NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: 29-53, a season that seemed lost when Blake Griffin fractured his kneecap landing after a monster dunk in the preseason. But only the Clippers can find ways to bring that down even farther: there was the Mike Dunleavy firing (which is on its way to court), Baron Davis checked out mentally, then there was the Phil Hughes era. Hughes may be one of the most honest, fun coaches I’ve ever covered. But he wanted to run and the team did not have the players for it. The results were just ugly.

Head Coach: Vinny Del Negro, he of the simplistic offensive sets but who got a young team to play hard and defend for him. If he can do that again with this roster, they’ll do pretty well. Based on history (from Bill Fitch through Dunleavy), Del Negro should hire a good attorney because he will have to sue to get all of his money owed on his contract.

Key Departures: The Clippers did not really lose much on the court (which should bring more hope than it does here). Steve Blake traded uniforms and will be in the locker room 25 feet down the hall. Ricky Davis is in China. Travis Outlaw is gone. But really, nothing that can’t be replaced by better. Not that it was, but these were not huge losses.

Key Additions: We can count Blake Griffin in here because he never played a regular season game for the Clippers. This guy is a beast, a guy who can instantly become one of the better pick-and-roll guys in the league. There aren’t many athletes like him at the four and everyone will be reminded why he was the first overall pick.

The Clippers had a high draft pick — again — used it on Al-Farouq Aminu, a guy they think could be their future at the three. Then at Summer League he looked a few years away, although by the preseason he seems to have made big strides. Still it may be next year or the year after before we know what the Clippers have here.

In the short term, the Clippers got a very solid Ryan Gomes to come in and play the three for them, and at a fair price. The Clippers also made good signings with Randy Foye and re-signing Craig Smith, giving them solid if not spectacular depth. Basically, if these guys are playing 18 minutes a night off the bench the Clippers will be fine, if these guys have to play 30 minutes in a starters role the Clippers will struggle. And in the preseason Gomes has been starting, so….

Eric Bledsoe, who Los Angeles traded what will be a future pick in the teens for so they could draft him at 19, will step in now and be the backup point guard from day one. And the heir apparent to the big job.

The Clippers also signed Brian Cook to a two-year deal Why? Just, why?

Best case scenario: It all comes together perfectly, Baron Davis and Blake Griffin becomes one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the league, the role players all play above their heads a little and the Clippers fight for one of the final playoff spots in the West.

For that to happen: Baron Davis is the good Baron Davis, not the bad jack-up-a-deep-three-with-18-seconds-on-the-clock Davis. Also, the team’s role players need to play a little better than they have in the past.

The Clippers have a good frontcourt — Chris Kaman made the All-Star team while that is a borderline call the fact is he is one of the better true centers in the league. He plays well with his back to the basket, can pass and plays solid defense. Now with the hustle and athleticism of Griffin along side him there is a lot of potential there. The Clippers need to be near the top of the league in shots attempted in the paint for them to be successful, because not many teams can match them up front.

But it all comes back to Davis. This guy has the skills to be one of the most dynamic, best distributors from the point in the league. When he is interested — like in the middle of last season when he and Kaman got a real flow going on the pick-and-pop for a while. But Davis chaffed against Dunleavy and by the time Hughes took over Davis had mentally checked out for the season.

Del Negro, based on what he did with Derrick Rose in Chicago, gives his point guards a lot of freedom. A lot. That and the energy of Griffin, the quality wingman in Eric Gordon could make the Clippers a dangerous staring five. But if Davis mentally checks out early again, he will drag the Clippers down with him.

The Clippers should get a bigger, better year out of Eric Gordon, who continues to improve, as evidenced by his time with Team USA. The rest of the guys — Foye, Gomes, Smith, Rasual Butler and so on — are all pretty average, solid NBA players, Which is nice, but if the Clippers are going to step forward in a deep west then need a bench that can be more dynamic. Somebody here needs to be a guy who can lead that unit.

More likely the Clippers will: be a slightly more entertaining version of last year’s team. And miss the playoffs. And have a lovely lottery party.

Griffin will be a Rookie of the Year candidate, but how far can he lift a team that is essentially the same as the one that won 29 games last season? Are we really counting on an energized and focused Davis for 82 games? Heck, 65 games of good Davis makes this a borderline playoff team. But it’s just hard to see it. It’s just hard to see Del Negro somehow inspiring this team to great heights.

Prediction: 31-51, and a middling lottery pick. Oh, but Donald Sterling has these grand plans to get a top free agent….

Watch Pacers’ rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO (AP) — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.