Paul Pierce’s move to power forward adds twist to his career, Brooklyn Nets’ season

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BOSTON – On Paul Pierce’s first defensive possession as the Brooklyn Nets’ full-time starting power forward, Serge Ibaka backed him down on the block. Pierce bodied Ibaka, keeping him out of the paint, and Ibaka threw the ball away.

On the Oklahoma City Thunder’s next possession, Ibaka posted up Pierce again. Pierce hardly yielded an inch as Ibaka settled for a turnaround jumper. Airball.

“He’s always telling us how he can lock everybody up that tries to post him up,” Nets center Mason Plumlee said with a laugh. “He’s done that, pretty much.”

Pierce – the NBA’s shortest and maybe most surprising – starting power forward certainly doesn’t lack the confidence to excel in his new position.

Nor the ability defend post-ups.

He’s held opponents to 35.3 percent shooting and forced a turnover on 25.9 percent of post-up plays finished against him, according to MySynergySports. Overall, he’s allowed .64 points per post-up – 16th best in the entire NBA.

A small forward his entire career, Pierce was always crafty and strong enough to handle players his size. But his ability to routinely defend the post-ups of bigger players, often through sheer physicality, has been impressive.

In every other way, though, Pierce hardly looks the part of a power forward – beginning with his 6-foot-7 frame, shortest among the NBA’s 30 starters at the position. Even in era of small ball, Pierce at power forward adds a little wonkiness on both sides of the court.

But wonkiness seems to be exactly what Pierce, who’s reinventing himself at age 36, and the Nets need.

Brooklyn started the season 10-21, but once Brook Lopez suffered a season-ending foot injury, Jason Kidd turned to small ball and turned his team’s fortunes. Since the change, conveniently timed with the flip of the calendar from 2013 to 2014, the Nets have gone 20-9.

Of teams’ most-used lineups, the Nets’ – Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – has been the NBA’s second best with a net rating +15.9 (offensive rating: 103.9/defensive rating: 88.1).

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But Brooklyn’s most-used lineup has played fewer minutes (122 all season) than any other team’s most-used, so sample-size caveats apply.

Still, with with Garnett out injured and Plumlee replacing him as a starter, that lineup has been even better (116.8/86.1/+30.7). Though in just 59 minutes sample-size issues are even more relevant, it seems as long as the Nets go small, they can’t help but stumble into a productive lineup.

For Pierce, whose career appeared to be wilting just a few months ago, the results have been nearly as dramatic.

The slippage began to show during the Celtics’ first-round loss to the Knicks last season. In that series, Pierce posted negative win shares, shooting 37 percent from the field and 27 percent on 3s and turning the ball over more than five times per game.

His first couple months with Brooklyn didn’t go much better, as he posted a PER of 13.6 in 2013. That would have been first below-average PER of Pierce’s career. At 36 and on an expiring contract, he appeared nearing retirement.

By moving to power forward, though, Pierce has increased his season PER to 16.1. That would still be a career low, but it’s solidly above average and ranks fifth on a playoff team.

Careers have been extended – or ended – on less.

Despite all his progress as a quirky small-ball four, the position carries dangers. Whenever Brooklyn’s center gets pulled away from the basket, to defend a pick-and-roll or otherwise, Pierce is often left as the last line of defense near the basket.

In the third quarter of Pierce’s re-return to Boston on Friday, Celtics center-of-the-moment Kris Humphries drove past Plumlee on the perimeter. Pierce slide over and took a charge – and a Humphries elbow deep into his right shoulder.

Pierce immediately went to the bench and sat, grabbing his shoulder and wincing.

Even when Pierce succeeds as a backline defender – a difficult assignment for him – he exposes an area of his body that has bothered him for years.

“Whenever I get hit in that shoulder, just I guess the constant years of banging – especially now that I’m playing the four,” Pierce said.

But Pierce – unlike his partner in crime, Garnett, who openly hates shifting to center – seems to be in no hurry to change the small-ball lineups that feature him at power forward.

“That’s our style. It’s no secret. We’re a small team,” Pierce said. “We don’t rebound well. We force turnovers. We shoot 3s.”

Pierce certainly does his part to contribute to those trends.

  • His total-rebounding percentage (10.0) ranks in the bottom five of starting power forwards. Only Shane Battier, Wesley Johnson, Josh McRoberts and Thaddeus Young are lower.
  • Pierce’s steal rate (2.0) is his highest since 2004-05. He excels at jumping in front of passes to power forwards whom other bigs typically couldn’t get around quickly enough.
  • Pierce has taken 39.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, easily a career high. Because he’s tangling for defensive rebounds more and isn’t as exactly as quick as he once was, Pierce, shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc, is one of NBA’s more dangerous trailers.

Can Pierce keep this up? Has becoming a power forward saved his career?

“It’s not about being a four,” Kidd said. “He’s a basketball player. So, he’s out there taking advantage of maybe a bigger guy. But his basketball IQ is extremely high, so he knows how to play no matter what position he’s in.”

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.