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.

Vinsanity grinds into a 21st season, rare company in the NBA

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ATLANTA (AP) — Vince Carter feels like a 20-something again.

Always does when this time of year rolls around.

Never mind the specks of gray in his beard, all the wear and tear on his body, a resume that shows he entered the NBA the same year teammate Trae Young was born.

Carter has made it to another opening night. The thrill of a new season flows through those creaky ol’ bones. Once again, it all seems worthwhile: the monotonous practices, the tedious film sessions, the long plane flights, the grind of 82 games.

“If I had that old `heck, here we go again’ feeling, then I wouldn’t play,” Carter said Tuesday, having finished up practice with a few extra jumpers. “This is like I’m in my third, fourth, fifth year. I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about playing. I still love playing. I still love competing. I still enjoy the traveling, the ups and downs of the league. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hard to let go.”

The league’s oldest player – Carter is 41 and will turn another year older in January – is back for his 21st season. That puts him on the cusp of some very exclusive company: Robert Parrish, Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett are the only players to last that long in the NBA (Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki also has a chance to join the 21 Club this year).

Carter is hardly chasing a championship, signing on with a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team that is years away from having a realistic shot at competing for a title. He’s here to mentor to a bunch of young players and serve as a virtual player-coach on a first-year staff led by Lloyd Pierce.

“When we have our locker room and on-the-bus debates and conversations, he’s on our side,” quipped Pierce, a rookie head coach who is only about eight months older than Carter. “He can relate a little closer to the coaching staff than he can with the players.”

Kent Bazemore, the last holdover from a 60-win team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, lost most of his golfing buddies – including Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver – when the Hawks embarked on a rebuilding plan that send them tumbling to 24-58 last season.

With Carter on the roster, Bazemore again has someone to tee it up with on off days.

“I’ve got a new golfing buddy,” said Bazemore, who at 29 is one of the oldest players on the roster not named Vince Carter. “I’m excited about that. (The younger players) haven’t gotten into it yet.”

As expected, Carter takes some good-natured ribbing from his teammates, a grandpa joke here, an “ain’t it past your bedtime” there.

But all in all, he seems to fit it quite nicely with all these kids.

“We have a lot in common, believe it or not,” Carter said, breaking into a smile. “I make it my business to know what’s going on in the millennial world.”

While expected to fill a largely backup role for the Hawks, Carter will be in the starting lineup when they open the season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks. He’s subbing for power forward John Collins, a first-round pick in 2017 and one of those building blocks for Atlanta’s future, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.

Never mind that Carter is only 6-foot-6 and has spent his entire career at shooting guard and small forward.

Wherever he’s needed, he’s ready to give it a shot.

“I prepare myself in the summer for any situation,” Carter said. “I tell the coach first thing: `I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”‘

Young, the No. 5 overall pick and cornerstone of the Hawks’ makeover, looks forward to gleaning all he can from a player who was once one of the league’s brightest stars, a guy who threw down sick jams and averaged more than 20 points a game in 10 of his first 12 seasons.

Carter’s above-the-rim antics earned him a variety of nicknames – from “Vinsanity” to “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” – and a likely spot one day in the Basketball Hall of Fame, even though he’s never won a championship and there was griping early in his career about whether he was giving it his all.

These days, he’s a respected senior citizen, a player who draws nothing but awe for hanging on as long as he has, even though he’s bounced around to six teams in the past decade and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2012.

“He’s experienced so many things,” Young said. “I can go to him about anything and just ask him questions. He’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m just blessed to be around him and get advice from him.”

Carter hasn’t decided how long this ride will last.

Twenty-one years might be enough.

Then again, if he still feels that same sort of excitement that he’s feeling right now, he might go where no one has gone before in the NBA.

A 22nd season.

“At year 18, 19, I just said I’ll assess how I feel and the situation at the end of each year,” Carter said. “Just because I’m close to a bunch of different accomplishments, I don’t want to change my routine. I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way.”

With that, Carter hustled off to the locker room, the last guy to leave the court.

There was another flight to catch.

Another opening night to get to.

 

Nuggets agree to contract extension with coach Mike Malone

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Mike Malone was one of the names on the coaching hot seat lists this season. Not that his seat was warm just yet, a lot of pundits were high on his Nuggets (I predicted them to be fourth in the West), but after just missing the playoffs the past two years, if Denver got off to a slow start this season….

Cross Malone off your list, he just got a contract extension from the Nuggets.

This reportedly adds two years to his existing contract, so it now runs through 2021, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Expectations are high in Denver with a return to the playoffs the only acceptable outcome. The Nuggets have improved each season under Malone and won 46 games last season (that gets you in the dance most years). The Nuggets have a deep and impressive roster led by a top 20 NBA player in Nikola Jokic, a point guard in Jamal Murray who is poised to break out in his third season, plus quality rotation players such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

Malone can earn that new contract — and get the team into the postseason — just by finally improving the Denver defense, which was 26th in the NBA last season. If they move up to the middle of the pack, with the Nuggets’ elite offense, they are in.

Whatever happens, Denver is a team to watch this season. And Malone isn’t going anywhere.

Kevin Durant already tired of free agency rumors: ‘Don’t ask me every time you see me’

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It’s going to be one of the most discussed undercurrents of the NBA season:

Is this Kevin Durant‘s final season with the Golden State Warriors?

He can opt out next summer of his $31.5 million deal, and sources from multiple teams around the league think he may be ready to bolt the Bay Area and have his own team. Teams are already preparing for it and getting their pitches ready, and the Warriors are privately bracing for him to leave. The Knicks, Clippers, and maybe a dozen other teams are rumored and want to make their case. (The Lakers are in that group, too, but is Durant going to leave being in a team culture Stephen Curry created to being in LeBron James‘ shadow and culture? You thought he took flack for joining a championship Warriors team, imagine the reaction if he joins LeBron?)

Durant almost certainly does not know what he’s going to do next summer, staying with Golden State is a real possibility, but as rumors have their own life around the NBA this is going to be a topic all season long. People are going to try to read the tea leaves with everything Durant says and does.

Durant has been there before, and he’s already tired of it this time around, as he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“I just want people to focus on basketball,” Durant told Yahoo Sports after posting 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists. “Focus on what goes on the court. I know it’s hard to keep up with it. I know it’s easy to look at that type of [expletive] because it’s the entertainment side. But wait until the season is over with to analyze [free agency]. I know it’s your job and it’s hard to say that, but try to shift some of your focus to the court, too. I know you have to still do your job and check on stuff like that, but every day? Every city I go to? Come on, man. I said what I had to say at media day. I understand your job, but let’s come to a little agreement. Don’t ask me every time you see me. If it’s the first time I’m seeing y’all, I don’t mind answering. But every time? Come on, bro.”

It’s easy to appreciate Durant’s “just focus on the games” sentiment, but the simple fact of the matter is that is not what fans want — it’s not what they read, watch, and consume. We all want to play fantasy GM and player movement is of far bigger interest to fans than the game itself. Coverage of the league reflects that taste now.

Which means the questions are going to keep coming. How is Durant going to handle that?

“It depends on how I feel that day,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “If I’m in a [expletive]-up mood, you’re going to see. Ask me that question and you’re going to really see what mood I’m in.”

No contract extension for Kristaps Porzingis, is that a problem? Depends…

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Most teams, when they get a franchise cornerstone player, lock him up with a max contract extension as soon as humanly possible. Minnesota did that this summer with a big offer to Karl-Anthony Towns (which he eventually signed). Before that Philadelphia did it with Joel Embiid, New Orleans with Anthony Davis, and on down the list.

Kristaps Porzingis is that kind of player for the Knicks.

But there was no contract extension for KP this offseason. This has nothing to do with the torn ACL that will have him out most if not all of this season (which tips off tonight for the Knicks at home against the Hawks).

The reason is cap space — not giving Porzingis an extension now frees up $10 million extra to go big game hunting in free agency next summer. After that, the Knicks can sign him after to that max contract. It’s what the Spurs did with Kawhi Leonard (and the problems between those two sides that led to Leonard being a Raptor were not about that contract).

It all works if the player understands this is not a “snub” but rather a strategic salary cap move designed to put a better team around him. The player has to be good with the move or it can create bad blood.

Does Porzingis and his camp know and understand all this? Knicks GM Scott Perry hinted yes, but was a little vague, via Ian Bagley of ESPN.

Is this a good move by the Knicks? Depends. The extra money is helpful next summer. Perry and team president Steve Mills are smart men who have made good decisions (mostly) so far, and it sounds like they have been clear to Porzingis and his people about what they are doing and why. That’s important.

The question is, did Porzingis fully buy into it? That we do not yet know. We won’t know until we see what Porzingis does next summer (his actions will speak louder than any words when he returns).

In theory it doesn’t matter, the Knicks control Porzinis’ rights as a restricted free agent next summer and they would match any offer. He’s not leaving NYC. However, in practice what the Knicks don’t want to do is create bad blood, something that festers and becomes an issue when this contract is up (Porzingis could sign an offer sheet with another team that is shorter than the max the Knicks want to throw at him).

I expect we will see Porzingis back with the Knicks this season, but not until the last 10-20 games of the season. He’s not coming in as a savior to get the team to the postseason, rather just getting his legs under him and shaking off some rust before another long summer of work. It’s the following season that he will be targeting.

We will see if the Knicks can use that extra $10 million in cap room to get another star to be with him that season.