NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: 32-50, or to frame it in context, 13th place in the West out of 15 teams.

Head Coach: Vinny Del Negro, who, after the team successfully traded for Chris Paul, is now officially on the hot seat. VDN has yet to prove he can be successful coaching at the NBA level, and if this season doesn’t end with (at minimum) a trip to the playoffs, he could very well be gone this summer.

Key Departures: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, Minnesota’s unprotected 2012 first round draft pick.

Key Additions: The league’s best point guard in Chris Paul, Caron Butler, and Chauncey Billups, who was claimed off of amnesty waiver and may or may not stick around in L.A. now that the deal for Paul has been completed.

Best case scenario: One could easily make the case that the best case scenario for the Clippers has already taken place, even before a single game has been played yet this season. L.A. is now more relevant than ever with the acquisition of Chris Paul, and we’re talking about a team that had a considerable buzz around it last season with the above-the-rim play of then-rookie Blake Griffin. Moreover, we’re talking about a franchise that has overall been the league’s worst for decades, and this is their one shot to lay claim to a large section of Los Angeles basketball fans.

For that to happen: The buzz and excitement surrounding the Clippers will fade quickly in Los Angeles if the team isn’t winning and can’t produce runs deep into the postseason sometime in the next few years. L.A.’s fans have been spoiled by the gaudy success from the Lakers over the years, and will only put up with a “fun” team that doesn’t win for so long.

That being said, it doesn’t have to happen this season. But what does have to happen is the Clippers making the playoffs — they simply can’t screw this up. The team should be a virtual lock to take the place of Paul’s former New Orleans team that played in the postseason last year, and a quick look at the offseason moves that other teams in the West made (or didn’t make) would lead you to believe that L.A. with Paul should finish higher than the rest of the teams in the conference that finished out of the playoffs.

More likely the Clippers will: Find a way to screw this up, because historically they always have? Not this time, at least not this season. There are depth issues in all areas but guard for the Clippers, so if health becomes a factor for any of the team’s big names, they may struggle to make the playoffs. But injuries aren’t something you can predict, and analysts always begin any bold statements with “if they stay healthy …” for a reason.

There will be a lot of pressure on the Clippers front office to put pieces around Paul to enable the team to compete with the big names in the West, but that’s a season or two away. For now, the Clips are relevant, and all they need to do is make it into the first round of the playoffs to keep that momentum going into next season.

Prediction: 37-29, seventh seed in the Western Conference.

Report: Heat tried to trade Goran Dragic away in Jimmy Butler deal

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The Miami Heat are not in control of the Eastern Conference Finals — just two wins from the NBA Finals — without the combination of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. They are the shot creators, the two penetrating into the paint, breaking down the Celtics’ defense, then kicking out to shooters. Butler is an All-NBA player, and Dragic is playing like the All-NBA player he was six years ago.

That pairing almost never happened.

Michael Lee at the Athletic told the story.

What’s hilarious about the Dragic-Butler partnership – a bromance that has found them bonding in the bubble over bottles of Michelob Ultras, cups of Big Head coffee, and singing the “Bad Boys” theme song from “Cops” – is it nearly didn’t happen. The initial three-team trade [Heat president Pat] Riley facilitated to get Butler involved sending Dragic to Dallas. Dragic would’ve teamed up with his Slovenian little homie, Luka Doncic, but would’ve said farewell to what he intended to do with the Heat.

The Mavericks had no interest in taking on Dragic – a 30-something hobbling on a surgically-repaired knee whose best years were way in the rearview – so the Heat had to get more creative, while remaining stuck with seemingly damaged goods. Again, nothing went according to plan.

Don’t blame Dallas on this one. Dragic played 36 games last season, had knee issues, and had looked like a shell of the All-NBA player he used to be, and on top of it he was getting paid $19.2 million. There were not a lot of teams looking to get in the Dragic business before this season started.

Instead, Dragic stayed, got healthy, accepted a sixth-man role (until the playoffs, before that Kendrick Nunn started and Dragic was the change of pace off the bench), and found his stride.

In the bubble, Dragic has taken off as the second scoring/shot-creating option in the Heat offense. Erik Spoelstra, as he does, has put Dragic in positions to succeed.

And, after these playoffs, get paid this offseason when Dragic is a free agent.

Brad Stevens hosts late night meeting with Smart, Brown, Celtics’ leadership

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A frustrated Marcus Smart yelled and vented at teammates after Boston’s come-from-ahead loss to Miami to go down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jaylen Brown reportedly snapped back that the team needed to stick together and not just point fingers. Things reportedly were thrown around in the Celtics’ locker room.

Boston coach Brad Stevens knew he had to get everyone back on the same page before Game 3 on Saturday, so he had Smart, Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker meet and talk through their issues, reported Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It was a smart move by Stevens, and it apparently worked. The Celtics have moved on from the incident, reports A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

But one source within the bubble told NBC Sports Boston that the emotions of Thursday night are “water under the bridge now” as the team prepares for a must-win Game 3 on Saturday.

The Celtics need to match the Heat’s “do whatever it takes to win” intensity on Saturday. It would be a help if Gordon Hayward plays, which appears possible (he is officially listed as questionable but seems to be moving toward playing.

Everything that happened before to Boston needs to be a lesson on what it takes to win at the highest level. Miami is confident and rolling, plus they have the relentless Jimmy Butler in their corner.

One of the four players in Stevens’ room Thursday night — Boston’s leaders — has to be the one to step up and match that intensity. If not, the Celtics will be watching the Finals from home like the rest of us.

Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo: Agents will position me to succeed ‘with the team or another team’

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s moment has arrived.

He won Most Valuable Player, yes. But he’s also the center of speculation as he approached 2021 unrestricted free agency. He could head that off by signing a super-max extension with the Bucks this summer.

In the meantime, every word he says will be scrutinized for clues about his future.

That includes grainy video today from Greece, where – because Milwaukee already got bounced from the playoffs – Antetokounmpo conducted a conference call with reporters and an interview on NBA TV about his award.

The Bucks’ season is so far in the rearview mirror, Antetokounmpo already met with Bucks ownership and returned home. Now, attention turns to his long-term outlook.

Antetokounmpo:

I have two great agents that help with that, and I know they’re going to put me in the best situation to be successful with the team or another team. But at the end of the day, I had a great conversation with the owner. And as I know so far, we’re on the same page. And I want to be in Milwaukee for the rest of my career. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to want the same thing, which is a championship.

As long as everybody is on the same page and as long as everybody is fighting for the same thing … every single day, which is to be a champion, I don’t see why not be in Milwaukee for the next 15 years?

I believe Antetokounmpo prefers to find a way to stay with the Bucks. But even while professing his loyalty, Antetokounmpo had made clear he doesn’t hold blind allegiance to Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s agent, Alex Saratsis, said in February, “Everything is open.”

Yet, this is the first time I recall Antetokounmpo himself so directly mentioning the possibility of joining “another team.”

The other time he supposedly said something like that, he claimed he was misquoted.

Of course, you could focus on other portions of his responses today like: “I want to be in Milwaukee for the rest of my career.” Yet, there’s that “we’ve got to want the same thing, which is a championship” caveat.

Two major questions:

1. How willing are the Bucks to pay the luxury tax to maximize Milwaukee’s title chances?

2. Even with a financial commitment from ownership, how equipped are the Bucks to win after a couple years of shortcuts?

Antetokounmpo must evaluate.

But he’s not just putting the onus on the organization. He spoke about working to continuing to improve, doing his part to achieve his main goal.

When talking about his 2019 MVP, Antetokounmpo said at the time, “Please, after this day, don’t call me MVP because until I win it again next year.”

Is he ready to be called MVP now?

Antetokounmpo:

Don’t call me MVP. Don’t call me two-times MVP until I’m a champion.

LeBron James surpasses Michael Jordan in career MVP voting shares

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Giannis Antetokounmpo won MVP.

As for the rest of the voting?

Here are the results with first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place votes and total voting points (10-7-5-3-1 points from first to fifth):

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks): 85-16-0-0-0-962

2. LeBron James (Lakers): 16-84-1-0-0-753

3. James Harden (Rockets): 0-1-64-10-10-367

4. Luka Doncic (Mavericks): 0-0-14-36-22-200

5. Kawhi Leonard (Clippers): 0-0-9-31-30-168

6. Anthony Davis (Lakers): 0-0-5-14-15-82

7. Chris Paul (Thunder): 0-0-3-1-8-26

8. Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers): 0-0-1-4-6-23

9. Nikola Jokic (Nuggets): 0-0-2-2-2-18

10. Pascal Siakam (Raptors): 0-0-2-1-4-17

11. Jimmy Butler (Heat): 0-0-0-2-3-9

12. Jayson Tatum (Celtics): 0-0-0-0-1-1

No, LeBron didn’t win. Nor should he have.

But the only other player in the top eight of voting still alive in the playoffs? His Lakers teammate, Anthony Davis. LeBron has a prime opportunity to bolster his legacy with another championship.

In the meantime, LeBron also boosts his resumé even with his runner-up finish.

LeBron received 753 voting points. A unanimous MVP would’ve received 1,010 voting points. So, with 75% of that total, LeBron gets .75 MVP voting shares.

That puts him ahead of Michael Jordan on the career MVP-voting-shares leaderboard:

Getting a vote every year of his career, LeBron also tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most seasons receiving an MVP vote:

A big caveat: MVP ballots had just one or three slots prior to 1981, when they went to the current five-player format. So, LeBron has had more opportunities to get lower-ballot votes.

Another caveat: LeBron’s lone fifth-place vote last season came from NBA.com fan voting.

But he didn’t just sneak onto the back end of ballots this year – even at age 35. Only Karl Malone, who won 1999 MVP at 35, has finished top two while so old.

And LeBron has been receiving MVP votes since he was a teenager.

He didn’t get the trophy that will endure. But this silver-medal finish still reflects just how incredible his career has been – and continues to be.