Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) NBA suspends Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green two games for Clippers’ locker room incident. The NBA wanted to send a clear message: Try to enter another team’s locker room and you will pay the price. Literally. Players who do this will lose multiple game checks with a suspension. I get that — a locker room brawl has the potential to erupt into something very ugly. (James Harden and Chris Paul were not suspended because the league found them to be in more of a peacemaker role, not being the aggressors.)
However, what about guys who throw actual punches in games? On the court. That gets less of a suspension? The NBA’s suspension criteria is off.
Just a quick recap of what happened Monday night at Staples Center: It got to be a very chippy game between the Rockets and Clippers. It had been an emotional game from the start with Chris Paul’s return against his former team — an organization he ripped a couple of times since leaving. On the court Blake Griffin bumped into Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and those two exchanged heated words. Ariza ripped Griffin’s leg tights during a play with a foul. Austin Rivers – out for the game and wearing a suit on the sidelines – was incredibly vocal (remember Paul called out nepotism between Austin and Doc) and Ariza responded, which led to another argument with Griffin. After the game, Ariza and Gerald Green tried to use a not-really-secret tunnel behind the locker rooms (where players often meet after games to talk) to try to enter the Clippers locker room and confront Rivers. There was a lot of yelling and insulting, but no punches were thrown.
My quick thoughts, in bullet points:
• I get wanting to send the “you can’t enter the opposing locker room looking to fight” message, but does that really warrant a larger suspension than guys who throw actual punches while on the floor? Serge Ibaka and James Johnson each got one game suspensions for throwing punches in full view of the cameras, so the video could be re-shown on every highlight package coast-to-coast for 24 hours. That seems soft if you get two games for yelling at a locker room door.
• If it’s two games for Ariza and Green, how many does Aaron Afflalo get for his wild haymaker punch attempt the other day? Does he get less than Ariza/Green because Nemanja Bjelica has some Floyd Mayweather in him and knew how to duck the punch?
• Nothing for Griffin running into D’Antoni? Watch the video and it’s pretty evident to me Griffin intentionally tried to brush back the Rockets’ coach — something Mark Jackson pointed out in the broadcast Wednesday Griffin has done before. However, Griffin gets off scot-free in this. Was D’Antoni out of the coach’s box? Yes. But if that’s the enforcement rule then every coach since Phil Jackson didn’t get out of his chair can be run into because they all go out of the box and venture near (or in many cases) the court. Where D’Antoni stood was not the least bit uncommon. Griffin got lucky.
2) Those Clippers won again Wednesday, beating the Nuggets and shaking up both the West playoff race and the trade deadline. Lost in all this: The Clippers are playing good basketball right now. Wednesday night they beat the Denver Nuggets 109-104 behind 20 points from Griffin and 17 from Lou Williams, who is playing well enough coaches have to consider him for the All-Star Game next month in Staples. That’s six wins in a row for Los Angeles and if the playoffs started today they would be in. Doc Rivers has to get some consideration for Coach of the Year considering where he has this team despite losing CP3 and then a rash of injuries.
The best race to watch the second half of this season is for the final three playoff slots in the West: As of Thursday morning the Pelicans, Clippers and the Trail Blazers are all tied with records of 23-21, and the Nuggets are just half-a-game back at 23-22. (Oklahoma City is just 1.5 games ahead of the tied three, but it feels unlikely they get caught; Utah is 4.5 games behind Denver, but with the injuries to the Jazz it’s hard to imagine them making up the ground.) Using its algorithm, fivethirtyeight.com says the Clippers (78 percent chance), Pelicans (77 percent) and Nuggets (73 percent) will get in, while the Trail Blazers have just a 57 percent chance of beating one of those teams out. Over at Cleaning the Glass, Ben Falk projects the Pelicans in the sixth slot at 45 wins, Denver with 43, and the Clippers and Blazers each with 42 (he has the Clippers just slightly ahead in projected wins). The reality is much more boring: The teams among those four that can stay the healthiest the second half of the season will get in.
Unless there is a trade. The Clippers have been listening to offers for DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams (but reportedly so far have been unimpressed with what other teams are pitching). We can talk about what team president Lawrence Frank wants to do, but in reality this is an ownership-level question: Do Steve Ballmer want to hold on to two of his three best players and make a run at a bottom three seed in the playoffs because he just wants to win, or does he approve getting a jump-start on the rebuild with whatever assets they can land in this deal. Fans love to say “blow it up” but Ballmer and the Clippers could have done that last summer when CP3 forced a trade, they didn’t. So now they’re going to do it at the deadline when they could get less back in deals? Plus, does Ballmer want to try to get approvals for his new arena while his team struggles on the court?
3) Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely. Again. Ugh. Kawhi Leonard has played in just nine NBA games this season. He didn’t return from a quad injury (which he played through last season and bothered him through the summer) until Dec. 12. He was rounding into form when he had to sit for a few games due to an injured shoulder, then on the day he was rumored to be re-entering the lineup the Spurs announced he is out again indefinitely with the same quad injury. The reports were the Spurs expect this to be shorter than the last time he was out, but there is no timetable.
With LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level and the Spurs being the Spurs and not beating themselves, they will be fine in the regular season. They are projected to win about 50 games, and they will make the playoffs as the three or four seed.
However, in the playoffs they need a fully-functioning Leonard to be a real threat to anyone. The Spurs need his defense and his athleticism, they are too old and slow without him and that can get exposed in a series. If Leonard is still out as we get into March, then it’s time to be concerned. Until then, the Spurs are just going to Spur — for example beating the Nets 100-95 Wednesday behind 34 from Aldridge.