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Anfernee Simons Is Ready for the Spotlight

The NBA is defined by its superstars, and when you look at a team like the Portland Trailblazers it’s hard to notice anyone other than perennial all-star guard Damian Lillard. Pulling up from 35 feet and hitting clutch shot after clutch shot, “Dame Dolla” is must see TV. And while Lillard has put together a Hall of Fame resumé over the last few years, 22-year-old Anfernee Simons has quietly waited in the wings, internalizing lessons from Lillard’s success . 

A 6’3 guard from Florida, Simons became the first American player since 2005 to get drafted straight from high school when the Blazers snagged him with the 24th pick in 2018. Entering the NBA, Simons was considered a long-term project, the kind of player who could help usher in the next era of Blazers’ basketball rather than contribute to the current one. When asked about his relationship with the then-rookie Anfernee Simons in 2018, Lillard candidly responded: 

“When he gets about 25 I’ll probably be close to on my way outta here. So for me it’s different because I see him as he’s gonna be a star here when I’m on my way out. When that day comes, I want to be like ‘yeah, when he first got here, I was his vet.’”

With Lillard having been sidelined since mid-January with some ominous, vague abdominal injury, Simons has been thrust into a starring role for the first time. In his 23 games as a starter in Lillard’s absence, Simons has averaged 23.6 points and 6.1 assists per game. Even more impressive, he’s somehow become more efficient despite significantly amping up his volume—over this stretch, he’s posting sparkling 58.2 percent true shooting rate and nailing 42 percent of his threes, despite taking a hefty diet of unassisted shots.

When Simons has the ball, it’s almost impossible to ignore the similarities between him and his starrier mentor. Like Lillard, Simons is comfortable hoisting jumpers off the dribble from far behind the three-point line and expertly carves out space to get his shot off in the pick-and-roll. Too, Simons displays a similarly determined, no-nonsense attitude. Just as Lillard is known for taking absolutely no shit on the court, Simons maintains the same steely, even-keeled expression even as he drops 40 on your favorite team. 

Having led Portland to a 12-11 record during his tenure as a starter, Simons is a much-needed bright spot in what’s become a fairly grim season. But rather than simply collecting stats on a bad team, Simons is genuinely creating opportunities for his team that wouldn’t otherwise exist. After a few lackluster years during the expiring daylight of Lillard’s prime, it’s all but inevitable that Trailblazers enter rebuild mode in the near future. When that day comes, they would make a crucial mistake not building around Simons.

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Sports Strength

Is “Dame Time” Over in Portland?

Damian Lillard has always positioned himself as the league’s tragic hero. Whereas his contemporaries teamed up and thirstily chased rings, Lillard self-excluded himself from the championship race, monastically devoting himself to losing playoff series in Portland rather than trying to win them anywhere else. 

And for the most part, this exercise in myth-making has worked—Lillard has parlayed his anachronistic civic loyalty into contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, a signature shoe deal and a spot on the NBA 75 list. Whereas most players are pilloried and ridiculed for not winning, Lillard’s ringlessness has become the foundation of his brand. Oddly, perennial losing doesn’t make Lillard the target of Twitter mockery or Boomerific disdain about Not Wanting It Enough; instead, it’s a perverse badge of honor that offers proof of his fidelity or realness or whatever. If you ask Lillard, there’s beauty in the struggle, meaning in the grind beyond what could be measured by wins and losses. This august unsuccess—the valiant attempts to avoid inevitable defeat, the constant repudiation of how teams win today— has become the defining aspect of Lillard’s public image, a parallel auto-fiction that rewrites losing into virtue. At this point, the ideas of being a winner and the popular conception of Damian Lillard are practically incompatible. 

But if there were ever a time for Lillard to demand a trade to a contender, it would be now: Portland is 11-14 with an overmatched head coach who the fans hate and a power vacuum in their front office. To wit, their defense is the worst in the league, a scheme-agnostic oil spill that’s been equally futile deploying both last year’s conservative approach and this year’s aggressive one. In an attempt to prevent opposing offenses from going nut-nut, the Trail Blazers have surrendered first round draft picks for Robert Covington and Larry Nance Jr during the last two off-seasons, banking that these multi-use forwards could nudge the defense towards coherence. It hasn’t worked! 

Although Portland has had an accommodating defense for years, this is the first time that their offense hasn’t been able to overcome it. Despite three consecutive seasons with a top three offensive rating, the Blazers have backslid to seventh, in large part because Lillard has failed to match his previous incandescence. Although this is horribly unfair and reductive, it’s notable that the Blazer’s team-wide scoring decline (their 108.7 points per game is down  7.4 points from last year) is almost identical to Lillard’s personal underperformance (his 21.5 points per game is down 7.3 points from last year).

At 31 years-old, Lillard is struggling through perhaps the worst year of his career. Even accounting for a recent heater that netted him Western Conference Player of the Week, his true shooting is nearly six percentage points below his career average. The NBA’s anti-grifting reform has hit Lillard especially hard—his 4.5 free throws per game are the lowest since his rookie year and down dramatically from last year’s 7.3. More, new head coach Chauncey Billups has curiously scaled back Lillard’s pick-and-roll usage—last year, he generated 1.07 points per possession on the 12 players per game that he finished as a pick-and-roll ball handler in last season;now, he only produces .88 points per possession on his 8.9 tries per game

With the good vibes of Portland’s appearance in the 2019 Western Conference Finals firmly in the past, though, it’s clear that Lillard is feeling increasingly stuck. He’s hemmed in by his contracting realm of the possible, immuring himself in catacombs of his own creation; the Trail Blazers stink, but he’s too inextricably tied to the franchise and too vehemently anti-super team to leave gracefully. Accordingly he’s agitating for major trades, as if he’s just now realizing that pyrrhic victories are the same as losses. But still, the difference between Portland and the NBA’s elite can’t be bridged by merely swapping CJ McCollum for some guy better than CJ McCollum. If Lillard cares as much about winning as he claims, he would leave Portland. It’s time for him to decide what’s more important: Damian Lillard the Player or Damian Lillard the Persona. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From November 29th-December 5th

As everyone’s focus is to either improve or build upon what happened during the first quarter of this NBA season, the quote “iron sharpens iron” becomes a living reality. Whether it’s conference-leading teams going toe to toe or young stars taking on their idols, the season’s second quarter becomes a proving ground before the All-Star break. Below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action!

The league’s past, present and future are having memorable battles

It’s normal for the league to have its first heavy slate of important matchups when the calendar turns to December, but it doesn’t make it less exciting. Now on a nightly basis, there’s a matchup that pits any cominbation of the league’s past, present, and future stars against each other. Accordingly, on Sunday night, we watched an incredible duel between guards Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell.

Garland, the third-year Cleveland Cavalier who’s having a breakout year, had 31 points and five assists, and Mitchell, the Utah Jazz’s soon-to-be superstar, finished with 35 points and six assists in a 109-108 thrilling Jazz victory. As the game inched closer to its conclusion, both players weren’t shy to score and guard each other in the clutch while already being the two best players on the court.

The NY Knicks are struggling to build upon last season’s success

After being one of the league’s biggest surprise stories last season, the Knicks have struggled to regain that spark as they’re currently 11-12 and sitting outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race due to their ongoing three-game losing streak. And while this season’s Knicks team is more talented, they certainly don’t have the determination and focus that powered last season’s team to a surprise playoff appearance.

“We gotta look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we want the season to be,” Julius Randle said after the team’s 113-99 loss against the Denver Nuggets last Saturday. “I know what I want it to be. I know what the guys want it to be. But we have to commit to it, and that’s just really what it is.”

CanWill Damian Lillard find his swagger before it’s too late?

To say it’s been a crazy handful of months for Lillard is an understatement. In between readjusting to a new head coach, daily rumors surrounding his unhappiness with the Portland Trail Blazers, and him and the team’s constant struggles, Lillard now has one more problem: injuries.

The multi-time All-Star will be out of action for at least ten days due to an abdominal injury, and it couldn’t have happened at the worst time. Despite averaging his lowest points per game average since his third NBA season (2014-’15), Lillard was beginning to regain his previous form, as witnessed by his 39 and 32-point performances against the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings between November 20th-24th.

The Thunder are simply bad and there isn’t much to say about that

While it’s already unfathomable that the Oklahoma City Thunder lost by 73 points last Friday, it’s crazier when you realize they lost by 57 points less than six months ago. And even though the NBA can’t do anything about the Thunder and their rare, historic losses, some say an eye should be kept on their performance moving forward.

In the spirit of competitiveness and further eliminating the thought of tanking, which at one point plagued the mind of sports fans, the Thunder must turn the corner in that department, even if it doesn’t produce a more wins.