NBA Summer League Intel Report: Damian Lillard, Summer League Standouts & More

NBA Summer League Intel Report: Damian Lillard, Summer League Standouts & More article feature image
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Via Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images. Pictured: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball during the game against the Utah Jazz on March 22, 2023 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Here's the new NBA intel that I've heard and seen this week in Vegas…

Dame Watch: Lillard to the Heat, But When?

The Dame saga might drag on. "Might" is the powerful word there. Everyone agrees Lillard will wind up in Miami on his preferred team, forming a formidable trio — dare we say superteam — with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. But how long it takes to get there is the question.

The Heat deal is being sold by various interested parties as "not that bad," usually with an exclamation mark for enthusiasm. Some have gone so far as to say "good." I'll just say that the personnel people I sought out for opinion, specifically because of their lack of involvement in the deal or its associated multi-team variations, were much more skeptical.

"The picks are a lot of the problem. Is Miami ever, and I mean ever, going to give up a pick that could wind up in the top 10? Will they ever be that bad?" one personnel analyst asked. There's a consensus that one of the issues is the Heat being a victim of their own success.

The last time they were terrible was in 2008. You want some hope of the picks being good in a return for Lillard, and instead, multiple 20-plus picks seem to be the consensus of what will actually convey.

Other teams may want Tyler Herro, and Herro's value may be underrated at this particular moment in time for a 23-year-old 20-point-per-game scorer on decent efficiency, but it doesn't change that Portland doesn't want him.

There is a consensus forming around Portland media that the Heat deal is "unmakable." It would be the end of careers. And while most times, that's what happens when an executive oversees a franchise superstar being traded (shoutout Dell Demps), how it happens matters for those involved and their chances of future employment.

One thing everyone, and I mean everyone, I talked to has laughed at: the notion of Damian Lillard sitting out of training camp if he's traded somewhere he doesn't want to be. Everyone believes that to be an empty threat distributed by his agency, and it would take Lillard himself saying it on record to be refuted.

This isn't a bad thing; it's a testament to the belief that Dame both loves the game and is too much of a professional to pull such a juvenile tantrum. He'll play, he'll play well, and the business side will make it work.

And yet, no one else has been willing to seriously engage the Blazers on a deal outside of the Heat. The aggressive posturing being performed by Dame's representation has been successful in that regard.

The Celtics aren't including Jaylen Brown. The Nets aren't including Mikal Bridges and can't include Cam Johnson after signing him to an extension. Blue-chip prospects are not being floated for Lillard, which might prompt a change in approach from Portland.

So this will go on. Typically, I'd be surprised if it made it to training camp, but in recent years, we've seen players enter camp with their same team more consistently after trade demands.

Maybe Lillard is excused while they work on a deal, but for all the work that the Heat and Lillard's agency have done in getting out the "this is gonna happen whether you like it or not" narrative, the Trail Blazers have quietly continued to reaffirm that they're not doing the deal just to get it done.

Maybe that resolve weakens by mid-August or September, but the threat is being presented as real for the moment. Portland began projecting in the days before Summer League and ramped it up in Las Vegas that it is willing to drag this out until the deal is as close to tolerable as possible.

Joe Cronin met with the media early this week in Vegas and asserted the same.

This becomes a pain tolerance issue. If Blazers ownership– whom no one that I've spoken to has a read on — backs the front office in waiting through the summer and potentially into training camp or even the season, this could get very messy.

If Lillard is excused from team activities in the preseason, it's going to demolish Portland's outlook, on top of losing one of the three best players in franchise history. Players will know they're in limbo, they won't have the return assets in place, and they'll just be missing the player impact inherent in Lillard's salary.

On the other hand, if ownership decides this isn't worth the headache, it could happen rapidly.

Maybe in the next 45 days Miami finds the multi-team-deal partners to fulfill Portland's desires close enough to punch it through, but don't be surprised if this goes on longer than anticipated.

Summer League Observations: Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson & More

Sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — you can watch the first five minutes of a game and know when a rookie is going to be a star in the league.

Scoot Henderson was definitely that guy this year.

Henderson's not just athletic and skillful… he's a tank. His body looks ready to attack and absorb contact from players with NBA physicality.

However, Henderson's athleticism isn't the only thing in his bag. He made high-level reads, especially in transition. Shooting is more important than playmaking in the modern NBA, but being able to pressure the rim with athleticism and capitalize on that leverage with passing matters. Henderson's also not a non-shooter, either.

The most impressive rookie for me relative to expectations was Amen Thompson for the Rockets. His height and length, with his passing instincts, aren't just impressive in a vacuum, and they will particularly help his Rockets teammates.

He pairs well with Fred VanVleet as the "other side of the coin" in terms of skillset, he will make life easier for Jabari Smith Jr. (who looked terrific in Summer League), and he will operate well with Alperen Sengun in hand-off actions.

Thompson is likely to come off the bench this season, but I would not be surprised if lineup combos with him are better than the starting unit at times.

  • Leonard Miller had a strong summer league for the Wolves, showcasing both length and athleticism while shooting from deep.
  • Jaden Hardy for the Mavericks was among the "too good to be here" group. Hardy's not going to do much more than what he does well: score. Nonetheless, he's nimble and can be one of those firebug guards who comes off the bench and lifts the offense when the stars are on the bench.
  • Amen Thompson wasn't the only Rocket who impressed. Jabari Smith Jr. had a rough first half of his first game but was pretty much lights out the rest of the way. With better floor-setter guards around him this season, I'm expecting a huge season from him. Tari Eason continues to be more explosive than 95% of the players on the floor, and the polish has started to show. Cam Whitmore looked like an absolute steal.
  • Chet Holmgren will probably lead the NBA in blocks at some point, but everyone noticed that he still looked slight and a little physically overwhelmed at times. If Holmgren is a big reason for you to take an OKC bull position, you might want to wait to see what they look like in-season. Holmgren has still averaged 21 and 10 in Summer League, showcasing how he can contribute despite his thin frame.
  • Cason Wallace was fantastic in his first game against Dallas then had a quieter follow-up against Houston. Wallace is one of several Thunder players, including Ousmane Dieng, who look like they will contribute at some point on the timeline.

League Burbling

  • The Lakers received pretty much unanimous praise for their offseason acquisitions. I'm not low on the moves but have been surprised at the reception. "They didn't make major upgrades, but they have way more of an identity than they have the last two years," a personnel expert told me.
  • There was a lot of chuckling when I brought up reporting out of Toronto that the Raptors were exploring deals for Pascal Siakam. "Tell me one I haven't heard." "Oh, I love this song!" "Fool me twice, Shame on Masai (Ujiri)." These were among the comments. Nevertheless, the Hawks, Thunder, and Sixers (in a multi-team trade) were among those mentioned as possible landing spots if Toronto does actually move the All-NBA forward.
  • There's a lot of concern over both leadership and depth to establish regular-season floors under the new collective bargaining agreement. We saw several teams, including the champion Nuggets, not only lose veteran depth but seek to replace it with rookies and second-year players. Injuries will open up vulnerabilities in those rosters.
  • Several people I spoke with rolled their eyes at the rule changes regarding flopping, with an assumption it will fade out by January the way most areas of emphasis do.
  • Longtime league observers had a level of uncertainty about who would be the "big story" next year. "The Nuggets weren't even really the story most of the year despite being the 1-seed, and then they rolled." There's a confidence in Denver that befits a champion, but there's also some speculation that we could be headed towards a league more defined season by season than spans of seasons.

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Nick Sterling
Jul 14, 2024 UTC