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Hassan Whiteside Deserves a Max Contract

Hassan Whiteside was out of the NBA 16 months ago. Now, he’s dominating and deserves a max contract.

Alex Kennedy

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Hassan Whiteside’s ascent to stardom is one of the best modern stories in all of professional sports. It’s an underdog tale that probably would have trouble being adapted to a movie because it seems too good to be true and, quite frankly, would probably seem unrealistic to non-sports fans.

Whiteside entered the NBA with a ton of potential after just one collegiate season at Marshall. He was a raw player, but it was clear he had talent and a ton of upside. After all, as a freshman, he averaged 13.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.4 blocks in just 26.1 minutes per game. Because of his inexperience and, some say, his ego, he slipped to the 33rd pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.

After two forgettable seasons with Sacramento Kings in which he appeared in just 18 games (averaging 1.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and .8 blocks), Whiteside was out of the NBA altogether. He was understandably frustrated that he wasn’t playing more in Sacramento. It also didn’t help that Whiteside entered the league with the Kings, an organization that has become known for its dysfunction, and Sacramento’s decision-makers gave him a limited opportunity to prove himself and weren’t very patient with him.

Before long, Whiteside was playing in Lebanon, China and the D-League. It seemed like his NBA days were over, and he had nearly come to terms with that fact. When he surfaced in the Lebanese league (which isn’t exactly notable), it made headlines simply based on how far Whiteside had seemingly fallen in just three years – especially since was considered such a promising prospect entering the NBA.

In November of 2014, he was playing in the NBA D-League – hoping that he could do well enough to catch an NBA team’s attention and get his career back on track. Whiteside did exactly that while playing for the Iowa Energy, averaging 22 points, 15.7 rebounds and 5.3 blocks in 28.7 minutes while shooting 85.7 percent from the field. The Miami HEAT were decimated by injuries and, quite frankly, desperate. They decided to bring in a number of players on short-term deals to see what they could do, including Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Henry Walker and Michael Beasley. Whiteside was back in the NBA, although he was on a 10-day contract.

WhitesideInside1Ever since, he has taken advantage of his opportunity with Miami and exceeded all expectations. The HEAT signed him for the rest of last season after being impressed with his production, and he finished the 2014-15 campaign averaging 11.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 23.8 minutes per game.

The story could’ve ended there, with Whiteside returning to the NBA and becoming a productive role player. That would’ve been an impressive accomplishment since the NBA no longer seemed like an option for him. However, he has continued to improve this season and emerged as one of the best centers in the NBA. Through 60 games, Whiteside has averaged 13.5 points, 11.7 rebounds and an NBA-best 3.8 blocks in just 28.8 minutes per game.

He ranks fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game (11.7) behind only star centers Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard. He also ranks third among all players in field goal percentage, shooting an extremely efficient 60.5 percent. In addition to those impressive stats, he is ninth among all NBA players in PER, trailing only the league’s superstars (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and James Harden). By emerging as a dominant force after exiting the league and going through everything he did, his story became a completely unique and unprecedented one. There simply hasn’t been an ascent to stardom like the one Whiteside has experienced.

Even when head coach Erik Spoelstra has tinkered with his rotation and brought Whiteside off of the bench (to team him up with fellow young defenders Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson), he has continued to thrive. Take the last 10 games, for example, in which he has averaged 16.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in 29.6 minutes off the bench. Because Whiteside has been so productive in so few minutes, his per-100-possession stats are jaw-dropping: 24.1 points, 20.8 rebounds and 6.7 blocks.

“I come in and try to bring value every minute I’m out there,” Whiteside told The Boston Globe. “I feel like every game [I’m] getting more and more comfortable each time I play on the court. I feel like I’m getting better as an NBA player.”

While he’s certainly right about improving, traditional statistics don’t tell the full story with Whiteside.

Not only is Whiteside leading the NBA in blocks, he is also ranked first in Defensive Rating (94) and block percentage (10.2 percent). That means Whiteside blocks 10.2 percent of all two-point attempts when he’s on the floor; to put that in perspective, no other NBA player has a block percentage above 5.9 percent.

Whiteside is second in the NBA in rebound percentage, grabbing 23 percent of all available rebounds when he’s on the court, and second in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (3.8). Whiteside also ranks fifth in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares – which estimates how many wins an individual player has contributed to their team due to their defense – with 4.4.

Whiteside’s 3.8 blocks per game not only leads all NBA players, it’s more blocks than three NBA teams currently average per game (Detroit, Dallas and Cleveland). He has rejected 226 shots this season, while no other NBA player has blocked more than 152 shots.

He has recorded four point-rebound-block triple-doubles since January 2015, while no other NBA player has recorded a single one in that span. As Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel noted, only four others players in NBA history have recorded more point-rebound-block triple-doubles than Whiteside – Dikembe Mutombo (10), Hakeem Olajuwon (nine), David Robinson (nine) and Shawn Bradley (six) – and he has posted all of his in a little over one year. Also, no NBA player in the last 19 seasons has averaged four blocks per game, but Whiteside very well could end that drought this year.

What Whiteside is doing this season would be incredible if it was a superstar player putting up these numbers. When you consider that he was out of the NBA just 16 months ago, it’s even more insane.

It’s also somewhat crazy that Whiteside isn’t getting more recognition for his fantastic defense. It’s safe to say that he’s the best shot-blocker in the NBA and his interior defense is extremely disruptive, yet his name is almost never mentioned when discussing the Defensive Player of the Year race.

For much of the season, the Defensive Player of the Year debate has been centered around San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Golden State’s Draymond Green. This is understandable since both players are fantastic defenders, and are leading their respective teams to terrific heights. It also makes sense since they finished first and second in an extremely close Defensive Player of the Year race last season (with only 16 voting points separating them), and there was controversy at the time since Leonard won the award despite Green receiving more first-place votes (45) than Leonard (37). Nobody is arguing that Leonard and Green are outstanding, game-changing defenders.

With that said, shouldn’t Whiteside at least be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year as well? He’s literally leading the NBA in Defensive Rating and is near the top of just about every relevant defensive stat category, yet there are people who act like Defensive Player of the Year is a two-player race between Leonard and Green.

Last season, Miami ranked 19th in the NBA in defense (allowing points per 100 possessions). This season – Whiteside’s first full year with the HEAT – Miami has the NBA’s sixth-best defense (allowing 101.1 points per 100 possessions). Coincidence? I think not.

Regardless of the recognition Whiteside receives for his strong play, one thing is clear: He’s going to get a huge pay day this summer. NBA executives are noticing just how dominant the seven-footer has been and he’ll have a long list of potential suitors this offseason.

Whiteside will be an unrestricted free agent in July, and he’s hitting the market at the perfect time since the salary cap is set to skyrocket due to the NBA’s new television rights deal. As our Steve Kyler recently noted, 17 teams currently project to have enough cap space to offer a full maximum contract (and five teams will have the ability to offer two full maximum contracts). There could be as many as 24 maximum salary slots available this summer, and Whiteside will certainly be one of the top free agents on the market.

This season, Whiteside is making just $981,348, making him one of the best bargain contracts in the NBA. In all likelihood, his next contract will be a max deal – especially with so many teams with money to spend. Big men get paid, especially 26-year-olds who put up the kind of stats Whiteside is this season.

That has to be exciting for Whiteside, who has only made a little over $2 million in his NBA career. This will be his first big contract. But give him credit because as his free agency approaches, he is saying all the right things and trying not to become a distraction.

“I just try to focus on the season,” Whiteside told the Sun-Sentinel. “I can’t control anything that’s going to happen in free agency. I just try to be the best teammate and the best guy I can be and I think everything else is going to take its place.

“[My inner circle and I] really don’t talk about it. It’s really like, ‘Whenever the time comes, it comes.’ We focus on making a deep playoff run and everything else is in due time.”

However, HEAT team president Pat Riley recently made some candid comments about Whiteside’s development and free agency – seemingly making it clear that re-signing Whiteside this summer is one of his priorities.

“I’ve never been around that kind of turnaround,” Riley told reporters, according to the Palm Beach Post. “We’ve had some players that we’ve opened our eyes up on, but I think what Hassan did last year and what he’s doing now, his level of play – it’s just all about more experience, more reps, understanding how important he is for us.

“But in my 50 years in the NBA, I have never seen that kind of phenomenon. I know this is hurting me right now as far as his free agency goes because I’m complimenting him, but he’s grown a lot.”

Complicating things for Miami is the fact that they don’t have Whiteside’s Bird Rights – he only spent two years with the team, meaning they can’t offer him a longer contract than other suitors this summer and they can’t go over the salary cap to retain him. Instead, Miami will be in the same position as every other team pursuing the center, using cap space to sign him and offering essentially the same contract as everyone else. And if Miami ends up attracting a different max-level free agent (let’s say Kevin Durant, just as an example), they’ll have to decide between adding the star or re-signing Whiteside (unless Riley could somehow get extremely creative financially, but it seems very unlikely).

League sources have said that Whiteside wants to remain in Miami and his comments have suggested the same. Even when he was recently asked if he’d like to be a “leading man” rather than playing in the shadow of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he was honest in his response, but steered his answer back to loving Miami and recruiting other players to the HEAT.

“That’d be nice,” Whiteside told the Sun-Sentinel. “I feel like a lot of people want to be that. But I want to win more than anything. I don’t really want to be the face of a losing franchise. You want to be a face of a winning program. And it’s always easier to get people to come to Miami.”

This lines up with what Whiteside told our Jesse Blancarte a few months ago when asked about free agency.

“I want to go to a team that’s about winning, that has a good understanding of what it takes to win and a good city with a good fan base,” Whiteside told Basketball Insiders in January. He added that there are “a lot of good things” about playing in Miami, including the fact that “you get to play alongside NBA champions, it’s a great city and the fans really embrace me.”

Miami is currently 40-29, and they have overcome many injuries (including the still-unclear status of Bosh) and a brutal stretch of their schedule to remain in the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. Buyout addition Joe Johnson has thrived since joining the HEAT and provided the squad with new life as well as another perimeter scorer, making Miami an even scarier draw in the playoffs.

These next few months will be some of the most important of Whiteside’s life, with the postseason on deck and free agency to directly follow. But considering where he’s been and what he’s experienced in recent years, he’s not feeling any pressure at all. He’s essentially playing with the house’s money at this point.

“I live for big moments; I’m ready for any pressure,” Whiteside told the Sun Sentinel. “I’ve faced pressure my whole life. I feel like this pressure is a lot easier than [the pressure of], ‘If you don’t make this team, you get cut and you go back home.’ That’s the pressure I’ve faced trying to get back to the NBA.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA

David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.

David Yapkowitz

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Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.

But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.

“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”

Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.

He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.

VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.

Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.

“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.

“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”

The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.

Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.

“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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NBA

NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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