. But you see how good everybody is from 3-10 so every game is important. But don’t think we are looking at it like, ‘We are playing the Warriors.’’’

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.