Richard Jefferson Entertains And Laughs With Fans During Refereeing Debut

Even as the dog days of summer settle in, there’s always a random spark that changes the monotony. As the NBA Summer League is five days away from concluding and having peaked in its on-court action and courtside cameos, Richard Jefferson’s sudden appearance as a referee was the talk of social media conversation Monday night.

After several sessions to prepare for his refereeing debut, the former NBA vet turned ESPN analyst officiated the second quarter of Monday’s matchup between the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers– an ironic occurrence given Jefferson’s best playing days being with the ex-New Jersey Nets and his history of criticizing the Knicks.

“It’s been amazing because I love the game of basketball,” Jefferson said. “I like talking about the game of basketball, so now I get an opportunity to learn a whole new piece of the game. That’s like my dream, for a basketball junkie, to sit in there and see how the referees think, how they talk, how they act, how they work together as a team. That type of stuff to me is so beneficial.”

While Jefferson’s actual performance was far from perfect, it certainly was when it came to inspiring takes from our social media timelines.

And you’re doing your job if Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau is heckling you, right?

Lastly, was this right or wrong call by RJ?

In all seriousness, salute to Richard Jefferson for taking on this task and using it as a way to further educate himself and the fans on what it’s like to officiate at a high level.

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. 

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.