NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: 29-53, a season that seemed lost when Blake Griffin fractured his kneecap landing after a monster dunk in the preseason. But only the Clippers can find ways to bring that down even farther: there was the Mike Dunleavy firing (which is on its way to court), Baron Davis checked out mentally, then there was the Phil Hughes era. Hughes may be one of the most honest, fun coaches I’ve ever covered. But he wanted to run and the team did not have the players for it. The results were just ugly.

Head Coach: Vinny Del Negro, he of the simplistic offensive sets but who got a young team to play hard and defend for him. If he can do that again with this roster, they’ll do pretty well. Based on history (from Bill Fitch through Dunleavy), Del Negro should hire a good attorney because he will have to sue to get all of his money owed on his contract.

Key Departures: The Clippers did not really lose much on the court (which should bring more hope than it does here). Steve Blake traded uniforms and will be in the locker room 25 feet down the hall. Ricky Davis is in China. Travis Outlaw is gone. But really, nothing that can’t be replaced by better. Not that it was, but these were not huge losses.

Key Additions: We can count Blake Griffin in here because he never played a regular season game for the Clippers. This guy is a beast, a guy who can instantly become one of the better pick-and-roll guys in the league. There aren’t many athletes like him at the four and everyone will be reminded why he was the first overall pick.

The Clippers had a high draft pick — again — used it on Al-Farouq Aminu, a guy they think could be their future at the three. Then at Summer League he looked a few years away, although by the preseason he seems to have made big strides. Still it may be next year or the year after before we know what the Clippers have here.

In the short term, the Clippers got a very solid Ryan Gomes to come in and play the three for them, and at a fair price. The Clippers also made good signings with Randy Foye and re-signing Craig Smith, giving them solid if not spectacular depth. Basically, if these guys are playing 18 minutes a night off the bench the Clippers will be fine, if these guys have to play 30 minutes in a starters role the Clippers will struggle. And in the preseason Gomes has been starting, so….

Eric Bledsoe, who Los Angeles traded what will be a future pick in the teens for so they could draft him at 19, will step in now and be the backup point guard from day one. And the heir apparent to the big job.

The Clippers also signed Brian Cook to a two-year deal Why? Just, why?

Best case scenario: It all comes together perfectly, Baron Davis and Blake Griffin becomes one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the league, the role players all play above their heads a little and the Clippers fight for one of the final playoff spots in the West.

For that to happen: Baron Davis is the good Baron Davis, not the bad jack-up-a-deep-three-with-18-seconds-on-the-clock Davis. Also, the team’s role players need to play a little better than they have in the past.

The Clippers have a good frontcourt — Chris Kaman made the All-Star team while that is a borderline call the fact is he is one of the better true centers in the league. He plays well with his back to the basket, can pass and plays solid defense. Now with the hustle and athleticism of Griffin along side him there is a lot of potential there. The Clippers need to be near the top of the league in shots attempted in the paint for them to be successful, because not many teams can match them up front.

But it all comes back to Davis. This guy has the skills to be one of the most dynamic, best distributors from the point in the league. When he is interested — like in the middle of last season when he and Kaman got a real flow going on the pick-and-pop for a while. But Davis chaffed against Dunleavy and by the time Hughes took over Davis had mentally checked out for the season.

Del Negro, based on what he did with Derrick Rose in Chicago, gives his point guards a lot of freedom. A lot. That and the energy of Griffin, the quality wingman in Eric Gordon could make the Clippers a dangerous staring five. But if Davis mentally checks out early again, he will drag the Clippers down with him.

The Clippers should get a bigger, better year out of Eric Gordon, who continues to improve, as evidenced by his time with Team USA. The rest of the guys — Foye, Gomes, Smith, Rasual Butler and so on — are all pretty average, solid NBA players, Which is nice, but if the Clippers are going to step forward in a deep west then need a bench that can be more dynamic. Somebody here needs to be a guy who can lead that unit.

More likely the Clippers will: be a slightly more entertaining version of last year’s team. And miss the playoffs. And have a lovely lottery party.

Griffin will be a Rookie of the Year candidate, but how far can he lift a team that is essentially the same as the one that won 29 games last season? Are we really counting on an energized and focused Davis for 82 games? Heck, 65 games of good Davis makes this a borderline playoff team. But it’s just hard to see it. It’s just hard to see Del Negro somehow inspiring this team to great heights.

Prediction: 31-51, and a middling lottery pick. Oh, but Donald Sterling has these grand plans to get a top free agent….

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.

Spurs’ David Lee will not need surgery on knee, will be ready for training camp in the fall

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David Lee was certainly not going to swing the series against the Warriors one way or another. However, the veteran forward with a varried offensive game still has an NBA role in the right setting.

He has a $1.6 million player option with the Spurs next season, and whatever he decides it’s good news that he will not need surgery to repair the knee injury that sidelined him in the Conference Finals. From Ramona Shelburn of ESPN.

Good news to end the week. David Lee doesn’t need surgery on his knee, per his agent Mark Bartelstein. He’s got a sprained patellar tendon that should heal in about six weeks.

As a big off the bench, David Lee can still help the right team. His game has limitations, but put him in the right situation and he can help. It’s just that due to injury, the Spurs had to ask more of him in the playoffs than he can deliver anymore.

Draymond Green says Warriors are “more relaxed” this season

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Last year, the Warriors entered the NBA Finals with the weight of expectations: Defending NBA champions, 73 regular season wins, if they got the title they would leap up the ladder of all-time great teams, lose and it would be a massive let down. We all know what happened from there.

The Warriors are back in the Finals, taking on the Cavaliers for the third year in a row — but this year things are going to be different. Mostly because of Kevin Durant changing the equation. But also the Warriors mindset is better if you ask Draymond Green. Which Mark Spears of ESPN did.

This makes sense. The Warriors to a man denied the pressure and how physically/mentally taxed they were by the chase for 73, but it clearly wore on them physically and mentally. Green was thrashing about and drawing techs, over-reacting to everything (although sometimes that feels like his default setting). Curry was injured but also tired. The Warriors opened the door, LeBron James and the Cavaliers stormed through it.

Will a rested Warriors make a difference this time around? Maybe. But again, Durant matters more than rest.