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Austin Rivers: Everybody, ‘so f—ing gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers,’ overlooking Wizards and Pacers

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We picked the Celtics, Raptors, 76ers and Bucks to be the top four teams in the Eastern Conference this year and ranked the Wizards and Pacers next. If that’s not the consensus, it’s close to it.

Wizards guard Austin Rivers, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

“I think we’re heavily slept-on,” he tells me. “Team’s been to the playoffs, what, the last five, four or five years? Then going into this year, you add me, Dwight Howard, Jeff Green and nobody seems to talk about us. So I just think we’re heavily slept-on, but that’s fine. At the end of the day, nothing really matters until the season starts and we set that tone for ourselves. I get the hype of a couple of the other teams, but I think we have a chance to compete with the best of the East.”

I tell him I recently spoke to Tyreke Evans, who said something similar about the Indiana Pacers. Rivers gets more animated.

“Yeah, I would say Indiana’s the other team that gets slept-on, too,” he says. “You look at Indiana, they took Cleveland to seven games and then damn near, arguably could have beaten them.”

Rivers rattles off Evans’ stats from last season, then continues: “That’s who they just added to the team? And nobody seems to talk about the Pacers because everybody’s so f—ing gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers. And rightfully so: they’re both talented teams. But Indiana is just as good as both those teams. And I think we’re in the same situation.”

I agree the Wizards and Pacers had positive offseasons. But Indiana might have been punching slightly above its weight as a surprise team last year, and Washington’s problem has often been overconfidence.

In that regard, Rivers – acquired in an offseason trade from the Clippers – is already fitting right in. The brashness might be good for Rivers, but it’s not what the Wizards need.

Washington could have a good season. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are a strong starting point in the Eastern Conference, and Dwight Howard could help with the right attitude and health. Rivers is a quality reserve. But let’s pump the brakes on calling Jeff Green a key addition, though Rivers would be only one of many – including someone in his immediate family – to make that error.

Clippers biding their time until star hunt

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Lob City is the proudest era in Clippers history. Really, it’s the franchise’s only proud era since moving to California. After reaching the playoffs just four times in the first 33 years post-Buffalo, the Clippers qualified all six years Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan played together. In that span, only the Spurs and Thunder won more games.

And now it’s over.

The Clippers moved the final remaining link from their 2012-2017 teams by trading Wesley Johnson yesterday. That’s historic turnover, as the roster is completely remade just two years later. Since the early 1950s, only the 1996 Mavericks and 2003 and 2004 Hawks completely changed their rosters within two seasons.

L.A.’s flux comes with big eyes. The Clippers are trying to lure star free agents, which means closely monitoring situations elsewhere. Entering the season with the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard reportedly favors the Clippers. Jimmy Butler is unhappy with the Timberwolves – ideal for the Clippers, who want to avoid another pleasing team landing his Bird Rights. Though Kevin Durant rumors are focused on the Knicks, talk of him leaving the Warriors could mean L.A. is at least in the mix.

The Clippers project to be able to unilaterally open about $63 million in cap space without stretching players next summer.

Creating so much flexibility required stinginess this summer. The only free agents signed to multi-year guarantees were Montrezl Harrell (two years, $12 million) and Avery Bradley ($12 million this season, just $2 million of $12.96 million guaranteed next season).

The Clippers also gave multi-year deals to their first-round picks, No. 11 pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and No. 13 pick Jerome Robinson. I’m much more bullish on Gilgeous-Alexander. Those two rookies could be important in building back up, because for the second straight summer, the Clippers lost their best player.

After Paul engineered his way to the Rockets last summer – with Griffin traded to the Pistons between – Jordan left for the Mavericks this summer. His fit in L.A. had become awkward, and though he was willing to take a one-year deal (at least with Dallas), everyone seemed ready to move on. This seemingly wasn’t about maintaining flexibility. It was about turning the page.

The Clippers will miss Jordan on the court next season. They replaced him with Marcin Gortat, acquired in a trade for Austin Rivers, but that’s a downgrade.

Gortat (like Rivers) is on an expiring contract. So are Luc Mbah a Moute – a Lob City contributor returning after a stint in Houston – and Mike Scott, who each signed one year, $4,320,500 deals for half the mid-level exception.

The Clippers look deep and feisty after all this tinkering around Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari. They probably won’t make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but they should remain competitive enough to stay on the radar of free agents.

Remember, though, the Clippers entered the summer coming off a winning season and with plenty of 2019 cap space. They were always setting up to make a big splash next summer. They just took a small step back this summer, which will be no problem if they make their desired leap in a year.

Offseason grade: C-

Grading the Washington Wizards offseason

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

There’s a fine line between a young team building chemistry while growing and a team that has stalled.

The Wizards appeared to cross that threshold last season.

For just the second time in seven years, Washington’s record didn’t improve from the previous year. Also for the just the second time in five years, the Wizards didn’t reach the second round.

The last time both happened, they fired coach Randy Wittman. They didn’t dump Scott Brooks this year. With his contract, he’s entrenched.

But they did shake up the roster with a few moves that carry the potential to help Washington escape this muck or backfire in spectacular fashion. For a team that has become so uninspiring, the risk should be welcome.

Trade Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers? Sure. Perimeter talent comes at a premium. Bigs are more easily replaceable.

Sign Dwight Howard? Sure. For all his foibles, Howard remains an elite rebounder, high-quality interior defender and helpful pick-and-roller. The taxpayer mid-level exception is a bargain for a starter of his caliber.

Sign Jeff Green? Sure. He’s coming off a career year, as he finally better understands how he can – and more importantly, can’t – contribute to winning. A minimum salary suits him.

Howard and Rivers particularly certainly add personalities to a locker room with John Wall and Bradley Beal. But Wall and Gortat already clashed. How much worse could it be with Howard? Rivers will get along better with teammates when his dad isn’t coach, and he has become more self-aware. (The same can’t necessarily be said about Howard.)

These are manageable issues relative to what Washington could have faced.

Credit Wizards owner Ted Leonsis for hanging above the luxury-tax line. After paying the tax for the first time in franchise history last season and not getting even a single playoff-series victory, he could have rushed to trim salary. Trading the No. 15 pick – instead used on Troy Brown Jr. – to unload a bad contract would have been quite typical for this franchise.

This doesn’t mean Leonsis will keep spending big forever. Next summer looks like a possible a breaking point if Washington doesn’t produce this season.

Starting power forward Markieff Morris and promising but inconsistent forward Kelly Oubre Jr. will become free agents. Wall’s super-max extension will kick in. Otto Porter, Beal and Ian Mahinmi will remain on massive deals.

Unless they’re far more willing to spend than understood, the Wizards would be wise to get out ahead of an even more daunting luxury-tax crunch. Just letting Morris and/or Oubre walk would be disappointing.

But there’s still time for a preemptive solution. It didn’t have to happen this offseason.

I’m not certain the Wizards will be better this year. But in a summer they appeared likely to take a step back, they gave themselves a real chance to be better. This was the right time to invite variance, and Washington did it shrewdly.

Offseason grade: B-

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis gives Ernie Grunfeld an ‘A’ for offseason

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Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has repeatedly extended the contract of team president Ernie Grunfeld – who was already running the front office for seven years when Leonsis bought the team eight years ago – without announcement.

So, it’s a slightly different tune when Leonsis praises Grunfeld publicly. And there’s nothing hedged in this commendation.

Chase Hughes of NBC Washington:

Leonsis, in fact, said he would give team president Ernie Grunfeld and his team an A-grade for their summer so far.

“I thought what Ernie did this offseason is exactly what we had planned,” Leonsis said. “I think when a season ends you sit down and see what you want to accomplish. For the Wizards, it was we need to have more balance and more depth and be more prepared for injuries.”

That is high praise, and Grunfeld did pretty well this year.

Dwight Howard (mid-level exception) and Jeff Green (minimum) were fine signings for a team with no realistic route to cap space. Getting Austin Rivers for Marcin Gortat was a fine trade for a team short on moveable assets. Drafting Troy Brown was fine for a team in the middle of the first round.

Just don’t forget Grunfeld’s role in Washington being fairly trapped at “pretty good.”

To be fair, many teams wish they were “pretty good.” Whether it’s appreciated is in the eye of the beholder.

If history is any indication, Leonsis will eventually show his appreciation with a contract extension for Grunfeld without saying anything this strong – or anything at all.

John Wall believes Wizards have chance in wide-open East

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LeBron James — the man who has led his team to eight straight NBA Finals — has moved from the East to the West and the Los Angeles Lakers. With that has come the perception that the Eastern Conference is more wide open than it has been since LeBron started to dominate it.

Is it? Toronto and Boston were the top two regular season seeds in the East and both should be seriously improved — the Celtics will have a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward on a team that almost made the Finals without them, and the Raptors just upgraded with a potential MVP in Kawhi Leonard. Plus, the Sixers should get noticeably better with their young roster of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz (now with a jumper) all a year older and having worked on their game this summer.

That’s not even getting into the potential of the Milwaukee Bucks with a new coach, and what should be an improved Indiana Pacers team.

John Wall believes it will be more open.

And he believes his Wizards can be part of that mix, just like he thinks they could/should have been the past couple of years. Here is what he said in Las Vegas at the USA Basketball mini-camp, via Bleacher Report.

“I think we have a better team now, and the East is more wide-open now that [LeBron James is] out of the picture,” Wall said…

“I think we could have competed the last two years if we didn’t have to deal with injuries,” Wall said… “Falling to the eight seed (last season), playing Toronto, a heck of a team, I felt like we should have beaten those guys, but they came out the better team at that time,” Wall said…

“I think we have a better team now.”

On paper, the Wizards can be dangerous. Wall at the point, Bradley Beal at the two, and Otto Porter at the three makes up a terrific perimeter starting group. With them are solid role players such as Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and then they now have Dwight Howard in the paint. (Howard can be a fit with the Wizards, if he plays his role, but that hasn’t always gone smoothly.)

However, I need to see it before I buy in.

I need to see Wall play all-out on both ends and look more like an All-NBA level player (he’s only made that team one time). Beal and Wall both need to stay healthy. Howard needs to set picks, not demand the ball in the post a lot, and be a nightly force on defense, not an occasional one. Most importantly, will their notoriously troubled locker room chemistry improve with the addition of Howard to the mix?

There are a lot more questions than answers for Washington heading into next season. It’s on Wall and company to answer them.