Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns

The Extra Pass: Eric Bledsoe’s path from afterthought to building block; plus Sunday’s recaps

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In Eric Bledsoe’s final game with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, he played nine minutes and 28 seconds.

In that game, the Memphis Grizzlies scored 118 points despite possessing what most would consider a below-average offense.

Mike Conley, a player Bledsoe has routinely shut down throughout his career, went to the free throw line 17 times.

All while Bledsoe sat.

This wasn’t particularly uncommon throughout Bledsoe’s tenure with the Clippers. For whatever reason, the explosive young guard was never seen as a viable partner in the same backcourt as Chris Paul, despite Paul’s supernatural ability to set his teammates up perfectly.

It’s not like the Paul-Bledsoe backcourt was a failed experiment, either. Although they shared the court for just 185 minutes, the Clippers posted an offensive efficiency of 115.9 (which would be the best in the league, by far) and a net efficiency of +11.1 points. Not only did Paul and Bledsoe work well together, but Bledsoe worked better than any other “true shooting guard” did next to Paul.

The inability to think outside of the box made Bledsoe expendable for the Clippers, which in turn made him a bargain for someone else.

That someone was Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough. Somehow, McDonough flipped a player with no athleticism who had reached his ceiling (Jared Dudley) for a player with all the athleticism and no ceiling.

It didn’t matter that the Suns already had a point guard in Goran Dragic, because any fears of fit were largely unsubstantiated in the first place.

So far this year, Dragic and Bledsoe have played 310 minutes together and have a net efficiency rating of +4.7 together.

More importantly, Phoenix’s most commonly used lineup with Bledsoe and Dragic has a net rating of +9.6, which ranks fifth in the entire league for lineups that have played over 150 minutes together.

Bledsoe didn’t have many doubters individually, but this pairing did. Any questions have been largely put to rest, though, as the Suns are the only team in the NBA with a starting backcourt comprised of two players with a PER over 20.

After vanquishing the more highly regarded “Splash Brothers” backcourt of Golden State on Sunday night, Phoenix is officially red hot. Five straight wins won’t melt away the talks of rebuilding or trading Dragic altogether, but Bledsoe has given McDonough the same flexibility off the court that he gives the Suns on it.

-D.J. Foster  

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Kings 106, Rockets 91: Here is my key takeaway from this game — DeMarcus Cousins completely outplayed Dwight Howard. Cousins had 21 points on 14 shots plus pulled down 10 boards, and he held Howard to 13 points. Rudy Gay dropped 26, Isaiah Thomas had 11 of his 19 in the second quarter when the Kings took control of the game. Houston’s league-best offense got open looks but simply didn’t hit them (they were 3-of-8 from the midrange and shot 25 percent from three).

Timberwolves 101, Grizzlies 93: Minnesota took the lead with a 17-4 run in the first quarter and while Memphis made it interesting at points (Mike Conley’s 15 pints in the third quarter helped that) the Timberwolves never trailed. Kevin Love put up 31 points and had 9 boards, but he also played good post defense on Zach Randolph to help keep the Grizzlies attack under control. Love can play straight up post D pretty well (when he avoids fouls).

Trail Blazers 111, Pistons 109: Detroit fell victim to one of the classic blunders — the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” — but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never get in a close game with the Trail Blazers!” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! (Seriously this team just does not lose close games, only once this season to Monta Ellis and the Mavs, aside that they just make shots at the end of games. It was Damian Lillard’s turn this time to throw the dagger.)

Thunder 101, Magic 98: If you were expecting a blowout that’s what you got, with OKC leading comfortably most of the second half, until an 18-4 Magic run late in the fourth quarter made it interesting. Arron Afflalo had 9 of his 25 in the fourth quarter and had a key three to cut the Thunder lead to four with less than a minute. Next a Mo Harkless dunk cut it to two. Kevin Durant split two free throws and the Magic got one last shot to tie — but a Glen Davis fadeaway three was not what they had in mind. Durant had 28 points to lead everyone.

Nuggets 102, Pelicans 93: A lot of Denver players pitched into this one, but it was two guards who were really key. One was Ty Lawson, who had an awful game in the loss to the Jazz, but he bounced back with a good game (12 points, 8 assists) directing the offense. The other was Nate Robinson off the bench with 14 points, but you know he can score; it was a couple key blocks and some good defense we didn’t expect that really mattered. Ryan Anderson had 26 for the Hornets but he was 10-of-21 shooting and missed a lot of good looks.

Suns 106, Warriors 102: The backcourt of Eric Gordon and Goran Dragic stood toe-to-toe with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in this one — the Suns/ starting backcourt had 45 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds. (For the record, the Warriors starting backcourt had 49 points.) Credit the Suns defense for forcing turnovers on 19.3 percent of the Warriors possessions (they have been turnover prone lately). Also, the Warriors miss Andre Iguodala as teams load up on Curry to prevent his threes.

Report: Bulls pushing to trade for 76ers’ Jahlil Okafor

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 14: Jahlil Okafor #8 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks to pass against Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on December 14, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Bulls reportedly reached out to the 76ers about Jahlil Okafor a few weeks ago.

After unfulfilled intrigue and maybe a trade that fell through, Okafor remains in Philadelphia. And Chicago apparently still wants him.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

As constituted, the Bulls already have a few interior bigs: Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson and Cristiano Felicio. But one or more could go in an Okafor trade or another deal.

Okafor would make the Chicago younger, confusing its direction with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade already in place.

Perhaps, the Bulls are pushing for a trade only because they’re offering so little. Okafor’s low-post game offers intrigue. At the right price, he’d be worth adding, no matter the fit and direction presented.

Maybe the 76ers don’t go for a lowball offer, but that’d be worth trying considering their center logjam with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. Otherwise, Chicago ought to tread carefully when pursuing Okafor.

Report: 76ers trading Ersan Ilyasova to Hawks for Tiago Splitter, picks

Atlanta Hawks guard Mike Dunleavy blocks the shot of Philadelphia 76ers forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 110-93. (AP Photo/John Amis)
AP Photo/John Amis
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The 76ers have played like a 64-win team when Joel Embiid and Ersan Ilyasova share the court and a 20-win team otherwise, using data from nbawowy!.

That’s helpful for Philadelphia, which is learning what type of player — a stretch four — works best with its franchise player.

But the Hawks can use more than just a lesson in the idea of Ersan Ilyasova. They can use actual Ersan Ilyasova.

And Atlanta will get him.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated:

Atlanta stills sound intent on keeping Paul Millsap, so Ilyasova will likely back him up. Ilyasova should work particularly well with Dwight Howard, whose interior play was a key factor in ushering in this stretch-four era by covering for the lighter power forward next to him.

In the last 21 months, Ilyasova has been traded five times: from the Bucks to the Pistons to the Magic to the Thunder to the 76ers and now to the Hawks. They can probably count on the veteran to settle in quickly as they try to improve their position in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Atlanta is fifth, closer to third than sixth.

Both Ilyasova and Splitter have expiring contracts. The advantage of Splitter, who has missed the Hawks’ last 90 games, is that his full compensation counts toward the floor apparently without Philadelphia actually having to play all of his salary.

Plus, those picks could help the 76ers in a season where they can win something meaningful — like the Hawks have decided this season is for them.

Report: Other NBA executives believe Pacers not seriously shopping Paul George

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers in action during the NBA match between Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets at the O2 Arena on January 12, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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The Pacers are reportedly shopping Paul George, trying to line up a trade if they can’t get him help in another deal.

But it’s hard to find anyone who believes Indiana is genuinely looking to trade George before the upcoming trade deadline.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

If the Pacers are serious about trading George, they better convince other teams quickly. That’s the only way to draw out the best offers.

But it makes sense Indiana is only in the exploratory stage.

The Pacers — and only the Pacers — could offer George a designated-veteran-player contract extension (projected to be worth about $209 million over five years) this offseason if he makes an All-NBA team.

That’s probably a longshot. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James are locks for three of the six forward spots. Anthony DavisJimmy ButlerDraymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo should also rank ahead of George. Gordon HaywardPaul MillsapKevin Love are firmly in the mix, too. That’s a lot of ground to make up and other contenders to fend off.

But it’s likely worth it for the Pacers to keep George past the deadline and let him try. The upside is so high.

If George doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Indiana could always trade him at any point before the next trade deadline. He could also qualify as a designated veteran player by making a 2017-18 All-NBA team and re-signing as a free agent in 2018, but by then, it’d be too late for the Pacers to trade him if they don’t have the major financial advantage.

At some point, Indiana could ask George to pledge to stay for his max, whatever that winds up being. That wouldn’t be binding, but his response could be telling.

For now, if I were the Pacers, I’d hope he makes All-NBA this year and dare him to reject the designated-veteran-player extension. If he qualifies and turns that down, that would absolutely be telling.

But I’d also be exploring the trade market now, hoping for an offer that knocks my socks off but more realistically gaining understanding for when dealing George becomes more logical.

Report: Clippers’ Chris Paul cleared, could play against Warriors on Thursday

Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul shoots as Portland Trail Blazers' Al-Farouq Aminu watches during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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Chris Paul tore a ligament in his left thumb last month, and the Clippers announced he’d miss 6-8 weeks.

He could return just over five weeks after injury, when the Clippers face the Warriors on Thursday.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers, via Andrew Han of ESPN:

“He looked great. He went through the whole practice [on Tuesday]. You know, so it was good. Really good,” Rivers said before practice on Wednesday. “He could play tomorrow. I mean, I can’t tell you if he will or not, but he’s been cleared medically. But we just want to make sure that he’s comfortable playing.”

The Clippers have slid to fourth in the West, leading the fifth-place Jazz by just half a game. It’s probably too late to catch the third-place Rockets, who are five games up. But maintaining home-court advantage in the first round is important.

Paul should help.

The Clippers remain dangerous when healthy. They’ve outscored teams by 15.1 points per 100 possessions when Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick share the court. With those four, they score and defend at rates that would lead the league if it weren’t for Golden State’s historic offensive rating.