Paul Pierce’s move to power forward adds twist to his career, Brooklyn Nets’ season

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BOSTON – On Paul Pierce’s first defensive possession as the Brooklyn Nets’ full-time starting power forward, Serge Ibaka backed him down on the block. Pierce bodied Ibaka, keeping him out of the paint, and Ibaka threw the ball away.

On the Oklahoma City Thunder’s next possession, Ibaka posted up Pierce again. Pierce hardly yielded an inch as Ibaka settled for a turnaround jumper. Airball.

“He’s always telling us how he can lock everybody up that tries to post him up,” Nets center Mason Plumlee said with a laugh. “He’s done that, pretty much.”

Pierce – the NBA’s shortest and maybe most surprising – starting power forward certainly doesn’t lack the confidence to excel in his new position.

Nor the ability defend post-ups.

He’s held opponents to 35.3 percent shooting and forced a turnover on 25.9 percent of post-up plays finished against him, according to MySynergySports. Overall, he’s allowed .64 points per post-up – 16th best in the entire NBA.

A small forward his entire career, Pierce was always crafty and strong enough to handle players his size. But his ability to routinely defend the post-ups of bigger players, often through sheer physicality, has been impressive.

In every other way, though, Pierce hardly looks the part of a power forward – beginning with his 6-foot-7 frame, shortest among the NBA’s 30 starters at the position. Even in era of small ball, Pierce at power forward adds a little wonkiness on both sides of the court.

But wonkiness seems to be exactly what Pierce, who’s reinventing himself at age 36, and the Nets need.

Brooklyn started the season 10-21, but once Brook Lopez suffered a season-ending foot injury, Jason Kidd turned to small ball and turned his team’s fortunes. Since the change, conveniently timed with the flip of the calendar from 2013 to 2014, the Nets have gone 20-9.

Of teams’ most-used lineups, the Nets’ – Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – has been the NBA’s second best with a net rating +15.9 (offensive rating: 103.9/defensive rating: 88.1).

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But Brooklyn’s most-used lineup has played fewer minutes (122 all season) than any other team’s most-used, so sample-size caveats apply.

Still, with with Garnett out injured and Plumlee replacing him as a starter, that lineup has been even better (116.8/86.1/+30.7). Though in just 59 minutes sample-size issues are even more relevant, it seems as long as the Nets go small, they can’t help but stumble into a productive lineup.

For Pierce, whose career appeared to be wilting just a few months ago, the results have been nearly as dramatic.

The slippage began to show during the Celtics’ first-round loss to the Knicks last season. In that series, Pierce posted negative win shares, shooting 37 percent from the field and 27 percent on 3s and turning the ball over more than five times per game.

His first couple months with Brooklyn didn’t go much better, as he posted a PER of 13.6 in 2013. That would have been first below-average PER of Pierce’s career. At 36 and on an expiring contract, he appeared nearing retirement.

By moving to power forward, though, Pierce has increased his season PER to 16.1. That would still be a career low, but it’s solidly above average and ranks fifth on a playoff team.

Careers have been extended – or ended – on less.

Despite all his progress as a quirky small-ball four, the position carries dangers. Whenever Brooklyn’s center gets pulled away from the basket, to defend a pick-and-roll or otherwise, Pierce is often left as the last line of defense near the basket.

In the third quarter of Pierce’s re-return to Boston on Friday, Celtics center-of-the-moment Kris Humphries drove past Plumlee on the perimeter. Pierce slide over and took a charge – and a Humphries elbow deep into his right shoulder.

Pierce immediately went to the bench and sat, grabbing his shoulder and wincing.

Even when Pierce succeeds as a backline defender – a difficult assignment for him – he exposes an area of his body that has bothered him for years.

“Whenever I get hit in that shoulder, just I guess the constant years of banging – especially now that I’m playing the four,” Pierce said.

But Pierce – unlike his partner in crime, Garnett, who openly hates shifting to center – seems to be in no hurry to change the small-ball lineups that feature him at power forward.

“That’s our style. It’s no secret. We’re a small team,” Pierce said. “We don’t rebound well. We force turnovers. We shoot 3s.”

Pierce certainly does his part to contribute to those trends.

  • His total-rebounding percentage (10.0) ranks in the bottom five of starting power forwards. Only Shane Battier, Wesley Johnson, Josh McRoberts and Thaddeus Young are lower.
  • Pierce’s steal rate (2.0) is his highest since 2004-05. He excels at jumping in front of passes to power forwards whom other bigs typically couldn’t get around quickly enough.
  • Pierce has taken 39.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, easily a career high. Because he’s tangling for defensive rebounds more and isn’t as exactly as quick as he once was, Pierce, shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc, is one of NBA’s more dangerous trailers.

Can Pierce keep this up? Has becoming a power forward saved his career?

“It’s not about being a four,” Kidd said. “He’s a basketball player. So, he’s out there taking advantage of maybe a bigger guy. But his basketball IQ is extremely high, so he knows how to play no matter what position he’s in.”

Clippers make changes, but progress?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Chris Paul is fantastic, the best point guard between Magic Johnson and Stephen Curry.

Paul’s departure might also help the Clippers – in the short- and long-term.

The same unrelenting unacceptance of anything less than perfection that drives Paul to personal greatness can also grate those around him. J.J. Redick spoke openly of a loss of joy. After six seasons together, Paul’s message might have worn especially thin on Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. This could be a breath of fresh air in the locker room.

L.A’s return in the trade with the Rockets – Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and a first-round pick – certainly softens the blow. That’s 1.5 starting-caliber players, 3.5 rotation-caliber players and a first-rounder – a very nice return if Paul were leaving anyway.

Long-term, it’s easy to see how committing $201 million over five years to a 32-year-old could backfire. The Clippers reportedly balked at that five-year max offer, but even the four-year max would’ve meant paying Paul $43 million at age 35.

There was a fine case for the Clippers to get younger and leaner (and happier) without Paul. Maybe they could’ve even ridden their Paul-built prestige, unprecedented in franchise history, and the L.A. market to chase the biggest free agents in the next couple years.

Except they didn’t do that.

The Clippers fell right back into win-now mode with risky bets.

They re-signed Griffin to a five-year max contract worth more than $171 million. They signed-and-traded for Danilo Gallinari, guaranteeing the forward nearly $65 million over three years and flipping the Houston first-rounder (while also shedding the overpaid Jamal Crawford).

Griffin, Gallinari and Beverley – the centerpiece of the Paul trade – are all nice players. But they all also carry significant injury risk. The 28-year-old Griffin has missed 83 games the last three years. The 29-year-old Gallinari has missed 203 games the last seven years, and he already hurt his thumb punching an opponent while playing for Italy. The 29-year-old Beverley has missed 78 games the last four years.

Injuries could derail any season with that trio leading the team, and whether the Clippers can shift courses anytime soon is out of their control. They have more than $49 million tied to player options for DeAndre Jordan ($24,119,025), Austin Rivers ($12.65 million), Milos Teodosic ($6.3 million) and Wesley Johnson ($6,134,520) next summer .

Even just the likeliest of those four, Austin Rivers, opting in would leave L.A. without max cap space. I’d also bet on Johnson, who has fallen into Doc Rivers’ doghouse, opting in.

Will the Clippers want Jordan and Teodosic to opt in or out? Those are mysteries – a particularly high-stakes one with Jordan, a premier center who will turn 30 next year.

Jordan’s situation will be especially tricky given Griffin and Gallinari. Griffin might be best at center, and Gallinari is certainly optimized at power forward. Does Jordan add more talent or create more of a logjam on this team?

At this point, I would’ve rather just maxed out Paul and Griffin for five years and hoped the franchises problems stemmed from bad luck. Foolproof? Hardly, especially because even if luck were the culprit, the people involved believing otherwise could’ve had lasting destructive effects on their mindsets.

It’s also worth noting that the Clippers didn’t necessarily have that choice. Paul might have left for James Harden and the Rockets even with a five-year max offer from L.A.. Re-signing Paul could’ve also pushed out Griffin.

There’s no choice but to grade the Clippers moves with some guesses at the counterfactual.

At least they clearly did well on some smaller moves.

Teodosic, who starred in Europe, is an intriguing 30-year-old rookie. Willie Reed appeared to be nice value at the minimum, but a domestic-violence charge is concerning. Kudos to owner Steve Ballmer for spending to acquire second-rounders Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell.

Still, all these smaller additions must be weight against the smaller departures: Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton and Crawford. Those are several contributors heading out the door.

One key person staying? Coach Doc Rivers, who was stripped of his presidency after a lousy front-office tenure.

But how much did the Clippers really learn from the Rivers era? They put Lawrence Frank, another coach with no front-office experience before arriving in L.A., in charge of roster construction.

At least Frank can focus on only one job, not the two Rivers was handling. And Jerry West, Michael Winger and Trent Redden will provide a depth of front-office expertise this franchise was sorely lacking.

With lots of new faces and titles, the Clippers are in a more captivating place – but one that doesn’t look substantively different enough to be preferable to their old place.

Offseason grade: C-

Report: Kyrie Irving trade came together when Cavs stopped asking for Jayson Tatum

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We knew that Boston and Cleveland had talked previously about a possible Kyrie Irving trade, but the talks had gone nowhere because early on the Cavaliers were asking for recent No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum, along with a veteran player and a pick. Boston GM Danny Ainge had just traded the No. 1 pick and taken Tatum after that step back, no way he was going to move the Duke star.

What changed and got the deal done was the Cavaliers stopped asking about Tatum, said Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports in an interview on NBA TV.

“The big discussion point with Boston and Cleveland over the past several weeks on a potential deal has always been about Jayson Tatum’s involvement. The Cavaliers coveted him greatly. I think if Tatum was involved the first day these talks transpired, this deal would have been done weeks ago.”

What Cleveland got by opening their mind to other possibilities was an All-NBA point guard in Isaiah Thomas, a 3&D guy they needed in Jae Crowder, and the highly coveted unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick for the next draft.

You can see why the Cavaliers wanted Tatum, at Summer League he showed an ability to knock down shots, including difficult ones. He’s a guy who can walk into the NBA and score, which would have helped the Cavaliers now and going forward. But what they got in this trade was better — guys who can help them win now and flexibility for the future (they can keep that Brooklyn pick, or it could be traded for a veteran to help keep LeBron James in Cleveland).

Sixers’ Ben Simmons fully cleared to play basketball

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Finally, some good news on the health front for Philadelphia.

Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick a year ago, has been fully cleared for basketball activities about a month before training camp opens, reports Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times.

Simmons was healthy enough to dominate a random pickup game in Australia against a bunch of 5’10” guys this week. We’re desperate enough for good signs that we will take that as one.

Also, Markelle Fultz is expected to be fully healthy for training camp after his ankle sprain.

So much for the good news. There is no updates on the status of Joel Embiid, which is concerning only in that all health news about Embiid feels concerning.

The source said center Joel Embiid hasn’t been cleared for fullcourt scrimmaging “as of yet.” Embiid, who is from Cameroon, worked with children as part of the NBA Africa Game earlier this month, but didn’t play in the Aug. 5 game.

For the sake of the game, we need the Sixers healthy this season and starting to show us how a team with so much promise and potential starts to pay off. Please let us see it. The Basketball Gods need to smile more fortune and the feet and ankles of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Report: Cavaliers called Warriors about Kyrie Irving-Klay Thompson trade

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The Warriors rejected a Klay ThompsonPaul George trade offer from the Pacers.

What about Thompson for Kyrie Irving, who’s younger than George and locked up for an additional season (the same amount of time as Thompson for a similar price)?

Apparently, Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman inquired before sending Irving to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:

It would be hard to believe that Altman could have landed a better trade than the Boston one. He did call the uninterested Warriors about Klay Thompson, a source said.

I’m not sure what this trade would’ve accomplished for either team.

The Warriors obviously already have a point guard in Stephen Curry. Though Irving isn’t the best distributor, his handles and defense push him to point guard. Curry and Irving would have been a tough fit together. Golden State knows Curry and Thompson are a championship-caliber pairing.

Thompson would have been a big upgrade at shooting guard in Cleveland, but the Cavs would have been woefully undermanned at point guard. Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon and Kay Felder wouldn’t cut it. At least the Cavaliers have decent options at shooting guard with J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Kyle Korver.

The Warriors would’ve never said yes, which is fortunate for the Cavs. They did better in their trade with Boston, anyway. Thomas can step in at point guard while Crowder still provides much-needed wing depth – plus Zizic and that sweet, sweet Nets pick.