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.

If Jeff Hornacek doesn’t work out with Knicks, is David Blatt next in line?

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It’s not fair to judge Jeff Hornacek of his first season as coach of the New York Knicks. Phil Jackson made some poor roster decisions — don’t hire a coach that likes to play fast then go sign Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — and then there was the on again, off again, on again triangle offense looming over everything.

This season Hornacek will sink or swim on his own terms, and his ability to develop Kristaps Porzingis into a true franchise cornerstone and put Tim Hardaway Jr. and other young players in good positions around them.

If not, is former Cavaliers coach David Blatt lurking? Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says it’s something to watch.

Blatt, who has enjoyed tremendous success abroad, owns an impressive resume. No question about it. But you know the old saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And Blatt has connections with people in high places inside the Knicks front office, namely team president Steve Mills and newly hired front office executive Craig Robinson…

Mills is going to give Hornacek every opportunity to succeed in New York but Mills, who is said to have strong opinions about how the team should be coached, also wants to see results. That begins with Hornacek repairing his relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, who did not connect with the head coach last season and ultimately skipped his exit meeting with Jackson, Hornacek and Mills in April.

Repairing that relationship with Porzingis is crucial. We’ll see if Hornacek can do that and get this team moving in the right direction.

Blatt wants to return to the NBA, but his he the guy to connect with Porzingis? Blatt’s problems in Cleveland had far less to do with Xs and Os than it did relationships with players — Blatt was saying he wanted to team to play faster long before Tyronn Lue said that when he took over, but Lue could get players to buy in and listen. Blatt couldn’t. Blatt came in expecting to be handed respect, touting his European resume (that NBA players shrugged at), and demanding deference rather than building partnerships with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Blatt came off as needing to be the smartest guy in the room, always. Basically, Blatt could not handle the player/power dynamic in the NBA (coming out of Europe, where coaches have absolute power, like an American college coach). Has he learned how to deal with it?

Before we get to that question, Hornaced gets his shot. The real test for the Knicks comes after Christmas, when they spend most of a couple of weeks on the road (due to the Grammys coming to Madison Square Garden), it’s a tough couple of weeks, and the team could struggle in that stretch and not recover. Hornacek has to have the team playing well enough, and buying in enough by then, to survive that trip. Do that and he will stick around. If not, the sharks are circling.

Hawks commit more earnestly to rebuild, but enough?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hawks were pretty good without a clear path forward.

Now, they’re pretty bad without a clear path forward.

Luckily for them – and despite their best efforts – they might be bad enough.

Atlanta continued its descent from its 60-win peak two years ago by losing its two best players. The Hawks let Paul Millsap leave for the Nuggets and traded Dwight Howard to the Hornets in what could be described as a salary rearrangement more than a salary dump.

After multiple half-measures toward rebuilding – refusing to offer Al Horford the max, trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for first-round picks – Atlanta finally committed.

Kind of.

The Hawks hedged against full-on tanking by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. Those two big men – Dedmon in his prime, Ilyasova close enough to it – supply enough hustle and basketball intelligence to sabotage a proper tank. Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose teams tend to exceed the sum of their parts, won’t help Atlanta bottom out.

I can see breaking up a team with a playoff chance to torpedo high into the lottery. The Hawks aren’t doing that – not purposefully, at least. It appears they’re trying to remain credibly competitive, which could only undermine their rebuild.

Atlanta is rebuilding around Dennis Schroder, John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The Hawks also have all their own first-rounders plus protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers. But the Houston pick is the only one of those extras that can ever land in the top 10, and that’s just top-three protected this season, a season in which the Rockets project to pick in the low 20s.

Simply, this is not an encouraging asset pool to begin a rebuild with. Atlanta would benefit greatly from a high 2018 pick.

The Hawks just don’t seem interested enough in securing one.

They also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency. Like the 32-year-old Millsap, the 33-year-old Sefolosha had no place on a team mostly rebuilding. The 25-year-old Hardaway could have fit into the next era or even as a trade chip, but not on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Knicks signed him to. Though Atlanta wisely passed on matching, it’s a shame to lose an asset for nothing.

That’s really the story of the Hawks’ descent. Millsap, Horford, Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll all walked in free agency. Atlanta was always reluctant to trade those players for value while it could.

I’m trying to grade only this offseason, not prior decisions. General manager Travis Schlenk took over this offseason, and he has the runway for a patient rebuild.

The Hawks wisely got a first-rounder for taking and buying out Jamal Crawford. Could they have found similar deals rather than signing Dedmon and Ilyasova? Could they have signed younger players instead?

The Hawks might hope they can trade Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million) and Ilyasova (one-year, $6 million) for even greater value, but that comes with complications. Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option for next season, so if his deal goes south, Atlanta is on the hook for another year. (If it goes well, Dedmon will become an unrestricted free agent and – fitting the theme – could just leave.) As a returning player on a one-year contract, Ilyasova can veto any trade.

If the Hawks had re-signed Millsap (and maybe Sefolosha, too), they could have made a decent case to return to the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Atlanta has the NBA’s second-longest active playoff streak, 10 seasons. That isn’t nothing, and continuing it would have been fine.

If the Hawks tried to return to the playoffs and failed, they would have ended up in a similar position to where they are now – somewhere in the lottery, but not necessarily high in it. They could have even traded Millsap – whose Denver deal guarantees him just $61 million over two years – for value.

If the future is murky either way, I’d rather be better in the interim.

Perhaps, Atlanta just tired of losing in the first or second round (though ownership and management has recently changed). That would have been the team’s likely ceiling if it re-signed Millsap.

But I just don’t see winning about 30 games as more pleasurable than reaching the playoffs, even with an early-round exit. A 30-win season doesn’t bring enough value in the draft to offset the difference.

Here’s the good news: The Hawks’ hedging probably didn’t go far enough. They might be downright terrible, anyway – positioning them to draft the elite young talent they badly need to galvanize their rebuild.

This was a D+ effort that stumbled into a slightly more favorable position – i.e., a team that struggles more than it expects.

Offseason grade: C-

Dunker Max Pearce throws down another impressive one (VIDEO)

Via _maxw3ll_ on Instagram
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These are the kinds of dunks that make me ask, should the NBA allow pro dunkers in the All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest. Some years you get the great Zach LaVine shows, but other years it’s down. NBA players need to focus on their game, not highlight dunks.

Guys like Max Pearce on the other hand…

Here is his latest.

But head to his Instagram page and you get to see a lot of dunks like this.

Stay creative 👍🏽 #Flynance 🏆

A post shared by Max Pearce (@_maxw3ll_) on

Warriors sign power forward Georges Niang to training camp contract

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The Golden State roster is locked in with 15 guaranteed contracts set for next season. We know what their opening day roster is going to look like (and it looks like a champion).

But the Warriors need extra bodies for training camp, so enter Georges Niang, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Niang was drafted in the second round, 50th overall, out of Iowa State in 2016, by Indiana. He played just 93 minutes total with the Pacers last season, he didn’t get much of a chance to impress in Summer League, and they moved on waiving him in July. Niang put up numbers in college, but there were questions about if he was athletic enough for the next level.

Staying in the G-League (formerly D-League) keeps him close to his NBA dream. If it doesn’t work out, in future years he can make a good paycheck overseas, but for now he chases the dream.