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.

As Summer League ends, what are teams taking away from Las Vegas?

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LAS VEGAS — Knicks fans were lined up out the door, literally overflowing the Cox Arena on the UNLV campus to get a glimpse of Kevin Knox, who averaged 21.3 points per game at Summer League and suddenly was seen as the newest star on Broadway — the perfect pairing for Kristaps Porzingis.

Top pick Deandre Ayton filled the building and had Suns’ fans dreaming of rings with his star power. Memphis’ fans were saying they saw the future of the franchise with Jaren Jackson’s combination of shooting and shot blocking. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s looked like a steal and his play gave Clippers’ fans hope. Atlanta’s Trae Young went from “bust” to “future franchise cornerstone” over the course of two weeks as his play improved through July.

As Summer League has grown over the years — all 30 NBA teams were represented in Las Vegas, every game was televised nationally — so has the importance of these July exhibitions in the minds of fans.

But what do teams — their coaches, scouts, and GMs — take away from Las Vegas?

A baseline.

“It’s just benchmarks for the guys,” new Hawks’ coach Lloyd Pierce told NBC Sports in Las Vegas. “I got bear cubs right now. I saw Omari (Spellman) at Villanova, but I hadn’t touched him. I saw Trae (Young) at Oklahoma, but I hadn’t touched him. Kevin (Huerter) I still haven’t touched (hand surgery).

“So we have a couple areas with Trae, and we have a couple areas with John Collins and a couple areas with Tyler Dorsey where we say, ‘you know what, I know what we need to work on.’ More will come, but at least I have a starting point, and we can have a conversation now.”

That conversation is about how much more work needs to be done.

Summer League has become big business for the NBA, it’s marketed and put on a bigger stage, and with that it’s natural that Summer League games have grown in importance in the eyes of fans (and media). But for teams, the purpose hasn’t changed since the games were an almost forgotten part of the NBA season at the Pyramid on the Long Beach State campus.

Multiple NBA coaches and executives told NBC Sports is just the first post-draft step in evaluation, and where a player is on the scale right now is not nearly as important as where he goes from here. Those decision makers know that 90 percent of the players in Las Vegas will not even be invited to an NBA training camp, then combine that with limited practices and there is only so much big-picture evaluation that can take place.

“I don’t get wrapped up into the rookies, as far as being discouraged with what you see here,” said Bobby Marks, former assistant general manager with the Brooklyn Nets and current ESPN analyst. “I think I’m more discouraged if I have a second- or third-year player who does not play well here…

“You take gradual steps. You look at where you were when you first get to Vegas, where they were at the end of June or early July, then you see where they are in the middle of July.”

A lot of the evaluation from teams is not in those televised Las Vegas games, but rather on the practice court.

“The first thing is you evaluate how coachable they are, because you don’t have a lot of time, but there’s a few things you emphasize just to see if they do it,” said Utah Jazz Summer League coach Alex Jensen. “Summer League is one of those things where they are always trying to showcase themselves, so sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to do, but we want to see how coachable they are.”

For those first-round and high second-round picks, it’s also a chance to put players in NBA situations. For example, Portland Summer League coach Jim Moran said they run a lot of the same sets in Las Vegas they will run come the fall, with the goal of getting guys like Gary Trent Jr. or Anfernee Simmons shots they will see come the games that matter.

“We’re trying to put them in situations they’ll be put in the regular season,” Moran said. “So whether it be defensively having our bigs switch out on smaller guys, or learning how to move and keep smaller guys in front of them, or offensively just getting them a feel for where their shots are going to come from in certain plays, we want to see it.”

For a first-round pick such as Portland’s Simmons or the Knicks’ Knox or Atlanta’s Young, Summer League is a showcase. Every first-round pick has a guaranteed NBA contract — they are going to get paid come the fall. That’s not to say they don’t play hard or take it seriously, but no matter what happens in Las Vegas they will be on a roster come October.

The real business of Summer League is second-round picks, undrafted players, and guys coming back from playing overseas trying to get noticed — by NBA teams, ideally, but at least by European scouts who can land them good paying gigs playing basketball. It’s an on-court job application for almost everyone in uniform. NBA staffs are taking notes on these guys, as well.

“Second-rounders, undrafted guys, guys you might sign to two-ways, guys you might need to call up on a two way, because you don’t really know,” ESPN’s Marks said of who he watched closely at Summer League in his executive days. “There could be guys who were playing in Europe last year, or maybe from lower level schools and you didn’t bring them in for a workout, there’s a newness to this. So I think it benefits them more than your first round picks.”

Put in a good showing and guys can find their way onto a roster — Trevon Bluiett out of Xavier averaged 18.3 points per game for the Pelicans, and they signed him to a two-way contract. A handful of other guys did the same, or will get training camp invites out of Las Vegas.

Because of that those guys are hustling — say what you want about the glorified pick-up game nature of Summer League play, guys go hard because paychecks are on the line.

However, for bigger name, higher drafted players, performance in Las Vegas matters more to fans than it does the franchise.

“There are takeaways, it gives you a baseline for the rest of the summer,” Marks said.

And that’s just the first step. By Halloween, all these games will be a distant memory.

Report: LeBron James to skip USA Basketball mini-camp next week

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Next week in Las Vegas, many of the best basketball players walking the face of the earth — Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, just to name a few — will get together under the guidance of Gregg Popovich for the USA Basketball mini-camp.

It is the first workout of the pool of 35 players — which will ultimately be narrowed down to a dozen — who will represent the United States at the 2019 World Cup in China and 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It also will be the first workouts for the team under new coach Gregg Popovich. It’s a who’s who of NBA talent.

Except new Laker LeBron James will not be there, reports Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

LeBron James will not participate in USA Basketball’s minicamp in Las Vegas next week, multiple sources familiar with James’ plans told ESPN.

LeBron, who already has two Olympic golds and has competed in three Olympics, may choose to sit out a World Cup at age 34 and an Olympics at 35. He was not part of the 2016 gold medal team in Rio. LeBron certainly has done his service on the Team USA front, and the USA does not need him to win gold in those tournaments.

All eyes in Las Vegas will be on the dynamic between Popovich and Kawhi Leonard, who is expected to be at the workout. Most likely the dealings between them will be civil if a little cold, but it’s worth watching.

Lakers headed to second straight Summer League title game

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Josh Hart scored 37 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 112-109 double-overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday in the semifinals of the NBA Summer League.

Los Angeles advanced to the championship game for a second straight year after winning the 2017 title behind game MVP Kyle Kuzma and league MVP Lonzo Ball.

The Lakers will play Portland, which knocked off Memphis in the other semi-final.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes made the play of the game when he snatched a loose ball and fed Jeff Ayres with a pretty touch pass under the basket with 45 seconds left in the second overtime. Rathan-Mayes followed Ayres’ lay-in with a slashing lay-up to put the Lakers up 110-106 with 22 seconds left.

Cleveland’s Billy Preston missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Svi Mykhailiuk scored 31 points for the Lakers (6-0), while Ayres added 20.

Collin Sexton led the Cavaliers with 27 points, while Jamel Artis and John Holland each scored 17.

Trailing 105-102 in the first overtime after Sexton made a short jumper, Rathan-Mayes buried a 3-pointer to tie the score. Hart made it 106-105 by hitting the second of two free throws with 5.7 seconds remaining. Sexton did the same at the other end, splitting two free throws and tying it at 106 with 3.3 seconds left.

The Cavaliers (5-2) erased an early 11-point deficit and tied the score at 95, when Vladimir Brodziansky buried a 3-pointer with 2:00 left in regulation.

After Mykhailiuk made one of two free throws to give the Lakers a 96-95 lead with a little more than a minute left, Hart grabbed a defensive rebound and at the other end dished to Mykhailiuk, who hit a running jumper just above the free throw line to push the lead to 98-95.

But Sexton answered with a 3-pointer to tie the score with 26 seconds left. Hart missed a 3-pointer with 3.0 seconds left, and Sexton missed one from long range at the buzzer.

The Lakers went on an 18-2 run to take a 28-17 lead led by Mykhailiuk, who was 4-for-4 from long-range in the first quarter. Los Angeles shot 50 percent (9 of 18) in the opening period and was 5 for 9 (55 percent) from beyond the 3-point line.

Hart took over in the second quarter, scoring 10 of his 14 first-half points to help the Lakers take a 50-47 lead at halftime.

USA Basketball to host World Cup qualifier vs. Uruguay on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (AP) — USA Basketball’s quest to qualify for next year’s FIBA World Cup will resume Sept. 14 in Las Vegas, where the Americans will face Uruguay.

That will be the first U.S. game in the second qualifying round for next year’s world championships in China.

Like the first round, the U.S. will continue being coached by Jeff Van Gundy and will have a roster made up primarily of G League players. The Americans went 5-1 in the first round.

The U.S. and Uruguay are among 12 teams from the Americas zone vying for seven World Cup spots. The others are Argentina, Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States is a heavy favorite to qualify, then will send NBA players to China for the World Championships (there is a workout for some of those players coming up in Las Vegas in a week).

Second-round qualifying ends in late February. The World Cup begins in August 2019.