Doc Rivers embraces high expectations for Clippers

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On paper, the Los Angeles Clippers should be contenders.

In reality, they got eliminated from the playoffs in the first round — they got up 2-0 on Memphis then were swept out of the playoffs. The Clippers started that series with a good plan, the Grizzlies adjusted and Los Angeles had no counters. They went no farther than the Lakers, Hawks or Celtics.

Los Angeles had a good offseason. Now they have shooters — J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley — to go with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They have depth (Jamal Crawford was in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation last year). They have the highest paid coach in the NBA in Doc Rivers.

With that the Clippers have high expectations — and Rivers is embracing them. He told the Los Angeles Times he wants the team to live up to the challenge.

“The expectations are great. I don’t want us to shrink from that at all. I don’t want us to run from that,” he said. “But what we’ve got to get our guys to understand is expectations are one thing. Realization is a whole different thing, and just because you’re expected to do anything doesn’t mean you’ve arrived.

“We have not arrived. We didn’t win a playoff series last year. So we have a lot of work to do as a group. We should expect to do that work. We have to expect that it’s going to be much harder and we have to embrace it and do it.”

Rivers wants changes — despite that athleticism the Clippers were 19th in the NBA in pace of play. The Clippers averaged three fewer possessions per game than their older building mates the Lakers. The Clippers also struggled at time at the ends of games.

“As athletic as we are, we didn’t run enough. We have to get up and down the floor more offensively. We have to do a better job of our spacing offensively. And we have to find a way to close games. Over anything, that’s what stands out. We have to execute as a group better. Each guy has to buy into that execution, and so there’s things we have to do.”

As I have said before, the offense isn’t going to be an issue for the Clippers — they were fourth best in the NBA in points per possession last year and they added good shooters to space the floor. They will be a top three NBA offense (and maybe No. 1). Where Rivers has to improve the team is defense, that is where the inconsistencies cost them at the end of games.

If Rivers gets his faster pace, his improved defense and better execution at the end of games he will have earned that $7 million a year contract. And the Clippers will be serious contenders.

Report: Rival executives still expect Paul George to leave Thunder for Lakers

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Paul George has been pretty open about his plans.

He told plenty of people – including the Pacers – he planned to leave for the Lakers in the summer of 2018. Even after the Thunder traded for him, George spoke of the lure of playing for his hometown team.

Of course, George also left the door open to re-signing with Oklahoma City. He proclaimed he’d be dumb to leave if the Thunder reached the conference finals or upset the Warriors.

So far, Oklahoma City (12-14) doesn’t even look like a playoff lock, let alone a team capable of knocking off Golden State or reaching the conference finals. So, cue the inevitable speculation.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Rival execs still expect Paul to head for the Lakers in free agency

Do these executives have inside information into George’s thinking, or are they just speculating based on already-available information? Some executives are incentivized to drum up the Lakers threat, because they want to trade for George themselves now. If these executives insist George will leave for Los Angeles regardless, they might pry him from Oklahoma City for less.

There’s also a theory George is hyping his desire to sign with the Lakers so a team would have to trade less for him. That got him to the Thunder for what looked like a meager return (but hasn’t been). It might get him to a more favorable situation before the trade deadline without hampering his next team long-term. Of course, this theory isn’t mutually exclusive with George actually signing in Los Angeles. It could just get him better options to choose from this summer.

Surely, the Thunder are trying to parse all this noise. If their season doesn’t turn around, they should explore flipping George rather than risk losing him for nothing next summer. But they should also be wary that he’ll bolt for Los Angeles at first opportunity just because rival executives predict it.

LeBron James feels for Lonzo Ball: “The kid hasn’t said anything”

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Lonzo Ball is actually quiet and clearly isn’t comfortable talking about himself. That may not be the perception because of the swirling vortex of Kardashianesq publicity around him — drummed up by his father, whose Big Baller Brand is making money with pop-up shops and a reality series on Facebook, if not preparing his boys for a life in basketball — but Lonzo seems able to tune that out and focus on the game.

LeBron James likes that about the rookie.

Ball has called LeBron the best player in the game and the guy he looks up to, and the day before the Lakers and Cavaliers meet LeBron told Dave McMenamin of ESPN he sees some parallels between himself and Ball in terms of being drafted as a franchise savior.

“The kid hasn’t said anything,” James told ESPN when asked about the hype surrounding Ball. “It’s been everybody else. So, I love his humility. He goes out, every time someone asks him a question, he says, ‘This is not about me, man. I just want to win. I don’t care about what I did.’ I seen he had a triple-double one game and they lost. He was like, ‘I don’t care. We lost.’

“So, can I draw any parallel to my experience? I mean, of course. I guess when you’re drafted to a franchise, they want you to kind of be the savior. And it takes a while. I mean, listen, man, this guy is 20-something games into his pro career. S— doesn’t happen [that fast]. Here it goes again, it goes back to my instant oatmeal [quote]: Everybody wants it right away. Can he play ball? Absolutely. The kid can play ball. Do guys want to play with him? Absolutely, because it’s a guy who is not about him. It’s about the success of the team. And he gives the ball up, and he passes the ball, and there’s energy behind the ball.”

Ball is keeping his head down and working on his game as much as circumstances allow. He’s developing good chemistry with the potential core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and others. However, obviously, the basketball side is still a work in progress. Ball has shown flashes this season (as he did against the Knicks), his energy and pushing of the pace have been good for the team, but Ball still struggles with his shot, his decision making is inconsistent, and his defense needs work (but is better than predicted).  He’s improving, but it’s a process.

Basically, Ball is a rookie.

And like all rookies, how much work he puts in and how he develops, if he can get the out of his talent, will determine the course of his career. Not his dad, not the hype, not the shoes, it comes down to his game — and that remains a work in progress. Right now I’m not sure he makes the NBA All-Rookie team at the end of the season, but that doesn’t mean much because it’s about where he is in three years. Is he a future All-Star? Maybe. Is he going to be a good, not great, NBA point guard? Maybe. Could he be playing in Europe (with his brothers?) in five years? It doesn’t seem likely but it’s not off the table. There’s a lot of potential in his game, and it’s up to Luke Walton and the Lakers to bring it out.

But you have to like the way Lonzo has handled himself. LeBron recognizes that.

LaVar Ball is just lucky that the level-headed and focused Lonzo was his oldest child.

 

Thunder’s Paul George expects boos in return to Indiana tonight

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George knows the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse well enough to expect a rude reception when he returns for the first time.

George spent seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers, and the four-time All-Star helped them reach the Eastern Conference Finals twice. After last season, George’s camp made it clear Indiana didn’t figure into his long-term plans, so the disappointed Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis rather than risk getting nothing in return for him.

Indiana fans value loyalty – the player they hold in the highest regard, Reggie Miller, stayed with the Pacers for 18 years. They had their hearts broken back in 2005-06 when Ron Artest demanded a trade, the first step in the dismantling of a nucleus the Pacers expected to compete for NBA titles for years to come.

George, also a one-time centerpiece to Indiana’s title hopes, is gone, too. He figures boos will rain down as a result.

“I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way,” he said. “The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans, so that’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m going to embrace that. I’m going to thrive on that. It’s going to give me the energy to play better.”

Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony will be in a similar situation when the Thunder visit the New York Knicks on Saturday. Anthony was sent to Oklahoma City in the offseason after he waived a no-trade clause.

“When he gets booed, we get booed,” Anthony said. “We’re in this together. We understand the situation. I’m pretty sure he’s going to embrace that situation, and we’re going to help him embrace that situation, and as a team, we’re going to help him embrace that situation.”

George’s transition has been a bit bumpy. He is playing outstanding defense, yet still getting comfortable on offense alongside Anthony and Russell Westbrook. He’s averaging 20.6 points on 42 percent shooting overall and 41 percent shooting from 3-point range and leads the league with 2.4 steals per game. The team has struggled to a 12-14 record.

“We’re not enjoying these losses but we’re enjoying the grind,” George said. “We’re enjoying the battles, we’re enjoying the targets on our backs. We’re enjoying everything that brought this team together.”

The trade seems to be just what Oladipo needed. After Monday’s games, he ranked 10th in the league with 24.5 points per game, and the Pacers were No. 5 in the Eastern Conference with a 16-11 record.

“I think he’s just in attack mode,” George said. “He’s aggressive. He’s confident. You can tell he’s worked extremely hard over this past summer, and Indy has given him the keys. You’ve got a young team around, a fresh locker room. It’s a lot of positive energy over there. They are playing well. They are playing good basketball.”

Oladipo downplayed Wednesday’s game in his typical low-key manner. He said he still is friends with his former Thunder teammates and the game simply is about handling business.

“I look forward to every game, every game I play,” he said. “This is just another game, just another game that we’ve got to win. Obviously, you guys and the fans want to blow it up, which is fine. But we have to go out and play Pacers basketball.”

Anthony preferred to stir the pot. He believes the expected hostile environment in Indianapolis will provide an opportunity to build team unity.

“We’ve got to be ready for that because it’s us against the whole (state of) Indiana,” Anthony said. “Not just the Pacers, but the whole Indiana. I think Paul is ready for it. As a professional, as a competitor, it’s kind of bittersweet because you spent so much time and you want a different reaction from the people you put a lot of work in for, you fought for and you competed for. But then again, you want to go in there and have a good game. You want to win.”

 

Marc Gasol said he would accept trade, but are Grizzlies ready to do that?

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“We have no intention to trade Marc. We never seriously considered that at all. We never placed any calls to any teams in that regard. So that’s not happening. It’s not just Marc that this whole equation is about. It’s also Mike Conley, when he comes back. We’ve got two guys among the elite in the league at their respective positions that are still very much in their window with an awful lot of tread left on their tires.”

That was Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace, just after he fired coach David Fizdale is what the GM called an attempt to save the season. Since then the Grizzlies are 1-7, they are second to last in the Western Conference and five games out of the final playoff slot in the West, ground they are not going to make up.

The “grit ‘n grind” era is over in Memphis, and this is now a team searching for an identity and wins. They have banked heavily on an older core of guys with injury histories (Gasol, Conley, Chandler Parsons), and hoped a few younger players — JaMychal Green, Dillon Brooks, James Ennis — could pick them up. It hasn’t panned out.

Is it time to revisit the idea of a Gasol trade? Gasol himself told Zach Lowe of ESPN he’d be open to it if it was what was best for the franchise. However, he grew up in Memphis (while his older brother Pau Gasol played there) and is very loyal to the city and organization. Gasol is not asking to be traded.

“I have a responsibility to this city,” Gasol says. “I’m not gonna quit, no matter what.” What if Memphis fell 30 games under .500? Gasol shakes his head. “I would want to see how we got there — what the process is,” Gasol says. “But as long as [owner] Robert [Pera] wants me here, my teammates want me here, they think I’m part of the solution — and not part of the problem — that’s all I need.” (Gasol still denies he asked for Fizdale to be fired, though the tension between them was real, sources say.)

If the team came to him with a trade, Gasol would accept it. “If they think it is best, I would do anything for this franchise,” Gasol says.

You have to admire that loyalty, in a business where neither players nor organizations often show it (fans do, which is why they feel burned by the likes of Paul George or Kevin Durant).

That said, from the outside, it looks like the Grizzlies have reached a point where it would be better for both parties to move on.

There is one other complicating factor in here: The Grizzlies ownership situation. To make a complicated business transaction simple, two of Memphis’ minority owners — Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus — have exercised their option to make an offer for primary owner Robert Pera’s 30 percent and controlling interest of the team. Either Pera buys out the other two, or he gets bought out, and whichever side stays runs the team.

This matters because trading Gasol and starting a rebuild is an ownership decision, not simply a call made by the GM. This is going to impact the team and revenue in a way that the owner will have the final say (the owner of a team technically has the final say on everything, how involved those owners are varies team to team, but even a more absentee owner such as Pera would have to okay starting a rebuild like this).

We’ll see, but my guess is Memphis makes its moves over the summer. This season they are going to say all the right things about winning, and probably can string together enough wins to hurt their draft position without making the playoffs.