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NBA@2: Blazers’ Core Coming Together
Posted By Eric Pincus On July 31, 2012 @ 2:00 pm In All,Main Page,NBA | No Comments
It was evident immediately that Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard would take home Summer League MVP in Las Vegas. He was the obvious stand-out.
Ultimately he would share that honor with Memphis Grizzlies guard Josh Selby, but Lillard made a very quick and notable impression while averaging 26.5 points and 5.3 assists.
The Blazers are trying to gracefully rebuild and with Lillard, they believe they’ve already landed their franchise point guard.
“We clearly had a need at the position but we felt like he was the most talented player on the board as well, regardless of position. He’s a leader. He reminds me a lot of Chauncey [Billups],” said newly-hired General Manager Neil Olshey. “He’s got a quiet composure. Guys gravitate to him. Obviously he’s an elite shooter. He makes plays. Guys like playing with him.”
The Blazers selected Lillard with the sixth pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and have high hopes he’ll be the perfect match with All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.
“I think he’s excited about playing with Damian,” said Olshey of Aldridge. “We have probably one of the best pick-and-pop/pick-and-roll guys in the league at the four in LaMarcus and now he’s got a partner with Damian.”
Olshey didn’t have a lot of time on the job before a number of major decisions needed to be made.
“Getting the job June 5th and having four draft picks and having to re-do the roster a little bit, execute some trades and bring some foreign guys over, I would not have been able to do it with the resources I used to [have] but the resources in Portland are unbelievable,” Olshey said.
Olshey’s run as the Los Angeles Clippers’ vice president of basketball operations was relatively brief before he decided to join the Blazers, but in his time in Los Angeles, he helped put together arguably the best team in franchise history.
Now he’s in charge, once again, of a team that fell short of the playoffs.
“I think we have to redefine winning a little bit. Everybody wants to win, but you’ve got to be patient and you’ve got to build something that’s sustainable,” said Olshey.
The Blazers also picked center Meyers Leonard at No. 11, Will Barton at No. 40 and TyShawn Taylor at No. 41 (since traded to the Brooklyn Nets).
While Leonard isn’t as polished as Lillard, at just 20 years old he comes into the NBA with true size.
“I think Meyers is going to get playing time. He’s still a little bit raw but there are things he does that big men need to do. He runs the floor. He protects the rim. He makes free throws. He’s got good hands. He can pass the basketball. You can’t teach 7’1″ and athleticism,” said Olshey. “He’s going to take a little bit of time but we’re going to be patient with him.”
Barton was also impressive in Las Vegas, a potential second-round steal for the Blazers and Olshey.
After the draft, Olshey and the Blazers had to make a big decision at small forward as the Minnesota Timberwolves gave Nicolas Batum a $46.1 million offer sheet. Portland had right of first refusal since Batum was restricted and, in the end, Olshey stayed true to his word and matched.
“We think he can earn the contract that he signed,” said Olshey of Batum. “He took the offer sheet route. That was his prerogative. His agent did a great job, got him an above-market value deal probably; but Nicolas is 23 years old. He’s a building block. He’s part of the foundation. We believe he has a great future and he’s on the same career arc as LaMarcus, Wes Matthews and Damian Lillard.”
“We’ve got 80 percent of our starting lineup ready to go and move forward,” continued Olshey. “If Meyers develops that will be great, and if not we’re a major room team again next year. We’ll be aggressive in free agency again. We’ll continue to build the roster with youth and guys that fit in character-wise, skill-wise and a team that the Portland market will be proud of.”
Early in the summer, Olshey tried to lure Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert to be that fifth starter but Hibbert was a restricted free agent and ultimately out of reach. Instead, the Blazers retained J.J. Hickson and added international rookies Joel Freeland and Victor Claver. Portland also acquired veterans Ronnie Price, Jared Jeffries and Sasha Pavlovic.
Aldridge is still recovering from hip surgery that ended his season early in April.
“He’ll be back on the court probably early August,” said Olshey. “His rehab is going well. He’s a tireless worker. He’s ready to adopt more of a leadership role this year with these young guys.”
Olshey has high expectations for both Aldridge and Lillard, praised Lillard’s leadership in both Las Vegas and Weber State.
“He really takes ownership of the outcome of the game,” said Olshey.
It may take more than a season for the roster to mesh but the Blazers already have an intriguing core.
For a complete look at the Blazers, check out the HOOPSWORLD Portland Trail Blazers Team Salary Page .
Brandon Rush Back to Warriors
It’s been expected for most of the summer but finally the Golden State Warriors and Brandon Rush agreed to terms on a two-year, $8 million deal. Rush will get a player option on the second year, which is an early trend under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Given that Rush was a restricted free agent, the Warriors put it out very early that they intended to keep him. That dissuaded teams from giving Rush an offer sheet.
HOOPSWORLD caught up with Rush recently in Las Vegas and Rush reiterated that he was “looking forward to everyone getting healthy and having a great squad next year,” in Golden State.
Rush spoke to a number of teams throughout the process including the Los Angeles Lakers. While L.A. had definite interest, they just didn’t have the financial means to offer ($3.09 million max) and the Warriors weren’t open to a sign-and-trade.
After coming over from the Indiana Pacers via trade, Rush had a strong year in Golden State averaging 9.8 points per game on 50.1 percent shooting from the field and 45.2 percent from three. Rush is also a strong perimeter defender, an area Coach Mark Jackson has made a priority.
Western Conference Competitive
Nearly a month into free agency, the Western Conference is shaping up to be very competitive this coming year. Each of the top-five teams has either held their ground or improved (San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers).
While the Dallas Mavericks have evolved, they still have Dirk Nowitzki and can boast O.J. Mayo, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and Darren Collison.
If teams stay relatively healthy, that would theoretically leave two spots open for some of the younger, potent teams like the Denver Nuggets, who gave the Lakers a scare in the first round last season, and the Utah Jazz, who fought their way late into the eighth seed.
The Warriors may have their best roster since their memorable playoff run. The key is Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut staying healthy, but Golden State has depth and talent. They should be the biggest threat to climb into the postseason.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are also loading up with the additions of Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy. Neither played in the NBA last year but Kirilenko has been tremendous internationally and Roy has said his knee is vastly improved since his days with the Blazers.
The Blazers will challenge with rookie Damian Lillard but there’s usually a learning curve in that first year, even for the brightest young talents.
It’s difficult to get a read on the post-Steve Nash Phoenix Suns but with players like Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley, the Suns may not just fade away.
A few teams will remain on the outside of the bubble but even they’re improving. The New Orleans Hornets landed Anthony Davis in the draft, although they’re a few years away. The Sacramento Kings have a lot of talent and while it hasn’t come together yet, they’re not a walkover.
The Houston Rockets are a puzzle as they still pursue a major trade either for Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum or another impact player.
On paper, the Western Conference looks like an 11-team race with a few upstarts that could make it 13. While the title may currently reside in the East with the Miami HEAT, the conference itself doesn’t look nearly as deep as the West.
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