Associated Press

Stunned Clippers waiting for next shoe to drop after Griffin trade

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LOS ANGELES — All season long, hanging on the corner of the massive television showing game clips in the Clippers’ locker room, there has been a black baseball-style cap, with three words in white on it:

“Next Man Up.”

All season long the Clippers have lived up to that motto. A roster decimated by injuries — from Patrick Beverley being out for the season to ironman DeAndre Jordan missing a few games — has seen the next guy step up night after night, and the team has scrapped its way to stay in the mix for a playoff slot in the West.

Tuesday night felt different.

It was different.

Blake Griffin wasn’t in the building, but this time it wasn’t a knee injury or a concussion — he had been traded to Detroit. His jersey was not hanging in a locker, Tobias Harris’ was.

The overwhelming sense around the team Tuesday night was shock — with a heavy dose of “when will the other shoe drop?” The trade deadline is just more than a week away, and the Clippers have embarked down a road that may well see the team’s other top players — DeAndre Jordan or Lou Williams — moved before next Thursday. Players were reeling from the sharp change of direction.

“Nobody saw that coming, we’re all surprised by it,” Austin Rivers said. “We all love Blake.”

The move was so out of left field to Rivers refused to believe it at first.

“I had missed calls from my teammates, and then I talked to Wes (Wesley Johnson), he called me and was like ‘you heard?’ I said ‘That’s fake news, that’s not true,’” the younger Rivers said. “Then I saw it. You know, you hear so many rumors you don’t know what’s true or not, and then I saw it. I was just surprised by it.”

Everyone was trying to wrap their head around the move — and what likely will follow.

“The organization felt like it was best for our team now and along the future,” said Jordan, in a monotone voice, reflecting the combination of shock and “what’s next?” that hung over the team.

What could well be next is Jordan and Williams following Griffin out the door before the Feb. 8 trade deadline as the Clippers look to acquire pieces that jump-start their rebuild and free up cap space. Even if the two are not gone then, it’s hard to envision them with the Clippers past this season. Coach Doc Rivers, as well as owner Steve Ballmer in a statement, both said that making the playoffs remains the franchise goal, but the team’s actions signal a different priority.

The Griffin trade — which coach Rivers said was rooted in the team’s playoff failures — signaled the Clippers have changed course. Dramatically.

Which is why this trade caught people off guard, Los Angeles could have started a rebuild last summer when Chris Paul and J.J. Redick pushed their way out the door and never looked back, but instead the Clippers re-signed Griffin to a five-year, $173 million contract (then went out and signed Danilo Gallinari to a three-year deal). They told Griffin he would be a “Clipper for life” and he believed it. Quietly, when the microphones were off, teammates said Griffin was crushed by the trade but was trying to see it as a new chapter.

It’s not easy because Griffin was more than just the face of the Clippers, he’s a guy who changed the franchise. Griffin was the draft pick Los Angeles got right. After the blown picks such as Michael Olowokandi, Yaroslav Korolev, and Benoit Benjamin (among others), Griffin came in as a No. 1 pick who was talented and driven, looking for success. Realizing the rare opportunity, Mike Dunleavy Sr. convinced then-owner Donald Sterling the organization needed to grow up and be more professional, and things happened such as Baron Davis and other guys without Griffin’s work ethic being moved. Griffin changed the culture of the franchise.

“I really believe it’s pre-Blake and post-Blake,” coach Doc Rivers said of Griffin’s impact on the franchise. “Before Blake came here, this wasn’t a great franchise… But when Blake got here, and then CP (Chris Paul) and DJ (DeAndre Jordan) followed, that’s when this really became a franchise you talked about.”

Now Griffin is gone, in a sudden act that may well have been the right basketball move but is still very painful for the franchise and its players.

“We had a lot of great times together and he’ll be a good friend of mine after basketball,” DeAndre Jordan said. “It’s tough to see him go.”

“Blake was a great teammate, a great teacher,” C.J. Wilson said. “He taught me how to be a professional. He taught me how to take each day on as a new day — no matter what happened yesterday you have to move on to the next thing. I just watched how hard he worked and everything, and I just learned from that. I try to implement that in my life.”

The vibe in the arena was different as well. Where the Clippers usually put massive posters of their players — heavily featuring Griffin — over the Lakers championship banners in Staples Center, Tuesday night it was just black curtains. Like those used at a funeral. On the court, the Clippers showed some heart and didn’t fold down 22 in the third to Portland. They made it enough of a game late that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum didn’t get to ice their knees in the fourth, but in the end Los Angeles lost.

Many players turned to the “you can only control what you can control” line about the situation, because they had no control over the situation. Guys understand this is a business intellectually, but that doesn’t lessen the sting.

“Everyone understands, and he’s a player that understands, the NBA business, sometime’s it’s tough,” Danilo Gallinari said, confirming that he had spoken with Griffin since the trade…. “It was unexpected, every one of us didn’t expect this.”

Everyone understands. Everyone knows it’s “next man up.” But everyone is also waiting for the next big shoe to drop. Unsettled will be the modus operandi for the Clippers for at least the next week.

Report: Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has griped about Chris Paul’s contract in front of rival executives

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In 2017, Chris Paul opted in to facilitate a trade to the capped-out Rockets. By forgoing free agency and a max salary, Paul sacrificed $10,083,055 that season. With Paul and James Harden, the Rockets became a championship contender and pushed the Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals.

The bill came due last summer.

Houston re-signed the aging Paul to a four-year max contract worth $159,730,592. That deal always looked like it could age poorly, and Paul – now 34 – is already slowing.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has noticed.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Fertitta has grumbled about Paul’s contract, expressing regret to Rockets staffers and even in front of rival executives, according to league sources.

Fertitta bought the Rockets after they traded for Paul. Though the sale was completed before they re-signed Paul, it seems the contract terms were at least discussed as far back as the opt-in-and-trade.

So, Fertitta didn’t necessarily sign off on this arrangement.

But it was good for Houston! It made the Rockets the biggest threat to the Kevin Durant-supercharged Warriors to that point. Re-signing Paul helped keep Houston in title contention this year. The Rockets were limited in that pursuit by Fertitta’s spending limitations, not by locking Paul into this contract.

Yes, there’s downside to Paul’s deal. Houston is feeling it now. Paul will be difficult, though not impossible, to trade this summer.

But as much as Fertitta talks about winning, he yet again shows why that’s all bluster.

Kawhi Leonard wears ‘Board Man Gets Paid’ shirt to Raptors’ championship parade (video)

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NBA championship celebrations have become defined by the shirts (or lack thereof).

The clear winner at the Raptors’ parade today: Kawhi Leonard and his ‘Board Man Gets Paid‘ shirt:

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MVP!

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Second place goes to Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ all-time franchise player honoring Toronto’s original franchise player, Damon Stoudamire:

As expected, Julius Randle will opt out of contract with Pelicans, become free agent

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The math on this is very simple.

After a couple of impressive seasons in a row, Julius Randle‘s stock is going up. The 24-year-old forward averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Pelicans last season, using his strength and athleticism to bully his way to buckets. That said, he also shot 34.4 percent from three, you have to respect him at the arc. He’s impressed a lot of teams.

Randle had a player option for $9.1 million with the Pelicans next season. On the open market, he likely will get a multi-year deal starting in the low teens ($13 million at least). So what do you think he was going to do?

The Pelicans are okay with this move. While they like Randle, they have Zion Williamson coming in playing a similar role (and they hope better).

A few teams to keep an eye on rumored to have interest in Randle are the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn, Nets, and Dallas Mavericks. Others will throw their hat in the ring as well.

It’s going to be a good summer to be Julius Randle.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Zion Williamson, the perfect prospect at the perfect time

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Zion Williamson.

Previous draft profiles:

The thing that stands out when it comes to Zion Williamson, the biggest reason that he has become an internet sensation with a chance of becoming an international superstar, is his athleticism.

It’s the dunks.

Human beings aren’t supposed to be the size of Zion, and the people that are that big certainly are not supposed to be able to move – or fly – the way that he does. That athleticism plays a major role in the reason why he is, for my money, the best prospect to enter the NBA since Anthony Davis, but it is far from the only reason that he has a chance to be a generational talent at the next level.

In an era of positionless basketball, Zion Williamson has the potential to develop into the NBA’s preeminent small-ball five, or point-center, or whatever term it is you want to use to describe the basketball’s biggest matchup nightmares.

It starts on the defensive side of the ball. Williamson stands just 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, but between his athleticism, his strength and his anticipation, he plays like a 7-footer. He’s not going to get buried under the rim by even the biggest centers in the league, and he is terrific at coming from the weakside and blocking shots at the rim:

His anticipation is on another level defensively, which is what makes him such a dangerous playmaker on that side of the ball. He jumps passing lanes, he can pick a point guard’s pocket when blitzing a ball-screen, he has an understanding of what an opponent is going to try to do before they do it.

He’s not just a rim protector, however. He can move his feet on the perimeter, staying in front of point guards when he is caught in a switch:

He can do all of the things that bigs are asked to do defensively in the pace-and-space era, and he may be the best that we’ve ever seen when it comes to grab-and-go ability. In transition is where he may end up being the most valuable and the most dangerous. Williamson can lead a break. There is room for him to improve his handle, but he would be able to step onto an NBA floor today and be capable of bringing the ball up the floor. His speed and strength makes him nearly impossible to stop when he gets up a head of steam, but he also has terrific vision and is capable of making pinpoint passes through traffic when defenses throw multiple bodies at him.

That vision was most evident in transition this past season, but he did show flashes of being able to create off the bounce in a halfcourt setting as well.

Part of the reason those chances were limited was due to the way that defenses played Duke this season. The Blue Devils were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country last year, and the result was that by the the ACC and NCAA tournaments rolled around, the secret was out — other than Cam Reddish, you didn’t really have to worry about guarding anyone else beyond 10-12 feet. Opposing defenses simply packed as many bodies as possible in the paint, and while Williamson was still able to get to the rim just about at will — and shoot 68 percent from the floor in the process — it limited the chances that he had to actually rack up assists. He wasn’t dumping the ball off to the bigs when there were four defenders standing with a foot in the charge circle, and kick-out passes to the likes of Tre Jones, Jordan Goldwire and Jack White were precisely what defenses wanted.

Put another way, I think that Williamson’s assist numbers are going to be what spikes at the next level. Not only will he be playing in a league where there is significantly more spacing, but the reason for that spacing will be the fact that he is surrounded by guys that can actually make threes.

That spacing, by the way, will make Williamson significantly more difficult to guard. There simply are not any traditional fives in the NBA that are going to be able to keep Williamson in front with any kind of consistency, and the players that are quick enough are not going to be strong enough to keep Williamson from getting to his spots. And for all the concerns that have been voiced about Williamson’s shooting ability, he did finish the season hitting 33.8 percent of his three-pointers. If Draymond Green shot 33.8 percent from three, then the Raptors might actually respect him enough to feign guarding him beyond the arc in the Finals.

I bring up Green for a reason, because I think he is the perfect place to start talking about what Williamson can be at the next level. Williamson will be able to do, and has the potential to be better at, all of the things that Green does so well — guarding 1-through-5, protecting the rim, bringing the ball up the floor, leading the break. But what really sets Green apart from the field is the way that he is able to exploit 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s offensively and stop 2-on-1s defensively.

I’m not sure there is a player in the NBA that is as basketball smart as Green. He almost never makes the wrong decision on the offensive end of the floor, and part of what makes Golden State’s offense so lethal is that you’re forced to choose between using an extra defender to keep Steph Curry or Klay Thompson from getting a clean look at a three or letting Green make a play with a numbers advantage. On the defensive end, there is no one that is better at stopping those exact same 2-on-1 situations than Green.

There just isn’t.

And I think that Williamson has the basketball smarts and ability to be able to, potentially, do all of those things just as well one day.

He’s also bigger, more athletic, a better natural defender, a better scorer and a more difficult player to stop 1-on-1.

Imagine if you took Julius Randle‘s scoring ability, gave it to Green and then super-charged that Frankenstein with the kind of strength, speed and athleticism that would make the NFL’s best defensive ends jealous.

Would that be a player you might be interested in?