The Extra Pass: How the Clippers Grew Up

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the maturation of the Los Angeles Clippers.

For years and years, the Los Angeles Clippers were a failure on a systemic level. The on-court talent was faced with the permanent uphill battle of overcoming the ineptness of the franchise’s negligent caretaker and owner, Donald Sterling.

Very rarely did the whole overcoming thing actually happen. It happened so infrequently, actually, that calling the Clippers the worst franchise in professional sports wasn’t mud slinging, but rather an accurate moniker.

When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul last year, he understood the gravity of his decision to adopt the abused franchise as his own. Being great on the court simply wouldn’t be enough — he would have to be the new caretaker, the franchise’s new parent. After all, Sterling sure as hell wasn’t doing it, and for as great as Blake Griffin was, he was still just a kid trying to figure out his own game. The responsibility was squarely on Paul’s shoulders.

Like most new parents, Paul accepted that responsibility with a type of fervor that could be considered, at times, a little overbearing. The Clippers were now an extension of Paul, so everything was watched and controlled with an overly careful eye that only a great point guard can possess.

During their inaugural season together, the Clippers would often stumble through three quarters to teams with less talent, only to hope, or know, that Paul would bail them out in the last few minutes. And more often than not, Paul would play the role of both hero and enabler and come through.

The Clippers had managed to become a very good team throughout that process, but all their hopes stayed completely dependent on Paul’s performance. The rest of the team was generally incapable of any real success without Paul holding their hand, and in some ways, Paul was at least partially responsible for allowing the team to establish such a heavy dependence on his late game offensive heroics.

The playoff sweep at the hands of the Spurs was a reflection of this. With Paul banged up and limited by a defense hellbent on stopping him, the Clippers had little else to fall back on in terms of both experience and scheme. While they had ultimately changed for the better with Paul as a parent during that first season, the Clippers as a whole still had yet to mature.

With the guidance of Paul, the Clippers went into the offseason looking to speed up that maturation process. Their youngest substantial free agent signing was 32-year-old Jamal Crawford. They brought in traveled players like Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes, and secured Chauncey Billups as the first act of business.

Those signings obviously matured the team on paper, but it was Paul who did the actual advancing. Instead of conserving energy for when his heroics would be needed in the fourth quarter like the prior season, Paul changed his approach this year by using his energy right away so the team wouldn’t need him at all — a real “teach a man to fish” move.

Behind Paul’s inspired first quarter play, the Clippers have had a much improved defense (18th in defensive efficiency last year to 4th this season), thanks to the example he’s established. If you flip to a telecast of a Clippers game in the fourth quarter this year, there’s a decent chance Paul will be seated on the bench, watching a suffocating second unit put the bow on another blowout win because Paul did his damage so early.

Playing that hard defensively early on accomplished a few different things for the Clippers. It made them the league’s most dominant defense against opposing point guards, something they can really hang their hat on. It sent the message that he trusted the depth behind him. It emphasized the importance of no player taking possessions off. The Clippers aren’t accomplishing what they are defensively with a scheme like Chicago’s or Boston’s — it’s almost all driven by effort.

A test for the Clippers’ progress defensively came about rather recently when they traveled to Memphis for another game in a long line of slugfests. This time, however, they’d be without their biggest puncher in Paul, who was sidelined with a knee injury.

How did they respond? Well, the Clippers held the Grizzlies to 30 percent shooting and destroyed them in their own house, 99-73. True to form, the game was essentially over in the third quarter.

On the very next night, the Clippers headed to Houston. All the excuses were readily available — they were on a back-to-back, on the road, without Chris Paul, against the league’s fastest team. But they won big again, going up by as much as 20 early in the fourth quarter before cruising the rest of the way.

An interesting narrative popped up after the impressive victories. How could Chris Paul be considered a real MVP candidate if his team was great — maybe even better — without him in the lineup for a few games? It’s a direct hit to the “valuable” part of the equation, isn’t it?

When considering that, I can’t help but be reminded of the conclusion of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye.” The “little brother” of Los Angeles is reaching for that ring, and while Paul is still responsible for the Clippers, he’s mature enough to know that his teammates won’t learn anything if he does everything himself. He’s mature enough to know that repeatedly gearing up and saving them in the moment last year didn’t actually save the Clippers from anything at all.

It’s true, the Clippers don’t need Chris Paul in every waking moment anymore. It’s clear that they’ve grown out of that.

And if that’s not a reflection on Paul’s value, I don’t know what it is.

Cavaliers officials reportedly joke about LeBron James: ‘The tread is off his tires’

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LeBron James has played more minutes, regular season and playoffs combined, than Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and John Stockton did in their entire careers. Last year alone, in his age-33 season, LeBron played 3,947 minutes – the most by anyone since LeBron in his first season with the Heat and the most by anyone so old since Michael Jordan in his last season with the Bulls.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Cavs officials have privately joked that “the tread is off his tires” as James transitions to L.A. after playing so much last season.

I wonder how much genuine thought is behind that joke. I’d bet some, though I bet it’s also some self-perceived true belief masking a coping mechanism.

If LeBron wanted to sign a five-year max contract last summer, the Cavaliers would’ve jumped to do it. Instead, he left them for the Lakers.

I also wonder how LeBron feels about that joking. He takes his training seriously and has defied typical aging curves.

This is why LeBron was right to leave for Los Angeles if that’s what he wanted to do. For players with power to do something about it – LeBron definitely qualifies – NBA careers are too short to work with people whose vision doesn’t align with theirs. I’m not sure whether this qualifies as a divide, but there was already plenty of acrimony between LeBron and the organization in Cleveland.

That said, the Lakers unconditionally believing in LeBron’s staying power could do them in. He is in his 16th season and will turn 34 in December. He’s not worn down yet, but the clock is ticking.

Jeanie Buss: Phil Jackson fired by Knicks because ‘people close to you will take the knife and put it in your back’

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When he hired Phil Jackson as team president, Knicks owner James Dolan infamously said he was ceding control “willingly and gratefully.”

But New York kept Steve Mills, who had been running the front office, on staff as general manager. Mills also replaced Jackson as president after Jackson got fired.

That served as a lesson for Jeanie Buss, Lakers owner and Jackson’s former fiancée.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

Jeanie had learned from Jackson’s mistakes in New York, where he took that job as the head of the Knicks front office in March of 2014 and was fired three years later after, as she saw it, he fell prey to the internal politics that have plagued that franchise for decades.

“He should’ve made sure (to control) who was surrounding him, because the people close to you will take the knife and put it in your back,” she continued.

Buss doesn’t name Mills or anyone. But it’s hard not to jump to man who was both Jackson’s predecessor and successor. After regaining control, Mills said he tried to steer Jackson in other directions (which, hopefully).

This reflects poorly on Dolan, whose poor leadership has cast a shadow over the organization for years. There is a toxic culture within the Knicks, from the top down.

But it’s not as if Jackson were simply a victim of that culture. With the notable exception of drafting Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson failed miserably in roster-building. He contributed to the malaise with a comedy of incompetence.

Maybe Mills stabbed Jackson in the back. But Jackson was his own problem, anyway.

Report: Knicks, Lakers, Clippers will pursue Kevin Durant in free agency

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The Warriors are reportedly bracing for Kevin Durant to leave in free agency next summer.

Just because of the New York rumors? Maybe. They’re spreading like wildfire.

But the Knicks won’t be the only team chasing Durant.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers will take a run at the back-to-back Finals MVP, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Of course, every team wants Durant. But not every team will actually pursue him. Many teams believe they have no chance of signing him and won;t waste their time.

It’s probably not coincidental this early list of suitors includes only the very biggest markets. Durant already plays for the best team in a desirable location. How do you differentiate yourself from Golden State? Maybe by being in an even bigger market.

The Clippers are reportedly the frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard. Could they get Durant, too? That’d be intriguing.

The Lakers are definitely looking to get LeBron James a star teammate, and Durant’s name has at least come up. But Durant is already dogged by the perception he’s just riding the Warriors’ coattails. He wouldn’t change the narrative by joining LeBron.

The Knicks don’t even project to have max cap space, though they’d rush to move Courtney Lee or someone else to get Durant. But this is already the worst team on the list. New York is going to further deplete its assets while remaining appealing to Durant? Hey, it could happen.

Or maybe Durant will look at these teams and see has it pretty good in Golden State.

It could also go the other way. If Durant gives even the slightest indication he’s interested teams not yet planning to pursue him, they’d jump to get into the race. So, don’t assume Warriors, Knicks, Lakers and Clippers is anything more than the preliminary pool of vying teams.

Report: Jimmy Butler trade talks ‘mostly dormant’

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Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau reportedly raised his asking price for Jimmy Butler after the star’s explosive return to practice.

Unsurprisingly, potential trade partners – who already weren’t offering enough to satisfy Minnesota – didn’t rush to meet Thibodeau’s new demands. Not even close, apparently.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

For now, Minnesota’s talks with teams around the NBA are mostly dormant, league sources told The Athletic.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Butler reached an agreement: Minnesota would continue to try to trade Butler, and Butler would be a good teammate and play hard.

But how long will this détente last if the Timberwolves aren’t making progress on a trade?