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How Kawhi Leonard signing, Paul George trade created real rivalry in Los Angeles

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There’s a real rivalry between the Lakers and Clippers now.

The Lakers were incredibly confident internally in recent days that they would be the new home of Kawhi Leonard. They had the history, the brand, and LeBron James and Magic Johnson helping make their pitch. The Lakers were selling the best big three the NBA had ever seen: LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Leonard.

What the Clippers had — after a year-long pursuit of Leonard — was both his interest in playing for them (not in the brighter spotlight of the Lakers) and inside information: Leonard wanted to play with Paul George, and George wanted out in Oklahoma City. The Clippers also understood what it would look like if the Lakers landed Leonard — a dominant superteam in the same building, casting them again deep into the shadows in Los Angeles. That gave the Clippers both the appropriate fear to get the deal done and an opening, and they ran right through it agreeing to sign Leonard and trading for George.

It’s now LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the hallway series in Los Angeles. Lakers fans were stunned and angered by the news that their “little brother” just stole their star free agent and grabbed the guy they thought was a lock to be theirs a couple years ago. The Lakers finished 11 games back of the Clippers last season, landed Anthony Davis, and still lost ground.

The Clippers are now legit title contenders because they landed two guys the Lakers wanted.

Leonard was always an enigma who teams could not predict, but it was the trade for George that blindsided the Lakers and everyone else in the NBA.

The rumors of some tension between Russell Westbrook and George after just two seasons had bubbled up a little around the league in recent days (reminiscent to a degree of the things said about the Kevin Durant and Westbrook relationship in years past), but it seemed more smoke than substance.

Leonard helped make it become real and solid.

George sat down with Leonard in Los Angeles this week — before Leonard met with any teams — and they hatched this plan. If George’s relationship with Westbrook were ideal, if George thought the Thunder were contenders, Leonard’s request may have fallen on deaf ears. It didn’t, but George came to Westbrook’s defense on Twitter.

The bottom line is George and his agent asked for a trade. That blindsided the Thunder organization.

This was the same Paul George that a few years ago was forcing his way out of Indiana and had his people telling every suitor that would listen not to sign him because he would head to the Lakers as a free agent in a year. In large part because they believed they would land him as a free agent, the Lakers didn’t go all in trying to trade for George from Indiana. That lack of a serious effort to trade for George, plus a good first season with Westbrook, had George deciding to stay in OKC and signing a new contract just one year ago.

However, George’s relationship with Westbrook evolved, as did his understanding of how far the partnership in OKC could really go. How much of George’s decision was that and how much was Leonard’s pitch, we will never quite know. What we know is combined that was enough for George to ask out.

The Clippers gave up a TON to get George, but to them it was worth it because it is really getting two stars — Leonard would not be a Clipper either without this trade. If the Clippers want to compete with the Lakers on the court for a title, if they want to compete off the court in Los Angeles for fans to fill the expensive seats and for team sponsors, if owner Steve Ballmer wants to get a new building approved and built for the Clippers in Inglewood, it was going to take star power. This trade is worth it for them, but the price was high.

For most rivalries to gain real traction, the teams have to meet in the playoffs with a lot on the line. This is the exception because the Clippers got two players the Lakers wanted and now stand, at the very least, on equal footing with them in the West. The Clippers are actually little ahead because of the depth of roster around their stars (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, etc.).

The history and legacy of the franchises are not near the same. The Lakers remain by far the more popular team in Southern California, they have the 16 titles, they are the franchise where fathers pass on their love of the team to their sons and daughters. That, however, is ancient history to players. If you have been in the NBA for the last five years, what do you know about the Clippers? They went to the playoffs every year, they have a coach that everyone loves to play for in Doc Rivers, they were the excitement of Lob City, they rebuilt on the fly to a team that was clearly having fun playing together last season and got along, they have Jerry West as part of a smart front office, and they have a competitive owner worth $50 billion who is not afraid to spend it. The brand? Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were not hurting for major national endorsements as Clippers.

What have you seen from the Lakers the past five seasons?

Clippers vs. Lakers games at Staples Center next season are going to be intense.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.

Not a ‘tattooed guy’: Larry Bird wants mural changed

Associated Press
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Larry Bird likes the mural but not the tatts.

A lawyer for the former NBA star has asked an artist to remove certain tattoos from a large painting of Bird on an Indianapolis multi-family residence. The tattoos include two rabbits mating on his right arm and a spider web on a shoulder.

Artist Jules Muck painted Bird in a blue basketball uniform. It’s a replica of a 1977 Sports Illustrated cover when he played for Indiana State.

Attorney Gary Sallee says Bird “needs to protect” his brand and “doesn’t want to be seen as a tattooed guy.” Muck says she adds things like tattoos to her art to avoid creating a complete copy of a photo.

She says she’s trying to reach an agreement with Bird’s representatives.