Are these Clippers as good as last season’s version? No. Or at least not yet.

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LOS ANGELES — Last season after 32 games, the Clippers were 21-11.

This season after 32 games, the Clippers are 21-11.

But this season doesn’t look or feel the same.

“I don’t think we’ve played as well,” Blake Griffin said after a hard-fought 101-97 win against a scrappy Utah team Monday night. “I mean maybe to this point, it is kind of hard to remember exactly how we were playing, but we hit a stretch last year, late in January early in February, when (Chris Paul) came back where we really hit our stride. That’s what we have to find again, we have to find our stretch.”

That stretch of play at the start of 2014 meant the Clippers entered this season talked about as potential title contenders. However, in a loaded Western Conference the Clippers flaws — defense and depth — have the team looking so far like it might not get out of the first round.

To a man the Clippers own up to their spotty performance so far, they know they are not playing at the level of the other top teams in the West right now. But they also are taking a big picture view that there are 50 games left in the season, they have just gone through a crowded and tough stretch of the schedule, and that they can get back to the team they were. They believe they can still build the needed good habits.

If they are going to do that, they are going to have to defend more consistently.

In last five games entering Monday night the Clippers had surrendered to opponents 6.2 points per 100 possessions more than their season average (which was already 18th in the NBA) and opponents had an eFG% of 56.2 percent. The Clippers are 4-6 in their last 10 games and their defense is 26th in the league in that stretch.

“We’ve shown we can be very good defensively, we just pick and choose to do that,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We played Golden State the other night (Christmas) and our defense looked as good as anybody in the league…. I think we’re going to be a really good defensive team at the end of the day.”

But they are not now and the Utah game Monday night was an example of why. After a rough 18-point first quarter the Jazz scored at a 120.8 points per 100 possessions offensive rating in the second and third quarters (a number that is phenomenally high). The Jazz were led by 15 points from Gordon Hayward in those middle 24 minutes and their guards were getting into the paint and breaking down the defense.

But then come the fourth — the game was tied 77-77 entering the frame — the Clippers became focused and the Jazz scored at an 83.9 points per 100 pace in those final 12 minutes. The Clippers got the win.

“Just a commitment, effort,” Clippers starting three Matt Barnes said of what is needed to change team’s inconsistency on defense. “Not to make any excuses but we’ve been on a hell of a schedule lately, playing every other day for like a month.”

While there are no excuses in the NBA, the Clippers have a pretty good one with their schedule and practice concerns — they are just coming through a loaded stretch of the schedule with a lot of games. Rivers, who already practices less than pretty much any other coach in the league, decided to keep his players fresh by not practicing on off days.

The Clippers last real “lace up, get after it” practice was Dec. 5, according to Blake Griffin. That’s going on nearly a month. While there are fewer practices in the NBA than many fans realize (due to travel schedules and the volume of games) that is a long time.

“When you don’t practice there’s slippage,” Rivers said. “Offensively we’re catching the ball in the wrong spots, one foot off. Defensively we just need to be reminded of what we should do. We take pride in a lot of things — making them make the second pass, defending the three-point line — and we’re slipping on a lot of those areas. I think we’ll have the time to fix those because it’s nothing new.”

The other big area of slippage is transition defense, that’s the area which let the Jazz hang around on Monday night. The Clippers defense in the paint with DeAndre Jordan has been pretty good (he had four blocks vs. Utah) but on the perimeter the Clippers are virtually matadors waiving their cape as the guy with the ball slashes into the lane and breaks the defense down.

The other issue has been the lackluster bench play — Monday night Rivers played Griffin the entire fourth quarter, including with the second unit, to give them another scoring option. That came after the bench couldn’t hold the lead they had been given in the first half.

In a brutally tight Western Conference, these inconsistencies and concerns about defense and depth could have the Clippers sixth or seventh in a power ranking of the conference (in PBT’s latest power rankings they are sixth in the West).

Both Rivers and the locker room embraces big picture — they think they have plenty of time to fix this. To get back to the team they were last season.

And they do — there are 50 games left before the playoffs start, more than three months of basketball.

But those other teams in the West are improving too, they are making moves to give them an edge (the Rockets have been the most aggressive). There is time to make personnel moves to add depth, although the Clippers are not far below a hard cap (which kicked in when they gave Spencer Hawes the mid-level exception last summer) so they don’t have much money to offer the few players out there.

Every team goes through down stretches over the course of 82 games. Maybe the Clippers are getting theirs out of the way early, maybe the schedule and lack of practices to fine tune things are the issue. Maybe they can find their stride again.

But right now, they do not look like the same team from last year.

Arizona State leading scoring Remy Martin declares for 2020 NBA Draft

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Arizona State junior Remy Martin has declared for the 2020 NBA Draft:

The six-foot point guard took on more of scoring role in his third season with the Sun Devils than he had in his first two seasons. Martin averaged 19.1 points per game on 43.2% shooting from the field. Martin also dished out 4.1 assists per game, after averaging 5.0 assists as a sophomore.

Arizona State’s leading scoring may just be testing the waters, as he’s expected to go undrafted. NBA scouts have concerns over Martin’s size at the NBA level. One concern is his ability to hold up defensively, as NBA point guards are trending bigger and bigger in recent years.

As a smaller guard, Martin was one of the players who could have benefited from the traditional pre-draft process. With in-person workouts on hold, and potentially cancelled entirely, players have limited opportunities to improve their draft stock. Teams may be drafting off previous in-person scouting and off of tape.

NBA players reportedly to take part in televised NBA 2K tournament Friday

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If we can’t watch NBA players on the court, at least we can watch them control their digital selves and teammates in a live basketball tournament.

ESPN plans to broadcast an NBA 2K tournament with only NBA players at the controllers, a story broken by Chris Haynes at Yahoo Sports. The hope is to have it air Friday, with the players competing from their homes around the country.

The NBA is planning a players-only NBA 2K tournament that will feature the league’s sharpest video gamers and it will be broadcast on ESPN, league sources told Yahoo Sports…

Players competing against their peers in the comfort of their own homes could offer a distraction for fans who are missing the game and a little competition.

The league is still finalizing some details for the tournament, but each team is expected to have a representative, sources said.

Esports are incredibly popular and growing as a spectator sport, both in person and on Twitch and other platforms. With there being a pent-up demand for sports programming, this seems a smart attempt to draw eyeballs. Even people who are non-esports viewers could tune in just to check it out, because it’s that or rewatching Tiger King.

You can bet that if it works, we will see a lot more of it in the future.

(Inside baseball note: I would love to see the emails/texts flying around ESPN about Yahoo breaking a story about what is coming in their network.)

 

Shaquille O’Neal: I had no idea what was happening with Joe Exotic of Tiger King

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On a recent episode of “The Big Podcast with Shaq” former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal said that “he had no idea” what was happening at the zoo run by Joe Exotic. Joe Exotic was recently made famous through the popular Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness”.

Footage of O’Neal appeared in the first episode of the show and was shown taking photographs with the animals.

The documentary also showed a cut of O’Neal on TNT saying “Shoutout to Exotic Joe. I got two more tigers.”

On his podcast, O’Neal explained:

“So we go in there, and it’s a beautiful place, and the character that was there was Exotic Joe. We’re there and I dropped some donations for the tigers’ foods and all that. We take pictures with (the) tigers. We went back a couple times. Then we go back another time and we found out that he’s involved with all the stuff, and then, actually, I stopped going.”

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being found guilty of 19 different charges. Those charges included murder-for-hire plot, illegally selling endangered species and other animal-related offenses.

O’Neal clarified that he never bought any animals, but often donates to charities that help animals. He also made it clear that he’s not friends with Joe Exotic, nor anyone involved in the trade of endangered species.

“I don’t harm tigers,” O’Neal said. “I love tigers. I love white tigers. Do I put donations to these zoos to help these tigers out? I do it all the time. Do I own tigers personally at my house? No. But I love tigers. Listen, people are going to make their own opinions, but, again, I was just a visitor. I met this guy — not my friend. Don’t know him. Never had any business dealings with him, and I had no idea any of that stuff was going on.”

Report: Brooklyn Nets looking to hire a blue-chip head coach

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When the Brooklyn Nets and Kenny Atkinson parted ways in early-March, the team installed Jacque Vaughn as the interim head coach.

According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that’s a short-term appointment. On his podcast “Brian Windhorst and The Hoop Collective”, the reporter said the Nets are looking to hire a coach with a track record of NBA success.

“One of the things that has been expressed sort of the grapevine, that’s the way I’m going to say it to protect myself from the aggregators, is that Durant and Irving would like a blue-chip coach. I don’t know what this says about the way they thought about Atkinson, but they want a big-name coach.”

Names linked to the Brooklyn opening are Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, and both Jeff and Stan Van Gundy.

Atkinson leaving Brooklyn was a surprise, considering he had led the Nets back to the playoffs in 2019. That success came after a three-year rebuild. That process was kicked off when general manager Sean Marks hired Atkinson to lead the on-court development. Under Marks and Atkinson, the Nets developed several players who had been given up on by other teams.

Brooklyn was 28-34 when Atkinson was let go. The Nets had gone 2-0 under Vaughn before the NBA suspended play in mid-March.