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Winners and Losers in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George choosing to play with Clippers

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Forget that little bit of shaking in Las Vegas, this was the earthquake that shook the NBA Friday night:

Kawhi Leonard chose the Clippers and convinced Paul George to force the Thunder to trade him to Los Angeles as well. They formed their own superteam just down the hall from LeBron James and Anthony Davis — and the Clippers have a far better supporting cast. The rivalry is on in Los Angeles.

Who won and who lost in the big moves? Let’s break it all down.

First, one quick note: The Toronto Raptors are not on the list below. After this I can’t exactly call them winners, they just lost the best basketball player walking the face of the Earth and got nothing back. However, they aren’t losers, either — they won an NBA title with him. This was the gamble team president Masai Ujiri made: They could do everything right and still lose Leonard. That’s exactly what happened, and now they likely start down a path retooling around Pascal Siakam. But losers? They took a chance and won a title, that’s still the biggest win in the NBA.

Winner: Kawhi Leonard

Remember when we thought Leonard was just a basketball-playing robot devoid of human emotions or ambition outside of winning titles? A player custom-designed for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. That seems a very, very long time ago now.

Leonard has taken charge of everything. On the court in these playoffs, he staked his claim as the best player in the world, leading Toronto to a title.

Now he’s taken charge of his career off the court in an “I’m a superstar and I can do what I want” kind of way. He forced his way out of San Antonio. After a season in Toronto, he tried to recruit Kevin Durant to join him on the Clippers (but KD, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan were already all but headed to Brooklyn). So Leonard convinced Paul George to go into the Thunder offices, a year after he signed a max contract to stay there, and demand a trade to the Clippers. Then Leonard told the Clippers he would only sign with them if they landed George.

That is a superstar getting what he wants. That’s a winner.

Winner: Los Angeles Clippers

This win isn’t just about being title contenders, although the Clippers are certainly that now. This is a win about perception for the Clippers.

Talk to a basketball fan over age 28 about the Clippers and the images that come to mind are Donald Sterling’s comments and racism, drafting Michael Olowokandi, and Elgin Baylor as a caretaker GM not spending money. This was the organization that Lamar Odom begged not to bring him back.

That is not these Clippers. It hasn’t been for a while, but it takes time for perceptions to change. Ask a 24-year-old, fifth-year NBA player what he knows of the Clippers and he will say they make the playoffs every year, have a coach in Doc Rivers everyone wants to play for, they used to be Lob City, last season they had a scrappy team that looked like fun to play on, they have the logo in the front office, and they have an owner in Steve Ballmer worth $50 billion and he’s not afraid to spend it. The Clippers of recent years have been one of the best-run organizations in the NBA.

Now everyone will see that because they are contenders.

Loser: Los Angles Lakers

The Lakers — and Los Angeles as a city on some level — are a star-driven culture. Showtime was Magic and Kareem and Worthy. Then came Shaq and Kobe. Then Kobe and Pau (although Gasol was never quite pure Los Angeles in terms of showmanship and brand). It is in the franchise’s DNA to chase stars.

So there really wasn’t a choice for Laker GM Rob Pelika and company: Chase Leonard as their third star. Sure, there were risks, but they had to do it — and it was the right move. They came close to landing Leonard and having the greatest “big three” the NBA had ever seen.

But the nearly six days it took for Leonard to make his call — he was basically stalling for time so the Clippers could pull off the George trade, but he needed the leverage to get the Clippers to go all-in — left Los Angels with a much weaker field of rotation players to add to the roster. Guys who had been likely targets such as J.J. Redick, Trevor Ariza, Brook Lopez, Patrick Beverley, and more were off the board. The Lakers did well to land Danny Green, and DeMarcus Cousins can play a role, but the pickings got slim on the Lakers. Pelinka still has a lot of work to do on this roster if they are going to be a serious title threat.

Winner: NBA Fans: There is no superteam

This is Adam Silver’s favorite thing about the trade.

There are right now, by my (maybe conservative) estimate, eight NBA teams who can go into next season with the thought they have a shot at an NBA title. That is as close to parity as the NBA will ever get. The race is wide open. If Leonard had chosen the Lakers the NBA would have been back to the start of the last two seasons, just with Los Angeles taking Golden State’s place — there was one dominant team to beat and it was going to take a lot of things to go right to knock them off. Now, we get to see how team chemistry, healthy, and a plethora of other factors play into an open race, rather than seeing if some team can shock the world.

Loser: Russell Westbrook

This isn’t a “he’s a bad teammate” rant, in part because there are plenty of guys who would like to play with Westbrook, and in part because Paul George said that’s not the issue.

Instead, Westbrook is a loser because his world just got turned upside down. Westbrook thought he had a true partner in crime, but his man ran off to Los Angeles with some guy who has cornrows driving a 1997 Chevy Tahoe. The Thunder, as constructed, will be a borderline playoff team in the West. That means another year of Westbrook against the world, or the Thunder trade him, too. Which is likely the path everyone decides to go down, but finding a good team to take on the four years, nearly $170 million still on Westbrook’s contract (counting his option year) is not going to be easy.

Winner: Thunder GM Sam Presti

One year ago, Presti was validated. Oklahoma City had gambled on trading for Paul George when the people around the star tried to warn everyone off because he wanted to be a Laker, but after a year in OKC George signed up for four more.

This week, George walked into Presti’s office and demanded a trade to the Clippers. It was a punch to the gut on a lot of levels, a blow to the culture the Thunder thought they had built.

Presti recovered and got a haul equal to what the Pelicans got for Anthony Davis. OKC receives Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (second-team All-Rookie and a promising player), Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks (the Clippers first-round pick unprotected in 2022, 2024 and 2026, the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick and Miami’s lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick) plus the right to swap picks with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025.

Whatever direction the Thunder go now, they have a lot of assets and options.

Winner: Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers

Kawhi Leonard is out of the East and now the path to the Finals just got a whole lot easier. The Bucks and 76ers are two clear favorites to come out of the conference, and one fewer hurdle stands in their way.

Report: NBA not bringing other eight teams to Disney World bubble

Knicks vs. Bulls
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The NBA bringing the “Delete Eight” teams to its Disney World bubble to train as other teams depart?

Like other plans for the Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Timberwolves and Warriors… it’s not happening.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBPA has no interest in that idea, sources said. It’s a non-starter. The inevitable solution for the eight teams left out of Orlando: The NBA and NBPA agreeing upon voluntary workouts in the team facilities, sources said.

The NBPA won’t agree to mandatory reporting for players on the eight teams outside of the restart but will eventually allow it on a voluntary level, sources said.

Bringing those other eight teams to the Disney World bubble was always a ridiculous idea. Why would the NBA jeopardize its highly profitable setup just so some lousy teams could train and maybe hold glorified scrimmages?

Voluntary team workouts are a reasonable allowance. Though it’s difficult to ensure players coming and going from a team facility won’t spread coronavirus, some players are playing basketball in groups, anyway. At their own facilities, teams can at least enforce protocols to increase safety. And players who’d rather be more careful wouldn’t be forced to participate.

There’s no reason to make anything mandatory. These eight teams’ seasons are over.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.