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.

Report: Sixers expected to waive Tibor Pleiss after trade with Jazz

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Tibor Pleiss #21 of the Utah Jazz controls the ball in the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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On Friday, the Jazz traded German center Tibor Pleiss to the Sixers along with two second-round picks for Kendall Marshall. The big draw of the trade for Philly was the picks, and Pleiss is not expected to stay with the Sixers, according to Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia’s Jessica Camerato.

Pleiss had a forgettable season with Utah, and the Sixers have a glut of bigs including Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. It would have been virtually impossible for Pleiss to crack the rotation, and it’s unlikely another team picks up his contract, which has $3 million guaranteed this season.

Jordan releases new Russell Westbrook ad, may include a shot at Kevin Durant

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder (L) and Russell Westbrook #0 look on during a press conference after the Golden State Warriors defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 108-101 in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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.  (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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As a Jordan Brand athlete, Russell Westbrook is under the same Nike umbrella as former teammate Kevin Durant. But his latest Jordan spot, released Friday, has a very pointed tagline: “Some run, some make runways.”

Given the circumstances, it’s hard to interpret that as anything other than a reference to Durant signing with the Warriors and Westbrook signing an extension with the Thunder.

Kobe Bryant on how teams should see Warriors: “‘OK, lace ’em up. Let’s go.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 03:  Retired NBA Champion, CEO, Kobe Inc., Kobe Bryant speaks onstage during 2016 Milken Institute Global Conference at The Beverly Hilton on May 03, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
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For two decades, Kobe Bryant saw everyone and everything as an obstacle to overcome: The Pacers, Sixers, Nets, Magic, Celtics, Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, Smush Parker, a torn Achilles. It didn’t matter. Kobe’s work ethic and drive had him rising above it all.

His focus hasn’t changed now. Kobe was on the Jim Rome show, and the topic of the new-look Warriors with Kevin Durant came up, along with the “woe is me” attitude of some players (and plenty of owners and GMs).

“I would have thought less about myself if I looked at that move and said, ‘That’s unfair,'” he said. “If you’re a real competitor, you look at that and say, ‘OK, lace ’em up. Let’s go. I don’t care how many players you have over there; we’re still going to take you down.'”

Easier said than done to make that happen, but that attitude is the only one to have if you think you have a chance. You can be sure LeBron James is thinking that way and telling his Cavaliers teammates the same.

We’re going to miss Kobe.

 

Report: Dwyane Wade’s cousin killed as innocent bystander in gang shooting in Chicago

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 29:  General manager Gar Forman of the Chicago Bulls (L) listens as Dwyane Wade speaks during an introductory press conference at the Advocate Center on July 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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This news is just sickening. In a world with just too much sickening news.

According to NBC 5 in Chicago (which spoke to police), Dwyane Wade‘s first cousin Nykea Aldridge was pushing a stroller down the street when she was shot and killed as an innocent in the crossfire of a gang shooting.

The 32-year-old woman, whom family identified as Nykea Aldridge, was apparently the unintended victim of a gang shooting, police said. She was walking around 3:30 p.m. in the 6300 block of South Calumet when two males approached another male and opened fire, police said.

Wade tweeted this.

Aldridge was on her way to a local school to register her kids (they had just moved) when the shooting took place. There has been a rash of gang and gun violence in Chicago in the past year, and Dwyane’s mother Jolinda Wade had just been on a panel on ESPN’s Undefeated talking about it.

Wade is coming to play for his hometown Chicago Bulls this season.

Our thoughts are with Nykea Aldridge’s family and friends.