ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: The Clippers finished the regular season with a franchise best 56 wins, good enough for the fourth seed in the West and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs over the Memphis Grizzlies.

L.A. went up two games to none in the series, before Memphis came back to win the series in six. Vinny Del Negro wasn’t fired, because his contract was up at season’s end. But he wasn’t offered a new contract, either, and the way the Clippers exited the postseason was viewed as the reason why.

Chris Paul re-upped with a max contract as expected, but not before he was reportedly “angry” over the organization letting it leak that he was the one who forced the parting of ways with Del Negro — something we all knew, and didn’t need anyone on the inside to confirm publicly. All ended well, however, as the Clippers were able to pry Doc Rivers from the Celtics to patrol the sidelines this season.

Last season’s signature highlight: In the last moment before things fell apart in the playoffs, Chris Paul’s game-winner at the Game 2 buzzer sent the Clippers back to Memphis with a 2-0 lead in the series.

Key player changes: The Clippers turned over much of their bench from a season ago, which included trading the young and talented Eric Bledsoe to the Suns. But they’ve appeared to upgrade significantly overall, bolstering the team’s reserve unit for a longer postseason run this time around.

  • IN: J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley were acquired in the three-team trade that sent Bledsoe to Phoenix. Darren Collison, who had success backing up Paul in their days together in New Orleans was signed in free agency, as was former Bobcats big man Byron Mullens. Antawn Jamison was signed to a one-year free agent contract, as well. Reggie Bullock was selected with the 25th overall pick in this summer’s draft. Lou Amundson is in camp on a non-guaranteed deal.
  • OUT: Bledsoe via trade, Chauncey Billups and Ronny Turiaf via free agency, Lamar Odom via … (we’ll leave that alone), and Grant Hill via retirement.

Keys to the Clippers season:

1) DeAndre Jordan, defensive anchor: Doc Rivers has appointed Jordan as the one to singlehandedly transform the defensive unit by becoming its backbone. So far, Jordan is happily embracing that responsibility. During the preseason, Jordan is active, engaged, and energized on the defensive end of the floor — he’s talking nonstop, calling out the other team’s plays followed by how his guys are to adjust, and playing with a fire rarely seen in NBA big men consistently over the course of an 82-game season.

That’s going to be the question with Jordan — is he willing to sustain the effort? With Rivers as his head coach, it’s a safe bet that the answer might be “yes.” And if that’s the case, the Clippers will be an extremely difficult matchup all season long.

2) Creating chemistry: The Clippers have a lot of new pieces to fit together, along with a new (although well-respected and experienced) head coach trying to put them all into place. Some minor injuries have prevented Rivers from truly seeing what he has all at once, and keep in mind, there are guys who may be asked to play smaller yet more important roles this year than they have in seasons past. There haven’t been any issues with it in the preseason, of course, but Rivers knows there could be bumps in the road in that department in the future.

“I don’t know if you can have a chemistry test until you go through adversity, to be honest,” Rivers said before the Clippers faced the Suns during the preseason in Phoenix. “Every team in the league right now is getting along. Once the season starts and rotations are set, the amount of touches you get and all that stuff, then you’ll find out how much we all get along. I think we get along great, but no one knows [yet].”

3) Increased output from Blake Griffin and Chris Paul: Paul is the best point guard in the game, but he may need to increase his production for the Clippers to reach new heights. He averaged 16.9 points and 9.7 assists per game, but is capable of so much more offensively. Now granted, he has plenty of talent surrounding him, and if the ball movement is there and guys do what they’re supposed to, it may work out just fine. But Paul is a killer out there in terms of his competitiveness, and it may not be a bad idea to unleash that on the rest of the league a little more often this season.

As for Griffin, it’s hard to believe he’s entering just his fourth full season. He’s already a beast to deal with down low, but he could use a little more finesse to his game to avoid foul trouble and be able to create offense for himself a little bit more easily. He’s still developing, and if he can make some subtle changes to the way he plays around the basket (think less Anthony Mason and more Karl Malone), his averages of 18 and 8 could see a significant increase.

Why you should watch: Doc Rivers is known for his defensive coaching ability, and the Clippers were 15th out of 16 teams in terms of defensive efficiency in the playoffs. After the first two games against Memphis, they couldn’t slow them consistently or get stops when it mattered. Whether or not the transformation will occur defensively is going to be intriguing, to say the least.

Prediction: The top six teams in the West are all fairly close in terms of overall talent and projected ability to come out atop the Conference standings. But I’ll go ahead and buy into the preseason hype surrounding DeAndre Jordan, and Doc Rivers’ ability to make sure he sustains it all year long. Defense and consistent outside shooting were the major deficiencies this Clippers team was facing, and those needs appear to have been met during the offseason. A 60-win campaign is not out of reach if things fall into place, and a trip to the Western Conference Finals — at minimum — seems to be where the Clippers should land this season.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.

Detroit’s Van Gundy honored for cooperation with media, fans

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons has won the Rudy Tomjanovich Award, which honors an NBA coach for his cooperation with media and fans, as well as excellence on the court.

The Professional Basketball Writers Association announced the winner Friday. Van Gundy was one of five finalists for the award. The others were Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets, Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets, David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.

Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors won the award last season.

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.