NBA season preview: L.A. Clippers

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Last Season: Perhaps it was the start of a cultural change in Clipperland, or maybe it was simply the beginning of a very short-term spike of relative success. Either way, your 2011-12 Clippers were competitive, fun to watch, and a team that made its way into the playoffs — three qualities that have been completely absent from the team for most of its tortured existence.

Key Departures: Randy Foye was serviceable as a starter for most of the season, and the rest of the dearly departed — Mo Williams, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin, and Reggie Evans — made up the majority of the contributions off the bench.

Key Additions: The combination of Lamar Odom (one year removed from receiving the league’s Sixth Man honor), Grant Hill (an excellent on-ball defender and still a top fast break finisher), and Jamal Crawford (instant offense, or at least instant shot attempts) should be immediately better than the combination of players who filled those minutes a season ago. But the biggest addition might be that of a healthy Chauncey Billups, who was lost to injury early in last season’s campaign. Offense was the Clippers’ strength last year, but they should be even better with this group heading into this season.

Three keys to the Clippers season:

1) The evolution of Blake Griffin. There’s no question that Griffin is one of the most powerful and athletic players in game today. His dunks are already the stuff of legend, and his physical style of play is both effective for his team and aggravating for opposing players (see: Cousins, DeMarcus). If Griffin can extend the range on his jumper and be a better positional team defender, those things will do wonders for the Clippers’ chances to compete with the league’s elite.

2) Chauncey Billups playing alongside Chris Paul. The return of Billups should be a huge boost to the Clippers offensively. However, there is a little issue here, and that’s the fact that Billups likes to play with the ball in his hands. Paul is one of the game’s elite point guards, and he was the one most responsible for guiding the team’s explosive offense a season ago. Billups will need to slide into the two-guard role without kicking and screaming, and when he does have the ball, he’ll need to show patience instead of constantly looking to launch as many three-pointers as humanly possible.

3) Which Lamar Odom shows up? The reality show aspect of Odom’s persona worked out just fine for the Lakers, but that, along with some other much more serious family issues, eventually took their emotional toll on the mercurial one whose unique skill set makes his potential team contributions almost limitless. After a season where he essentially sat out in Dallas, we’ll see if Odom’s head is in the right place, and if he is able to get back into peak physical condition to be able to contribute as we all know he can. It was a calculated risk for the Clippers to bring him back, but one that’s really all upside.

What Clipers fans should fear: This season couldn’t be more crucial for the immediate, long-term future of the franchise. A dramatic statement, sure — but one based in fact. Consider that Vinny Del Negro is in the final year of his head coaching contract, and that not many observers believe he’s strong enough to lead a talented team to the next level. How he does managing this veteran squad will go a long way in whether or not he’s asked back. But more importantly, his relative success will undoubtedly affect the decision of Chris Paul, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

If Del Negro underachieves with this group, Paul — as much as he says he likes L.A. and wants to stay — will surely consider other options. The super-team model in the NBA isn’t going away anytime soon, and while the Clippers have plenty of talent on paper, the grass can always seem greener unless winning goes along with playing in that comfortable large market, and all of the ancillary benefits it can provide.

Prediction: A top-four seed in the Western Conference playoffs should be an attainable goal for this team, especially with the talent upgrade it was able to pull off this summer. But it won’t be easy or guaranteed, with teams like San Antonio, Denver, and Memphis right there in the mix behind the Lakers and Thunder juggernauts. A three-seed out West at best, a six-seed at worst.

Russell Westbrook wins the 2017 NBA MVP Award

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Russell Westbrook or James Harden for the 2017 NBA MVP? We finally have our answer.

On Monday night Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder star, took home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, earning him the right to be called the league’s most valuable player for the 2016-17 NBA season.

The debate raged on the entire regular season, but the Oklahoma City Thunder star hit new heights in 2016-17, averaging a triple-double for the entire season, a feat not seen since 1962 when Oscar Robertson did it. That pushed him over impressive numbers by Houston Rockets star Harden, who was incredible as he moved to play the point guard position full-time for NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.

Whether you picked Westbrook or Harden, I’m not so sure that there was a wrong answer. Granted, the Rockets were a much better team and in fact gave some of the best squads in the Western Conference a run for their money. Harden and D’Antoni seemed like a natural pairing, and his move to the point guard position was inspired. Houston finished third in the Western Conference last season, a mark that most of us did not expect them to achieve without the likes of Dwight Howard.

In comparison, the Thunder were only in playoff contention because of Westbrook and even then, they scraped by the entire season. Oklahoma City had just three players with a positive VORP For the season, in stark contrast to the Rockets. While basketball purists might rightly point out that Westbrook’s contribution to his team was still centered around himself, the debate will have to rage on with the trophy now firmly in the Thunder star’s grasp.

Plus, if you ever watched the guy it would be hard not to point to him as MVP. Westbrook was just flat out ridiculous.

It is difficult to understate just how significant Westbrook’s statistical achievement is for the season. He averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. The ability of a player to achieve that record with modern defenses in the NBA being what they are is impressive, even if you want to argue that many teams allowed Westbrook to operate while concentrating on his lesser teammates.

In the age of advanced statistics, when an analyst with both a spreadsheet and a pair of working eyes may slide to the side of Harden, it is still an astonishing thought to think Westbrook dominated so wholly against his opponents statistically. Indeed, if you ask me who had a genuine impact and who was more impressive, the answer would have to be split between the two.

So here we are, at the end of the year and everything is as we thought it would be. Russell Westbrook is the individual season champ as a player, the best of the best. The Golden State Warriors are the team champions of 2016-17. You could argue against either of them, but I don’t think it would do you any good. Westbrooks season is a statistical anomaly we are unlikely to see again. NBA MVP voters have got it wrong a lot of the time over the years, but this isn’t one of them.

Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP.

Draymond Green wins 2017 NBA Defensive Player of the Year

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There were a lot of incredible candidates for the 2017 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, but make no bones about it: Golden state Warriors forward Draymond Green was the most deserving.

Monday night Green was announced as the Defensive Player of the Year during the NBA’s Awards Ceremony.

In a year in which the Warriors were coming off a 73-9 season, and after an offseason where they added Kevin Durant, Green’s importance to the team was never overstated. His tenacity on defense and switchability allowed the Warriors to continue to be one of the best defensive squads in the NBA. Golden State finished second in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2016-17, and part of that was due to Green acting as they lynchpin.

A unique defensive player, Green was able to take some of the pressure off of Durant as well as boost his impact on defense. A player who at times had to guard all five positions, Green led his team in defensive win shares.

To take home his DPOY award, Green got 73 out of a possible 100 first place votes (from select media members), comfortably beating out Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert, who was second, and San Antonio Spurs MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, who was third. Robert Covington of the Philadelphia 76ers was fourth, followed by LeBron James fifth.

Much like the MVP award this season, a real argument could be made for either Leonard or Gobert’s candidacy for DPOY. However, With yet another 60+ when season under his belt, it made sense that Green was seen as the key by voters for the Golden State defensive attack.

Green finished with 73 first place votes, while Gobert trailed with 16 and Leonard with 11. Green finished with 434 total points. Gobert was second with 169.

Durant was the 2017 NBA Finals MVP, and voting for DOPY closed before the playoffs began. But if anyone watched the great playoff run by the Warriors — one where they only lost one game — Green’s importance is easily understood.

Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni wins the 2017 NBA Coach of the Year Award

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Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni is your 2017 NBA Coach of the Year.

If you are a Texan or a fan of the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, today probably feels pretty good.

D’Antoni beat out the second place finisher, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, by 247 total points. D’Antoni grabbed 68 first place votes compared to Spoelstra’s nine.

This last season was an impressive one for D’Antoni, and his pairing with James Harden certainly seemed to excite fans to begin the season. D’Antoni is at least partially responsible for the way a modern NBA offense works, and putting him with one of the most efficient and exciting offensive players in Harden was at least match on paper.

But it was so, so much better on the floor.

D’Antoni immediately moved Harden over to play the point guard position full-time, a real utilization of his passing and scoring skills. The emphasis for Houston all season was getting the ball out often and early, much like it had been in Phoenix. Harden easily played the role of Steve Nash, getting the ball out on the wing to shooters early in transition, leading the break, and running the pick-and-roll in the early offense.

The result was a No. 3 finish in the Western Conference below the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. Harden, a leading MVP candidate, finished the year with averages of 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game. In seasons past a casual fan could find watching the Rocket a chore, with Harden whirling his arms around to draw illogical fouls. This year they became a delight.

Suddenly, the Rockets were out on the break more often and shooting more 3-pointers. They were dunking down lobs. Eric Gordon was shooting the lights out from the arc as a feel good Sixth Man of the Year candidate. It didn’t matter that Harden had somehow upped his free-throw rate to the highest it had been since 2012-13. The Rockets, with Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson, were a dynamo with Harden leading the charge.

It doesn’t seem like an obvious change now, but adding more speed to Harden’s game was something that only a COTY like D’Antoni could have envisioned. With the addition of time, revolutionary ideas often seem like staid practices. They seem simple and blunt, which is why the execution of those ideas is what ends up making those we galvanize in the history of the game so important.

The Rockets lost a Hall of Famer — albeit an aging one — and somehow got 14 wins better. They finished 55-27 after going just .500 a year ago. They added an offense of system that took the extremes of the modern NBA and turned them up to 11.They did all of this with the coach who started that revolution more than a decade ago.

Mike D’Antoni winning the 2017 NBA Coach of the Year is about as good a story as you can get. His career has had all the acts and plot twists of a great narrative, with a rise, a crash in the middle, and a return to glory. Monday’s award puts D’Antoni right back where we thought he should be in Phoenix: at the top.

Warriors’ Bob Myers wins 2017 NBA Executive of the Year

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Give the Golden State Warriors in yet another trophy.

General Manager Bob Myers has won the 2017 NBA Executive of the Year Award, which was announced at the NBA Awards ceremony Monday night.

In a year in which the Golden State Warriors beat their rival Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals — thanks in part to the addition of free agent Kevin Durant — is it any wonder that Myers took home the top brass for an NBA executive?

The Warriors looked dominant even a year removed from their 73-9 season, with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Durant playing perfectly as they stormed through the 2017 NBA playoffs.

It wasn’t until Game 4 the NBA Finals that the Warriors actually lost a game, the only game that the Cavaliers and LeBron James would win in that series.

Golden State is on the verge of a dynasty even as they try to keep their team together. The swiping of Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder was a huge coup, but the real magic for Myers has always been that the Warriors drafted their top three players.

The Warriors let off the gas a little bit in 2017, winning just 67 games on their way to a number one seed in the playoffs this last year.

Congratulations are in order yet again into the Warriors, who won their second NBA championship in three years thanks in part to the guidance of Myers at the helm.