Portland Trail Blazers

Magic, Bucks, Blazers, Hornets In Lead For Howard?

The Magic, Bucks, Trail Blazers and Hornets are the favorites for Dwight Howard in free agency this summer, as Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com writes within a broader piece on the Rockets, Howard’s current team. Houston has long expected Howard to turn down his $23.282MM player option for next season in search of a max deal that would pay him about $30MM next season, and Howard and fellow Rockets star James Harden have a chemistry that one team source described to Watkins as “cordially bad.”

Howard would prefer to re-sign with the Rockets but would entertain the idea of returning to the Magic, his first NBA team, as Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher heard. Howard told Bucks play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson he wanted the Rockets to trade him to Milwaukee at the February deadline this year, Johnson said. The Hornets and Rockets had exploratory trade talks about Howard before the deadline, and Howard played under Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford when he was an assistant. This is the first reported link between Howard and Portland this year.

The 30-year-old former All-Star is known for indecisiveness regarding contract matters in the past, so it would be no shock if this list of front-runners undergoes drastic changes between now and July, when he can sign a contract with a new team. Howard was a client of agent Dan Fegan during his split with the Magic and one-year Lakers tenure, but earlier this year he dropped Fegan in favor of Perry Rogers, Shaquille O’Neal’s rep.

Chandler Parsons publicly campaigned Tuesday for Howard to join him on the Mavericks, but the Mavericks don’t want to give Howard a deal approaching the max, and Dirk Nowitzki, who’s spoken openly about potential free agents in the past, declined comment when asked about the possibility of Howard in Dallas, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com.

The Magic are in line to have no shortage of cap room this summer, with enough flexibility to sign two max free agents. Portland doesn’t have quite that much but still has more than enough flexibility to afford a max contract for Howard, even with Damian Lillard‘s max extension kicking in. The Bucks would likely have to perform some cap gymnastics to accommodate Howard, since they already have close to $62MM in guaranteed salary committed against a projected $92MM cap. Charlotte only has about $46MM on the books, but that doesn’t include any money for soon-to-be free agents Al Jefferson, whom Howard would likely replace if he were to sign with the Hornets, or Nicolas Batum.

Regardless, it appears Howard would face a difficult atmosphere if he were to return to Houston next season. One source close to the Rockets told Watkins that Howard lost the respect of his teammates, though a Rockets player who spoke with Watkins offered a dissenting view. Harden and Howard have spoken about their on-court issues and Harden paid for Howard’s birthday dinner earlier this season, but the high-scoring guard feels Howard is too distracted and doesn’t demand the ball enough, according to Watkins. Howard doesn’t feel Harden respects him and solicits the opinions of former teammates about what he can do to fix that, as Watkins details.

What’s your best guess as to where Howard ends up? Leave a comment to share your idea.

Chris Paul Likely Done For The Playoffs

The Clippers suffered a devastating blow and the playoffs took another unexpected turn Monday when Chris Paul broke his right hand in Game 4 against the Trail Blazers, a Portland win that evened the first-round series. Paul is “most likely” out for the rest of the postseason, a source told ESPN’s J.A. Adande (ESPN Now link). A team source said much the same to Dan Woike of the Orange County Register (Twitter link). It’s possible a better prognosis will emerge after further tests, and the team will know more today, Adande and Woike report, but the Clippers are in rough shape. Blake Griffin is just “50-50” for the next game because of a sore left quadriceps tendon, coach Doc Rivers said, according to Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com (Twitter link). It all adds up to a potential boost for the Warriors, who’ve lost Stephen Curry for at least two weeks with a sprained knee and will play either the Clippers or the Blazers in the next round, provided they dispatch the Rockets.

CJ McCollum Wins Most Improved Player Award

Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum has won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, the league announced. He secured the honor by a wide margin over second-place finisher Kemba Walker, with Giannis Antetokounmpo coming in third. Reigning MVP Stephen Curry, a heavy favorite to win MVP again this year, is fourth. The award is a boost to McCollum as he heads into an offseason in which he’ll be eligible to sign a rookie scale extension.

“Being recognized as the Most Improved Player in the NBA is a testament to the dedication and commitment to his game CJ has shown since joining the Trail Blazers,” GM Neil Olshey said in the statement.

McCollum’s emergence this season helped Portland keep pace in the Western Conference despite the loss of four starters from last season’s 51-win team. The Blazers won only 44 games this year, but they had the West’s fifth-best record compared to last year’s sixth-place finish. McCollum zoomed from 6.8 points in 15.7 minutes per game to 20.8 points in 34.8 minutes per contest, improving his shooting percentage from the floor and from 3-point territory, where he canned a sterling 41.7% of his attempts this season. The 24-year-old was first on the Blazers with 1.2 steals per game and second to Damian Lillard in assists per game with 4.3.

The season for McCollum was in large measure a fulfillment of the promise he showed coming out of college that led Olshey and the Blazers to draft him 10th overall in 2013. A broken foot in his rookie season and the presence of eventual max-contract signee Wesley Matthews relegated him to a reserve role his first two years in the NBA, but McCollum had the green light this season and took full advantage. Olshey said recently that the team had faith in him all along and that had he not suffered the broken foot, he probably would have become a starter as a rookie.

A panel of writers, broadcasters and other journalists who cover the NBA voted for the award. A ballot-by-ballot summary is available here. Five points were awarded for a first-place vote, three points for a second-place vote, and one point for a third-place vote.

Below, see how each vote-getter ranked, with first-place votes noted where applicable.

  1. C.J. McCollum (Trail Blazers) — 101
  2. Kemba Walker (Hornets) — 7
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) — 4
  4. Stephen Curry (Warriors) — 7
  5. Will Barton (Nuggets) — 1
  6. Jae Crowder (Celtics) — 1
  7. Draymond Green (Warriors) — 2
  8. Isaiah Thomas (Celtics) — 3
  9. Hassan Whiteside (Heat) — 1
  10. Kawhi Leonard (Spurs) — 1
  11. Andre Drummond (Pistons) — 1
  12. Gary Harris (Nuggets) — 1
  13. Kent Bazemore (Hawks)
  14. Evan Fournier (Magic)
  15. Rodney Hood (Jazz) — 1
  16. Russell Westbrook (Thunder)
  17. Reggie Jackson (Pistons)
  18. Ian Mahinmi (Pacers)
  19. Zach LaVine (Timberwolves)
  20. Kyle Lowry (Raptors)

Blazers Attempted To Deal Henderson At Deadline

  • The Blazers had explored trades for Gerald Henderson prior to the February deadline this season, but GM Neil Olshey‘s asking price for the swingman was too high, John Canzano of The Oregonian relays. It was a good thing the team didn’t deal the 28-year-old given that the Blazers were 30-11 when Henderson played 20-plus minutes and 9-1 when he scored 15 or more points this season, Canzano notes. Henderson, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, averaged 8.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per contest over 72 appearances this season.

Blazers Credit Lillard's Leadership For Strong Season

  • The Blazers surprised many around the league by earning a playoff berth this season, and the players point to Damian Lillard assuming the mantle of leadership last offseason as a major stepping stone in the process, Jason Quick of CSNNW.com relays.  “I told everybody … ‘From this point on, we have to know that it’s Us against Everybody,’’’ Lillard said of a preseason speech he gave the team. “When a guy on our team is struggling, nobody on the outside is going to pick him up and lift him up, pull him up and be there for him. It has to be us. When it gets a little bit rough, we have to be there for each other. When we are successful, we have to keep each other in the right mind space so we keep doing the things that give us a chance to be successful.’’

Olshey Worthy Of Executive Award

  • GM Neil Olshey deserves Executive of the Year honors for rebuilding the Blazers over the offseason, writes Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. Portland clinched a playoff spot this week despite losing four starters from last year’s team.

Maurice Harkless Thriving With Free Agency Ahead

  • An early February injury to Noah Vonleh was the catalyst for the return of Maurice Harkless to the Blazers rotation, and now Harkless is thriving as a starter, notes Jason Quick of Comcast Sportsnet Northwest. It’s fortuitous not just for Portland’s playoff push but for the bank account of the Relativity Sports client who’s eligible for restricted free agency this summer.

Backcourt Forms Blazers' Foundation

Harkless Becomes Starter in Late Going

  • Small forward Maurice Harkless has emerged as a starter for the Trail Blazers, according to Mike Richman of The Oregonian. With Harkless in the lineup, Al-Farouq Aminu has shifted to power forward with Noah Vonleh moving to a reserve role. The pairing of Harkless and Aminu gives Portland more defensive versatility, as Harkless told Richman. “I think it just changes the dynamic,” Harkless said. “Defensively, we can pretty much switch everything one through four. Offensively, it creates an advantage for me or Al-Farouq, whoever the big guy is guarding.”

Blazers Notes: Henderson, Leonard, Harkless

Gerald Henderson has enjoyed his first season in Portland and wouldn’t mind seeing it turn into a long-term relationship, writes Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. Henderson quickly assumed a leadership role with the Blazers after being traded there from Charlotte last offseason. Even though he’s had to accept a reserve spot, Henderson says he’s happy being a “big-minute player.” He will be among at least six Portland free agents this summer, so a return isn’t certain despite apparent interest on both sides. “If they want me back and we can come up with a contract that makes sense, then I’d love to come back here,” Henderson said. “This has been a great year. I was just telling the guys; this has probably been one of the most fun teams I’ve been on. This has been one of my most fun years. Because we’ve really worked for this. We’ve really earned this. It’s a tight group, a great group of guys.”

There’s more out of the Pacific Northwest:

  • Meyers Leonard is also hoping to stay in Portland, Freeman writes in a separate story. The Blazers’ back-up big man is out for the season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He will have surgery soon and faces a six- to eight-month rehab process. Leonard will be a restricted free agent this summer after turning down a contract extension in October, and the injury could limit the offers he gets from other teams. He hopes to be ready in time for training camp. “I believe that I can be a key piece of the future,” Leonard said. “Obviously, [I was] drafted with Damian Lillard. Been here with [coach] Terry [Stotts]. And I think that [GM] Neil [Olshey], the guys, coaches, understand what I bring.”
  • Also headed for free agency is small forward Moe Harkless, who moved into the starting lineup in the wake of Leonard’s injury, relates Mike Richman of The Oregonian. Harkless, who is averaging 13 points and 5.8 rebounds per game since the change was made, was acquired from Orlando in an offseason deal. “I just got to be ready to be out there,” Harkless said of his new role. “Before I was just not really being out [on the floor] at crucial times in the game, but now I just got to stay ready and be ready to go.” He is making nearly $2.9MM in the final year of his contract.

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