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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-

Suns’ center Alex Len expected to sign qualifying offer, head to camp

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In the free-spending summer of 2016, Bismack Biyambo got a $72 million contract. Timofey Mozgov got $64 million.

Those kinds of contracts — and there were plenty more of them — had a lot of NBA big men (and players in general) heading into this summer thinking they were going to get PAID. Instead, teams learned the lessons from their drunken spending binge and the market got tight. Especially for centers.

Which leads us to the news Suns big man Alex Len is going to bet on himself and sign his qualifying offer before coming to camp, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Barring an unforeseen change of events, Phoenix Suns center Alex Len is planning to sign the team’s $4.2 million qualifying offer before training camp, clearing the way to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018, league sources told ESPN….

Phoenix wants to study’s Len’s progress in the 2017-18 season before committing to a long-term, lucrative contract extension to him. Len has started 80 games over the past two seasons, including 34 in 2016-17 when he averaged eight points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game.

Phoenix wants to leave its options open. Len is mobile, can protect the rim, and has some skills that would help him fit in a modern NBA style offense — he could play with Devin Booker and Josh Jackson — plus last season he improved his shooting around the rim and in the paint. However, he’s not consistent on either end of the court. He shows his potential in flashes, but the Suns need to see more.

Len will now be an unrestricted free agent next summer — he is playing for his next payday. If that can’t motivate him, nothing will.

Report: Lottery reform will really help teams in middle of lottery

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Tanking in the NBA is a problem more of perception than reality — Adam Silver and the league office doesn’t like that there are portions of team’s fan bases rooting for their team to lose. It doesn’t like that tanking is openly discussed on radio shows and online. Combine that with the resting of star players on the road, and in nationally televised games, and the league sees sports talk radio talking points as real problems for the league’s image.

Spreading out the NBA’s schedule is done, and with that the resting of players’ in those high-profile games will decrease (of course, if teams want to sit LeBron James or Stephen Curry or Kawhi Leonard in a nationally televised game, they will just say he has a sore back/ankle/shoulder that needs rest).

Lottery reform looks like it will pass as well, even though it’s putting a band-aid on a broken leg. The league’s new rules will decrease and flatten out the odds at the top of the lottery, and it will reward the teams more in the middle, according to a new report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

 The worst three teams’ odds would now have an equal chance at the No. 1 overall pick: 14 percent. Presently, the teams with the three worst records have descending chances of 25 percent, 19.9 percent and 15.6 percent. Also, the worst record can drop as far as No. 5 in the new lottery proposal, down from No. 4….

Teams in the Nos. 7-10 range will have a stronger chance to move up into the top three picks, ESPN has learned, with No. 7’s chances improving from 15 percent to 23, No. 8 from 10 percent to 19 percent, No. 9 from six percent to 15 percent and No. 10 from four percent to 10 percent.

He adds that the odds for the three teams at the top of the lottery — picks 11, 12, and 13 — increase only a couple of percentage points, which the league believes means teams will not try to tank their way out of the playoffs and into the lottery. There is extra money in terms of ticket sales and revenue — at least $5 million for a couple home games — for teams that get into the postseason, and that money can matter to teams.

That said, teams are still going to tank for picks. The league seems to be chasing the ghost of Sam Hinkie with this proposal, trying to make it less likely teams go on a multiple year deep dive, but that was never really a problem anyway — few owners would have the stomach for that, and the one that did (Joshua Harris in Philly) eventually bowed to the pressure from the league and others and canned Hinkie as GM. No GM is trying to put his job at risk with a rebuilding plan.

Tanking will continue because teams need one of the game’s franchise changing stars — of which there are maybe 10 in the league at any one given time — to compete at the highest levels, and for 24 or so markets the only way to get that player is via the draft. What’s more, land that player and thanks to the CBA, teams control that player for four years at a very affordable salary, then thanks to extensions/restricted free agency the team can keep that player for another four or five years. They have this great talent locked in for at least eight or nine years (for example, Kevin Durant spent nine years in Seattle/Oklahoma City before moving on, same with LeBron the first time he left Cleveland, and that list goes on). Now with the “designated player” designation — call it the Kevin Durant rule — teams are more likely to keep that star for another four or five years beyond that.

If you really want to end tanking, make rookie contracts two years then they become unrestricted free agents. Now the motivation to tank for a pick goes away, but of course, small and mid-market teams would rightfully complain about that because then they will have a very hard time keeping talent around.

Bottom line, if you have a truly elite player you win more basketball games, and for most teams the only way to get that player is the draft — so tanking will continue. It’s a smart strategy to rebuild.

The new lottery odds will pass, and they are not a bad thing, but it is far more about perception than reality. And you can be sure there will be unintended consequences.

Jeopardy uses “crying Jordan” meme for question

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You know a meme has jumped the shark when it appears on Jeopardy. (Also, the phrase “jump the shark” has jumped the shark.)

The “crying Jordan” meme reached that level this week when Alex Trebek asked a question about it.

This in no way means we should stop using the crying Jordan meme — even if it bothers MJ himself, and it does — because it’s still funny.

Charles Barkley on new schedule: “These poor babies can’t play back-to-back games”

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Training camp hasn’t even opened yet, but Charles Barkley is already in midseason “get off my lawn” form.

Barkley — the man who can’t stand jump shooting teams, or analytics, or LeBron James asking for better players, or your newfangled technology — went off on another tedious rant at an SMU event Wednesday, this time about the NBA’s decision to start the season a little earlier and have fewer back-to-backs and eliminate four-games-in-five-nights.

Ugh. Like a lot of former players — and a lot of non-athletes, for that matter — Barkley is convinced his peak as a player coincided with the greatest era of basketball ever. Things were never better than the way they did it in his day.

Which means facts — like pointing to the studies that show players both are less likely to be injured and play better and more efficiently when rested — don’t matter. Barkley did it, so players now should have to do it. Who cares if all these packed in games can shorten their careers?

Then again, maybe a few days off would have helped Barkley in the second half of his career.

B.J. Armstrong, former Jordan-era Bull turned agent, told me last year that if teams and players knew in his day what they know now about rest and injury, you would have seen stars like MJ rest. Over time we learn more information, and the smart people and organizations adjust.

Barkley will make far more headlines over the course of the season, he gets paid to be brash, say whatever pops into head, and be generally draw attention to himself. It makes him entertaining, and that’s what Inside the NBA is about. But I will defer to Steve Kerr’s comments from last playoffs on all these old “get off my lawn” players.

“The game gets worse as time goes on. Players are less talented than they used to be. The guys in the 50s would’ve destroyed everybody. It’s weird how human evolution goes in reverse in sports. Players get weaker, smaller, less skilled. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”