ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: After adding Doc Rivers as head coach and Alvin Gentry as the lead assistant to coordinate the offense, the Clippers finished the season number one in offensive efficiency and seventh on the defensive side, thanks to a marked improvement from DeAndre Jordan on that end of the floor. L.A. finished third in the West, and overcame the distractions that the team’s former owner provided at the worst possible time to take out the Warriors in a seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs. Oklahoma City proved to be more talented in the second round, however, and eliminated the Clippers in six.

Signature highlight from last season: On a team that features the game’s best point guard and two of its more electrifying dunkers, there really is no shortage of highlight plays to choose from. And frankly, too many are worthy that could accurately describe just how devastating L.A. was offensively last season. So enjoy this mix of the team’s Top 10 plays, and if we were to single one of them out, let’s go with number five — Chris Paul uses his wizardry to navigate through multiple defenders, before lobbing a perfect pass up to DeAndre Jordan for the thunderous slam.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Clippers season:

Blake Griffin and Chris Paul: The Clippers two best players last year were arguably the best tandem on any team in the league. Griffin finished third in MVP voting behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James, while Paul led the league in assists by averaging almost two more per game than his closest competition. As long as Griffin continues his evolution and Paul remains as rock solid as ever in running what was the league’s most efficient offense last season, L.A. will remain one of the elite teams in the Western Conference.

Improved front line depth: The addition of Spencer Hawes should be a big one for the Clippers this season, considering just how steep the drop-off was a year ago when looking at the team’s frontcourt positions. Griffin and Jordan played at an elite level, but once they came out of the game, the team’s identity completely changed due to a lack of reserve options. Rivers has used Hawes in a reserve role to this point in the preseason — a wise decision to have him firmly in place as a legitimate back up big that the team has been so desperately lacking, especially in the playoffs. Udoh, meanwhile, could provide defensive help in limited stretches, which would allow the team to be more consistent in its approach when the starters are getting their rest. Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu are options too, of course, but both played a bit last season, and the results were hit and miss.

The fifth starter: L.A. has four members of its starting lineup essentially locked in with Paul, Griffin, Jordan, and J.J. Redick. But the fifth spot is seemingly up for grabs. Jared Dudley played below expectations last season (likely due to trying to play through injury), and was subsequently traded out of town. It’s now guys like Chris Douglas-Roberts and Reggie Bullock who will attempt to fill that void, though Matt Barnes could see plenty of time there as well, just as he did last season. The team will want more consistency here than it saw a year ago, and not having to constantly scramble for starting-five production could make the unit a more cohesive one, especially defensively where the improvement is needed the most.

Why you should watch: This Clippers team features two of the league’s best players in Paul and Griffin, and a third in Jordan who can jump out of the gym. It’ll be interesting to see if the offensive principles remain now that lead assistant Alvin Gentry has moved on to a position with Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors, but the talent is there to entertain wildly on a nightly basis.

Prediction: Here’s where things get interesting. If the roster upgrades (especially the addition of Hawes) pay the expected dividends, and if L.A. can commit to improving on the defensive end of the floor, then there’s no reason that the team shouldn’t be right there with the rest of the elite in the Western Conference. The Spurs and the Thunder are the most pressing threats to the Clippers’ ability to reach that lofty status, but the injury to Kevin Durant may help L.A. get a bit of a head start in the standings, which could affect home court advantage in a postseason series.

That’s a long way from here, obviously, but the Clippers seemed poised to make their long-awaited leap this season. A top-two finish in the West and a trip to the Conference Finals is how things should ultimately play out in Los Angeles.

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.