Clippers, after year of talent upgrades, still facing major bench problems

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Jamal Crawford, too long the Clippers’ only reliable reserve, couldn’t believe how much talent president/coach Doc Rivers has added given the team’s salary-cap constraints.

In the last year, Doc has traded for or signed:

  • Austin Rivers, the No. 10 overall pick just three years ago
  • Lance Stephenson, who finished second in 2014 Most Improved Player voting and played at a near-All-Star level that season – at just age 23
  • Paul Pierce, whose lengthy résumé – an All-NBA second team, three All-NBA third teams, 10 All-Star appearances and an NBA Finals MVP – will send him to the Hall of Fame
  • Josh Smith, a Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and multi-time near-All-Star

Crawford, an unapologetic gunner, was so impressed with the haul, he’s even deferring more.

“I’m trying to get them as comfortable as possible, so I’m not being the normal assassin,” Crawford said. “…For years, I’ve been the guy, period. I still am that guy, but we still have more guys to help me out. So, I’m trying to help them out.”

They need it.

The Clippers have four standout players: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick. When those four share the floor, the Clippers outscore opponents by 14.5 points per 48 minutes. Otherwise, the Clippers get outscored by 5.4 points per 48 minutes.

Relative to every other teams’ most-used quartet, the Clippers’ +14.5 per 48 is second only to the Warriors (+24.4) and a decent step above the third-ranking Thunder (+11.9) and fifth-ranking Spurs (+10.8).

But the Clippers’ -5.4 with other lineups ranks just 24th in league – well behind those other Western Conference contenders. Top-ranked San Antonio (+14.5), second-ranked Golden State (+10.1) and fifth-ranked Oklahoma City (+4.6) continue doing damage once substitutions begin.

Simply, the Clippers look like a Western Conference contender when Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick share the court. Otherwise – even relative to other teams’  backup-infused units – the Clippers look like a lottery team.

The Clippers’ 19.9-per-48-minutes point difference from their their most-used quartet (+14.5) to their other lineups (-5.4) is the largest drop in the NBA. Here’s how each team’s performance with its most-used quartet on the floor (solid) changes when it goes to other lineups (faded):

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Team Most-used quartet Quartet +/- per 48 minutes Other lineups +/- per 48 minutes Difference
LAC Griffin-Jordan-Paul-Redick +14.5 -5.4 +19.9
NOP Anderson-Davis-Gordon-Smith +10.7 -8.5 +19.2
DET Caldwell-Pope-Drummond-Jackson-Morris +11.3 -7.8 +19.1
SAC Cousins-Gay-McLemore-Rondo +9.6 -5.2 +14.9
GSW Barnes-Curry-Green-Thompson +24.4 +10.1 +14.3
DAL Matthews-Nowitzki-Pachulia-Williams +7.5 -2.9 +10.4
POR Aminu-Lillard-McCollum-Plumlee +5.5 -4.4 +9.9
HOU Ariza-Beverley-Harden-Howard +6.1 -3.5 +9.6
MIL Antetokounmpo-Carter-Williams-Middleton-Monroe +0.2 -8.0 +8.2
OKC Adams-Durant-Ibaka-Westbrook +11.9 +4.6 +7.3
PHO Bledsoe-Knight-Morris-Tucker +2.9 -2.1 +5.0
MIN Garnett-Rubio-Towns-Wiggins +1.7 -2.5 +4.2
ATL Horford-Korver-Millsap-Teague +3.4 -0.4 +3.7
UTA Favors-Hayward-Hood-Neto +2.2 -1.5 +3.7
BRK Jack-Johnson-Lopez-Young -5.4 -7.5 +2.1
CHA Batum-Jefferson-Walker-Williams +5.4 +3.7 +1.7
NYK Anthony-Calderon-Lopez-Porzingis -1.6 -1.7 +0.1
CHI Butler-Gasol-Rose-Snell +1.8 +1.9 -0.2
BOS Crowder-Johnson-Sullinger-Thomas +3.8 +4.0 -0.2
WAS Beal-Gortat-Porter-Wall -6.0 -4.3 -1.7
DEN Faried-Gallinari-Harris-Mudiay -5.9 -4.1 -1.8
LAL Clarkson-Hibbert-Randle-Russell -11.6 -8.7 -3.0
SAS Duncan-Green-Leonard-Parker +10.8 +14.5 -3.7
TOR Carroll-DeRozan-Lowry-Scola +0.1 +4.2 -4.1
MEM Allen-Conley-Gasol-Randolph -8.6 -3.6 -5.0
MIA Bosh-Dragic-Wade-Whiteside -2.7 +4.2 -7.0
ORL Fournier-Harris-Payton-Vucevic -2.9 +4.3 -7.3
CLE James-Love-Mozgov-Williams -2.9 +7.6 -10.5
IND Ellis-George-Hill-Mahinmi -4.5 +8.9 -13.4
PHI Grant-McConnell-Okafor-Stauskas -28.6 -10.6 -18.0

Remarkably, it doesn’t matter whom the Clippers play with Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick. It always works.

Three players – Luc Mbah a Moute, Stephenson and Wesley Johnson – have started multiple games with the quartet. Each five-man lineup has produced offensive/defensive/net ratings near the Warriors’ overall marks (113.1/97.8/+15.3).

Here’s how the Clippers have performed with their big four and:

  • Mbah a Moute: 109.7/96.8/+12.9
  • Stephenson: 115.0/97.3/+17.7
  • Johnson: 113.6/96.7/+-16.9

Here’s how that compares to the overall ratings of the other Western Conference contenders – Warriors (113.1/97.8/+15.3), Spurs (106.1/92/+14.1) and Thunder(107.7/99.9/+7.9). The bounds are set to the NBA’s best and worst offensive and defensive ratings, and the axes represent the median marks

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The Clippers’ defense is excellent with their big four, and their offense is literally off the charts.

Doc appreciates having a unit he can count on.

“That helps, but we want two,” Doc said. “And we’re working on that.”

It’ll take more work than the Clippers hoped, though that wasn’t entirely unpredictable.

You can scroll up to see the optimistic view of the newcomers, but there was certainly another outlook.

Austin needed significant improvement just to become a viable NBA player, though he thinks much more highly of himself and too often plays like it. The Hornets seemed fed up with Stephenson from nearly the moment they signed him. Pierce is 38 years old. Smith was so unproductive in Detroit, the Pistons ate more than $30 million to waive him.

Doc has tried multiple solutions – playing all the reserves together, staggering when Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick sit and even recently giving Stephenson a DNP-CD. The results have all been similar: The Clippers look uncomfortable playing together whenever reserves infiltrate the lineup.

Maybe that will get better with time. Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick didn’t immediately click to this degree. Now, those four mesh seamlessly, their styles complementing each other. Stephenson, Smith and Pierce have the varied skill sets to find ways to help  – if they put their minds to it. It doesn’t help that Smith is in a contract year, and Stephenson faces the likelihood of having his 2016-17 team option declined.

The 16-10 Clippers can get by in the regular season like this, but this isn’t a recipe for playoff success. In the postseason, their most important question could become: How much playing time can Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick handle before fatigue causes their performance to decline? The answer, after a round or maaaaybe even two, will almost certainly be “not enough.”

Still, the Warriors have been so dominant when they use their best players – even more so than the Clippers. Unless Golden State comes back down to earth, it might not even matter if the Clippers’ reserves make tremendous strides.

But for the Clippers to have any chance of winning big in May and June, they need to find a rotation – not just a four-man unit – that works. Despite all their efforts, they’re still not close.

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Report: Knicks not looking to make early-season coaching change with David Fizdale

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It didn’t take a Kremlinologist to read into what Knicks president Steve Mills said at his forced by the owner impromptu press conference 10 games into the NBA season:

Coach David Fizdale was in trouble. Big trouble.

It may not just be immediate, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Mills wanted to see “consistent effort” and he’s gotten it. Indications are the coach’s hot seat is cooler halfway through this 10-game trial. Their record is 2-3 since the James Dolan-inspired conference, but could easily be 4-1 (they blew big leads to Charlotte, losing on a last-second 3-pointer, and, of course, had Philly dead in the water)…

The Knicks had to really sink south for a coaching change to be made by Game 20. Indications are it was far-fetched for a change to be made this early anyway. Was owner James Dolan, who has given Fizdale private reassurances, really going to let president Mills hire a new coach from the outside on a long-term deal with Fizdale still having at least one season fully guaranteed on his pact for 2020-21? Sources indicated the major deterrent to making a change at Thanksgiving was the sketchy alternative of promoting one of the assistants – Jud Buechler, Keith Smart or Kaleb Canales.

Good luck finding anyone who thinks Fizdale is safe long term in New York (and for the record, Smart has been an NBA head coach before, there are worse choices).

However, making a mid-season coaching change should really only happen for a couple of reasons. One is that the situation is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. The other is that there is a coach available on the sidelines that the team sees as “the man” going forward and they want to snap him up before someone else does (the Kings hiring George Karl comes to mind, although he turned out not to be “the man” they needed).

Not sure either of those situations applies to the Knicks and Fizdale. A move is more likely in the offseason.

However, predict James Dolan’s moods at your own risk.

Cavaliers’ new jerseys feature a big ol’ feather

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The Cavaliers rank near the top of the NBA by taking 19% of their total shots outside the restricted area while still in the paint. But Cleveland has converted just a middling 41% of attempts in that floater/runner range.

Maybe these uniforms will help the Cavs find a more feathery touch.

Though not in so many words, the Cavaliers actually stuck a feather on their jerseys and called it macaroni.

Jarrett Allen denies Kyrie Irving rumors, “He acts like a normal teammate”

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It hasn’t taken long for the “Kyrie Irving isn’t a good leader in Brooklyn” rumor mill to start up. The Nets 6-8 start combined with a desire in some corners of the NBA (and NBA Twitter) to pile on Irving has started the talk. Whether those rumors are just smoke or there’s some fire there depends on who you ask.

It was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who brought the topic to the forefront again on First Take.

Just as a refresher, anything Smith says should be taken with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt. His job is to stir things up. That doesn’t mean he has no connections.

Nets center Jarrett Allen did an AMA on Bleacher Report and shot down the idea Irving is a bad influence in the locker room.

He acts like a normal teammate. People say that he has mood swings, but that’s a complete lie. He wants to see us succeed and do well if anything.

Allen added this when asked to compare playing with Irving vs. D'Angelo Russell.

They’re kind of different. Kyrie can score from anywhere, even without me setting up the pick-and-roll. DLo…we worked well; if he didn’t score, he’d kick it to me to score.

The Nets are a franchise inhabiting a strange space this season. First, this ultimately is Kevin Durant‘s team, but he doesn’t really get the keys until he can play, which almost certainly means next season. That makes Irving an interim Alpha on that team, but that’s an unusual dynamic.

Second, this is a Nets team that has rebounded from as low as it can get in the NBA to being a place Irving and KD wanted to play by establishing a culture, an identity. This is a lunch pail group of players who were selfless and bought into the team’s ideas and concepts. Nobody was a superstar, it was team first. Except, in come two superstars who bring their own ways of doing things — and the Nets can’t mess with that. There are compromises that need to go on for both sides, with Irving/KD bending to the Nets some, but the Nets giving them superstar treatment.

All of that creates friction that is going to rub some people the wrong way. Plus, Irving is a unique personality who is going to do things his way, and that will bother others. Some of those people will talk to the media, but that doesn’t mean everyone — or even a majority — feel the same way. It’s usually people who feel aggrieved who want to vent.

How all this plays out in Brooklyn is going to be something to watch. But the ultimate test is next season, not this one.