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Nikola Vucevic is one of the East’s best centers — and will get paid like one next July


LOS ANGELES — When Nikola Vucevic’s son grows up — he and his wife are expecting their first child next month — this is the video he’s going to show the boy over and over:

Dad posting up LeBron James, using a spin move to blow by him and dunking while the all-time great is helpless to stop him.

It’s a fitting image of how Vucevic’s season has gone.

Vucevic dropped 31 points on the Lakers Sunday then turned around on a back-to-back and had 30 points Monday against the Warriors. Those games continue a run that has him looking like one of the two best centers in the East (Joel Embiid claims the other spot) and playing like an All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate— 20.8 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, shooting 39 percent from three, with a PER of 26.9.

If you prefer your stats advanced: Vucevic is fifth in the’s “value over replacement player” (VORP) stat, nestled between Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving on the list, ahead of Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Vucevic has been that good this season.

Vucevic credits new Orlando coach Steve Clifford for putting him in better situations this season, which sparked his improved numbers. Last season Vucevic took 56 percent of his shots either at the rim or on short mid-rangers off post-ups or runners (usually within 8 feet of the rim), this season that is up to 65 percent (stats via Cleaning the Glass). While that has come at the expense of fewer three-pointers, the ones he is getting now are cleaner looks and his percentage from beyond the arc has jumped from 31.4 percent a year ago to 39 percent this season.

“The way we play now, it helps me playing inside-out, it gets me going and makes me more comfortable,” Vucevic said. “Last year I felt I was a little too much on the perimeter, space the floor, which is fine, but at the same time [this season’s style] makes it much more difficult for the other team and gives them a different look. It works great for me because I get some easy ones in the paint and am able to step out.

“The way coach wants me, wants us, to play fits my skill set.”

That skill set is also going to get him paid next summer as a free agent, whether by Orlando or someone else. There are a lot of playoff/contending teams intrigued by the idea of adding Vucevic via trade this season, especially with his very reasonable $12.8 million contract (and the fact Orlando has rookie Mo Bamba behind him). However, sources tell me Orlando is not going to be taking those calls unless they drop way out of the playoff picture by the deadline (the Magic are currently the eight seed in the East).

“He’s probably a little overlooked, he’s a very, very good player,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “Coaches, players that have to play against him, when you watch tape he can score all over the floor on you. He’s a nightmare to match up with when you’re scheming against him whether you’re switching or you’re in a drop because of that ability.”

Teams will come calling next July with big contracts just because of he’s such a matchup nightmare and how it opens up an offense. For example, on Orlando’s first possession of the game Sunday against the Lakers, Aaron Gordon curled off a Vucevic off-ball screen, received a pass about the free throw line and attacked the rim down the lane, going in for a thunderous dunk. Why? Because JaVale McGee couldn’t afford to leave Vucevic unguarded 18 feet from the rim, so he was out higher than he wanted to be and was a step slow on the rotation. Vucevic created those kinds of problems all game.

“That’s the advantage of having Vuc out there,” Clifford said. “Normally, if you don’t have a range shooting center, they’re going to have somebody in the paint there. He’s so involved, especially at that point in the game, there’s a lot of room to drive the ball.”

The Lakers struggled against the problems a lot of teams have had against Vucevic and the Magic this season. Los Angeles prefers to have its bigs drop off a pick-and-roll and protect the rim (the same strategy a number of teams use, such as Milwaukee and Utah). Do that against Vucevic and he pops out and drains a three. Keep your big out higher to stay with Vucevic and the lane opens up for drives. Switch that pick and Vucevic will head down to the block with that smaller player show off his variety of post moves — just ask LeBron.

“When he’s in the game, it’s hard for [the other team to go small] because he’s good at posting and our guys are good at finding him…” Clifford said. “Every team that’s downsized when he’s on the floor, we’re good. We struggled when he wasn’t out there.”

“I just wanted to keep being aggressive when they try to switch matchups against me,” Vucevic said. “We’re calling plays to get me involved in the offense, to get me the ball in spots, and I’m just trying to be aggressive.”

Vucevic spent last summer at home in Orlando, spending time with his wife and preparing for his new son, not playing internationally for Montenegro.

“I think one of the things [that has him playing well], to be honest with you, if you ask him, he didn’t play for his national team this summer,” Clifford said. “I know he’d tell you he feels fresher, so I think that’s a big part of it.”

Players rarely talk poorly of their national teams and the toll, and Vucevic didn’t fully buy what Clifford was selling.

“It’s just different because when you play for the national team you get into game shape in July, the end of July into August, ready to play a transition game, so you come into the season having played for a month or two,” Vucevic said. “So it’s a little different, but I’m still 28 so it’s not too big.”

What is big is the impact he is having on the Orlando Magic and the NBA this season.

“You never know a guy until you coach him. I never liked to coach against him,” Clifford said. “He brings inside/outside decision making and he’s a far better defender than anyone has given him credit for. He’s playing at a very high level and playing an all-around game.”

The other thing that’s big? That contract he is going to get next summer after stepping up his game.

Doc Rivers said Clippers knew Thunder wanted to breakup Westbrook/George combo

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Oklahoma City looked like a small market success story — they had Russell Westbrook (he stayed and re-signed for the max) and rolled the dice on Paul George, and then he stayed. It was a top-heavy roster (Stephen Adams makes a lot of money, too) but one that won 49 games… and then got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Portland.

That playoff loss seemed to show a ceiling for the Westbrook/George Thunder and had the franchise doing some soul searching.

However, in the wake of George forcing his way to the Clippers in a trade, rumors bubbled up that teams thought the Thunder wanted out of their expensive, non-contending team. Clippers coach Doc Rivers confirmed they knew that, speaking to Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times.

“We showed [Leonard] everybody else and he didn’t want to hear it. He just stayed on Paul George, so after the meeting we sat down and I said, ‘We got to get Paul George. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we have to do it.’ We did know that Oklahoma City wanted to break their team up, so that helped, but we didn’t know if we could get him.”

Turns out they could get him, but the price was high — one the Clippers saw as worth it, but steep nonetheless. For the Thunder, that high price is the foundation of a rebuild.

How did the Thunder get there?

After Damian Lillard sank his “shot for Seattle” that sent the Thunder home for the summer, it seems all the soul-searching in OKC had them thinking about breaking it all up earlier rather than later. If they really felt this is as far as they could go with Westbrook and George — and it would have been tough to put a much better team around them due to cap limitations, either way this was a team that needed a lot of things to go right to get out of the first round — then it made sense to move on if the right deal came along.

Fans in Oklahoma City have never had to sit through an NBA rebuild, the team that showed up from Seattle may have won only 29 games that first season but had Kevin Durant and Westbrook and was already a team on the rise. After that, the team has never won fewer than 45 games, had one Finals trip and years of contention. There’s going to be some ugly basketball in OKC for a few years, we will see how that market reacts.

League executives reportedly think Clippers are better than Lakers, but by how much?

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis is the best two-man duo on the NBA.

If this were a classic game of NBA Jam, everyone would pick them to win it all.

However, NBA basketball remains a 5-on-5 sport where rotation players, depth, and fit all matter. A lot. Especially for contenders.

In that context, the Lakers’ Staples Center roommates — the Clippers — are better poised to win it all. The Clippers have Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green, and a team that was both tough to play against and made the playoffs before Kawhi Leonard and Paul George showed up.

Don’t take my word for it, Ethan Straus of The Athletic polled some NBA executives about the Lakers and Clippers and got this response:

Everyone agrees that it exists, but to varying degrees. In league circles, Lakers skepticism has burbled about for some time, before and after Anthony Davis awkwardly made his way to Los Angeles. Questions of fit and chemistry persist, and many are noting just how many games LeBron James has played up to this point. Like the Warriors, the Lakers are also lacking in perimeter defense, in a league where it seems to matter more than ever….

Shoulder injuries are unpredictable and George will be out for a lengthy stretch. Given that Kawhi Leonard already only plays so many games, the Clippers might struggle to keep pace in the standings. As one executive put it re: the Los Angeles gap, “There is a big gap in likelihood of winning the title. Not sure about reg season wins.”

What makes the Clippers the favorite going into the season is not simply Leonard and George, it’s that they have two of the elite two-way wings in the NBA, and those kinds of players at that position have a great track record of playoff success. The Clippers should be a strong defensive unit that can throw a lot of different looks and players at teams, but also one that can score efficiently. Then they bring Williams and Harrell off the bench for a jolt of energy and scoring. Doc Rivers knows how to coach and meld a team. There’s a lot to like.

There are a lot of questions with the Clippers, there are just far more with the Lakers — nobody really trusts their role players to all fit well, there’s coaching staff turnover, and then there’s the question of whether LeBron’s injury last season was a one-off fluke or the start of a trend for the 35-year-old.

The Los Angeles squads are not alone, every contender this season has some serious questions to answer. It’s what makes this season so fascinating and different from recent ones.

Klay Thompson on Trump: “I didn’t appreciate the language he used with Bahamians”

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Klay Thompson has said it before and is saying it again:

He’s pissed at what President Donald Trump said and did in the wake of the destruction hurricane Dorian brought to the 700-island nation of the Bahamas, where at least 51 people died (that number is likely very low, with more than 1,300 people still listed as missing).

Thompson has deep ties to the Bahamas. His father Mychal — a former No. 1 NBA draft pick who was a member of the Showtime Lakers — was born there. The Thompson family has long had a special relationship with the island, with Klay having spent a lot of time there in his youth. Klay felt the need to defend the Bahamas after the Trump Administration did not grant “Temporary Protected Status” to the people fleeing the destruction on the island so they could come work and live in the USA until it was safe to return.

Thompson spoke to Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I didn’t appreciate the language he used with Bahamians,” Thompson told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re gang members and criminals? I’ve known Bahamians my whole life. Yes, there are criminals in Nassau. But there are criminals worldwide. When you lose everything, your home, your loved ones and thousands are dead, and then you generalize a whole population, I thought it was very very ill advised and bad timing. That language really (ticked) me off.”

Trump, while not granting “temporary protected status” to the people of the Bahamas fleeing the destruction from Dorian, said “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.”

“He’s wrong about the gang affiliations over there,” Mychal said. “There are people over there that are good people. Hard-working people. So he was wrong with that statement. I don’t think (other) Americans have misconceptions about Bahamians. We don’t have gang problems and that type of hard problems in the Bahamas. We have people who are in need and in poverty. But for the most part, Bahamians are great people and help each other out in times of need. That’s what they’re doing right now.”

Klay and Mychal, through their family foundation and a golf fundraiser with proceeds going to Bahamas relief, think they will donate about $1 million to the relief effort.

It’s going to take billions of dollars and many years for the Bahamas to return anywhere near its former self. The Thompson family is raising money, but more importantly, is raising awareness. It’s the start of a long, long process.

Thompson himself continues his recovery from a torn ACL suffered during the NBA Finals, an injury that will keep him out for much, and potentially all, of next season.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.