PBT Extra: Does Larry Bird stepping down change Paul George question in Indiana?

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When the Woj bomb dropped that Larry Bird was stepping down as president of the Indiana Pacers, two questions came to mind. First was, “Is he healthy?” Reportedly he is, this was not a healthy-related decision. Which is great news.

Second, what does that mean for Paul George?

Is Indiana more likely to trade him now? Less?

George speculation has ramped up around the league and — while no doubt new GM Kevin Pritchard will say he would love to keep PG13 when he speaks to the media — there is a sense Bird walking away could be a sign that the Pacers are moving into rebuilding mode. That said, Pritchard is known for driving a hard bargain, he’s not going DeMarcus Cousins trade here.

I talk about all of that and more in this latest PBT Extra.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert, back from injury, shutting down paint against Clippers

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Jazz feared the worst when Rudy Gobert was carried off the court by teammates 17 seconds into the playoffs.

Two weeks later, the 7-foot-1 defensive player of the year candidate is a huge reason the Jazz have taken control of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Gobert has been a force in the middle for the Jazz all season and since the Frenchman’s return to the lineup, Utah has won the rebound battle against Los Angeles and outscored the Clippers in the paint.

“I’ve just tried to do the same things I’ve done to try to help the team,” Gobert said. “Do what I’ve been doing all year. At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. There’s a level of focus that’s a little bit higher in the playoffs, but it’s the same.”

The Clippers have scored 94.9 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor and 112.4 with him off in this series. They’ve attempted 19% of their shots in the restricted area when he plays and 34% when he’s off.

Gobert has averaged 13 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in his two full playoff games.

“Rudy erases a lot of mistakes,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “And he cleans up a lot of bad offensive possessions by rebounding the ball. It’s great just to have him back.

“He’s been making plays out of pick-and-roll, finding guys in the corner, finishing for himself or dunking and things like that. We’ve got to continue to find him because that’s a weapon for us.”

Gobert was diagnosed with and hyperextension and bone bruise in his left knee, but the MRI showed no structural damage and no danger of long-term repercussions. From that point on, Gobert knew he’d return.

The Jazz have won two in a row since he’s been back and Utah has outscored the Clippers in the paint in both games by a combined 92-64. The team that has scored the most points in the paint has won each game.

Utah also has won the rebounding battle in the two games since Gobert has returned by a combined 85-65 after the Clippers had an 80-60 advantage in the previous two games.

“His competitiveness and his presence on the defensive glass, as much as anything,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder about Gobert’s biggest impact. “He changes some things with his rim protection. But what he’s given us on the boards on both ends of the floor … he’s had a number of games this year where he’s had some big offensive rebounds late in the game. Can’t say enough about him on the glass.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers has repeatedly said the presence of Gobert doesn’t impact his team’s offense. The absence of Blake Griffin, who’s out for the remainder of the postseason with a toe injury, has certainly made a difference in the Clippers’ offense. Combine that with Gobert’s return, and Los Angeles’ offensive production certainly has dropped.

The Clippers shot 52.4 percent and 54.7 percent in wins in Game 2 and 3. They shot 44.0 percent and 42.0 percent in losses in Game 3 and 4.

“Where Rudy really impacts the game is when we’re playing defense because of his ability to get behind a defense,” Rivers said. “So you have to be far more careful in your pick and roll coverage. What we do offensively, we’ve basically played the same way all year and we’re not going to change that for anyone.”

Gobert has downplayed the individual matchup between he and Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, but Snyder called it one of the marquee matchups of the playoffs. The two have seen plenty of each other this season, starting with the 2016 Olympic Games when Gobert represented France and Jordon was on Team USA. Jordan earned his first All-Star nod this year, something Gobert certainly wanted.

Jordan averaged 17.5 points and 14 rebounds and was dunking at will in Games 2 and 3. He averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds in Games 4 and 5. Gobert being able to play Jordan 1 on 1 helps the entire defense since there’s no need to send extra bodies to defend or box out.

The Jazz are hoping for that kind of effort again on Friday.

 

Thunder’s Andre Roberson entering free agency after impactful playoff series

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The Rockets were starting to pull away from the Thunder in Game 5 of their first-round series, and the Houston crowd was looking for a reason to erupt. The Rockets provided one by intentionally fouling Roberson despite holding Oklahoma City without a basket for the previous five minutes. The Thunder wing stepped to the line in the loudening arena and, of course, missed both free throws.

But Roberson didn’t go down quietly.

On the ensuing defensive possession, he picked up James Harden in the backcourt and hounded the Rockets star on the perimeter. Harden passed to Nene, and Roberson doubled the center in the post and stole the ball. Roberson passed to Russell Westbrook then laid out Patrick Beverley with an open-court screen, freeing Westbrook to score.

Of course, that wasn’t enough. Oklahoma City fell in five games, Westbrook’s supporting cast unable to keep up enough with its MVP candidate.

“That’ll definitely be one thing that haunt me, Roberson said of his free-throw shooting against Houston, “and something I’ll work on extremely hard this summer.”

Roberson’s postseason confirmed everything we thought we knew about him: He’s a defensive dynamo, and he can’t shoot.

But understanding Roberson’s skill set is only a small step in evaluating him. Teams are better than ever at exposing perimeter players who can’t shoot, and that makes Roberson’s price point difficult to read as he enters restricted free agency. The Thunder delayed the decision – extending Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo last year while allowing Roberson to complete his rookie-scale contract without an extension – but time is practically up.

For better or worse, it was all there in the playoffs.

Roberson made just 3-of-21 free throws (14%), the worst percentage by anyone with so many attempts in a postseason series (since 1964, as far as Basketball-Reference go back). Here are the worst free-throw percentages in a series since 1964 (minimum: 100 attempts):

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This was hardly out of the norm for Roberson, who made just 42% of his free throws during the regular season.

His postseason 3-point percentage (41%) was way better than his regular-season baseline (25%), but he attempted just 17 3-pointers in 185 playoff minutes. Not only is that a small sample, it speaks to another problem. The Rockets typically left him open, and he was reluctant to shoot. That allowed Houston to defend 5-on-4 elsewhere with only minimal repercussions. Despite playing more than 90% of his minutes with Westbrook, the Thunder still scored worse with Roberson on the court.

So why did Roberson receive such a prominent role in the series?

He’s a defensive stud. Roberson ranks fourth among players who regularly defend opposing guards in defensive real plus-minus:

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Roberson shadowed Harden for too much of the series to gauge on-off splits, but adding regular-season Thunder-Rockets games reveals a clearer (though still limited) picture:

James Harden Roberson on Roberson off
Minutes 320 16
Points per 36 minutes 25.3 51.8
Turnovers per 36 minutes 6.0 0.0
Free-throw attempts per 36 minutes 10.9 22.5
2-point percentage 50.5% 60.0%
3-point percentage 21.1% 60.0%
Effective field-goal percentage 41.9% 75.0%

Harden, arguably the NBA’s best offensive player, was held in relative check with Roberson on the floor. When Roberson sat, Harden went wild.

There has to be a place for a defender like Roberson in this league.

Is it in Oklahoma City?

Roberson was effective in last year’s playoffs as a small-ball big. He cut and crashed the offensive glass. That got harder with two of Adams, Taj Gibson and Enes Kanter occupying the paint. The Thunder maximizing Roberson’s production might mean losing a big man or two. Gibson will be a free agent and said he wants to return. Adams and Kanter are locked into lucrative long-term deals.

When it comes to Roberson, it’s always complicated.

Report: Clippers expect Chris Paul to re-sign

chris paul
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Chris Paul reportedly verbally committed months ago to re-sign with the Clippers. There have been mixed signals about Blake Griffin‘s intention to re-sign.

But they can’t formalize the deals until July, and the Clippers are now one game from another demoralizing first-round exit.

Where do they stand now?

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

Sources close to the Clippers say that they expect Paul to re-sign with the Clippers. He’ll be eligible for a five-year contract in excess of $200 million. Griffin’s return is less certain, sources say. This summer is his first foray into unrestricted free agency. Given his snakebitten tenure with the team and the possibility of another early exit, the prospect of exploring what’s out there will be alluring. One premise volunteered in good humor suggests that Paul is more likely to take a slew of meetings in a public process but ultimately re-sign with the Clippers, while Griffin is more likely to mull the decision privately under the guise of night, but announce he’ll be playing elsewhere in 2017-18.

Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers has made clear his desire to re-sign Paul and Griffin, and the playoffs won’t change that. This is the right call. It’s so difficult to assemble a team this good, the Clippers shouldn’t throw it away for the sake of change. Just because the Clippers haven’t gotten the breaks in previous seasons doesn’t mean they won’t get the breaks in future seasons.

But Paul and Griffin – and J.J. Redick, who’ll also be an unrestricted free agent – will determine the franchise’s fate. If they want to leave, they’ll leave.

Can the Clippers lure them back? They apparently think they’ll keep Paul, but there’s an uncertain dynamic in L.A. that Arnovitz explores in great depth. I highly recommend reading his full piece.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers leaves door open for starting Paul Pierce in Game 6 against Jazz

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The Clippers have four sure-fire starters: Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and DeAndre Jordan.

The fifth spot is up for grabs with Blake Griffin‘s season-ending injury.

Marreese Speights started Games 4 and 5 against the Jazz. Paul Pierce started the second half of Game 5.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

When asked if Marreese Speights or Paul Pierce would start against the Jazz in the best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series in which the Clippers trail 3-2, Rivers said, “Yeah, one of them.”

“Paul was good,” Rivers said. “He’s been good throughout the series overall, I will say that. But he’s got to play better too, especially with his second effort, getting out to the shooters and stuff like that.”

There are no good options here.

Pierce, 39, has looked washed up most of his time in L.A. That the Clippers have outscored Utah by nine points in his 58 minutes seems like a product of small sample size.

Speights starting leaves the Clippers vulnerable at center when Jordan sits, and rather than staggering, maybe they ought to just start differently.

Rivers wants to ease the ball-handling burden on Paul, but one choice to do that – Raymond Felton – would be a defensive liability. Another possibility – Jamal Crawford – would present the same defensive issues and sabotage second-unit scoring.

Austin Rivers could bridge the gap, but he’s just returning from his own injury.

Doc Rivers clearly doesn’t trust Wesley Johnson, and the forward’s Game 5 gaffes won’t change that.

The Clippers’ central problem: They have only one player – Luc Mbah a Moute – who can guard Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson. When those Jazz forwards share the court, especially in crunch time, the Clippers face one massive mismatch.

Is relying on Pierce a good option? No way. But it also might be the Clippers’ best option.