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.

Michael Beasley fouls out in 10 minutes, gets standing ovation (VIDEO)

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Michael Beasley hasn’t played all that much for the New York Knicks. The journeyman forward is 10th in minutes played for the team, and is a bench contributor at this stage in his career.

Beasley appeared to be a bit overexcited to get some run late in Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks, 111-107. Having played just 10 minutes in the game, Beasley quickly racked up three fouls in the span of one minute and 45 seconds.

That earned him his sixth foul — the others were picked up earlier — and a standing ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd after his disqualification.

Via Twitter:

Support your guys, NBA fans, even if they’re out here getting DQ’d after scoring one point and grabbing two rebounds.

Kobe Bryant gave a 30-minute pep talk to the Eagles before Rams game (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant is just about everywhere during retirement. We’ve talked before about how his post-playing career revisionism is one of the greatest works of sports marketing currently underway.

Of course, Ol’ Bean has to take some days off from being a “storyteller” and that includes cheering on his hometown Philadelphia Eagles. Bryant was born in Philly and lived there for various parts of his childhood, of course going pro directly from Lower Merion High School, located in a nearby suburb.

So despite the return of the Los Angeles Rams, it appears that Kobe is still an Eagles fan through and through. He apparently even spoke to the Eagles for half an hour before the team practiced in California on Friday.

Bryant also gave the world a little video message.

Via Twitter:

The bummer news for Eagles fans, of course, was that it was Philadelphia QB and MVP candidate Carson Wentz who was hit high and low on Sunday, and the team fears that he has torn his ACL.

Kobe is looking pretty thick in that jersey. Maybe they should work him out and see if he can’t beat out Nick Foles for the starting job the rest of the season?

Watch Victor Oladipo score a career-high 47 points vs. Nuggets (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo was sent from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Indiana Pacers along with Domantas Sabonis as part of a major trade for Paul George.

Boy, Pacers fans have got to be glad things have turned out the way they have.

Oladipo is having a career season in terms of scoring, rebounding, blocks, 3-point shooting and field goal percentage. His advanced stats look good too, as Oladipo’s efficiency per-100 possessions in many offensive categories have seen a rise to go along with his box score bump.

On Sunday, Oladipo scored a career-high 47 points in an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets, 126-116.

Oladipo’s performance was incredible, adding seven rebounds, six assists, two steals, and a block to go along with his 47 points. Oladipo shot 15-28 from the field, including 6-of-12 from 3-point range, and added 11 points from the free-throw line.

Watch the full highlights of Oladipo’s performance in the video above.

Rumor: NBA executives think Rockets have shot at signing LeBron James

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LeBron James is now rumored to be headed to about 29 NBA teams this summer when he can opt out of his current contract and become a free agent. Earlier this week, we heard rumblings that LeBron could be interested in sharing a Los Angeles Lakers roster with Dallas Mavericks center-at-large Nerlens Noel.

Now we’re hearing that NBA executives think the Houston Rockets have a chance of nabbing The King in the summer of 2018.

All aboard the Banana Boat.

According to USA Today’s Sam Amick, both the Rockets themselves and rival execs think Houston is a real landing spot for James thanks in part to how well they are playing this season. James Harden is having another MVP-caliber year, and Chris Paul has played beautifully in his return.

Via USA Today:

While James has made it clear that he won’t deliberate his uncertain future until the Cavs’ season is complete, there is strong belief in Rockets circles that they’ll have a legitimate shot at landing the four-time MVP this summer. Rival executives also believe the Rockets will have a real chance. And once you really look at it, when you get past all the noise about the Lakers and even the compelling case for the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers, it makes all sorts of sense.

The only team we haven’t heard connecting rumors about is the Cleveland Cavaliers themselves. LeBron — whose family lives in LA — recently bought a new house there and all signs point to James heading to the Western Conference. Well, unless he goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, of course.

Then again it felt like a certainty that LeBron would head to the New York Knicks nearly a decade ago, an idea that seems hilarious in retrospect. The NBA is weird, and if LeBron dips from Cleveland expect it to get even weirder.