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What the Clippers should do when the lockout ends

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This is the latest installment of our “when the lockout ends” series. To see the other teams we have done, follow this link. Don’t worry, we’ll get to your team soon enough.

Last season in Los Angeles: The Clippers became what Brazil is to international soccer — everyone’s second favorite team. Blake Griffin changed the energy around the franchise and this young, athletic team became one of the most fun to watch in the league. People on the East Coast stayed up to see who Griffin would dunk on next. For once, everyone wanted to see the Clippers. However, they still were not all that good (32-50, missing the playoffs), in large part due to a dreadful start of the season. They were just three games better than the season before.

Since we last saw the Clippers: The Clippers traded away their first round draft pick this year to Cleveland to take Baron Davis off their hands… that pick turned out to be the No. 1 overall. Ouch, but frankly that was still a good trade (Mo Williams is a much better fit). The Clippers did draft Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie out of Georgia, but they are not immediate impact guys. Aside that, the Clippers didn’t make any major moves, but they may once the lockout ends — there were a lot of Clippers trade rumors around the draft and you can expect them to be active once the lockout is lifted.

When the lockout ends, the Clippers need to… get a small forward and learn to play better defense (I’m looking at you, Griffin). And the second part of that matters a lot more than the first.

With Griffin, the Clippers finally have a true franchise player. A guy they can build around. Put him on the front line with DeAndre Jordan and you have the most athletic big man combo in the NBA. It’s a dunk-a-palooza.

But if the Clippers are going to make the playoffs those guys have to anchor the defense in the paint much better. Last season the Clippers were 18th in the NBA 108.7 points per 100 possessions. Sit close to the floor and you noticed the Clippers were quiet — poor communication on defense — and they tended to over-help, exposing new openings that teams exploited.

Griffin was the prime example — he was a solid individual defender (opponents shot just 30 percent when isolated against him) but his help defense was at times terrible. A lot of times. He would overcommit, while at other times he seemed listless and just waiting to get back on offense.

Griffin looked to me like a guy trying to stay out of foul trouble, he was a guy who let the opposing offense set the tone (and get positions they wanted) then reacted to it. He struggled to pick the right angles on defense. That has to change. Griffin clearly has the physical tools to be disruptive on defense, and as the season wore on we started to see more of that — but he has to make a leap this season and bring his teammates with him.

It’s really a team defensive issue for the Clippers — they need someone who can be a better perimeter defender and lock guys down, then be more mature in their help decisions. Particularly Jordan, who needs to be the rim protector on this team (he also over-helped). It’s part of being a young team, but this more than anything is what will help the Clippers make the leap next season.

With that they need one more perimeter player, too — a small forward. Mo Williams is a much better fit at the point for the Clippers than Baron Davis, he’s a calming and steady influence. Eric Gordon is positioned for a breakout year as a two guard (one who has the ball in his hands a lot), especially if he can learn to finish better in the lane. We have no doubt that Griffin, Jordan and Chris Kaman form a formidable front line.

But the Clippers need a three. Al-Farouq Aminu showed some promise as a rookie, but he is not what the Clippers need now and he is not the defensive presence and shooter they crave to make this all work.

The Clippers have assets to trade — Chris Kaman, Minnesota’s unprotected first round pick next year — and cap room. Andre Iguodala’s name came up and while no deal was worked out, you know that is still on the back burner. When other teams see the new salary cap there may be threes out there teams need to shed. There also are good free agent options the Clippers can consider such as Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier and Caron Butler — none of those are long-term answers with a young team but would provide veteran leadership and a few years of quality play. And defense. To me, Butler seems a great get if his knee is back after last season, and he would be affordable.

Bottom line, the Clippers should be a playoff team in the West next season. That has to be the goal. No doubt a full season of Mo Williams helps, and we expect big things from Griffin and Gordon. Under the current front office you can bet one way or another they will fill that hole at the three.

But it all comes back to defense. This team will score more next season, but if it can’t stop anyone… well, it will still be the Clippers we all know and love.

LeBron James first player to reach six straight finals in 50 years

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It speaks to an incredible level of talent — talent that was honed in countless hours in the gym.

It speaks to an amazing durability.

It speaks to leadership.

LeBron James has a long resume of accomplishments — two titles, four MVPs, and he hasn’t missed an All-Star Game or an All-NBA team for a decade — but he reached one of his more impressive milestones in leading the Cavaliers past the Raptors to the NBA Finals on Friday night.

LeBron has reached six straight NBA Finals.

He’s the first player to do so in 50 years.

The last guys to do this were Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bob Cousy and other members of the 1950s-60s Celtics dynasty. Nobody since has done it — not Magic, Bird, Jordan, Wilt or the rest.

Yes, it helps cement LeBron’s legacy as one of the all-time greats, but more than that it’s something we need to step back and appreciate. These were all LeBron-led teams — he has been the leader on and off the court, setting the tone. That requires incredible talent and skill on the court, plus knowing how to make those guys better not just drag them along on your coat tails. It also takes incredible physical durability. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

“There’s only one LeBron James,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after his team was eliminated by James and company. “He makes a difference on whatever team he plays on.”

I can feel the typing in the comment section already: “But he’s 2-4 in the Finals, Jordan was 6-0” or “But he’s done it in a weak East” or “He keeps just jumping teams to where he has the most help.” It’s all just sad. Because LeBron James is the first NBA superstar of the social media age he faces a volume of criticism that past stars did not. It’s not that LeBron hasn’t brought some criticism on himself, but there is a need to tear him down that the mythologized Jordan never dealt with. We savored Jordan at the time; LeBron has never gotten that. Jordan took 13 NBA teams to the playoffs, six made the Finals; LeBron has taken 11 and seven are in the Finals. The thing is, it’s difficult to compare across eras in the NBA:

All of this is not to say LeBron’s record is better than Jordan’s, you and your buddies can debate that while sitting on bar stools until last call, but LeBron has been on an epic run through the peak of his career the likes we haven’t seen in a long time. If you’re a fan of the game, you should appreciate that, not try to tear it down (as if Jordan’s legacy somehow needs protecting).

What LeBron has done is a stunning accomplishment. If you’re in the same sentence with the legendary Russell Celtics teams, you’re doing something right.

Warriors/Thunder Game 6: Four things to watch as Oklahoma City tries to close out series

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors react in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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For the Thunder, it is a chance for validation and an opportunity to get the ring Kevin Durant (and Russell Westbrook, and the rest of them) crave. For the Warriors, it is their biggest test of the last two seasons. Game 6 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City, here are four things to watch.

1) Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson need to play better for the Thunder. After a couple of series where Waiters suddenly has been reborn as a quality NBA player who is the third playmaker the Thunder need, and after Andre Roberson dropped a career playoff high of 17 points the game before, both were MIA in Game 5. Roberson was 2-of-5 shooting and had as many points as fouls (six). Waiters didn’t hit a shot all night. This was tied to the Thunder returning to the bad habits of too much Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking on the world and OKC not enough ball movement in the halfcourt. The Scott Brooks Thunder of the past few seasons showed up in Game 5, if the Thunder fall back to those bad habits again, they will lose again.

I expect the Thunder to treat this like their Game 7 and play much better. They will have a real sense of urgency; their defense will again be energized. The question becomes can the Warriors match it?

2) Can Andrew Bogut keep the Thunder from scoring in the paint?
In Game 5, the Thunder were 8-of-18 shooting in the restricted area, and 7-of-19 in the rest of the paint. That’s not going to get it done. A lot of that was the impact Bogut had in the paint — plus he got help, the Warriors switched pick-and-rolls more, they packed the paint more and took away driving lanes. It all worked, in part because Bogut and Draymond Green played with much better energy than in previous games. Steve Kerr said he didn’t play Bogut as many minutes in the first four games due to foul trouble, he has to trust the veteran to play through fouls in this game. The Warriors have simply been better with him on the court this series and they need close to 30 minutes from him this game.

Tied to Bogut’s play…

3) Golden State defense needs to show up on the road. As noted above, the Warriors went back to a more traditional defense in Game 5 — they started guarding Roberson (rather than having a big “guard” and ignore him to protect the paint), they switched, they stayed home in the paint, and they just trusted each other and played their system better. It was a marked improvement. However, they did it at home — now they need to do it on the road, where Green, in particular, has been more prone to mistakes and frustration.

One key here worth emphasizing is the Warriors got back to switching most pick-and-rolls — that’s what they did all season, that’s part of why the “death lineup” is so successful defensively, yet in this series they increasingly went away from it (in part because of how they guarded Roberson). Switching is part of who the Warriors are, and while it will create some mismatches teams don’t want to stray too far from their core identity.

4) Stephen Curry needs to be MVP level Curry. Draymond Green needs to be his All-NBA self.
I’m not saying the same thing about Durant and Westbrook because I have no doubt they will show up with urgency in their games Saturday night. However, Curry and Draymond have been shadows of themselves in the two previous games in Oklahoma City, and if that happens again only one team is flying back to the Bay Area postgame.

Curry finished his drives a little better in Game 5, and at moments he blew by bigs switched onto him off of picks, something we have seen far less of this series than during the season. Green played well defensively in Game 5, he hit the boards hard, but he made some head-scratching offensive decisions. If the Warriors are going to force a Game 7, those two guys have to be elite in this game. The Warriors best players must lead. It’s that simple.

Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.

Report: In surprise to nobody, Bismack Biyombo will decline option, become free agent

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after being called for a foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is not only expected, but it’s also the move all of us would make. Unless you hate money.

Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo has a player option on his contract for next year, pick it up and he returns to the Raptors at $2.9 million. Or, he can decline the option and become a free agent, where he may make about $17 million a season. So what do you think he’s doing? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Certainly, the Raptors can’t retain Biyombo’s services, it’s just going to be expensive to do so.

If $15 million (at least) seems a lot for a player who can only impact the defensive end of the floor because of poor hands and a limited offensive game, you would be correct. Welcome to the crazy cap-spike summer the NBA is about to experience. The market will be flooded with cash (at least 20 teams will be able to afford a max player) and players with a valuable skill hitting that market are going to get PAID. Biyombo can block shots and rebound like a beast, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA era those skills have value. Teams will live with having to play 4-on-5 on offense to have those skills on the roster.

The real question is which teams — the Lakers? — and how much of that cap space are they willing to give up for him? It’s going to be an interesting July.