Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke
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Grizzlies’ other rookie, Brandon Clarke again leaping over expectations

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When Brandon Clarke signed with San Jose State in 2014, the Spartans bragged about landing their highest-rated recruit ever – Cody Schwartz.

When Clarke transferred to Gonzaga in 2017, Bulldogs fans viewed him as a consolation prize after the program struck out on other transfers like Chase Jeter, Kameron Rooks, Elijah Brown, Randy Onwuasor and Deontae Hawkins.

When the Grizzlies got Clarke with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis naturally focused on No. 2 pick Ja Morant.

Unlike the previous situations, the player coveted ahead of Clarke proved worthy of the hype. Morant is the rare rookie point guard who drives winning, and he’s the biggest reason the Grizzlies are still in the thick of the playoff race.

But, as usual, Clarke is quietly thriving.

“I don’t mind not being super famous,” Clarke said. “I don’t mind people kind of missing out on me.

“By now, I’m kind of used to it.”

Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Clarke give Memphis a promising, cohesive young core to build around. Just remember to include Clarke in that group.

After a long run of competitiveness, the Grizzlies were fortunate to go over the hill and bottom out in a year someone as good as Jackson was available with the No. 4 pick. Then, Memphis got lucky in last year’s lottery, nabbing the No. 2 pick in a two-player draft and getting Morant. What a quick way to rebuild.

Especially when nailing moves around the margins like getting Clarke.

In the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis traded up to the No. 21 pick for Clarke, whom ranked No. 10 on my board. The power forward-center has only outperformed his ratings since.

Clarke’s per-game stats – 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks – are modest. But he’s incredibly productive in his 22.3 minutes per game.

Incredibly productive.

Clarke doesn’t hold ideal size. He’s just 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and weighs just 215 pounds.

But he’s a great leaper, both quick and high off the ground. And he plays with an attacking style that maximizes his athleticism.

Clarke is an elite finisher who gets above the rim, dunking or showing nice close-range touch. He has already developed pick-and-roll chemistry with Morant. Clarke is shooting 74% in the restricted area, placing him among the league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

When opponents wall off the basket, Clarke turns to his highly effective floater. He gets way up then shows the range of his touch. Clarke is shooting 58% in the paint outside the restricted area – second in the NBA behind only Nikola Jokic, who’s shooting 60% from that range. The league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

Clarke also shoots a keep-’em-honest 3-pointer, making 37% of his 1.1 attempts per game.

Clarke pairs well long-term with Jackson, a 3-point-bombing center (who’s out with an injury). Jackson’s outside shooting clears space for Clarke inside, and the attention Clarke should draw in the paint will free Jackson on the perimeter. Yet, both can flip roles – Jackson to the interior, Clarke to the perimeter – to keep defenses guessing.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Jackson said. “Playing with a guy like him, who’s so explosive and somebody I can bounce off of really well, it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s unclear whether Clarke or Jackson can effectively defend big centers. That responsibility will likely fall to Jackson, who’s 6-foot-11 but must add strength. Clarke’s defense is more versatile. He blocks plenty of shots with his hops and timing, and he moves reasonably well in space.

Clarke knows his role and stays within it. He’s not much of a creator, for himself or teammates. He rarely gambles defensively. He just plays intelligently, makes positive plays and avoids negative ones.

On a certain level, Clarke should be an early contributor. He turned 23 before the season. But even experienced rookies rarely play this well.

Yet, Clarke is still overshadowed among rookies on his own team.

“It’s honestly fine,” Clarke said. “I’m not somebody that loves having a bunch of cameras on me and a bunch of pictures and videos being taken of me. So, I think it’s perfect of having Ja be that guy that gets all of that attention.”

Clarke should get some attention soon. He belongs on the All-Rookie first team with Morant.

The three Rookie of the Year finalists – Morant, Pelicans big Zion Williamson and Heat guard Kendrick Nunn – are locks. I had Clarke safely in my fourth slot. Really, he was closer to Williamson and Nunn that fifth.

But Clarke’s scoring average ranks just 12th among rookies. Williamson, Morant, Nunn, R.J. Barrett, Eric Paschall, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Coby White, De'Andre Hunter, Darius Garland and P.J. Washington all averaged more points per game. That statistic more than any tends to drive voters. So, it could be close for Clarke.

Yet, Morant and Clarke at least have the opportunity for a rare accomplishment.

Since the NBA entered an expansion era in 1988, just seven teams have put two players on an All-Rookie first team:

  • 2017 76ers: Dario Saric and Joel Embiid
  • 2008 SuperSonics: Kevin Durant and Jeff Green
  • 2007 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge
  • 2007 Raptors: Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa
  • 2005 Bulls: Ben Gordon and Luol Deng
  • 2002 Grizzlies: Pau Gasol and Shane Battier
  • 1998 Cavaliers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brevin Knight

Will the 2020 Grizzlies become the eighth?

They have more-pressing goals first.

Memphis faces the Bucks today with a chance to make the Western Conference play-in. Advancing would be a great achievement for one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

But Memphis is ahead of schedule even being in the mix. The Grizzlies’ future is bright, regardless. They’re talented, fun and seem to get along well.

In a game earlier this season, Morant threw Clarke an alley-oop, but Clarke missed the poster dunk.

“I’d be joking with him, saying, ‘Yeah, you don’t want to make SportsCenter,'” Morant said.

Later in the same game, Morant attacked the rim but passed rather than scoring. Clarke shot right back: “You don’t want to make SportsCenter.”

And in some ways, yes. Morant still views himself as the underdog from Murray State. But his game is too stylistic, his highlights too jaw-dropping. There’s no way for him to escape the spotlight.

“I wish I could be in the background,” Morant said.

Does Morant envy Clarke’s low profile?

“It’s not jealousy at all,” Morant said. “He’s getting attention. He’s not necessarily in the background. We love him in Memphis. I’m pretty sure his name will get out there even more soon.”

PBT Podcast: NBA Finals preview, Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat

NBA Finals Preview
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It’s happening in October, not June. And rather than cross-country flights, everyone will be camped out in a bubble in Orlando.

But the NBA Finals are finally here: The Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Miami Heat. Which means it’s time for an NBA Finals Preview.

The Lakers are the heavy favorites but Miami posses some matchup challenges, starting with Bam Adebayo on Anthony Davis. Add in Jimmy Butler checking LeBron James for stretches, and the Heat shooters such as Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, and this is not going to be a cakewalk for Los Angeles.

Mark Medina of the USA today joins Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports for this NBA Finals Preview. They break down the matchups, talk about what it would take for Miami to pull off the upset, and discuss how this matchup could influence how other teams build out their rosters in the future.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

With Doc Rivers out, three names to watch as next Clippers coach

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Point to the blown 3-1 series lead against Denver, pick apart his tactical decisions in the playoffs this season if you want, but know this: Doc Rivers is a natural leader of men. Players respect him and want to play for him, and they win for him (he has a ring from Boston and is the winningest coach in Clippers history). He was a key reason Kawhi Leonard came to the Clippers.

Which is why it caught everyone off-guard that Rivers is out as the Clippers coach. Even after the blown opportunity.

If Rivers is out, then who is next? Whoever takes the job gets a team that should contend on paper — two elite stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, plenty of depth and quality role players, and an owner willing to spend what it takes to win — but also a lot of pressure. The Clippers gave up a lot to get Leonard and George, and each can be a free agent after next season — the Clippers are the ultimate win-now team.

Here are three names to watch.

1. Tyronn Lue

His is the name you hear most around the league, and is the most reported. He has been the right-hand man for Rivers this season, the Clippers’ lead assistant who has won a ring as a head coach in Cleveland, and he’s used to working with big-name stars. He is respected and liked by the Clippers players and the transition of power would be easy. Lue can have the job, but he also has options — Houston, Philadephia, and New Orleans also are in line to speak with him.

2. Jeff Van Gundy

It feels like an obligation to bring his name up for every coaching opening in the NBA (and probably high school and college), but in this case there is a legitimate reason: Clippers’ president Lawrence Frank is a huge fan. The former Rockets and Knicks coach has the gravitas to get players to listen, even though he has been in the ABC broadcast booth for years. Both the Rockets and now the Clippers want to talk to him. For the next couple of weeks, Van Gundy will be talking about that other Los Angeles team as he broadcasts the NBA Finals.

3. Sam Cassell

After the top two names on this list, things get speculative. Would the Clippers have interest in Mike D’Antoni (who is the favorite for the Philadelphia job)? If not Van Gundy, how about his broadcast partner Mark Jackson? If the Clippers are looking at a former player who is a lead assistant, how about Jason Kidd (still in the bubble with the Lakers)?

We’ll throw current Clippers’ assistant Sam Cassell in there, too. He’s a longtime NBA assistant who has interviewed for some top jobs and deserves a shot somewhere. Again the transition would be easy, and he would bring some swagger to the locker room.

Another question worth asking:

What is next for Doc Rivers?

Whatever Rivers wants. If he wants to jump back into coaching, the Pelicans and 76ers reportedly are interested.

If Rivers wants to take a year off and golf more, he could quickly get a job working in studio or on the broadcasts with ABC or Turner/NBATV — he is phenomenal on camera.

Report: Timberwolves expected to draft LaMelo Ball if not trading No. 1 pick

LaMelo Ball Timberwolves
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The Timberwolves traded for ball-dominant, defense-deficient point guard D'Angelo Russell then landed the No. 1 pick… in a year the top prospect is ball-dominant, defense-deficient point guard LaMelo Ball. Even the other prospect often atop draft boards, Georgia shooting guard Anthony Edwards, wouldn’t be a simple fit with Russell and Malik Beasley already in the backcourt.

That’s why Minnesota is open to trading the top pick.

Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report:

If the Wolves stick at No. 1, multiple sources say they’d bet on LaMelo Ball having the edge over Anthony Edwards.

Do these sources have actually insight into Minnesota’s thinking? The possibility makes this interesting.

However, they could just be supposing. Though the pre-draft process is far from complete, I tend to think Ball is the top prospect. I definitely think the Timberwolves should draft the top prospect available. But Minnesota’s view might not match my own – or Wasserman’s sources’.

Doc Rivers out as Los Angeles Clippers coach

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When the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets and never got out of the second round of the NBA playoffs, changes were going to be coming to Los Angeles. A team with lofty aspirations — and that gave up a lot of their future to contend now — can’t fall on its face like that without consequences.

But nobody saw Doc Rivers being out as the Clippers head coach.

That’s just what happened, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Both Rivers and the Clippers have since confirmed the decision.

“Doc has been a terrific coach for the Clippers, an incredible ambassador, and a pillar of strength during tumultuous times,” Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said in a statement. “He won a heck of a lot of games and laid a foundation for this franchise.”

Rivers helped lead the Clippers through the disastrous end of the Donald Sterling era and into the Ballmer era. In the bubble, Rivers also was a loud voice in support of social justice.

Kawhi Leonard came to the Clippers as a free agent in part to play for Rivers, and the coach was instrumental in recruiting Leonard to Los Angeles. That was the reason most around the league thought Rivers’ job was safe despite some questionable coaching rotation moves against the Nuggets (staying small and trusting Montrezl Harrell against Nikola Jokic when that clearly was not working).

There is no way Doc Rivers is out without Leonard giving his okay to the move.

Rivers signed an extension a year ago and Woj said he had two years remaining on his contract. That suggests a firing, but the Clippers called it a mutual parting of the ways.

Both the Pelicans and 76ers have already reached out to Rivers about their open coaching positions, reports Marc Spears of ESPN.

As for who is next in L.A., Tyronn Lue has been the Rivers’ lead assistant and makes a logical choice to step in and take over. He is popular with the team’s players and has won a ring as a coach before.

However, it’s possible the Clippers look elsewhere. Jeff Van Gundy was suggested by Wojnarowski. Mike D’Antoni is out there if the Clippers want to make a radical move.

“I am also extremely confident in our front office and our players,” Ballmer said. “We will find the right coach to lead us forward and help us reach our ultimate goals. We will begin the search and interview process immediately.”

The new coach will take over the ultimate win-now team. Los Angeles has elite talent in Leonard and Paul George, the Sixth Man of the Year depth (Harrell, a free agent, and Lou Williams), and quality perimeter defenders. In the clutch, they could turn to the two-time Finals MVP. 

Except all that talent really never meshed together, in part due to injuries and other things keeping the team’s core from playing much together. Yet there was a sense of entitlement around this team — the Clippers acted like they could flip the switch and win.

“I think a lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out; chemistry it didn’t,” Williams said after the Clippers were eliminated. “In this series, it failed us. We know this is our first year together. We are a highly talented group and we came up short. Chemistry is something that you’ve got to build. You build it over time.”

The Clippers are all in with this roster. To get George (and with him, Leonard as a free agent), Los Angeles traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, their own first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, two other first-round picks belonging to Miami (2021 and 2023), and agreed to pick-swaps with Oklahoma City 2023 and 2025. 

The Clippers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table to get two years, two playoff runs with those stars. They wasted the first one of them.

The new coach, whoever it is, will have a lot of pressure not to let another season slip away.