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Finally whole and healthy, can Clippers build championship chemistry in time?

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LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers has been here before. Sort of.

He has entered a season the coach of a team that, thanks to some bold off-season front office moves, looked like a contender. The difference is the core of the 2008 Celtics — Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen — were all healthy and pushing each other in training camp.

“They came out of training camp running…” Rivers said of his Celtics. “We played Toronto in Rome in the first exhibition game, and Kevin [Garnett] was diving around on the floor, and I turned to [assistant coach Tom Thibodeau] and said, ‘We’re going to win it this year.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure of it.’

“But [these Clippers] didn’t have that chance this year. Kawhi [Leonard] didn’t play much in preseason or training camp, Paul [George] didn’t play at all. Then when Paul came back, Kawhi was out. But it was just one of those things.”

This Clippers’ season has been a study in long-term thinking. It has been about taking time with recovery from injuries (Paul George returning from off-season shoulder surgery, Kawhi Leonard‘s knee issues, Patrick Beverley‘s strained groin, and that is just the tip of the iceberg).  It has been about rest to prevent more injuries. The Clippers target has been the playoffs, not the regular season.

It has been a contrast with the other team in Staples Center, a Lakers’ team led by LeBron James that has placed a higher value on the regular season. The Lakers focused on building good habits and chemistry and banking on that to pay off in May and, maybe, June.

The Clippers — finally healthy and whole, with Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson in the rotation — now have weeks to develop the chemistry they will need in the playoffs. The cohesiveness needed to take advantage of their deep and talented roster.

A locker room that has had tension, dissension, and lacked cohesion at points this season now needs to come together and pull the rope in the same direction.

“You can feel our guys know they have to get it. They know that…” Rivers said. “There’s a positive urgency about that, but there’s not a panic about that, which I love. They know they need it, they know they’re going to work.

“They know they have time, but they know they don’t have a lot of time.”

“If we serious about this, we got to show it and work towards it now,” Paul George said. “I think coach made a great comment about turning it on now and not thinking we can [flip the switch] late. There’s got to be some steps that we take if we’re serious about our journey down here.”

The healthy Clippers have been impressive — they are 16-4 when Leonard, George, and Beverley are all in the starting lineup. There have been flashes, like beating the Lakers on Christmas Day, when the Clippers looked every bit the title contender.

Those Clippers also still have a lot of steps to take, the on-court chemistry remains a work in progress.

On that play from a week ago, sharpshooter Landry Shamet ran to the corner for a transition three, Leonard made a pass expecting him to cut to the basket for a layup. That’s just a lack of time playing together manifesting in a turnover.

“We got to get guys on the floor, we need minutes together,” Rivers said after his team easily handled Memphis on Monday night. “Even tonight, we played great, but then there were stretches I thought we got bogged down. You can see, we just don’t know the stuff yet.”

“We all know we got to get better, we got to get healthy, we got to be more consistent,” Leonard said. “You can’t panic, you have to stay even keel.”

The bright side for Rivers and the Clippers is the defense — it has been intimidating when healthy, holding their last two opponents below 100 points (granted, Memphis and Phoenix are both slightly below average offenses). There also was a change in plan of attack from Rivers: He put Leonard on star rookie Ja Morant from the opening tip Monday night. No easing the load on Leonard and letting someone else do the hard work early, Rivers wanted to set a tone. Leonard did exactly that. The Clippers raced out to a 35-9 lead in that game.

Rivers is still doing some experimenting. Against Phoenix he broke out some five-out, small-ball lineups with Morris at center, leaving starter Ivica Zubac and possible Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell on the bench (Harrell usually closes games for the Clippers at the five).

Rivers also is putting another ball-handler on the court with Lou Williams in the form of Jackson. For the past couple of seasons, the Williams and Harrell pick-and-roll off the bench has been the Clippers’ best offense (and what they counted on in crunch time). Now, the lineups are different and Williams could even see a reduction in minutes. Rivers added he thought having a second ball-handler on the court would be good for Williams.

Maybe. It just takes time to figure all that out, and the Clippers are running out of it. Longer shootarounds to go over sets and longer film sessions (things that have happened with the Clippers of late) can only go so far.

“We have to learn our own stuff, because we’ve had so much disruption this year. We’ve had 28 different starting lineups,” Rivers said. “It just hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to go as far as the continuity part.”

The players, for all the bumps that come in a culture shift when superstars like Leonard and George are added to the mix, seem to get the time is now.

“It feels better having all of us on the floor,” Shamet said. “It felt good to have everybody full force, to see what that big picture looks like.”

The Clippers as an organization chose this path — it was always all about the playoffs. And, hopefully, a ring. The games in November and January took a back seat to the big picture. The Clippers focused on getting healthy and some rest, and now they will see if that bet pays off.

“We’ve been put in the place we’ve been put in, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t fight it. What were we going to do, play PG hurt?” Rivers asked. “The injuries and all the things just kind of added up on us, it’s not what we expected. But we didn’t expect Pat (Beverley) to miss games, and Lou (Williams) to miss games, and PG to miss the games he did.

“But I told the players, ‘so what? It happens.’ The key is being ready, win as many games as we can, and be ready when it really counts. That’s all we can do. That’s the hand we’ve been dealt, and we have to play that hand.

“We can play that hand and still win it.”

Report: Knicks interested in hiring 76ers’ Elton Brand as GM

76ers general manager Elton Brand
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The 76ers’ eventful offseason has fallen flat so far.

Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) has generally underwhelmed and especially struggled to fit with franchise player Joel Embiid. At 33, Horford faces even more issues as he ages.

Though Tobias Harris has been fine, it’s hard to feel good about his five-year, $180 million deal. That contract makes it difficult to build a quality bench, even if ownership is willing to pay the luxury tax. Every team has spending limits, and Philadelphia has tied significant capital to a merely solid forward.

Josh Richardson isn’t shooting as well as he did while looking like a burgeoning star with the Heat. It’s also hard not to notice Jimmy Butler thriving in Miami.

The cumulative results are also concerning. Creating enough spacing around Embiid and Simmons was always challenging. This group isn’t coming close to answering that call. That has produced some strain throughout the season.

Will 76ers general manager Elton Brand take the fall for Philadelphia’s problems?

If so, he could have a fallback job under new Knicks president Leon Rose.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

According to a league source, Elton Brand has been targeted by Rose as a candidate for Knicks GM. Brand, 41, is currently the Sixers GM and is under contract next season, complicating any designs of bringing him to New York. The source said Rose wanted to see if Brand was dismissed after the playoffs.

It’s nearly impossible to see Brand going to New York unless the 76ers fire him. Though the titles in each franchise would be the same, they’re very different roles. He holds the top position in Philadelphia’s front office. With the Knicks, Brand would work under Rose.

Would the 76ers fire Brand? Maybe. It could depend how they do in the playoffs, and this team still has a championship upside this season.

Even with an early-round loss, Philadelphia seems more likely to fire coach Brett Brown than make a larger change. But it’s not as if Brand – who held minimal front-office experience when hired in 2018 – has done much to instill confidence. There’s not a great affirmative case for keeping him.

The Knicks have Scott Perry as general manager, but he’s a holdover from the Steve Mills regime. After all the handwringing about Steve Stoute saying the Knicks will hire a new coach while they still had Mike Miller as interim coach, this more reflects reality. Professional sports are a cutthroat business. It’s perfectly fine for the Knicks to seek a new general manager while still having someone in that position running out the clock.

Could that be Brand? He’s smart and connects well with people. His long playing career provides invaluable experience. He’d fit well as No. 2 in an NBA front office.

But, right now, he has an even better job.

Carmelo Anthony: Nuggets should have won 2009 championship

Carmelo Anthony in 2009 Lakers-Nuggets Western Conference finals
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Carmelo Anthony said he would’ve won multiple championships if the Pistons drafted him in 2003.

Of course, Detroit picked Darko Milicic No. 2. Anthony went to the Nuggets No. 3.

But Anthony still had a big opportunity to win a title.

Denver – led by Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin – reached the 2009 Western Conference finals. Facing the Lakers, the Nuggets lost Game 1 by two points then won Game 2 by three points in Los Angeles. The Lakers then won Games 3, 5 and 6 to take the series.

Anthony on Instagram with Dwyane Wade:

I was sick, because we were supposed to beat them that year. I don’t like saying “We should have.” I don’t like saying all that. But when you re-evaluate everything. We really wanted Orlando in that Finals that year. We was like, “If we get Game 1 in L.A. or Game 2, we’re going back to Denver, we’re sweeping them.” We was going to beat them. We was going to beat them that year if we would’ve won in L.A. If we would’ve won both games, we would’ve beat them. And we would’ve swept Orlando that year.

Wade:

Orlando was alright, but they weren’t –

Anthony:

No, would’ve swept them. We would’ve swept them that year.

Yes, Denver would have likely won the series if taking the first two games in Los Angeles. The Nuggets also would’ve had a strong chance against the Magic, whom the Lakers beat in five in the Finals.

But it’s a major leap just to give Denver another win in Los Angeles. The Lakers were better than the Nuggets throughout the season. The Lakers were better than the Nuggets in that series. The Lakers were better than everyone. They had just reached the NBA Finals the prior season and were on their way to winning consecutive titles. This wasn’t some unfortunate break for Denver.

And even if the Nuggets won Game 2, the series wouldn’t have been over as Anthony says. The Lakers were led by Kobe Bryant and had savvy veterans like Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher. They wouldn’t have just folded with a 2-0 deficit.

Sometimes, lesser teams beat better teams. The Nuggets COULD have beaten the Lakers.

But SHOULD have? Nah. Not even close.

Parents: Obi Toppin wants to play for Golden State Warriors

Obi Toppin and mother, Roni Toppin
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Dayton star Obi Toppin declared for the NBA draft. The Warriors will have a high pick (whenever the draft is held).

Could it be a fit?

Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“Golden State,” Toppin’s mother, Roni, said when asked by Dell and Sonya Curry who Obi wants to play for on an episode of the “Raising Fame” podcast.

“Let’s go to the Bay.”

Toppin’s father, Obadiah, was a well-known street baller in Brooklyn who played for several semi-professional teams. He seconded his wife’s declaration, and praised Dell and Sonya’s son, Warriors superstar Steph Curry.

“I got my few point guards that I always dreamed of playing for, just because they were the truest point guards — like Steph Curry,” Obadiah said. “I think Obi would be great playing with Steph Curry.”

These are Toppin’s parents, not Toppin himself. The elder Toppins might also be just flattering their interviewers, Stephen Curry‘s parents.

But I bet many top draft picks want to play for the Warriors.

Golden State is a sleeping giant with Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Highly picked rookies rarely join a contender. This is a special opportunity.

Players have extremely limited control of where they get drafted. After all, the draft is a mechanism designed by teams and for teams. But draft prospects can choose when and where to work out, whether to share medical information with certain teams. They can even threaten to be disgruntled if drafted by a certain team.

The most common strategy for controlling draft destination – choosing workouts – might be limited this year. It’s possible there are no workouts anywhere.

But if Toppin wants to join the Warriors, best of luck to him making that happen.

Washington big man Isaiah Stewart declares for 2020 NBA Draft

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University of Washington forward/center Isaiah Stewart had declared for the 2020 NBA Draft.

The six-foot-nine big man averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks as a freshman for the Huskies. He possesses one of the longest wingspans in this draft class at seven-foot-four. That length, combined with his strength and athleticism, makes Stewart an ideal defender at the NBA level.

Stewart shot 57% from the floor and 77% at the free throw line. ESPN currently ranks Stewart at 26th on their draft board.

The 250-pound Stewart earned All-Pac-12 first team honors. These honors came after winning the Naismith Award for national high school player of the year in 2019.

The 2020 NBA Draft remains scheduled for Thursday, June 25. That date, as are all dates associated with sports, is up in the air as the nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.