Three things we learned Thursday: No Blake Griffin, no problem for Clippers. Yet.

1 Comment

We know you were out finishing — okay, who are we kidding, you were starting — your holiday shopping, so you may not have been watching the NBA. Here are the big takeaways from Thursday night around the league.

1) Clippers beat Spurs without Blake Griffin, but if Chris Paul is out a while things will change. It’s an annual tradition with the Clippers — no, not Blake Griffin getting injured, but the “how much trouble are the Clippers in without him” discussion. There’s a sense the Clippers will slide, but they adjust their game to run a lot more DeAndre Jordan/Chris Paul pick-and-roll — a dangerous combination — and it works. (Which leads to the stupid “are the Clippers better off without Griffin?” columns, but we’re a few weeks away from that.)

It worked against the Spurs Thursday night — 54.3 percent of Los Angeles’ possessions involved the pick-and-roll, and the Clippers used their athletic advantages to roll the Spurs early then hold on for a 106-101 win. By athletic advantages, I mean plays like this.

Los Angeles also got a monster night from the bench. Their all-bench lineup of Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreese Speights were on the court for 18 minutes together, including much of the fourth quarter, they moved the ball brilliantly, hit their shots, scored 41 points and were a +4. Considering how devastating the Clippers starting five is (when healthy) if the Clippers get this kind of bench play they become difficult to beat.

It’s games like this, snapping a five-game Spurs winning streak, that make you think the Clippers could use that athleticism to beat the Spurs in a seven-game, second-round playoff series this year.

If healthy. Which became an issue in the fourth quarter Thursday when Chris Paul was chasing Tony Parker around a pick and pulled up with a tweaked hamstring, but it doesn’t appear too serious.

The Clippers can hold their ground for 4-6 weeks without Griffin, but without Paul that dynamic would change quickly. Raymond Felton had his best game as a Clipper Friday and they held off the Spurs, but that is not a sustainable trend. I’d be shocked if CP3 played Friday night against Dallas (that’s a game the Clippers can still win without him). After that it’s the Lakers on Christmas Day. Hamstrings can be tricky, they linger sometimes (and if guys come back to fast they re-aggravate them), no doubt the Clippers need to be cautious. But if Paul misses more than a couple of games, well, no Paul or Griffin would lead to a rough stretch in Los Angeles.

2) Celtics win fourth straight (three on road), may be coming together. In the latest PBT Podcast (previewing the Christmas Day games), Dan Feldman and I had the same reaction to the Boston season: They haven’t been bad, but I thought they’d be a little better than this.

Maybe they are, maybe it’s just coming together a little slower than we expected. The Celtics beat the Pacers 109-102 on the road Thursday night, giving Boston a sweep on a three-game road trip, and Boston has now won four in a row. They have done it with defense — in those four games, they have allowed just 94.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA in that stretch (for the season Boston has allowed 103.7 per 100, which is middle of the pack).

Boston has shown versatility in lineups (which we thought would be a strength entering the season), and Brad Stevens seems to be finding some combinations he likes. Ones that defend, ones that can be scrappy, just not score. Who plays well with Isaiah Thomas (28 points the win over Indiana)? Who can play well with Al Horford? How do all the puzzle pieces fit together? Stevens is still playing mad scientist, trying different combinations rather than just locking into a set nine-man rotation. It may have meant fewer wins in November and December, but the Celtics want the wins to come in late April and May, and Stevens is learning who he can trust there.

Boston is, to me, the clear third best team in the East, and one that could make things very interesting in the second round against Toronto in the postseason. If we get that far. Still a lot of basketball between now and then. But the Celtics seem to be thinking big picture, and that picture starting to come into focus.

3) Shaq got his jersey retired by the Heat, and it was a very Shaq event. Miami gave the man a diesel truck. It was a larger than life event for a larger than life man and personality. Who cares if Shaq only spent a couple of years in South Beach, he was key to that 2006 NBA title, he remains loved in South Beach, and if they want to honor the man they should do it. And they did, in the most Shaq of ways.

What’s Kyrie Irving’s problem with LeBron James?

Jason Miller/Getty Images
4 Comments

Kyrie Irving reportedly requested a trade from the Cavaliers because he no longer wants to play with LeBron James.

But what does that actually mean?

Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Much of Irving’s disenchantment with James was rooted in game play, sources said. James, as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, controlled the ball more than any other forward perhaps in league history.

But there were ancillary issues that bothered Irving, too, such as how James’ good friend Randy Mims had a position on the Cavs’ staff and traveled on the team plane while none of Irving’s close friends were afforded the same opportunity.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In registering his preference for a trade, league sources said, Irving divulged to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that he’s become increasingly uneasy about a future that includes a roster constructed to complement LeBron James — a roster that could be devoid of James come free agency in 2018.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Irving wants to take his show away from James so he can grow his career (his on-court acclaim and notoriety, his brand, his voice) outside of James’ shadow.

Numerous people who’ve talked to Irving over the past month have said to cleveland.com that he told them he wanted to leave to grow his career, and it was the message Irving sent to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert when he asked to be traded last week.

These can all simultaneously be true. There needn’t be one singular reason Irving wants a trade.

It can also be true that former general manager David Griffin might have soothed Irving’s discontent. It can also be true that the Warriors’ dominance influenced Irving, as he might have been more willing to remain in a secondary role if it were more likely to result in a championship.

But so much of this comes back to LeBron, a massive presence around whom everything in Cleveland revolves.

Being the top player on a team means so many things – dictating on-court action, having the supporting cast built around you, influencing team staff, building a larger sponsorship presence. Irving can’t get any of that while playing with LeBron.

Irving led the Cavs in shots and usage percentage last season, but that happened only because LeBron allowed it. LeBron obviously retook control in the playoffs. There’s no question whose team this is.

There is also no indication Irving is fighting that. He’s not trying to usurp LeBron’s power, and Irving has molded his game the last few years to fit with LeBron.

But now Irving his exercising his own power so he can get even more the only place possible – somewhere away from LeBron.

Did Cavaliers dropping David Griffin lead to Kyrie Irving’s trade request?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
3 Comments

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he had the NBA’s hardest coaching job. Following that thinking, former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin might have had the most difficult front-office job.

Not only did he face the same championship-or-bust pressure and oversee the same players (and their egos) as Lue, Griffin also reported directly to Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ sometimes-difficult owner. The Gilbert aspect is often discussed, as is working with great/brilliant/passive-aggressive LeBron James. But it has probably been undersold how high-maintenance Kyrie Irving – who requested a trade – also was for Griffin before the general manager was ousted last month.

Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Over the previous few months, the Cavs had been worried about Irving’s mindset. They knew at times he’d grown unhappy with playing a secondary role on the team. Griffin had several conversations with Irving throughout the year, sources said, trying to find ways to work on the situation.

After the season, there was a desire to arrange a meeting to clear the air from all sides, sources said, but it didn’t take place. Unlike most teams, the Cavs did not have postseason exit meetings with their players.

What followed was a whirlwind, with the Cavs putting forth a series of trade packages looking to acquire either Butler or George. Some of these talks included Irving, which upset him even more when he found out about it, sources said. Previously, Griffin had worked to keep lines of communication with Irving open, but now Irving was in the dark.

Irving’s trade request had been building for years. The reported timing is vague, but Irving might have even requested a trade while Griffin was still in charge.

Either way, there’s no guarantee the Cavs keeping Griffin would have placated Irving. But it seems an experienced voice running the front office could have only helped.

Now, the task of trading Irving or mending fences falls to new general manager Koby Altman – who must solve this issue in a spotlight he never wanted.

If only Cleveland had Phil Jackson to insist on exit meetings. Maybe this would have been smoothed over a month ago.

LaVar Ball gets technical foul, pulls his AAU team off the court, forfeits game it was winning (video)

10 Comments

Magic Johnson said he’s convinced LaVar Ball’s outlandishness is just marketing and that the father of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball is truly committed to developing younger players.

This didn’t look like someone who put youth player development over his own image.

With LaVar Ball’s AAU team leading by nine, he got a technical foul then pulled his team off the court:

He (kind of) explained why after the game (warning: profanity):

He also touched on his reasons in a video that, of course, quickly turns to promoting his brand:

This doesn’t mean Johnson is completely wrong, but the Lakers president seemingly misdiagnosed Ball’s priorities. What if Johnson is also wrong about Ball staying clear of the Lakers? That could create problems – if it hasn’t already.

I was never convinced, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver predicted, LaVar would settle down after Lonzo was drafted. I still believe Lonzo’s talent justifies managing LaVar, but that appears increasingly likely to be a burden the Lakers must actually handle rather than just brush off.

James Dolan’s MSG threatens to sue Steve Ballmer’s Los Angeles Clippers

3 Comments

This story requires a little background.

The Forum in Inglewood was best known for decades as being both fabulous and the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, back from the Jerry West era and through Magic’s “Showtime” teams. Then in 2001 the Lakers moved downtown to Staples Center, and after that the Forum went through some rough times. It was a number of things, including a mega church for a while, but mostly it was empty. Then several years ago the Madison Square Garden company (owned by Knicks owner James Dolan) bought the Forum, fixed it up, and started booking it again. Now the Forum is one of the hot major concert/event spaces in Los Angeles again, and it’s about to get a boost because it’s adjacent to where Stan Kroenke is building the new Los Angeles Rams stadium. Hello gentrification!

Now enter Steve Ballmer. The Clippers’ owner wants out of Staples Center and the Lakers’ shadow, so he has proposed to build his new arena in Inglewood in another space adjacent to the Rams stadium — land that MSG used to lease. As you might imagine, Dolan’s MSG is not thrilled — they are already battling with Staples to fill their space, now a state-of-the-art arena is moving in down the street.

In a proxy Knicks/Clippers battle, MSG may sue to Clippers and Inglewood in an attempt to block the new building. Here is what Dolan’s attorney in the case, Marvin Putnam, told the Daily Breeze in Los Angeles.

“The mayor made it extremely clear that he needed that piece of land back for a kind of ‘Silicon Beach,’ ” said Marvin Putnam, a partner with the law firm Latham & Watkins, which filed the damage claim that serves as a precursor to a lawsuit. “They’re attempting to flat-out trick people.”

(Inglewood Mayor James) Butts declined to comment, and there is no proof that he made those statements. But when Madison Square Garden Co. relinquished the parking lease to the city, its approved contract states that the land would not be used for anything that would hurt the Forum’s business, according to documents.

Right now the Clippers and Inglewood are in an exclusive negotiating agreement to come to terms on the sale and plans for the property. Putnam told the paper — and the Inglewood City Council — that if the deal goes forward they will sue to block it.

It’s impossible to say how this will turn out, although as a former government reporter I will say these cases tend to be decided in favor of the side about to spend a ton of money on a new building.