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NBA PM: Lawrence Frank Leading Clippers Into New Era

Chris Paul is now a Rocket, but Lawrence Frank and the Clippers are excited to start a new era.

James Blancarte

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The last few years for the Los Angeles Clippers have been a Rorschach test for NBA fans when it comes to success and failure. Talk to some fans and they will gladly tell you that the Clippers have done a great job of consistently being one of the best and most exciting teams in the league year after year. Talk to a critic and he or she will point out that the Clippers have not only failed to win a championship but have failed to even make it to the Western Conference Finals despite having significant talent.

Whatever the most accurate assessment of the last few years is, one thing is now unequivocally certain. The above-mentioned era is over. Superstar point guard Chris Paul is gone, off to the Houston Rockets to continue his personal and professional journey. The Clippers are now led by star forward Blake Griffin, who is now the team’s best player. Basketball Insiders spoke with former NBA head coach, assistant coach for the Clippers and current Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the franchise, Lawrence Frank.

The Clippers, led in part by Frank, had been anticipating and planning for an offseason in which their two best players, Paul and Griffin, would be able to leave via free agency.

“We were doing everything to try and keep them [Paul and Blake] and you’re ready, its more than two and three scenarios. It’s like 56 scenarios,” Frank stated.

The first domino to fall this offseason was Paul, when he made it clear to the Clippers that he intended to leave for Houston. Losing Paul left many fans and critics wondering if this was the moment the Clippers would blow up the roster and start a complete rebuild. Frank discussed that possibility.

“Yeah, having been someone who has been to the bottom. It’s not that that’s a path we weren’t willing to take. And I think those are options,” Frank said. “You study the history of the game, there’s no guarantee.”

Frank indicated that rebuilding is not as easy as it seems, giving perspective on the team’s thinking.

“When you refresh the whole roster, there is so much pain that goes into it,” Frank emphasized.

Frank is also specifically referring to his tenure with the then New Jersey Nets as a bottom dwelling team. Despite the Philadelphia 76ers being on the verge of potentially making the playoffs for the first time in years and nearing completion of a multi-year rebuilding process, many teams opt against losing on purpose. In fact, it’s arguable that no other team in the Western Conference is aiming to tear down and fully rebuild.

During the Paul era, the Clippers had a top-heavy salary cap with most of their cap space tied up in the team’s three stars – Paul, Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan. With Paul off the books, the Clippers received a number of players and assets in exchange for Paul and have been creative in shoring up the roster.

Frank talked about what they got in return from Houston, a package that included defensive hound Patrick Beverley, promising forward Sam Dekker and a first-round pick, which was later used in a trade with Denver. Frank framed the exchange from a viewpoint of losses and gains.

“[H]ow can we get maximum return for [Paul] leaving,” Frank stated. “[W]e feel very fortunate to get the players we got from Houston.”

This haul is even more critical considering the Clippers have done a poor job of drafting and developing their late draft picks the last few years, they haven’t had their own D-League team to farm from until this year and they haven’t done a great job importing overseas talent.

Frank went on to talk about what are his guiding principles for managing the team going forward.

“We’re just going to be really flexible and be ready. You have to nail your draft picks, you have to be really good playing in the margins,” Frank said. “There are going to be certain trades over the course of the time to help you win that championship.”

This sentiment confirms that the Clippers will likely keep an open eye towards improving the team as the off-season and regular season continues. For now, the Clippers are excited about their biggest trade acquisition, talented forward Danilo Gallinari.

“So with Danilo, Blake and DJ, we thought we could put together one of the best frontcourts in the league,” Frank said.

Of course, excitement over the unquestioned talent of this frontcourt is tempered by the fact that both Griffin and Gallinari have dealt with extensive injuries over the past few years.

Frank continued to rave about the guards the Clippers have in their rotation but pointed out the lack of a pass-first player considering the absence of Paul, the best pass-first point guard in the league.

“We didn’t think we had an elite facilitator,” Frank said. “We really need someone who can create for others.”

Enter European star guard Milos Teodosic. Teodosic has long flirted with the possibility of bringing his talent to the NBA. The Clippers recently signed Teodosic to a two-year deal following the loss of Paul and the trade for Gallinari.

“[W]ith Milos [Teodosic], we thought he was a guy [who] loved passing, Frank said. “[Y]ou like having a little bit of European flair and having everyone understanding that, all competitive high IQ guys that you hope all fit together.”

Frank certainly showed his enthusiasm for how Gallinari and Teodisic can supplement the players the Clippers already have and the hope that they can come together to create something great. Frank didn’t mince words in stating that after losing Paul, the team’s main goal was to re-sign and build around Griffin.

“[H]ow do we now build a team with Blake Griffin coming back? Blake says ‘I’m in,’” Frank continued. [H]ow are we going to build a team to complement our best players to be able to play to their strengths and the identity of our group.”

It’s clear in speaking to Frank that he frames the analysis from a front office point of view — building not only for the short term but the long term. Frank’s professional career has been a winding path. He has been an assistant coach, head coach and now front office executive. He made it clear that switching to a front office role was not an easy transition. However, that experience gives him a unique perspective that other front office executives may lack.

“The one thing as a coach you don’t really have great appreciation for everything that goes into it,” Frank said. “[T]he awareness that it’s 365, and just planning ahead and being three years out and five years out, and being nimble on your feet, being ready to adjust. There’s a lot to it.”

Despite the challenges of working in the front office, Frank seems to enjoy his new role and doesn’t seem to have much desire to get back onto the sidelines.

“I have zero ambition to go back and coach,” Frank said. “This is personally what I really want to learn and try be as good as I can be at.”

The Clippers made some solid moves to retool on the fly and, at the very least, should be an exciting team to watch next season. Los Angeles may take a step back from their standing in previous seasons, but there is reason to be excited for the team’s short term and long term future.

“The challenges that are ahead, and there are so many bright people not only in our front office but the other 29 teams, so that’s what drives you. It’s very exciting,” Frank said.

With Frank as one of their leading voices in the front office, the Clippers will surely continue to tinker and find new ways to improve the team now and in the future. It’s a new era of Clippers basketball, which their fans surely hope will bring about the kind of success that was hoped for but never achieved these last few years.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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