ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: The Clippers finished the regular season with a franchise best 56 wins, good enough for the fourth seed in the West and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs over the Memphis Grizzlies.

L.A. went up two games to none in the series, before Memphis came back to win the series in six. Vinny Del Negro wasn’t fired, because his contract was up at season’s end. But he wasn’t offered a new contract, either, and the way the Clippers exited the postseason was viewed as the reason why.

Chris Paul re-upped with a max contract as expected, but not before he was reportedly “angry” over the organization letting it leak that he was the one who forced the parting of ways with Del Negro — something we all knew, and didn’t need anyone on the inside to confirm publicly. All ended well, however, as the Clippers were able to pry Doc Rivers from the Celtics to patrol the sidelines this season.

Last season’s signature highlight: In the last moment before things fell apart in the playoffs, Chris Paul’s game-winner at the Game 2 buzzer sent the Clippers back to Memphis with a 2-0 lead in the series.

Key player changes: The Clippers turned over much of their bench from a season ago, which included trading the young and talented Eric Bledsoe to the Suns. But they’ve appeared to upgrade significantly overall, bolstering the team’s reserve unit for a longer postseason run this time around.

  • IN: J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley were acquired in the three-team trade that sent Bledsoe to Phoenix. Darren Collison, who had success backing up Paul in their days together in New Orleans was signed in free agency, as was former Bobcats big man Byron Mullens. Antawn Jamison was signed to a one-year free agent contract, as well. Reggie Bullock was selected with the 25th overall pick in this summer’s draft. Lou Amundson is in camp on a non-guaranteed deal.
  • OUT: Bledsoe via trade, Chauncey Billups and Ronny Turiaf via free agency, Lamar Odom via … (we’ll leave that alone), and Grant Hill via retirement.

Keys to the Clippers season:

1) DeAndre Jordan, defensive anchor: Doc Rivers has appointed Jordan as the one to singlehandedly transform the defensive unit by becoming its backbone. So far, Jordan is happily embracing that responsibility. During the preseason, Jordan is active, engaged, and energized on the defensive end of the floor — he’s talking nonstop, calling out the other team’s plays followed by how his guys are to adjust, and playing with a fire rarely seen in NBA big men consistently over the course of an 82-game season.

That’s going to be the question with Jordan — is he willing to sustain the effort? With Rivers as his head coach, it’s a safe bet that the answer might be “yes.” And if that’s the case, the Clippers will be an extremely difficult matchup all season long.

2) Creating chemistry: The Clippers have a lot of new pieces to fit together, along with a new (although well-respected and experienced) head coach trying to put them all into place. Some minor injuries have prevented Rivers from truly seeing what he has all at once, and keep in mind, there are guys who may be asked to play smaller yet more important roles this year than they have in seasons past. There haven’t been any issues with it in the preseason, of course, but Rivers knows there could be bumps in the road in that department in the future.

“I don’t know if you can have a chemistry test until you go through adversity, to be honest,” Rivers said before the Clippers faced the Suns during the preseason in Phoenix. “Every team in the league right now is getting along. Once the season starts and rotations are set, the amount of touches you get and all that stuff, then you’ll find out how much we all get along. I think we get along great, but no one knows [yet].”

3) Increased output from Blake Griffin and Chris Paul: Paul is the best point guard in the game, but he may need to increase his production for the Clippers to reach new heights. He averaged 16.9 points and 9.7 assists per game, but is capable of so much more offensively. Now granted, he has plenty of talent surrounding him, and if the ball movement is there and guys do what they’re supposed to, it may work out just fine. But Paul is a killer out there in terms of his competitiveness, and it may not be a bad idea to unleash that on the rest of the league a little more often this season.

As for Griffin, it’s hard to believe he’s entering just his fourth full season. He’s already a beast to deal with down low, but he could use a little more finesse to his game to avoid foul trouble and be able to create offense for himself a little bit more easily. He’s still developing, and if he can make some subtle changes to the way he plays around the basket (think less Anthony Mason and more Karl Malone), his averages of 18 and 8 could see a significant increase.

Why you should watch: Doc Rivers is known for his defensive coaching ability, and the Clippers were 15th out of 16 teams in terms of defensive efficiency in the playoffs. After the first two games against Memphis, they couldn’t slow them consistently or get stops when it mattered. Whether or not the transformation will occur defensively is going to be intriguing, to say the least.

Prediction: The top six teams in the West are all fairly close in terms of overall talent and projected ability to come out atop the Conference standings. But I’ll go ahead and buy into the preseason hype surrounding DeAndre Jordan, and Doc Rivers’ ability to make sure he sustains it all year long. Defense and consistent outside shooting were the major deficiencies this Clippers team was facing, and those needs appear to have been met during the offseason. A 60-win campaign is not out of reach if things fall into place, and a trip to the Western Conference Finals — at minimum — seems to be where the Clippers should land this season.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.