What the Clippers should do when the lockout ends

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This is the latest installment of our “when the lockout ends” series. To see the other teams we have done, follow this link. Don’t worry, we’ll get to your team soon enough.

Last season in Los Angeles: The Clippers became what Brazil is to international soccer — everyone’s second favorite team. Blake Griffin changed the energy around the franchise and this young, athletic team became one of the most fun to watch in the league. People on the East Coast stayed up to see who Griffin would dunk on next. For once, everyone wanted to see the Clippers. However, they still were not all that good (32-50, missing the playoffs), in large part due to a dreadful start of the season. They were just three games better than the season before.

Since we last saw the Clippers: The Clippers traded away their first round draft pick this year to Cleveland to take Baron Davis off their hands… that pick turned out to be the No. 1 overall. Ouch, but frankly that was still a good trade (Mo Williams is a much better fit). The Clippers did draft Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie out of Georgia, but they are not immediate impact guys. Aside that, the Clippers didn’t make any major moves, but they may once the lockout ends — there were a lot of Clippers trade rumors around the draft and you can expect them to be active once the lockout is lifted.

When the lockout ends, the Clippers need to… get a small forward and learn to play better defense (I’m looking at you, Griffin). And the second part of that matters a lot more than the first.

With Griffin, the Clippers finally have a true franchise player. A guy they can build around. Put him on the front line with DeAndre Jordan and you have the most athletic big man combo in the NBA. It’s a dunk-a-palooza.

But if the Clippers are going to make the playoffs those guys have to anchor the defense in the paint much better. Last season the Clippers were 18th in the NBA 108.7 points per 100 possessions. Sit close to the floor and you noticed the Clippers were quiet — poor communication on defense — and they tended to over-help, exposing new openings that teams exploited.

Griffin was the prime example — he was a solid individual defender (opponents shot just 30 percent when isolated against him) but his help defense was at times terrible. A lot of times. He would overcommit, while at other times he seemed listless and just waiting to get back on offense.

Griffin looked to me like a guy trying to stay out of foul trouble, he was a guy who let the opposing offense set the tone (and get positions they wanted) then reacted to it. He struggled to pick the right angles on defense. That has to change. Griffin clearly has the physical tools to be disruptive on defense, and as the season wore on we started to see more of that — but he has to make a leap this season and bring his teammates with him.

It’s really a team defensive issue for the Clippers — they need someone who can be a better perimeter defender and lock guys down, then be more mature in their help decisions. Particularly Jordan, who needs to be the rim protector on this team (he also over-helped). It’s part of being a young team, but this more than anything is what will help the Clippers make the leap next season.

With that they need one more perimeter player, too — a small forward. Mo Williams is a much better fit at the point for the Clippers than Baron Davis, he’s a calming and steady influence. Eric Gordon is positioned for a breakout year as a two guard (one who has the ball in his hands a lot), especially if he can learn to finish better in the lane. We have no doubt that Griffin, Jordan and Chris Kaman form a formidable front line.

But the Clippers need a three. Al-Farouq Aminu showed some promise as a rookie, but he is not what the Clippers need now and he is not the defensive presence and shooter they crave to make this all work.

The Clippers have assets to trade — Chris Kaman, Minnesota’s unprotected first round pick next year — and cap room. Andre Iguodala’s name came up and while no deal was worked out, you know that is still on the back burner. When other teams see the new salary cap there may be threes out there teams need to shed. There also are good free agent options the Clippers can consider such as Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier and Caron Butler — none of those are long-term answers with a young team but would provide veteran leadership and a few years of quality play. And defense. To me, Butler seems a great get if his knee is back after last season, and he would be affordable.

Bottom line, the Clippers should be a playoff team in the West next season. That has to be the goal. No doubt a full season of Mo Williams helps, and we expect big things from Griffin and Gordon. Under the current front office you can bet one way or another they will fill that hole at the three.

But it all comes back to defense. This team will score more next season, but if it can’t stop anyone… well, it will still be the Clippers we all know and love.

Another report Tyronn Lue in position to be next Lakers’ coach

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The Lakers are trying to play out the string and ignore the ramped up talk around the league about how Luke Walton is a dead coach walking and the franchise is already thinking about who is next.

But that talk is deafening.

Earlier in the day, our own Dan Feldman passed along a report from Stephen A. Smith of ESPN that former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue would get “strong consideration.”

Now add to that this note from Marc Stein of the New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Who, then, will the Lakers hire? The name most frequently cited in league coaching circles is the very available Tyronn Lue.

Lue, of course, is a former Laker who is better known for having coached LeBron James for 2 1/2 seasons in Cleveland. The presumed acceptance he would have from James, who is about to begin his first postseason as a spectator since 2005, would appear to give Lue with a significant advantage over the rest of the field.

Other big names have been mentioned, but they are not going to pan out. Doc Rivers has an extension lined up (an agreed to deal) to stay with the Clippers. Stein mentions Dallas’ Rick Carlisle as a target, but at the start of this season he too had his contract extended to stay in Dallas. Jason Kidd’s name came up, but that may be more about an agent looking for leverage in negotiations with the University of California than it is something the Lakers are serious about.

While there will be a lot of eye rolling from fans if the Lakers hire Lue, it’s not a bad move — by the end of his tenure in Cleveland he was running some pretty creative stuff on offense (the Lakers would be wise to make Lue hire a “defensive coordinator” assistant). The man has coached in the Finals and has a ring. Yes, LeBron was a big part of that, but not all of it.

Most of all, Lue would have buy-in from LeBron James. That matters.

The Lakers are trying to play out the string and ignore the ramped up talk around the league about how Luke Walton is a dead coach walking and the franchise is already thinking about who is next.

But that talk is deafening.

Earlier in the day, our own Dan Feldman passed along a report from Stephen A. Smith of ESPN that former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue would get “strong consideration.”

Now add to that this note from Marc Stein of the New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Who, then, will the Lakers hire? The name most frequently cited in league coaching circles is the very available Tyronn Lue.

Lue, of course, is a former Laker who is better known for having coached LeBron James for 2 1/2 seasons in Cleveland. The presumed acceptance he would have from James, who is about to begin his first postseason as a spectator since 2005, would appear to give Lue with a significant advantage over the rest of the field.

Other big names have been mentioned, but they are not going to pan out. Doc Rivers has an extension lined up (an agreed to deal) to stay with the Clippers. Stein mentions Dallas’ Rick Carlisle as a target, but at the start of this season he too had his contract extended to stay in Dallas. Jason Kidd’s name came up, but that may be more about an agent looking for leverage in negotiations with the University of California than it is something the Lakers are serious about.

While there will be a lot of eye rolling from fans if the Lakers hire Lue, it’s not a bad move — by the end of his tenure in Cleveland he was running some pretty creative stuff on offense (the Lakers would be wise to make Lue hire a “defensive coordinator” assistant). The man has coached in the Finals and has a ring. Yes, LeBron was a big part of that, but not all of it.

Most of all, Lue would have buy-in from LeBron James. That matters.

Ryan Saunders reportedly likely to stay on as Minnesota head coach

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When Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said this a few weeks back, it was pretty clear interim coach Ryan Saunders was probably staying on after the season and getting the job full time.

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]. It’s like everything, we’re going to wait until we play out these last 20-some games and I think we’ll know and he’ll know at that time if it works out. But he is off to a good start. I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”<

Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler sabotaged the team’s season early on in a push to get out of town, a move that came with a high price coach/GM Tom Thibodeau. Remember Thibodeau wanted to speed up the winning and to get Butler traded Zach LaVine and just drafted Lauri Markkanen, but when Butler didn’t work out in Minny Thibs was doomed.

If you want more evidence that Saunders is staying on, there is this reporting from the well-connected Marc Stein of The New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Saunders, who turns 33 in April, is known to have a strong relationship with the All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has played some of the best basketball of his career since the departures of Butler and Thibodeau.

The growing expectation around the league is that the credit Saunders will get for his impact on and the buy-in from Towns will more than offset ownership’s disappointment about returning to the draft lottery.

Towns is the franchise cornerstone, one of the top centers and top 10-12 players in the league, if Saunders can get the most out of him — and so far he has — then that is a good reason to keep him around.

When Sauders got the coaching job, Scott Layden took over as GM. His job is not as secure. There have been rumors about Taylor wanting to go big game hunting — specifically Chauncey Billups — but it seems the Timberwolves are likely to go another direction.

Calvin Booth, a Denver executive who the Nuggets hired away from the Timberwolves before the 2017-18 season, is increasingly mentioned as a strong candidate to replace Layden if Taylor does make a change.

Whoever gets the GM job, retooling the Timberwolves roster around Towns will now be difficult — Thibodeau showed no patience and now they are paying the price. Towns’ well-deserved max extension kicks in next season and that gives Minnesota two of max deals for young players — Andrew Wiggins is maxed out as well and an anchor on any rebuild (he has four years at the max after this season, good luck trading that). Don’t forget Gorgui Dieng will make $16.2 million next season. If Jeff Teague opts into his $19 million for next season, the Timberwolves will have very little room to maneuver and shore up the roster.

All of that will make Saunder’s job a real challenge.

Report: Knicks talked Kristaps Porzingis for De’Aaron Fox trade with Kings last draft

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The Knicks had made their minds up and were considering moving on from Kristaps Porzingis long before this trade deadline (when he was sent to Dallas), they were testing the waters all the way back to last June and the draft.

Last draft, the Sacramento Kings had a decision to make, too: How much did they believe in De'Aaron Fox? As a rookie, Fox had shown flashes and promise, but at No. 2 the Kings could pick Luka Doncic (or even Trae Young) and have gone in another direction.

That led to an interesting story from last June’s draft: The Knicks reached out to the Kings about a possible Porzingis for Fox swap, reports Zach Lowe of ESPN (in a fascinating piece on how this season changed things in Sacramento).

Sacramento moved up in the lottery again — to No. 2 — and faced a pivotal moment: the chance to reorient their team around Luka Doncic. Rivals sensed the dilemma and made offers for Fox — including a template from the New York Knicks centered around Kristaps Porzingis that would have required Sacramento to either send something beyond Fox or take unwanted Knicks salary (or both), sources say.

The Kings might have been able to leverage Doncic fever by trading down, but they wanted a guaranteed chance at Marvin Bagley III. The pick doubled as a vote of confidence in Fox. They didn’t need another ball handler. They wanted a springy big who could run with perhaps the league’s fastest player.

The Kings bet big on Fox. In the short term, that has worked out incredibly well for them, Fox made the kind of leap this season that will earn him a lot of Most Improved Player votes. He found his identity in pace and dragged the Kings with him to maybe the most surprising season of any team (and they were everyone’s league pass favorites). Bagley started to come on the second half of the season as he figured out how to fit his game in the NBA. How it works out long term for both teams remains to be seen, but the Kings have to feel good about how things look now.

Talks like this happen more than fans think — a lot of things are explored, very become trades. Kings fans should be glad this one didn’t.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic undergoes surgery to repair leg, full recovery expected. Eventually.

Associated Press
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As expected, Jusuf Nurkic underwent surgery on Tuesday repair the frightening leg injury he suffered on Monday night, a fractured left tibia and fibula that left his leg bending in a way that no leg should ever bend.

The good news is the surgery went as well as could be hoped, according to the team and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Even with a successful surgery, this is going to take a long time to come back from.

As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes noted, the only comparable injury like this in the NBA was Paul George‘s frightening leg injury with Team USA. George made a full recovery, but it was eight months before he got back on the court and much longer until he was comfortable enough to be the MVP candidate he is this season.

Nurkic had made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting. The advanced stats loved him — his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was serving as a playmaker on offense: When he’d set a high pick for Damian Lillard, teams would trap the guard, Lillard would pass to Nurkic, and the Bosnian had become a good passer or he just take it in and scores himself

All of that came after Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer.

His injury also devastates the Blazers heading into the postseason, where they could have been a tough matchup but have now lost a key piece of their puzzle.