Rookie of the Year award could be just the start for Lillard
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The list of inspiring winners includes Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.
When Portland point guard Damian Lillard was named Rookie of the Year on Wednesday -- only the fourth unanimous choice for the award -- he had not yet seen the long list of those who had been recognized before him. He was planning to study the index. It will be an important lesson in his summer of continued growth.
Lillard is going to recognize that the list is scrambled with future Hall of Famers alongside other Rookies of the Year who went on to disappoint or be disappointed, for one reason or another. Tyreke Evans. Emeka Okafor. Mike Miller. Steve Francis. Damon Stoudamire. Larry Johnson. Derrick Coleman. Ralph Sampson. Darrell Griffith. Phil Ford.
Some of them would improve but only so much. Others would never qualify for an All-Star appearance.
Which way will his own career go? Lillard found himself thinking about how much his perspective had changed since the first day of training camp, when he was in no way assuming that he would win the award that would be his in a landslide.
"Some things have started to seem more possible,'' he said by phone from Portland on Wednesday. "I don't look at myself any different. I still have the same confidence. But when you accomplish something like this, everything seems possible. Some things I've thought about, what does it take to do it? How successful I can be, what level player I can be, where I can help my team get to -- it's stuff like that.''
All-Star Games. All-NBA teams. NBA Finals and championships. The Hall of Fame. He's 22 and suddenly all possibilities deserve to be on his long list of eventual and ultimate goals.
Here is a 6-3 player from Oakland, Calif., who had played for three high schools through his junior year in search of a chance to find his way.
"In high school, I was just thinking I need to get a scholarship,'' he told me earlier this season. "How can I be thinking about the NBA if I haven't even gotten it done in high school?''
He spent four years at Weber State, which had never generated a first-round pick before Lillard went sixth to Portland last June. He had not been one of the AAU prodigies. When he started playing for the Blazers in the preseason, he was surprised by how well he was doing.
"I didn't know I was as good of a passer,'' he said. "I can obviously be a lot better passer. But I got so used to scoring in college, I didn't know how well I could pass. I knew I was a point guard, I knew that was my way of approaching the game. But in college, my focus was to score a lot. I forgot about what I was able to do as a passer.''
It was as if he were riding a bike for the first time in years. He went on to start all 82 games while averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists. When he thinks about how often he continued to surprise himself this season, the memories remind Lillard of how much work he still must put in. He is going to have to improve his defense, for starters.
"Defensively in college, I guarded the best player every day,'' he said. "This year, having to guard 60 pick-and-rolls a game, having to chase guys off pick-and-rolls, having to get through pindown screens, having to do all of those things -- I didn't think it would be that tough. But it was really tough.
"I was more tired mentally than physically. A lot of stuff goes on that you don't know about. Appearances, photo shoots, the interviews, a lot of media stuff and then playing and travel and practice in addition to doing all of those other things. You don't see that until you start doing it.''
Allen Iverson used to be his favorite player.
"I didn't really model myself after anybody,'' Lillard said. "But he was a small guy and he put the ball in the hole. For a guy as small as him to be able to lead a team to the Finals, to put forth as much as did for the game -- we all loved A.I., from the crossover to the way he wanted to win.''
Iverson was a Rookie of the Year, I said.
"I'm aware of it,'' Lillard answered.
The recognition that was conferred on Lillard was not an end in itself. There was no parade. It came with no guarantee of a max contract. It was not so much a conclusion as it was another beginning, the opening of another door.
He could think back on his short life to all of the other doorways through which he had run, feinting and dribbling, on his way to Portland. The different high schools. The magazine subscriptions he used to sell to raise money for AAU trips. His recovery from the broken foot that cut short his junior year of college. Being drafted by Portland, and keeping the Blazers in playoff contention for much of the season. With each step forth, his view of the future improved even as it grew more challenging.
"I kind of have an idea,'' he said of his regimen for the summer. "But I haven't put it together yet. It will be a lot of watching film, trying to figure out what I did, what was the best opportunity, what didn't I take advantage of, different solutions in the paint, floaters and stuff like that. In a couple weeks, I'll start with some shooting and work my way back into it from there.''
It's an exciting time, and not so much because of what he has done. It is more because of what he might yet do. Is he going to keep surprising himself? Or is he going to be disappointed? The only conclusion to be drawn from the list of others who have been in Lillard's shoes is that the future belongs to him. It isn't that Bird and Jordan and Kidd and Duncan and James had gone on to accomplish so much. The point is that they had all been standing at one time or another where Lillard stood Wednesday, posing with this award and wondering what it might lead to someday.
Two playoff series done, six more weeks to go ...
• Knicks lead Celtics 3-2. Does Carmelo Anthony regret allowing his team to show up to Game 5 dressed in black? Kenyon Martin's idea of having every Knicks player wear black to preside over the Celtics' imminent funeral was not exactly an original gimmick in pro sports, but Anthony should have known better.
If the Knicks go on to become the first NBA team to lose a series after leading 3-0, the responsibility of that disaster will fall entirely on Anthony. Martin can say anything he wants because he has nothing to lose. Anthony has everything to lose. He has been competing against three champions -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry -- who have achieved the ultimate goal that Anthony may never realize. He is never going to realize it as long as his team is defined by the likes of Martin and J.R. Smith. The Knicks must be defined by and led by Anthony. They must forget about taking down the Celtics and focus on themselves and their own doubts, which bubbled up throughout Game 5.
It isn't too late for Anthony to seize command of his team and this series. But the Knicks' display Wednesday made their season unnecessarily difficult -- and potentially short-lived.
• Bulls lead Nets 3-2. Is the pressure on Derrick Rose going to ultimately undermine his relationship with the Bulls and the city of Chicago? That has to be the question now, and it's more important than the outcome of this series.
Neither of these teams is going to survive the next round against Miami. The real issue is whether Rose and the Bulls will move beyond this season working together in a constructive way. Do the Bulls believe he should be playing after being cleared weeks ago? Is Rose going to feel as if he has been hung out to dry by persistent questions about why he isn't playing? No one could have anticipated this sense of angst developing between an organization and a player that clearly embrace the same set of idealistic, team-minded values. Will their shared values enable all of this to evaporate by next season without a trace?
• Pacers lead Hawks 3-2. The Pacers have been an unimpressive disappointment. They may yet be able to reach the conference finals against Miami, but their failure to play well in either of their losses in Atlanta is a troubling sign.
• Heat beat Bucks 4-0. The only concern here is Dwyane Wade's bone-bruised knee -- worrisome news for Miami, and a point of hope for its rivals.
• Thunder lead Rockets 3-2. The Thunder have reason to remain confident despite losing back-to-back games since taking a 3-0 lead. Because of their leadership, it remains almost impossible to believe that they will lose four straight. Kevin Durant is not going to let it happen.
• Spurs beat Lakers 4-0. The Spurs drew the best bracket in the tournament. An easy sweep of Los Angeles left Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan with extra days to rest and recover. They should be able to dictate the terms in the next round against either the Warriors or Nuggets, and then it's on to a conference final against either the Thunder without Russell Westbrook, the perimeter-challenged Grizzlies, the struggling Clippers or the young Rockets.
The sweep didn't put the Lakers out of their misery. What follows for them is a long summer of rehab for Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, questions of amnesty for Pau Gasol and, of course, the free-agent recruitment of Dwight Howard, who should not be moving anywhere -- but just might move anyway.
• Grizzlies lead Clippers 3-2. Blake Griffin's career has been defined by his athleticism and his injuries. He missed his rookie season, he was injured during the playoffs last year and had to sit out the Olympics last summer, and now comes the high ankle sprain that has severely weakened the Clippers' hopes of surviving this opening round against the highly credible and experienced Grizzlies. Who will step forward to help Chris Paul? He left New Orleans in search of more support, but now it looks as if it's him against the world all over again.
• Warriors lead Nuggets 3-2. Did Warriors coach Mark Jackson's accusations of dirty play take pressure off Stephen Curry by forcing the referees to protect him? Or did the pressures on Curry and his teammates suddenly increase? It was a high-risk tactic by Jackson. We'll know how it turned out soon enough.
An NBA advance scout provides his thoughts on the Western Conference playoffs:
• Can Oklahoma City survive the loss of Russell Westbrook? "Losing him has affected their offensive rhythm, obviously," the scout said. "Scott Brooks looks like he's changing how they play. He's putting the ball in Kevin Durant's hands, which is a smart thing, because he's their best player. But Durant's best thing is not dribbling the ball up the floor against pressure; his best thing is not looking for the open guy. If I were a coach in that position, I would go with Reggie Jackson a little bit more at the point and see what it can get us, because I don't think they can go very far with Durant having to do everything like he is right now.
"It puts Durant in a bad matchup defensively because he gets some cross matches, and it gets him in a different mindset. There's always pressure on him to be the scorer, but now he has to think differently as he approaches the game. And I think there's a big weight on his shoulders.
• Is Memphis a contender to reach the NBA Finals? "It's going to be all about matchups," the scout said. "Teams that spread the floor with more offensive guys like Golden State and Denver are going to cause the Grizzlies a lot more problems. The Grizzlies could live with Blake Griffin taking Zach Randolph out on the floor in this series against the Clippers because you'd rather see Blake shooting jumpers than working inside. Right now, it's a good matchup for Memphis."
• Will the Nuggets come back to beat the Warriors? "I think they will," the scout said. "The Warriors have been playing a lot better than I thought they would. But the Nuggets can win if they continue to play good, physical defense. They're definitely in Golden State's head right now -- the head of the coach, the head of the player [Stephen Curry], whoever. Usually what happens in those situations is that the team then makes dumb plays trying to show they're tough guys. A team like the Warriors isn't used to playing that way. Draymond Green is physical, and Festus Ezeli is a big, strong guy. But as far as their other guys being tough guys, there is no Mark Jackson out there playing for Golden State. If the Warriors let it get to a Game 7, I don't think that Steph Curry can take over."
"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.''
-- Jason Collins
The overwhelming support for Collins accomplished two things. It showed other gay NBA players that the environment might have changed just enough to enable them to be honest about who they are. It also demonstrated to NBA players who may not be comfortable sharing the locker room with Collins that they might be better off keeping their opinions to themselves. Religious beliefs are fine, and everyone is entitled to them, but live and let live appears to be the prevailing response to Collins' revelation.
I believe Collins will be back in the league next season, and it won't have so much to do with his sexual orientation. It will be because Boston coach Doc Rivers and others who know Collins have been defining him as a highly valuable teammate whose honesty and readiness to play make him an ideal role player off the bench. When rival executives read Rivers' praise of Collins, they have to be thinking that this is the kind of player they wish they could introduce to their locker room. The irony is both unintended and constructive.
This is an honor of the latest and greatest potential casualty of this ravaged postseason. Griffin has yet to miss a game, but his high ankle sprain could not have been more poorly timed for the Clippers. Consider this roster of big-timers who have been unavailable or severely limited for the playoffs -- with as much as six weeks still to go.
F Boris Diaw, Spurs (back)
F Danilo Gallinari, Nuggets (knee)
G Dwyane Wade, Miami (knee)
G Derrick Rose, Bulls (knee)
G Rajon Rondo, Celtics (knee)
G Steve Nash, Lakers (hamstring)
G Lou Williams, Hawks (knee)