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The Blazers have an enviable team culture, but now here comes Melo

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A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

1. A 220-second demonstration of culture

Late in the third quarter of the Portland Trail Blazers’ overtime victory against the Atlanta Hawks last Sunday, Portland’s Anfernee Simons came off a screen, sliced into the middle of the lane and ended a two-minute scoring drought. The second-year wing then nailed two triples, two more baskets and dished an assist before the end of the third quarter, a 220-second outburst and a tangible illustration of one of sports’ most intangible concepts: locker-room culture.

Culture is hard to discern. It is developed and sustained behind closed doors, and its marks are often beyond description: a sympathetic tone, a well-placed pat on the back, the right meeting called at the right time. Mostly, it comes down to empathy and awareness, principles that translate to the court more often than you’d think.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, dribbles around Brooklyn Nets guard Garrett Temple during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Damian Lillard is a genuine leader for the Blazers. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, two scoring guards, already share the ball with each other plenty. But when they realized Simons had it going, they both let go of the throttle. Simons brought the ball up half-court and scored twice. Each time, Lillard and McCollum ran up the floor and filled lanes instead of hanging back and motioning for a pass.

Lillard found Simons for two triples, and after rebounding a Hawks miss, Lillard immediately looked up and fired a cannon up the floor to Simons. Nobody would have blamed Simons for firing away for another triple — he was hot, after all — but he pump-faked and found a cutting Anthony Tolliver for the layup. It was one innocuous assist, sure, but it was also a demonstration of how positive feedback loops sustain chemistry: Selflessness begets selflessness. Simons doesn’t have to look out for himself all the time, because he knows his teammates will.

(Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Yahoo Sports illustration)

“I think Portland has an amazing culture, an amazing locker room and guys who are willing to teach and willing to help, and I think Dame and CJ are two people who do that,” an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “There’s an advantage to playing a ton and being in the G League, but there’s also a disadvantage when you’re not around.”

It wouldn’t hurt Portland to have a G League team, of course, but fielding two stars that facilitate player development isn’t a bad trade-off.

2. And now ... let’s throw Carmelo Anthony into the picture

On Thursday night, the favorite parlor game of every NBA talking head came to its merciful end when ESPN reported that the Blazers were signing Carmelo Anthony. Rare is the former star who has been put through the talk-show ringer merely to advocate for his own position, but you can understand the trepidation. Anthony’s previous stints in Houston and Oklahoma City were marred by an inability to accept a lesser role — or at the very least, he learned too late.

As stars take over the league, many locker rooms have become defined by the tug of war between culture and talent. I hesitate to see it as a dichotomy — stars like Lillard stand as pillars of both, for example — but Anthony, for most of his career, was a decidedly different star, as stubborn as he was talented.

Portland, by signing Melo, may have entered that fray. His time away from the NBA has apparently humbled him, and the deal is non-guaranteed, which means Portland can cut him without consequence at any point in the season. Lillard, long an advocate for Anthony, was supportive of the move, Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported.

There are a lot of factors working in favor of this being a good risk for Portland, a lot like the bet the Lakers made on Dwight Howard, but only time will tell.

3. The kids are all right

In fact, they’re more than all right. The Grizzlies’ Ja Morant hit a game-winner Wednesday night. The Knicks’ RJ Barrett is shredding teams in the pick-and-roll, including the Chicago Bulls, who were saved by the fact that Coby White nailed seven triples in the fourth quarter Tuesday night.

All that in a class that was supposed to be weak after the top, and Zion Williamson hasn’t even played a game yet. So do we need to recalibrate our expectations of young players? The modern rookie, despite often deserved criticism of the developmental pitfalls of AAU, is entering the league more polished than his predecessors.

In no aspect of the game has that been more clear than in pick-and-rolls.

“I think there’s a trickle-down effect of the NBA,” the same scout told Yahoo Sports. “I think now college programs are trying to sell the NBA factor, where it’s like, ‘OK, come play pick-and-roll, and we’ll get you ready for the NBA.’ It’s not everywhere, but it’s become more prevalent.”

Morant doesn’t have to be coached out of pulling up for midrange jumpers instead of finding open shooters above the break like, say, Khris Middleton was. High school and college systems have slowly caught up to the analytics movement, and players with NBA aspirations know what the ideal scouting report looks like.

The transition to the NBA has never looked smoother. Oh, and Zion Williamson hasn’t played a game yet.

4. Home can be where you least expect it

If his buddy, Kevin Hart, is asking, Chris Paul will say it. “Some guys probably think it’s hard to play with me,” he told Hart, in the season opener of the comedian’s show, “Cold As Balls.” Being traded from the Houston Rockets to the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer felt like a “stab in the back”, but Paul was more introspective than the headline, delivering a measured soliloquy on not taking things personally within the cold-hearted reality of the NBA.

Paul’s current reality, the oldest player on a rebuilding team with players who watched him in elementary school, is one he couldn’t have imagined a year ago, but he has taken nicely to it.

The Thunder are likely just a pit spot for Paul, a ringless All-Star at the top of every trade rumor, but he might have found his calling as a grumpy old-head, running two-minute drills at the end of games and recognizing every two-for-one opportunity.

The Thunder are frenetic and long, an emergent League Pass team with the length and athleticism to drive and run a ton, but they are constantly teetering on the edge of chaos. Paul reels them in. Oklahoma’s turnover percent decreases from 18.2 percent to 13.7 when he is on the floor.

The same strict game management and punishing accuracy that grated some of his peers are exactly what the young Thunder, who field six players under the age of 23, need to soak in — especially Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a point guard with superstar potential and a sponge-like brain, the perfect second-year player for Paul to shepherd.

5. The importance of fit

The NBA, we are told, is all about fit. But what does that mean? Aron Baynes, who signed with the Phoenix Suns this summer, provides a glaring example.

Forget the fact that he is averaging a career-high 16.2 points per game and shooting an absurd 50 percent from three while soaking up the minutes of Deandre Ayton, who is serving a suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy.

At 32, Baynes has emerged as the perfect veteran — a calming defensive anchor and excellent finisher — for a Suns team teeming with potential but needing direction. He provides a release valve for Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker, and on the other end, nobody but Mo Wagner has drawn more charges than Baynes.

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