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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores career-high 44, dedicates game to father

Associated Press
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — After scoring a career-high 44 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo wrote a note on the game ball.

“This is for daddy. We got a win tonight,” the 22-year-old Milwaukee Bucks player said, remembering his father, Charles, who died last month at age 54.

Antetokounmpo scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a dunk that put Milwaukee ahead 111-110 with 11 seconds to go.

After a timeout, Damian Lillard found Jusuf Nurkic running open down the lane, but Antetokounmpo blocked his shot at the basket, sending the 7-foot center crashing to the floor.

Antetokounmpo, starting his fifth NBA season, made 17 of 23 shots with eight rebounds and four assists as Milwaukee kept pace with a Portland team that had dominated its first two opponents. The Bucks star is averaging 38.3 points through three games, up from 22.9 last year, 16.9 in 2015-16 and 12.7 in 2014-15.

“Seventy-nine more. This is just the beginning,” he said, thinking about how many regular-season games remain.

After Nurkic was rejected at the basket, Khris Middleton was fouled and made both free throws.

“They committed two guys to Dame, so somebody was going to be open,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said, referring to Lillard. “Turned out to be Nurk but they made a really good defensive play.”

Lillard scored 26 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter. CJ McCollum also scored 26, and Nurkic had 17 points and 11 rebounds. Tony Snell scored 17 points and Middleton added 16 for Milwaukee.

 

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant ejected at end of loss to Grizzlies

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Stephen Curry is going to get fined for this.

The former MVP was frustrated, his team losing and thinking he was fouled by Mike Conley as he attacked the rim late in the Warriors loss in Memphis Saturday night. Curry threw his mouthpiece at the referee, which deservedly got him ejected instantly.

Durant followed him to the locker room, making a gesture that will earn him a fine as well.

The Warriors are 1-2 to start the season and there are a lot of factors at play. The China trip does this to teams, and throw in three straight trips to the Finals on top of it and it has an impact. The team is a little banged up. However, the biggest issue is their defense is a mess right now.

The Warriors will straighten it out eventually, but the start of the season could be a rough one for them.

Pacers owner says team not for sale, will not be moved from Indianapolis

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There are more than a few NBA owners who are seeing the prices teams are being sold for — the Rockets just sold for a record $2.2 billion — and considering their options. Some other billionaires are looking for teams, several with the goal of packing up the franchise and moving it to their respected hometowns.

Those billionaires need not call Herb Simon. The Pacers owner said the team is not going anywhere, speaking to Gregg Doyel of the IndyStar.

“I want to leave my legacy: This team permanently in Indianapolis,” Simon told IndyStar Friday in an interview at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “That’s my No. 1 goal.”

Simon bought the Pacers in 1983 with his older brother, Melvin — who died in 2009 at age 82. He told IndyStar the team someday will be owned by his 53-year-old son, Steve. Behind the scenes, Steve Simon has been working closely with Pacers Sports and President Rick Fuson for five years — “He knows more about the dollars and cents than I do,” Herb said of his son — and met this week with several department heads.

“If anything happens to me, he’d be taking over,” Herb said, adding that father and son are on the same page: The Pacers are staying in Indianapolis.

Good. That is as it should be.

Indiana is part of America’s basketball heartland, and it should have a team. Pacers fans are smart and loyal, and the team has a long history going back to the ABA, running from Mel Daniels and George McGinnis through Reggie Miller and up to Myles Turner (hopefully he can be on the level of the rest of them someday). They play in the coolest basketball building in the league, one with the history of the sport wolven in.

Indy is the nation’s 27th largest television market, bigger than San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City and other successful NBA franchises. There is no reason the Pacers cannot thrive, so long as ownership is committed.

They are. Which is excellent news for Pacers’ fans.

Stan Van Gundy speaks out again in support of protesting athletes

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy used his team’s trip to Washington to again voice his support for athletes who kneel during the national anthem and his opposition to President Donald Trump.

Van Gundy was asked before Friday night’s game against the Wizards what he hoped would result from the president’s criticism of NFL players who refuse to stand for the anthem and the resulting national dialogue about political activism by professional athletes.

“I don’t know what good can come out of anything the president has said,” Van Gundy said. “As far as the athletes’ protest, I hope people would pay attention to the issues that caused the protest in the first place and realize that we have problem disproportionately with police brutality towards men of color.”

Van Gundy also criticized fans who have booed those athletes because they believe the gesture is disrespectful to the United States military.

“I thought that one of the things the military is fighting for is the American way of life and our values, which I think starts with freedom of speech,” Van Gundy said. “Our country was founded on protest. Otherwise, we would still be a colony of England. You would think people would appreciate non-violent protests that will be made.

“If you don’t stand for freedom of speech and you don’t think those players have the right to freedom of speech, what American values are you for?”

It was not the first time Van Gundy has spoken out on these issues. When Trump was elected last November, Van Gundy told the Detroit Free Press it was the first time he had been “ashamed” of his country.

Last month on the team’s media day, he read a prepared statement in support of athletes who use their visibility for political purposes, including protests during the anthem. The NBA has a policy requiring that players stand for the anthem.

The Pistons’ visit to Washington was their first since Jan. 21, one day after Trump’s inauguration.

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