Clippers try to jump-start defense for playoff run. Hapless Pistons help out.

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LOS ANGELES — Since the start of the season there have been two questions that seem to define just how far the Clippers can go:

1) How good is DeAndre Jordan playing at the five?

2) How good is the Clippers defense?

The answer to both of those questions of late was “not good.” Which is why a lot of people have crossed the Clippers off their contenders list. Teams like the Thunder, Spurs and Nuggets have made them look bad recently.

Vinny Del Negro admitted his team was not playing well heading into Sunday night, then said the usual coach speak about it being all effort and focus. What he really needed was a nice easy blowout win with some good defense.

Enter the Pistons.

The Clippers played good defense early, the hapless Pistons couldn’t capitalize when they did find holes and the Clippers got their rout, 129-97.

It’s a start. Now they need to carry it over to a bigger test against Memphis Wednesday.

“I thought defensively we were really tuned in, trying to take away some things, our energy level was up,” Clipper veteran Chauncey Billups told PBT after the game. “It wasn’t about who we was playing, it was about kind of us and our mindset and what we was going to do.”

The Clippers can defend. On the season, the Clippers have given up 100.2 points per 100 possessions, eighth best in the NBA. They have defended the pick-and-roll well (both the ball handler and roller, top five in the NBA according to Synergy Sports) by mixing up coverages.

But in the last five games that is up to 107.3 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA during that stretch. In those games teams are shooting 47.8 percent overall and a very good 39.5 percent from three. Go back 10 games and the Clippers are giving up 104.3 points per 100 (20th in the league).

“We have to start playing better, I don’t think we’ve played well in a while…” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said before the game. “I think we just got to get our intensity up. Deny one pass away, be more physical, execute the plan better, talking, communicating, sprinting back in transition, loading up on the ball, running three point shooters off the line, boxing out, just all the fundamentals.”

Oh, well, if that’s all that’s wrong….

The Clippers did that in the first quarter. The Pistons pregame goal was to draw the Clipper big men out in the pick-and-roll, to get them in space, but the Clippers dropped off a lot. Why? Well, they were playing the Pistons. This was not a team that could make the Clippers pay for that strategy. Even when it worked and Jose Calderon made a nice pass to Greg Monroe, who had rolled inside to good position, he couldn’t finish when contested (he started the game 1-of-5). And the Clippers didn’t fear Jason Maxiell. Rightly.

As the game wore on the Clippers were more aggressive against the Pistons guards, trapping and challenging. And everybody not named Calderon struggled against that challenge.

It’s hard to take any defensive stats from this game after the first half too seriously because it became such a blowout. The Pistons had no answer for the Clippers on the offensive end. The Pistons defense could not keep stop Blake Griffin early — he hit on post moves, dunks in transition, cuts through the lane and, of course, a transition alley-oop. Throw in some vintage Chris Paul cross over and step backs and the Clippers were up 12 in the first quarter. Griffin finished with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting.

DeAndre Jordan was more active as well. Plus, he had a monster, monster dunk. The Pistons just had now answers.

And this was a Clippers team that was without Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe off the bench.

To a man the Clippers all talked about defensive intensity and focus, to getting back to the kind of defense they were playing when they won 17 in a row. The Clippers are the current three seed in the West however both the Nuggets and Grizzlies are playing great ball and either of those teams — or sides like the Warriors or Rockets or Lakers — could expose the defense if the Clippers are not focused and not building good habits heading to the playoffs.

If not, the Clippers playoff stay could be shockingly short. There is no margin for error in a deep West.

Gregg Popovich: “The system has to change. I’ll do whatever I can do to help.”

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Gregg Popovich was always going to speak out on the protests and anguish in our nation right now — and those thoughts were never going to fit in 280 characters.

Popovich, coach of the Spurs and USA Basketball for the Tokyo Olympics, called up Dave Zirin of The Nation and laid the blame for a lot of what we are seeing on President Trump and the White House. Below is simply a taste:

“The thing that strikes me is that we all see this police violence and racism, and we’ve seen it all before, but nothing changes. That’s why these protests have been so explosive. But without leadership and an understanding of what the problem is, there will never be change. And white Americans have avoided reckoning with this problem forever, because it’s been our privilege to be able to avoid it. That also has to change…

“It’s so clear what needs to be done. We need a president to come out and say simply that ‘black lives matter.’ Just say those three words. But he won’t and he can’t. He can’t because it’s more important to him to mollify the small group of followers who validate his insanity. But it’s more than just Trump. The system has to change. I’ll do whatever I can do to help, because that’s what leaders do. But he can’t do anything to put us on a positive path, because he’s not a leader.”

Popovich’s voice carries a lot of weight, both as a leader of men, and as a former Air Force officer who underwent intelligence training and specialized in Soviet studies. He has never been shy when speaking about his feelings on President Donald Trump (read his entire quote at The Nation, he focuses on the president), but in this case, he speaks for many Americans of all walks of life, and of all ethnicities, who see a leader who stokes divisions rather than seeking to unify and heal.

Many NBA players have spoken out in the wake of George Floyd’s death and a number of them have led or participated in protests around the nation. What Popovich said speaks to a lot of what those players are feeling and saying themselves.

NBA coaches and teams have stepped up with statements, as have team owners — including Michael Jordan — saying this cannot be about just words, there needs to be action toward change. What that action will look like in three months, or six, or a year, is an excellent question. But this time, around the NBA (and maybe around the nation), there seems to be a real sense they do not want this message and momentum to fade.

 

Jerami Grant: Not leaning toward taking $9,346,153 player option with Nuggets

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant
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The Nuggets have their starting point guard (Jamal Murray), shooting guard (Gary Harris), small forward (Will Barton) and center (Nikola Jokic) locked up a combined 11 more seasons.

The big question comes at power forward.

Paul Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Michael Porter Jr. has shown promise. And Jerami Grant holds a $9,346,153 player option for next season.

Jerami Grant on “Posted Up with Chris Haynes,” via Quenton S. Albertie of Nugg Love:

I’m definitely not leaning towards picking up the player option.

Grant appeared bound for a raise. He’s a good finisher who active seeks opportunities at the basket and has improved his 3-point shooting. His versatile defense is valuable in any system. And he has the track record of hard work that should make teams comfortable investing in the 26-year-old.

But the NBA’s coronavirus-caused revenue decline presents a major variable. We’ll have to see where the salary cap lands. If the wrong teams have space, Grant could be stuck with just the mid-level exception, which – depending on the cap – could be less than $9,346,153.

In any cap environment, Denver has optionality. Millsap is still solid, though at 35, it’s unclear how many more good years he has left. Porter is exciting, though he’s still raw, and health remains a concern. Another impending unrestricted free agent, Mason Plumlee plays in plenty of two-center lineups with Jokic.

The Nuggets – who just traded a first-rounder for him – surely want to keep Grant. But they have other options, which gives them leverage.

Grant’s leverage comes with declining his player option and exploring unrestricted free agency. He’s setting that stage now.

Report: One last push for NBA to return with all 30 teams

Thunder owner Clay Bennett
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The NBA has 30 teams.

Some teams don’t want that forgotten as the league heads toward resuming with just 22 teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Near the end of the NBA’s Board of Governors call on Friday, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why the league and owners needed to consider the competitive and financial plights of smaller market teams that could be left out of the season’s summer resumption in Orlando — and the potential symbolic power of all 30 teams gathering there to play as one united association.

As the NBA moves toward a plan of inviting 22 teams re-start a truncated season in late July, sources told ESPN, Bennett spoke of exhausting ways to accommodate non-playoff teams still wanting to play. He wondered: was there a way to safely bring all 30 teams?

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Bennett suggested. Nine months without games – March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four-to-five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the Players Association, sources said.

The financial elements of the plan are significant for the league too — with the 22-team format worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan would, sources said.

The irony: Bennett moved the Thunder to small-market Oklahoma City from larger-market Seattle.

Get past that, and he has a point: Ideally, all 30 teams would finish their seasons. That’s how the season was originally designed. It’d be nice if it could be completed that way.

But it’s also important not to become consumed by that goal in the face of other – sometimes competing – concerns.

The more teams playing, the higher the risk of coronavirus spreading. It’s that simple. In the NBA’s setup, maybe there’s negligible safety difference between 16 teams and 22 teams and 30 teams. That’s worth exploring. But increasing the number of teams increases the risk.

Of course, increasing number of teams also increases revenue. Just as 22 teams will draw more money than 16 teams, 30 teams would draw more money than 22 teams (if safe). That can’t be ignored.

It’s not as if this is a huge departure from normal, though. At this point in the season, many teams begin several months without meaningful games. Fix the tanking issue in normal times. Especially now, it seems absurd to recall teams just for games the organization prefers to lose.

This also isn’t simply a market-size issue. The Knicks, Warriors and Bulls are among the teams outside the top 22. Sure, there’s room for consideration for teams that aren’t resuming. But it’s not as if they’re just small-market teams left to wallow.

Plus, an extended period without basketball is an all-too-convenient concern all of a sudden. Where was that rallying cry while owners held lockouts? Owners canceled games to serve their greater objectives then. It’s a reasonable consideration now, too.

Mandatory summer training camps won’t help eliminated teams sell sponsorships and tickets. Those camps might not even have much value in team building. With contracts generally shorter now, so many players are heading into free agency. For impending free agents on finished teams, protecting their health is most important – not practicing with a team they won’t necessarily stay with.

There are no perfect answers here. NBA commissioner Adam Silver must decide on the least-bad option. It’s perfectly fine if that doesn’t include all 30 teams.

How many teams will make 2020 NBA Playoffs?

Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan vs. Kings
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The NBA could resume with 16, 20, 22 or 30 teams. The league is weighing playing more regular-season games, jumping straight to the playoffs, holding a play-in tournament and even drawing for a group stage. The most important thing is finding the proper format for this unprecedented season interrupted by coronavirus.

But that still leaves a question: How will playoff inclusion be determined?

Importantly, that affects which teams participate in the lottery. The whole point is to give every non-playoff team and only non-playoff teams a shot at the top picks in the draft.

A few notable streaks are also on the line:

San Antonio and Sacramento are in that tightly grouped 9th-12th range in the Western Conference (with the Pelicans and Trail Blazers). Phoenix has the league’s 21st-best record.

The postseason could simply include just the normal 16 teams. But the alternative formats open other possibilities.

It appears most likely 22 teams will resume, though it could be 20. Either scenario could include a play-in tournament – with an unspecified number of teams. Maybe four, maybe six, maybe some other number. Though the name – “play-in” – suggests those teams wouldn’t be considered playoff teams unless advancing, that’s not an official designation. The first NCAA Tournament games each year are commonly called play-ins. But teams that lose those games are considered to have made the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has formally called that round “Opening Round,” “First Round” or “First Four.” The NBA could do something similar.

Though momentum has appeared to stall for a group phase, that format posed the most uncertainty about which teams would be deemed in the playoffs. Would all 20 participating teams? Just eight teams would advance to a tournament (the equivalent of the second round of a normal playoffs). Would only those eight be considered playoff teams? Would the league designate the third- and fourth-place finisher in each group as playoff teams after the fact to reach 16 postseason teams? It’d be weird to “make the playoffs” only after getting eliminated.

But the NBA has had plenty of variance on this throughout its history.

We’ve grown accustomed to 16 teams making the playoffs, the system in place since 1984. But in 1984, there were just 23 teams. So, nearly 70% of the league made the playoffs.

The league has since expanded to 30 teams. So, just 53% of teams make the playoffs now.

Only two periods have seen a lower proportion of the league make the playoffs. From 1971-1974, just 47% of teams (8/17) reached the postseason. From 1981-1983, just 52% of teams (12/23) reached the postseason.

It wouldn’t be ahistorical for the NBA to include more than 16 teams in this year’s playoffs.

Here’s a history of the percentage of teams that have made the playoffs each year (blue). The orange lines represent how that would compare to various scenarios this season – 8, 16, 20 and 22 postseason teams:

Obviously, eight playoff teams would be a major outlier. But having 20 or even 22 playoff teams wouldn’t.

Like with many issues right now, the NBA had latitude and must just decide where to draw the line.