How far can Clippers ride Lance Stephenson’s ups and downs?

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LOS ANGELES – Lance Stephenson, having just scored 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting after two straight DNP-CDs, sat at a table in the Clippers’ press-conference room Friday when DeAndre Jordan entered. Stephenson urged Jordan to join him taking questions, though he clearly wasn’t certain of the procedure.

“I don’t get these shining moments,” Stephenson said.

Not lately.

Just two years ago, Stephenson was nearly an All-Star at age 23. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists for a Pacers team that earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. His future looked bright.

But he signed in Charlotte, where he and the Hornets suffered through a miserably disappointing season. They accepted Spencer Hawes‘ burdensome contract just to rid themselves of Stephenson.

Stephenson hasn’t exactly gotten back on track in Los Angeles. He has been on the fringe of Doc Rivers’ rotation and on the trade block.

Yet, he might be the Clippers’ most pivotal player in their pursuit of a championship.

Stephenson has immense upside. There’s a reason he was viewed so highly just two years ago, and he’s only 25. It’s difficult to fathom why suddenly stopped being that two-way guard who defended, dished, rebounded and shot well enough from outside.

Accordingly, it’s hard to believe he can’t get close enough to that level again to help the Clippers in a major way. They’re already a very good team. They don’t need the moon.

There are signs, usually fleeting, for optimism.

When Stephenson has played with the Clippers’ big fourChris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin and Jordan – they’ve dominated: 115.0 offensive rating/95.0 defensive rating/+19.9 net rating in 155 minutes. Of the 44 lineups that have played so much, just two – the Thunder’s Russell WestbrookAndre RobersonKevin DurantSerge IbakaSteven Adams (112.9/91.5/+21.5) and Warriors’ Stephen CurryKlay ThompsonBrandon RushDraymond GreenAndrew Bogut (112.6/92.4/+20.1) – have been more successful.

Stephenson remains plenty athletic. Just watch this dunk from Stephenson’s breakout performance against the Lakers Friday:

Jordan sat to Stephenson’s left for interviews after that game. Chris Paul arrived to join them, and the star guard even got his own chair and pulled it up to Stephenson’s right – putting Stephenson front and center.

When Stephenson was asked about the dunk, Jordan loudly interrupted.

“Wooohooo!” Jordan cried. “Woooo!”

But Rivers hasn’t been quite as enthusiastic.

Asked whether Stephenson – who entered the rotation Friday with Paul Pierce getting a day off – earned more playing time, Rivers hedged.

“Lance was great,” Rivers said. “I’ll let you know after the game, the next game.”

Stephenson got just nine minutes in a blowout win over the Bulls on Sunday. He didn’t play in the second half until garbage time.

Rivers is learning plenty about his team with Griffin injured, particularly the effectiveness of going small. It seems that should create a larger role for Stephenson, who played stretch power forward against the Lakers.

But besides sharing the court with the big four, Stephenson has seen the Clippers’ offense crater when he plays. It doesn’t seem to matter the combination. Stephenson has played regularly with eight other players: Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Josh Smith, Paul Pierce, Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich, Wesley Johnson and Luc Mbah a Moute. The offensive rating for those two-man pairings with Stephenson ranges from 72.2 to 97.2

For perspective, the 76ers (94.5), Lakers (97.1) and Nets (98.6) rank in the bottom of the league in offensive rating.

Asking Stephenson to handle a bigger burden with lesser floormates, his apparent primary purpose when the Clippers traded for him, has been disastrous.

It raises questions whether Stephenson will follow Smith – the Clippers’ other offseason acquisition with a checkered history – out of town. Smith argued with assistant coach Mike Woodson, and the Clippers practically gave the forward back to Houston.

I liked both additions – Smith on a minimum contract, Stephenson for Hawes and Matt Barnes – for how little the Clippers gave up in exchanged for raising their ceiling. Smith and Stephenson might flame out, but the Clippers couldn’t play it safe and beat the Warriors (or, as we’ve learned this season, the Spurs). The Clippers had to increase their variance if the goal was a title, even if that meant lowering their floor. Smith and Stephenson seemed like reasonable shots to take.

For what it’s worth, Doc still speaks of Stephenson as someone who’ll stick for the rest of the season.

“The thing I love about Lance is, he hasn’t been playing, and I still say he’s going to help us,” Rivers said. “But I just like his spirit. He’s ready every night. He wants to play. He’s been a great team guy.”

He’s also probably expendable.

At worst, Stephenson – whose $9,405,000 team option for next season will almost certainly be declined – functionally possesses a $9 million expiring contract. That could grease the wheels of a bigger trade with a team looking to send out a more talented player without taking on long-term salary. If the Clippers are willing to dip further into the luxury tax to chase a title this year, Stephenson could help net a key contributor.

Or he could just be that key contributor himself.

We know roughly what Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jordan offer. It’s a lot, but it’s also not enough to win a championship – not when Golden State and San Antonio are playing so well.

The Clippers need to swing a break in their favor, and Stephenson seems like the wildest variable. According to their coach, they’ll find out where he can get them.

“I think this team has a chance to be really good,” Rivers said. “I think Lance is going to get better. He’s going to play for us.”

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).

Five teams ready — or desperate — to break through into the playoffs

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Making the playoffs in the NBA has always seemed a low bar — more than half the teams in the league get in — but it may never be harder than this season. Right now, the league is stacked with quality teams. There may be only a handful of Warriors or Bucks level teams on a contending tier, but both conferences enter the season 11 or 12 deep with teams that have the talent to make the playoffs. Strong teams are going to be in the play-in this year, and a couple will miss the postseason altogether.

Here are five teams ready and expecting to make the leap into the playoffs next season — or desperate to do so.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland probably should have made the playoffs last season — the Cavaliers finished as the No. 8 seed in the East but dropped a couple of play-in games and were on vacation when the playoffs actually started.

Then this summer they traded for Donovan Mitchell.

The biggest trade that actually happened this offseason gives the Cavaliers four potential All-Stars: Three who made the game last season in Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, plus second-year star Evan Mobley, who could be the best of them all within a couple of years. Cleveland has questions about who plays the three and if they have enough defense to threaten the teams at the top, but the Cavaliers don’t have to answer all those questions this season.

This season, they are good enough to make the playoffs. It would be a major disappointment if they did not.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s boring to put the Lakers on here. Sure, they missed the playoffs last season but they won the title in 2020, and have LeBron James and Anthony Davis — this is not a team coming out of nowhere and surprising anyone. That said, this team has playoff talent and expectations.

Along those lines, new coach Darvin Ham said Monday before the team’s first preseason game that fulfilling that goal is all about Anthony Davis.

“None of this works if he’s not available and he’s not hitting on all cylinders,” Ham said. “He’s a big piece. The biggest piece of our success.”

There are plenty of Russell Westbrook questions — how long will he buy into Ham’s system? Will they trade him? — as well as how much better the defense will be this season (it can’t be worse… can it?). In a deep West the Lakers could be a play-in team, but they should come out of that and make the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings

When you miss the playoffs 16 seasons in a row, there needs to be a culture change in an organization. New coach Mike Brown gets that.

“This is gonna be a process for us, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Brown said before the Kings’ first preseason game Monday. “There’s some things that need to change.”

Those changes may not happen overnight but they can’t take long, not when the goal is to make the playoffs in a deep conference. Potential Kings head coaches interviewed this summer reportedly were told the organization expects a Timberwolves-like turnaround.

“We want to be in the playoffs,” said Brown, the guy who got the job. “We’re not saying this is a rebuild. We’re playing for [the playoffs] and we feel confident we can get there.”

The Kings have their most talented roster in years led by All-Star Domantas Sabonis, with De'Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, and solid role players such as Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter, and the potential of youngsters Keegan Murray and Davion Mitchell.

Is all that good enough to be a playoff team in the West? The offense should score, but with Sabonis and Fox getting heavy minutes will they get enough stops? The Kings are desperately betting on yes.

Washington Wizards

Wes Unseld Jr. needs to put an offering of rum on the altar to Jobu, a prayer to keep Kristaps Porzingis healthy.

When on the court, Porzingis is an All-Star level big man who competes on both ends, and if you pair him with just re-signed Bradley Beal you’ve got a good two-man core. The Wizards have upgraded the rotation around that duo with Will Barton and Monte Morris joining Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Delon Wright. This roster has decent talent, especially if the stars stay healthy.

That’s a pretty good team. Maybe playoff good, but they will need some help from other good teams above them — the Wizards need to stay healthy and hope some other teams stumble. Make that bet if you want to, Ted Leonsis did.

Portland Trail Blazers

It’s a different conference, but Portland finds itself in the same place as Washington: A good team that may not be good enough.

It’s great to see Damian Lillard back on the court, hopefully he gets his burst back and can return to All-NBA Dame Time (one of the most watchable, entertaining players in the league). Jerami Grant was brought as a two-way wing, and Anfernee Simons was re-signed to be another ball handler and scorer. Around them are, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Payton II, Josh Hart, Justice Winslow and others. Plus whatever talented but raw rookie Shaeden Sharpe can contribute.

Portland is a good team in a conference deep with good teams. Are they good enough? If Lillard is his vintage self and everyone stays healthy… maybe.