Los Angeles Clippers' Paul puts his arm around teammate Griffin during NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies in Los Angeles

The Extra Pass: How the Clippers Grew Up

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the maturation of the Los Angeles Clippers.

For years and years, the Los Angeles Clippers were a failure on a systemic level. The on-court talent was faced with the permanent uphill battle of overcoming the ineptness of the franchise’s negligent caretaker and owner, Donald Sterling.

Very rarely did the whole overcoming thing actually happen. It happened so infrequently, actually, that calling the Clippers the worst franchise in professional sports wasn’t mud slinging, but rather an accurate moniker.

When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul last year, he understood the gravity of his decision to adopt the abused franchise as his own. Being great on the court simply wouldn’t be enough — he would have to be the new caretaker, the franchise’s new parent. After all, Sterling sure as hell wasn’t doing it, and for as great as Blake Griffin was, he was still just a kid trying to figure out his own game. The responsibility was squarely on Paul’s shoulders.

Like most new parents, Paul accepted that responsibility with a type of fervor that could be considered, at times, a little overbearing. The Clippers were now an extension of Paul, so everything was watched and controlled with an overly careful eye that only a great point guard can possess.

During their inaugural season together, the Clippers would often stumble through three quarters to teams with less talent, only to hope, or know, that Paul would bail them out in the last few minutes. And more often than not, Paul would play the role of both hero and enabler and come through.

The Clippers had managed to become a very good team throughout that process, but all their hopes stayed completely dependent on Paul’s performance. The rest of the team was generally incapable of any real success without Paul holding their hand, and in some ways, Paul was at least partially responsible for allowing the team to establish such a heavy dependence on his late game offensive heroics.

The playoff sweep at the hands of the Spurs was a reflection of this. With Paul banged up and limited by a defense hellbent on stopping him, the Clippers had little else to fall back on in terms of both experience and scheme. While they had ultimately changed for the better with Paul as a parent during that first season, the Clippers as a whole still had yet to mature.

With the guidance of Paul, the Clippers went into the offseason looking to speed up that maturation process. Their youngest substantial free agent signing was 32-year-old Jamal Crawford. They brought in traveled players like Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes, and secured Chauncey Billups as the first act of business.

Those signings obviously matured the team on paper, but it was Paul who did the actual advancing. Instead of conserving energy for when his heroics would be needed in the fourth quarter like the prior season, Paul changed his approach this year by using his energy right away so the team wouldn’t need him at all — a real “teach a man to fish” move.

Behind Paul’s inspired first quarter play, the Clippers have had a much improved defense (18th in defensive efficiency last year to 4th this season), thanks to the example he’s established. If you flip to a telecast of a Clippers game in the fourth quarter this year, there’s a decent chance Paul will be seated on the bench, watching a suffocating second unit put the bow on another blowout win because Paul did his damage so early.

Playing that hard defensively early on accomplished a few different things for the Clippers. It made them the league’s most dominant defense against opposing point guards, something they can really hang their hat on. It sent the message that he trusted the depth behind him. It emphasized the importance of no player taking possessions off. The Clippers aren’t accomplishing what they are defensively with a scheme like Chicago’s or Boston’s — it’s almost all driven by effort.

A test for the Clippers’ progress defensively came about rather recently when they traveled to Memphis for another game in a long line of slugfests. This time, however, they’d be without their biggest puncher in Paul, who was sidelined with a knee injury.

How did they respond? Well, the Clippers held the Grizzlies to 30 percent shooting and destroyed them in their own house, 99-73. True to form, the game was essentially over in the third quarter.

On the very next night, the Clippers headed to Houston. All the excuses were readily available — they were on a back-to-back, on the road, without Chris Paul, against the league’s fastest team. But they won big again, going up by as much as 20 early in the fourth quarter before cruising the rest of the way.

An interesting narrative popped up after the impressive victories. How could Chris Paul be considered a real MVP candidate if his team was great — maybe even better — without him in the lineup for a few games? It’s a direct hit to the “valuable” part of the equation, isn’t it?

When considering that, I can’t help but be reminded of the conclusion of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye.” The “little brother” of Los Angeles is reaching for that ring, and while Paul is still responsible for the Clippers, he’s mature enough to know that his teammates won’t learn anything if he does everything himself. He’s mature enough to know that repeatedly gearing up and saving them in the moment last year didn’t actually save the Clippers from anything at all.

It’s true, the Clippers don’t need Chris Paul in every waking moment anymore. It’s clear that they’ve grown out of that.

And if that’s not a reflection on Paul’s value, I don’t know what it is.

Miami Heat to retire Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey next season

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Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 32 jersey already hangs in the rafters at Staples Center for the Lakers.  He’s getting a statue there, too.

Next season, he will have his number retired on the other warm southern coast, this time in Miami.

The Heat have announced they will retire Shaq’s No. 32 jersey next season.

“Shaquille O’Neal is one of the truly elite players in the history of the game and one of the greatest players to ever wear a Heat uniform,” team president Pat Riley said in a released statement. “He took us to another level as a basketball franchise while leading us to our first NBA championship. Retiring his number in the rafters, along with Heat greats Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, is something we are very proud of.”

Riley left out that the Heat also retired Michael Jordan’s 23, and Dan Marino’s 12 also hangs in the rafters of the arena. Neither of those make much sense, but whatever.

Shaq played three-and-a-half seasons in Miami, averaging 19.6 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. Shaq was a three-time All-Star with the Heat and was at the heart of the franchise’s first title, along with Dwyane Wade… and Mark Cuban would tell you the officials. But that’s another discussion. He was also bitter after being traded to Phoenix and slammed Miami management and players on his way out the door.

Time heals all wounds.

Bull for Bull: Pau Gasol to replace Jimmy Butler in All-Star Game

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 6:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls prepares to shoot a free throw against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 6, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Jimmy Butler is out of the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto this weekend due to a strained knee. Which suck, because he earned that spot, and while the fans didn’t vote him in the coach’s did.

Butler’s teammate Pau Gasol will replace him.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gets to make the call on a replacement, and he stayed in Chicago, but he added a front court player to replace a guard. Keeping a Bulls representative might have been part of the thinking. The coaches’ votes on replacement players has been weighed in the past (Gasol may have been high on that list, coaches love him). Also, the East roster has a lot of wings and was light on bigs (Andre Drummond, Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh are the only real bigs), so this gives coach Tyronn Lue some flexibility up front.

The East leading Cleveland Cavaliers remain with just one representative, LeBron James (voted in by the fans).

Gasol is averaging 17 points, 10.9 rebounds, and a couple blocks a game, and is the only thing close to a consistent performer the Bulls have. Besides the injured Butler.

Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler out 3-4 weeks with strained knee

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It was concerning when it happened — Jimmy Butler injured his knee and had to be taken off the court on a stretcher.

But then the reports came back saying the X-rays were negative, this was just a strain. Butler was going to miss some time, but the question was how much?

Turns out, 3-4 weeks — including the All-Star Game, the team announced Tuesday. From the official team press release:

Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler was re-examined by Bulls Head Team Physician Brian Cole.  Butler is expected to miss the next three to four weeks with a strained left knee. Butler has begun rehabbing his injury and he will be allowed to engage in all activities as tolerated with the primary goal of maintaining his conditioning over the ensuing weeks.

Butler is the Bulls best player, averaging 22.4 points a game and handling a lot of the shot creation for the team (along with Derrick Rose, who was out Monday injured). The Bulls offense is 1.6 points per 100 possessions better when Butler plays, plus he usually draws the other team’s best wing player as his defensive assignment.

Following an ugly loss to the Hornets Monday night, the Bulls are now 5-12 in their last 17 games. Since Joakim Noah went out for the season with an injured shoulder in particular, their defense has struggled. They still have no offensive identity.  Chicago has fallen to the seven seed in the West, just 1.5 games ahead of Charlotte and falling out of the playoffs completely. This injury is simply going to add to that slide.

The Bulls thought they were the team that could challenge Cleveland for supremacy in the East at the start of the season. Now they may need a late push just to make the playoffs.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will pick his All-Star Game replacement. In the past, he has picked the player highest in the fan voting not selected as a reserve, in this case that would be Kyrie Irving. But Silver can go any direction he chooses.

Report: George Karl to remain Kings coach following face-to-face meeting with GM

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George Karl isn’t going anywhere as coach of the Sacramento Kings after all.

At least for now.

Marc Stein of ESPN, who had the report that the Kings decided to fire Karl during the All-Star Break — now says the two sides have sat down and hashed things out. For now.

Those first reports went too far down the line, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

First things first, the Kings are a leaky organization right now. Which is never a good sign.

This has become a power struggle in the organization — DeMarcus Cousins has said the Kings’ problems go beyond the players, and he is known not to be a fan of Karl (Rajon Rondo is the coach’s biggest supporter because Karl gives him a green light). Owner Vivek Ranadive remains too impatient, stability is needed.

But there are still big picture questions to be answered.

Ranadive, with Vlade Divac, needs to sit down and set the long-term course for this team, including style of play they want to have, then decide if Karl can be part of that future. Also, if Cousins can be part of that future. If those two can be part of the future together (I’m not sure they can).

There needs to be more meetings with the Kings, and then this summer some significant decisions must be made. But doing it now at the All-Star break isn’t going to change anything. So Karl stays.