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.

Adam Silver acknowledges ratings drop as NBA tries to connect young viewers to broadcasts

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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One of the NBA’s great strengths is its core audience is younger than the other major American sports.

One of the NBA’s great challenges is its core audience is younger than the other major American sports.

That means a lot of NBA fans are cord cutters — or, never had a cord to begin with — and don’t consume their entertainment the way their parents and grandparents did. Much the way we do a poor job measuring the economy by doing it the same way we did a century ago, using traditional Neilson rating measures is a poor way to judge the number of eyeballs on a game. Viewership is evolving.

But make no mistake, traditional ratings are down for the NBA, both nationally and at the regional level. Nationwide ratings are down by 12 percent, including 13 percent on TNT and 16 percent on ABC. Only three NBA teams — the Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies, and Toronto Raptors — have seen a local ratings increase this season, the other 27 teams are flat or down, according to the Sports Business Journal — and down by 13 percent.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver owned the drop during All-Star weekend. He added that while the league could blame injuries to players that would be draws  — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson with the Warriors, Zion Williamson with the Pelicans, Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, etc. — the bigger issue is connecting those younger viewers to NBA broadcasts.

“It’s well-known that on one hand we’re celebrated by some because we have such a young fan base, but that young fan base is disconnecting from pay television in record numbers, and by disconnecting, not just simply not subscribing to cable or so-called cutting the cord, they’re not watching traditional paid television the way they used to,” Silver said during his All-Star weekend press conference. “They’re watching over-the-top streaming services. They’re watching screens, but it’s not essentially pay TV.

“So the good news for the league is that, when we look at all other data points, particularly what we see in social media, what we see in terms of distribution of highlights and general chatter around our games, we’ve never been more popular. But we haven’t found a way to connect those young fans to our broadcast through whatever platform they’re going to be delivered.

“Again, I think it’s a very solvable problem. Our two primary media partners, Disney and AT&T, are both very engaged in these issues…

“So it’s not an issue unique to the NBA. We may be affected by it a little bit more compared to some properties because we have such a young fan base, but I’m super confident over time we’ll work through it because there remains enormous interest in our players and our game.”

Silver also showed at the NBA’s tech summit where he thinks the broadcast of NBA games is headed, trying to bring the courtside experience into the home (with an assist from Bill Murray).

Silver isn’t alone in thinking this way. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, for one, said basically the same thing recently.

A well-respected media consultant recently told Forbes magazine he doesn’t think this ratings downturn is going to hurt the league in 2025 when it’s time to negotiate a new broadcast deal.

“This season’s NBA ratings story is silly. It is a small sample size. This is a year-round league with year-round stories,” says sports media consultant Lee Berke of LHB Sports. “The next NBA media agreements will be a substantially evolved set of deals because of streaming. There will be an increasing range of media companies that want the NBA for the U.S. and worldwide.”

The current $2.7 billion per year NBA deal with ESPN and TNT runs through the 2024-25 season, and Berke expects the next deal to roughly double in value.

That’s the vision Adam Silver sees. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to connect those young viewers to the content. Then to stop measuring viewership the way our grandparents did.

Report: Larry Drew wanted to quit as Cavaliers coach during last year’s All-Star break

Former Cavaliers coach Larry Drew
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John Beilein is reportedly considering resigning as Cavaliers coach.

This makes the second straight season Cleveland’s coach contemplated departing at the All-Star break.

After firing Tyronn Lue in October 2018, the Cavs named Larry Drew interim coach. He immediately rejected the the title. Following an awkward week of Drew acting as the Cavaliers’ head coach but insisting he wasn’t head coach, they eventually paid him enough to accept the role. After the season ended, the Cavs and Drew parted ways.

His exit could have come sooner.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

He wanted to quit at the All-Star break last year on Cleveland. He just wanted to leave, wanted to have them promote whoever their G League coach is.

Larry Drew had more than a million dollars coming his way, and he was talked out of this, I think by his agent. Like, “You cannot do this.” Like,” It’s insane. You can’t leave now. Just stick it out.”

Beilein obviously has his own unique issues. But this reflects quite poorly on the Cavaliers.

Losing obviously factors. Cleveland is just starting to build up post-LeBron James. It’ll take time.

But plenty of teams rebuild and lose. They usually don’t have consecutive coaches ready to quit.

Owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman better take a hard look at what’s failing culturally.

‘There’s a possibility’ DeMarcus Cousins returns to Lakers for playoffs

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It remains a real longshot, but Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel isn’t shutting the door.

DeMarcus Cousins has not stepped on the court this season for the Lakers, having torn his left ACL in workouts over the summer. He’s still at Staples Center nearly every game, and is working on his rehab.

Deep into his press availability Saturday, Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel was asked if it’s possible Cousins could return this summer (hat tip to Sam Quinn of CBS Sports for noticing).

“He’s on track to get healthy by the playoffs, and we’ll have to see where he’s at with rhythm and conditioning and timing and all that stuff,” Vogel said. “But there’s a possibility he returns this season, yes.”

As much as Cousins is hungry for a ring, don’t bet on getting any serious run. The Lakers are legit title contenders who have gotten good play out of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard at center this season, and in the playoffs they likely will lean even more on Anthony Davis at the five (with LeBron James playing more four). Mix Cousins into that and it could throw off the rotations and rhythm of the team just as they enter the postseason.

How much Cousins could help the Lakers also would be up for debate. In last season’s NBA Finals, when Cousins was with Golden State, he was forced into heavier minutes because of injuries to Kevon Looney. While he had a strong Game 2 for them in a win — 11 points and 10 rebounds — for most of the series he hurt the Warriors. Cousins averaged 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds a game, but shot 42.5 percent overall, 22.2 percent from three, and was a bigger liability on the other end of the court where the Raptors repeatedly attacked him through the pick-and-roll. The Warriors were offensively better with a very limited Looney on the court, once he was able to return.

Cousins is not the most mobile of players at this point, not surprising coming off an Achilles and ACL injury, but opposing teams will show no mercy.

Still, the door is open. If Cousins can get some run in less-stressful minutes and get his legs under him, who knows what we might see deep in the Lakers’ playoff run.

Luka Doncic says he’ll definitely play for Slovenia in Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Luka Doncic
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Slovenia won the last EuroBasket, in 2017.

But in a stacked European region, Slovenia hasn’t even qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Mavericks star Luka Doncic will try to change that.

Donatas Urbonas:

Slovenia got a tough draw, landing in host Lithuania’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Only one team from each OQT will reach the Olympics. Even Poland in the group stage will be no pushover.

But Doncic is obviously a difference-maker. Not only is he one of the world’s best players, he’s also comfortable with international style of play.

Slovenia needs him after Goran Dragic retired from the national team following the 2017 European basketball championship.

Slovenia’s first OQT game is June 24 against Angola. Dallas seems bound for a first-round loss. So, that should work. But if the Mavericks make a surprising run deep in the playoffs, Doncic could always reconsider – though he sounds quite certain now.