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End of an Era? Time for NY to Move Carmelo

With the Knicks drastically underperforming, and cap-strapped through next year, it’s time to trade Carmelo Anthony and others.

Tommy Beer

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In the tricky terrain that is today’s NBA, there are only two destinations worth travelling toward.

Smart, successful organizations are fully, wholly committed to one of two goals: Finishing first or finishing last. The teams that know they have a legitimate shot to capture the crown can, without regret, dedicate their resources to acquiring assets that pay immediate dividends, placing ultimate importance on short-term success. On the other hand, organizations that recognize they don’t yet have the pieces in place to win it all as currently constructed will think long-term and focus on the future.

If an organization hasn’t set up camp at either oasis (potential title contender or lottery loser) they find themselves sinking in the deadly quicksand that is the middle-ground of the NBA’s vast desert.

It’s become a cliché in basketball circles because it’s true: “The absolute worst position to be in the NBA is a team fighting for the eighth seed.” This means you aren’t good enough to win a championship; nor are you bad enough to land a top pick in the draft.

And that’s why it’s in the Knicks’ best interest to trade their two best players, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, by next month’s trade deadline.

The Knicks’ record stands at an abysmal 15-26. Despite playing in the worst division in arguably one of the worst conferences in recent NBA history, the Knicks have somehow fallen 11 games under .500.

Because there are so many other bad teams in the conference, New York has a decent chance to qualify for the postseason. In fact, they even have a shot to win the Atlantic Division. However, anyone that has eyes and has watched this team play basketball this season is well aware the Knicks are simply not capable of beating the Indiana Pacers or the defending champion Miami HEAT in a postseason series.

Still, it is important to note that the fact that the Knicks have stunk this season is NOT a direct reflection on Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has played hard, and he’s one of the few Knicks that have competed on a nightly basis. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his team’s record, but Anthony has played extremely well this season. In fact, he is on pace to become just the second NBA player in the last 10 seasons to average at least 26 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game.

And if the Knicks’ goal is to sneak into the 2014 postseason and pretend they have a chance to win the title, then they need to hold onto Anthony and hope he puts the entire team on his back and at least keeps the Knicks competitive, so that they are playing meaningful games in April.

However, if the Knicks want to put themselves in the best position to win an NBA championship before the end of this decade, they have to sacrifice short-term success in order to do what’s best for the long-term prosperity of the franchise.

February 20th, 3 p.m. EST. That’s the date of the NBA’s trade deadline.

If Anthony is still a Knick on February 21st, the ball will no longer be in the Knicks’ court. Melo will hold all the cards at that point.

The next momentous decision will be made by Anthony. He is scheduled to earn $23.3 million during the 2014-15 season but has an early termination option in his contract, which means he can choose to squash the final year of that deal and become a free agent in the summer of 2014.

It is certainly safe to assume that Anthony will be advised by his agents to make the fiscally prudent decision to opt out and become a free agent, which would allow him to sign a new long-term contract with far more guaranteed money.

Most pundits have also assumed Anthony, considering his skill set and star power in the Big Apple (and the fact that this will be his final opportunity land major money), will seek a max contract from the Knicks.

So, assuming he’s still on the Knicks’ roster the day after the deadline, there are basically two realistic scenarios remaining.

After he opts out on and becomes a free agent on July 1, (a) the Knicks re-sign Melo for max money, or (b) he chooses to sign with another team (for less money and fewer guaranteed years).

If Anthony does decide to skip town via free agency, the Knicks would be left with nothing to show for a player they mortgaged their future to acquire just a few short years ago. (Reminder: If Anthony does choose to leave, the Knicks likely wouldn’t be able to facilitate a sign-and-trade, even if all three parties were amenable to it because the new CBA has such harsh restrictions related to all S&T deals).

But, amazingly, that might not be the worst-case scenario.

If the Knicks did end up re-signing Anthony to a maximum-level contract, it might, in reality, be more damaging to the long-term health of the franchise. And here’s why…

Here are the particulars of what a max contract for Anthony would look like:

In year one of his new deal, Anthony can earn 105 percent of his 2013-14 salary. So, the first year (2014-15) of his new contract would pay $22.457 million (105 percent of $21.39 million).

Because the Knicks own Anthony’s Bird rights, they can increase his salary by 7.5 percent of his first year’s salary, and 7.5 percent of $22.457 million is $1.684 million. If they give him the maximum allowable raise, his yearly salaries would be as follows:

2015-16: $24.141 million
2016-17: $25.825 million
2017-18: $27.509 million
2018-19: $29.193 million

Yes, you read that correctly. During the fifth and final season of a potential new max contract (after he had already celebrated his 34th birthday) Anthony would make over $29 million.

How effective and efficient will a 34-year-old Anthony be? How many starting small forward in the league would Anthony be able to even stay in front of in 2019? Well, he better be incredible, considering he’d be taking up nearly 50 percent of the Knicks’ salary cap that season.

Anthony, at 29 years of age, is firmly is his prime right now. Yet, even with Melo healthy and at the peak of his offensive powers, the Knicks still possess one of the league’s worst records. Again, the team’s ineptitude can not be pinned solely on Anthony, but their record is what it is. If the Knicks hand Anthony a max contract, his salary (and, accordingly, his percentage of the cap) will only increase, while his production and all-around efficacy decreases.

Is that a recipe for a future success? Based on the evidence at our disposal, is this an intelligent investment of $129 million?

And before we get to the back end of that deal, his cap hit for the 2015-16 season would be prohibitive to the Knicks making major improvements during the all-important summer of 2015. Building toward the ‘Summer of 2015’ would be the impetus behind moving on without Anthony.

Trading Carmelo, the Knicks’ best and most marketable player since Patrick Ewing, would obviously be difficult for Knicks management to sell to their fans. Empty seats inside Madison Square Garden and sagging television ratings would also be an understandable concern for Knicks ownership.

But the promise of a better, brighter future would be the selling point. In addition, it should be noted that the Knicks have never had an issue putting people in the arena. Even during the nadir of the nightmarish Isiah Thomas era, the Garden still played to over 95 percent capacity on most nights. The myth that New Yorkers won’t accept and embrace a rebuilding project is just that – a myth.

Knicks management has had July 2015 circled on their calendars for a long time now. New York will shed major salary from their books at that time. The 2014-15 season is the final year on the contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani. New York will clear a whopping $49.6 million in salary in one fell swoop. As a result, the Knicks could potentially be a major player in the free-agent market that summer.

If Anthony is not taking up $24.1 million, New York could be looking upwards of $45 million in cap space, which would allow them to go on quite the shopping spree that summer. Of course, they won’t have to spend it all in one place (or on one player). Smart organizations understand the true value of cap space is that it enables teams to trade for high-priced players, as well as sign top free-agents outright.

Some have argued that retaining Anthony would improve the Knicks’ chances of signing other free agents. However, couldn’t it also be argued that free agents capable of seeing the big picture would prefer to sign with New York knowing the team does not have $129 million committed to a talented but one-dimensional player in his 30’s? Moreover, New York sports franchises, when they have the money under the cap to spend, have never had a hard time convincing top-tier talent to come live and play in NYC.

Make no mistake, there is an undeniable and obvious downside to trading Anthony. The Knicks would tumble further down the standing this season, made all that much tougher knowing the team has already traded away their 2014 draft pick. New York would then also have to endure another depressing, losing season in 2014-15, as the Knicks would still be over the cap this upcoming summer and would therefore be unable to sign a big-name free agent.

Yet, there would be one ancillary benefit to a terrible 2014-15 campaign, as the Knicks actually own their 2015 draft pick. So, if the Knicks posted a terrible record next season, they would be in line to reap the reward of a lottery pick. Thus, New York would head into the summer of 2015 with a high selection in the draft and loads of cap space to lavish on a potentially solid free agent crop (and Basketball Insiders recently wrote about why the 2015 draft may actually be better than 2014).

Yes, it’s certainly a gamble. But it would also be inherently risky to hope the Knicks can realistically compete for an NBA title with Anthony making upwards of $26 million annually.

There is a possibility that Anthony would be willing to re-sign with Knicks in July for less than the maximum, but most would agree that is unlikely. Most superstars, when they have to the opportunity to cash in, tend to take advantage of that opportunity. We’ve just recently seen Kobe Bryant, at age 35, sign a two-year extension worth $48.5 million. So, unless Anthony all-but guarantees Knicks owner Jim Dolan that he will re-sign with New York next summer and do so at significantly less than the max, it behooves the Knicks to start working the phones immediately.

Of course the Knicks will get far less than equal value back in any deal they make. Opposing GM’s will be extremely hesitant to give up too much for Anthony, knowing that he could be just a short-term rental. Still, as outlined above, getting back even 30 cents on the dollar for Melo in February beats the alternatives of keeping him past the deadline. Dolan and Knicks GM Steve Mills could seek some combination of future draft picks and/or young players locked into affordable contracts.

In addition, because the Knicks will be over the cap next year anyway, they could also take back a bad contract as long as it had just one more year left on the deal. Again, the new focus and goal would be maximizing cap space for 2015. For instance, if a contending team was desperate to clear money off their books this summer, they might be willing to pay a premium to trade away a bench player with big money due in 2014-15 in exchange for Anthony and his expiring contract. Of course, the Knicks would also require quality draft picks back in such a deal.

And if the Knicks did decide to preemptively part ways with Anthony, it would make sense to then also explore other trade options involving other older, desirable players. For instance, if New York put Tyson Chandler on the block, he’d drawn plenty of interest from around the league. The former Defensive Player of the Year is a proven winner, with a championship ring to prove it. He would immediately improve the defensive integrity of any team he joined, and could be a difference-maker that puts a contender over the top this season or next.

If the Knicks got serious offers for Anthony or Chandler, they could then attempt to further improve their 2015 cap situation by crow-barring either Raymond Felton or J.R. Smith in a potential deal. As it stands today, there are only four players that will likely be on the Knicks books past the 2014-15 season: Pablo Prigioni ($1.7 million), Tim Hardaway Jr. ($1.3 million), Raymond Felton ($4.5 million player option) and J.R. Smith ($6.4 million player option). There is also a $3.8 million qualifying offer for Iman Shumpert the Knicks will have to make a decision on. As we now know, the Knicks wouldn’t be opposed to including Shumpert in a trade if the return was right.

With creating the most cap space in 2015 as the stated objective, maybe the Knicks make their trading partner also take on Felton or Smith a perquisite in any deal for Melo?

With the team drastically underperforming this season, and cap-strapped through next year, there are no easy answers or quick-fixes for the Knicks. Dolan and Mills have the make the best of a difficult situation.

At some point, the Knicks organization needs to stop attempting to re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Allow this vessel to sink, and then build a completely new ship with more affordable parts.

The best possible solution may be taking a couple steps backwards today, which will allow them to take a few major steps forward in the future.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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Young Glad To Reunite With McGee, Embracing Chance With Warriors

Spencer Davies chats with JaVale McGee and Nick Young about the sharpshooter’s first year with the Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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You never forget where you started.

As first-round draft picks with only a year apart between them, Nick Young and JaVale McGee began their respective careers in our nation’s capital with the Washington Wizards.

That’s where a bond began. Despite a tumultuous four-year stay with an organization that never sniffed the playoffs and finished dead last in the Central Division three times in the span, the two remained close friends.

Almost a decade later, “Swaggy P” and “Pierre” are reunited. Only this time, it’s with the NBA’s defending champion Golden State Warriors.

“Just shows,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve both been in this league for a long time and people didn’t think we was gonna make it this far and that’s a blessing. We’ll continue to do it and prove people wrong. From the bottom to the top, you know what I’m sayin’?”

McGee agrees wholeheartedly. Winning his first title with the Warriors last summer, he’s learned quite a few things about the healthy climate within the organization that Young, at first, was surprised by.

“It’s definitely a different environment,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “Even when he came here, he asked certain questions of stuff he could and couldn’t do just because the environment that we used to be in was real restrictive of things that really didn’t have to do with basketball.

“Here it’s a player’s team, so they do a really good job of catering to us.”

In regards to his on-court fit with Golden State, McGee feels that Young has adjusted accordingly throughout the season.

“I feel like he’s fit in well,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “Definitely got his conditioning right and he’s pretty good getting in the system, figuring out the screen system that we have here, so he’s doing a pretty good job.”

Though he hasn’t played as much as he’s used to, Young is truly enjoying his transition with the Warriors. He says it’s been the most fun he’s had in his career.

“Just being in the winning circle,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “Being around good teammates, good people and just competing for a championship man. We fightin’ for something big. It’s my first time being a part of something like this.”

As for what’s stood out to him about Steve Kerr’s system, it’s been the unselfishness from everybody on the roster, coaches and players alike.

“They embrace me good,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the one thing I like is a good team, good teammates. Pretty much just everybody knowing their roles. Nobody’s bringing negative energies to the locker room and it’s just a good vibe.”

Once asked about who the best shooter on the team is, Young went with Kerr as his answer. He told Basketball Insiders that he’s “still going with Steve,” but probably anybody else would have to give Stephen Curry the nod.

Curry’s been playing out of his mind this year. Kevin Durant’s done the same. There have been multiple times where one or the other has been out due to rest or, most recently, nagging injuries. It’s allowed for others to step in and get some extra minutes, and Young’s been the beneficiary of that multiple times.

So with Curry in and Durant out or vice versa, how would he compare and contrast the periods?

“It’s a different game,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “Of course, different styles. Both of ‘em draw so much attention that leaves guys like me open, but when one of ‘em’s out we’ve still got enough depth to keep up with anybody.”

Recently after Curry scored 45 points in three quarters against the Los Angeles Clippers and didn’t even play in the fourth, Young was baffled. His only explanation for the outburst was that he was from another planet.

And yes, Young believes Curry’s “got a shot,” as does Durant, when it comes to the MVP conversation because of where the Warriors are at this point of the season.

The belief goes both ways. Just as Young is ecstatic watching his teammates succeed, so are they for him. McGee recalls his friend’s debut for Golden State at Oracle Arena on opening night.

It was a night of celebration for the Bay Area, as the crowd cheered during the pre-game championship ceremony to commemorate the team. Young ended up dropping 23 points on 8-for-9 from the field in his first game for the Dubs. The Houston Rockets spoiled the party with a win, but the moment was special for the two.

“I was excited,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “I always get excited when he’s out there scoring and doing his thing. I’m always happy for him. That’s my friend, long-time friend, and it was dope that he could be out here.”

Though you wouldn’t know it by his performance, Young had butterflies in his stomach before it all started.

“Ah man it was unbelievable,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. First time playing for the Warriors opening night. Had my family there. It was ring night, so I didn’t think I was gonna play that much, but I got an opportunity and I just took advantage.”

Since that game, Young hasn’t eclipsed the 20-point mark. But to his defense, that first game was his season-high in minutes thus far. Kerr understands the depth of his team makes it difficult for him to get consistent playing time, but he’s taken it in stride and been a good teammate.

But we all know how he shoots the rock when he finds a groove. So how many games like the opener does he have in store for us?

“I don’t know,” Young told Basketball Insiders with a laugh. “I just gotta get hot, so it could be any night.”

And whenever that night comes, expect to see him smiling as he drains those buckets.

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NBA Daily: Are The HEAT Getting Into The Fray?

Things in the NBA trade world are starting to heat up, and there are some new situations worth watching as the NBA trade market starts to take shape.

Steve Kyler

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The Latest On The Trade Front

With the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline ticking ever so closer, there are a few stories worth watching as teams start to zero in on the changes they may consider making.

Clippers Not Ready To Blow It Up

For most of the season, there has been talk in NBA circles and the media that the Clippers would likely move on from center DeAndre Jordan. While that still seems to be more likely than not at this point, the message from the Clippers’ side of things is they are not ready to blow up the team, and moving off Jordan is far from assured.

The narrative from around the Clippers is they are going to evaluate the team a little closer to the deadline and see what’s really available to them, but until then they seem more than happy to see if this team can actually compete, which they have been doing.

A league source close to the situation said recently that as much as Clipper fans might want to see the team blown up, ownership and senior leadership does not seem open to that concept at all. In fact, they believe that its better to be competitive and one player away than trying to go through the teardown route, knowing that no one is bailing out their $119 million roster commitment.

The Clippers invested heavily into forwards Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari this past summer, and the belief is that they will invest even more into guard Lou Williams.

Equally, the prevailing thought on Jordan is that while he does have a Player Option for free agency in July, there isn’t much beleif that he’ll land anything close to the $24.1 million he is owed next season, making it more likely he opts into his deal than walks away.

There are no shortage of teams hovering around the Clippers if they opt to change course. The Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets both have eyes for Jordan if the Clippers opt to deal, while several teams seem keen on Williams, who is on an ending deal and would have Bird Rights for a team with limited cap flexibility. There has been talk that a couple of teams have had introductory talks on Griffin. However, it seems highly unlikely the Clippers seriously consider those situations.

If the Clippers wanted to blow up the team, it seems there are options for them, but the talk from the Clippers side is they don’t seem to be as open to the idea as some would like them to be.

Want A Veteran? Kings Have Some

The Sacramento Kings have told their veterans that they are going to start focusing more and more playing time on the younger players and that as many as three of the proven vets may not see action on a night to night basis.

There has been talk for weeks that guard George Hill is unhappy and seeking an exit from the Kings. However, his injury history and whopper of a salary seems to make it unlikely that he and the Kings will find a trade.

Veterans Vince Carter and Zach Randolph have handled the situation better, but league sources said it very possible both could be moved before the deadline, which apparently was suggested to both when they signed back in July.

The Kings have also been sniffing around for deals involving center Kosta Koufos and guard Garrett Temple; both have Player Options next season, which makes their value tough for the Kings, as most teams don’t value the uncertainty well.

Sources close to the situation said the Kings seem to be trying to help their veterans find better situations, especially as they are falling out of the rotation.

One long-time agent with a player on the roster commended the Kings for being smart about the situation, saying they seem to be going out of their way to try and help resolve the situation. Time will tell if there is a real market for any of those players and their somewhat hefty contracts.

Mirotic Has Veto Power, Sort Of

The Chicago Bulls have had the ability to trade forward Nikola Mirotic for a few days now, as he was one of the players who became trade-eligible on January 15. League sources said the Bulls had gotten pretty far down the road with both the Utah Jazz, on a deal centered on the expiring contract of Derrick Favors, and with the Detroit Pistons.

It’s unclear who the Pistons were really offering; there had been reports that the Pistons were dangling rookie Luke Kennard as the juice of a deal, with possibly Jon Leuer and his $10.4 million salary being the cap dollars included to make it work under the cap.

The Bulls seem to be holding out for a first-round draft pick in a Mirotic deal. However, league sources say the real hold up may be Mirotic himself.

The Bulls did a creative contract structure with Mirotic in that he has a team option in year two of the deal. Unless the Bulls exercise that option, Mirotic has veto rights. If the Bulls pick up that option, something league sources said Mirotic’s camp is pushing for, the veto power comes off the table, and the Bulls can completely control the process.

There has been considerable talk that Mirotic wants out of Chicago, but it seems some business may be holding up a potential deal.

It was never likely that the Bulls were going to immediately trigger a deal for Mirotic, so the timing of this may simply be the poker of deal-making in the NBA.

There is also something to be said about how teams would value Mirotic as a potential ending contract, versus a player with one more fully guaranteed year.

Equally, the Bulls haven’t closed the phones on offers either. While Utah and Detroit seem motivated, the Bulls may be smart to wait a few more weeks and see who is willing to meet their true asking price before they decide to pick up the Mirotic option to control the process.

Moving Whiteside?

Reading what the Miami HEAT will really do is always tough. The HEAT have a long track record of misdirection and clandestine processes. That said there is growing talk that the HEAT are more than open to a trade involving center Hassan Whiteside, especially if would help them clear out his cap dollars.

Whiteside is owed $23.7 million this year and has a fully guaranteed $25.4 million salary next season, plus a $27.09 million Player Option after that. That’s big money for almost everyone in the league.

The HEAT are not fire selling Whiteside, but there is a growing sense that if Whiteside could be moved for the right combination of ending contracts and upside youth, the HEAT would explore it.

This becomes interesting when you consider the Milwaukee Bucks have been after Clippers center DeAndre Jordan and that Cleveland Cavaliers have been linked to Jazz big man Derrick Favors.

Making a deal for a salary of Whiteside’s size would be massively tough for both the Bucks and the Cavs, but considering both ownership groups seem to be looking for a big splashy move, Whiteside could be the consolation prize if neither of the first options works out.

A Milwaukee deal for Jordan was said to be built around John Henson and Mirza Teletovic, who may be forced to medically retire due to a second recurrence of blood clots in his lungs. A Bucks deal would also likely include some combination of rookie scale players such as Thon Maker, Rashad Vaughn or D.J. Wilson, according to sources.

While on the surface none of that seems overly enticing, would clearing that kind of space be appealing to the HEAT? It does not seem to be for the Clippers.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been sniffing around deals offering up both Tristan Thompson and guard Iman Shumpert. The inclusion of the Cavaliers’ own first-round draft pick was mentioned earlier in the season when the Cavs were linked to Jordan and the Clippers. Is that enough value for the HEAT? Equally, the challenge for the Cavs is they have set up the roster with a ton of expiring players, which makes sense with the uncertainty of LeBron James’ future in Cleveland. Do the Cavs want to be holding Whiteside for two years after a potential James exit?

Of all the things being talked about in NBA circles, this one is interesting to watch, not only because the HEAT seems to be willing to deal, but because Whiteside could be the answer to serious problems for good teams vying for a legitimate shot at the NBA Finals, especially this year.

Dallas Is Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are open for business. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban confirmed as much to reporters, saying the Mavericks would be open to leveraging their potential cap space next summer if it returned the right assets.

The Mavericks have several ending contracts they are dangling and seem to be looking for not only a promising rookie scale player, but future draft picks.

The Mavericks have held onto some salary cap holds to technically keep them above the salary cap line, but they could renounce those holds and get under the cap now. That cap flexibility makes them interesting to watch, as they could absorb up to roughly $13 million in salary before including ending deals like Josh McRoberts, Devin Harris, and Nerlens Noel, who has veto rights on a trade.

Historically the Mavericks have done a deal every year at the deadline. With some much flexibility, they could be the centerpiece to a big transaction because they can absorb cap dollars others teams simply can’t.

Keep in mind that trades and trade talks are a fluid thing; what can be a very hard “No” today can turn into a “Yes” quickly, so until something is done, keep in mind, it’s not done no matter how much it may make sense.

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Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings

Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.

Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.

The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.

As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.

A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.

In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.

And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.

The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.

Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.

They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.

Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.

On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.

These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.

The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.

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