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NBA PM: The Last Restricted Free Agent

Donatas Motiejunas is the last restricted free agent available. Why is he unsigned and what’s next for him?

Alex Kennedy

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Donatas Motiejunas: The Last Restricted Free Agent

There is only one restricted free agent remaining on the market and that is Donatas Motiejunas, who has spent all four seasons of his NBA career with the Houston Rockets. The 25-year-old seems like the kind of free agent who should’ve had teams lining up to pay him this summer. After all, he’s a seven-footer who can play power forward and center and his range extends out to the three-point line.

He has the size, stats, versatility and shooting ability that executives typically drool over. But unfortunately for Motiejunas, this past year was a mess and his value decreased significantly for reasons largely out of his control.

It was just two seasons ago that he averaged 12 points and 5.9 rebounds in 28.7 minutes per game while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three-point range. He started 62 games that year for the Rockets, emerging as a real difference maker who scored inside and out – particularly when Dwight Howard was sidelined due to injury. However, in March of that campaign, a herniated disk in Motiejunas’ back ruled him out for the rest of the season (including the playoffs). The Rockets would go on to make the Western Conference Finals without Motiejunas.

Last summer, he had surgery to repair the herniated disk. He missed the start of the year, but was able to make his season debut in early December. However, after a brief rehab stint in the D-League and 14 games with the Rockets, he was sidelined once again due to his back pain resurfacing. He missed all of January and most of February.

It was at this point, before the trade deadline, that the Rockets dealt Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for a 2016 first-round pick. The three-team trade also included the Philadelphia 76ers, who would receive Joel Anthony and a second-round pick

At the time of the trade, he had played just 14 games with the Rockets (averaging 5.6 points and 2.1 rebounds) in addition to four games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League as part of a rehab stint. It seemed like the change of scenery could be good for Motiejunas, especially since he’d be playing under a terrific head coach in Stan Van Gundy (who is also the team’s president and has had success with stretch bigs) and paired alongside dominant young center Andre Drummond in the frontcourt.

Right after acquiring Motiejunas, Van Gundy raved about the team’s acquisition. He was seemingly excited that he added an additional stretch big, especially since Motiejunas could be a “stretch-five” in some lineups and provide further flexibility.

“We think when you add Donatas to the group we already have, going forward we think we’re equipped to deal with any kind of lineup anybody might play against us,” Van Gundy said at the time, according to Aaron McMann of mlive.com.

However, several days later, it was announced that the Pistons had rescinded the trade because Motiejunas failed the physical that all traded players are required to take within 48 hours of any deal being agreed upon. Rather than joining the Pistons, Motiejunas had to go back to the Rockets in what had to be an awkward return.

He would come back from his back injury in late February and finish the season averaging 6.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 14.8 minutes. His shooting percentages fell to 43.9 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from three-point range.

Around the same time he returned to action in February, Motiejunas did an interview with a Lithuanian outlet in which he suggested that he was healthy enough to pass his physical with the Pistons but that Detroit’s front office just used his health as an excuse to change their mind about the trade.

“The medical examination is a funny thing,” Motiejunas told a Lithuanian reporter in an interview that was translated into English. “The team doctor simply says whether you pass or don’t, although they may not even do any checks. Those 48 hours actually just let the team decide whether they want you or not. The Pistons announced I did not pass the medical, although I surely did pass it and played even before it. I just got screwed. The injury was a pretense to call off the trade. They changed their minds.

“The Pistons had access to my full medical history, so they shouldn’t have done what they did to me. They decreased my value. The medical examination I ‘failed’ was a joke. The Pistons will have some explaining to do as to why they did not want the trade anymore. We will see what happens.”

Van Gundy later responded and, while he completely understood Motiejunas’ frustration, he stressed that the Pistons voided the deal after their doctors found red flags with his back that made the deal too risky to give up a 2016 first-rounder (which was later used on 19-year-old stretch-four Henry Ellenson).

“We went through a very thorough process and we made the decision we made for the reasons that we thought it was too much risk,” Van Gundy said, according to Brendan Savage of mlive.com. “Look, I feel bad for him, too, because I understand his points in terms of his value and everything else. But we felt we had to make the decision we made.

“It’s a really tough profession for players. People, I think, focus on the money they make and obviously that’s great, but how many of us have jobs that, on 48 hours notice, you’ve got to move your family anywhere they tell you to go and you’ve got absolutely no say in it? And then in our case, we rescinded and you go back. Guys are going to have negative reactions to things like that and I think you have to give them the room to have that. He’s got the right to have whatever reaction he wants to have. I’m not resentful of that at all. I don’t take that personally at all. He was in a tough situation.”

Now, Motiejunas is once again in a tough position. He’s right that the failed physical hurt his value because it perpetuated the notion that his back injury is potentially serious and perhaps an issue that could affect him long-term. Whether true or not, that’s going to scare some teams. Detroit’s decision to void the trade did hurt his value a bit, but so did the fact that he missed so many games this season and saw a drop in his production when he did play.

However, it is worth noting that Motiejunas was effective in the Rockets’ first-round series against the Golden State Warriors. At times, he was one of the few Houston players who seemed engaged and battling since the Rockets were basically a train wreck by that point.

Throughout the course of the five-game series, Motiejunas averaged 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.6 minutes, while shooting 43.2 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three-point range (on 1.8 attempts per game). He was a big reason for Houston’s lone win of the series, as he had 14 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 31 minutes (while shooting 5-11 from the field and 2-3 from three-point range) in the Rockets’ Game 3 victory.

At this point, the number of teams that have significant cap space is relatively small. And make no mistake, it would likely take a significant offer sheet from another team for the Rockets to let Motiejunas go. Houston isn’t going to let him walk away for nothing (when they almost got a first-round pick for him in February) if a team makes a small offer. In that scenario, they would just match the contract and retain Motiejunas – either to keep him on the roster or to protect the asset so they could trade him and get something in return at a later date.

Motiejunas doesn’t have much leverage at this point, which is why he’s in such a difficult spot. He could negotiate with Houston and sign a multi-year deal, but they have no reason to offer him a lot of money when they’re essentially bidding against themselves. He can try working out for some of the teams with cap space (such as the Brooklyn Nets) and hope that they see what they like and make an offer, but that seems like a long shot. The Nets, in particular, have already tried to play the restricted free agency game twice this summer with Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson and didn’t get either player despite overpaying for them and offering very player-friendly contracts. The Portland Trail Blazers and Miami HEAT ultimately matched those offer sheets, and the Rockets could do the same for any Motiejunas deal.

One option that remains on the table for Motiejunas is signing the one-year, $4,433,683 qualifying offer from Houston. This would allow him to enter unrestricted free agency next summer, when the salary cap is projected to increase to an unprecedented $102 million. Ideally, he would be able to play out the 2016-17 season without any health issues and prove to teams that he’s still capable of producing at a high level. Then, he could cash in next summer without having to worry about restricted free agency questions about his back.

This is somewhat risky since it puts off signing a multi-year deal, but it’s also the route that likely leads to the biggest pay day if Motiejunas does well during the upcoming campaign. If his back feels fine, betting on himself may be worth it.

However, there are some uncertainties to consider too. The Rockets have a new head coach in Mike D’Antoni, and it remains to be seen how he’ll use Motiejunas. And while the departures of Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones would seem to open up minutes for Motiejunas, keep in mind that Houston signed veteran big men Ryan Anderson and Nene this offseason.

It’s been a rough year for Motiejunas and he certainly faced a series of unique challenges leading up to his free agency. Now, he has an interesting choice to make – even though he doesn’t have full control over the process due to his restricted status. He can help a team if he’s healthy, but the uncertainties surrounding him make his future pretty murky and that’s why he is the last restricted free agent on the market.

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 Daily: Are Stephen Curry, Draymond Green Enough To Keep Warriors Afloat?

Steph Curry and Draymond Green are one of the NBA’s most accomplished duos ever. Still, they might not be good enough to take the rebuilt Warriors back to the playoffs, says Jack Winter.

Jack Winter

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Advanced statistics, maybe even more than the gleam of multiple championship rings and Larry O’Brien trophies, suggest that Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are among the NBA’s most dominant pair of teammates ever.

The Warriors won three championships from 2014-15 to 2018-19. They played in the NBA Finals every June, and combined to win 322 regular season games – by far the most in league history over any five-year span. Even that all-time level of success still doesn’t quite portray just how close Golden State was to winning a mind-bending five straight titles. Luck always affects the championship picture, but the Warriors – with Green’s one-game suspension midway through the 2016 Finals and separate injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson last spring – were almost the last team standing for a half-decade running regardless.

Curry and Green, certainly before Durant arrived and even for the past three seasons, were the driving forces behind Golden State’s dynasty. Everything the Warriors did on both ends stemmed from the singular influence provided by the most imminently-threatening shooter of all time and a defensive chameleon the likes of which the league had never seen. Steve Kerr deserves immense credit for the implementation and execution of his team’s ballyhooed two-way concepts, but he’s the first to acknowledge that its unique style of play was built on the backs of Curry and Green.

The same will hold true in 2019-20. The Warriors, in fact, are poised to ask more of Curry and Green this season than ever, a development the numbers indicate should lead to sustained success despite a re-made, underwhelming roster that won’t include Thompson until March at the absolute earliest, if he comes back at all.

Curry and Green posted a +15.2 net rating last season, the league’s third-best mark behind duos that included each of them and Durant. They had the 12th-best net rating in 2017-18, when Curry missed 31 games with an ankle injury, and ranked top-eight in that regard during each of the previous three seasons. No other tandem in basketball boasts a higher average net rating since 2014-15 than Curry and Green’s +16.5.

Obviously, Curry and Green don’t account for that unparalleled level of on-court success all by themselves. Duos including Durant, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and even Zaza Pachulia and Andrew Bogut, plus one of Curry or Green, also count among the league’s best in recent seasons. The Warriors’ dominance, unsurprisingly, rippled throughout the roster.

The problem is that it won’t in 2019-20. Golden State doesn’t have superlative high-end talent anymore, at least until Thompson is back to full-strength, and more importantly, sorely lacks the “Strength In Numbers” that defined its first title team and propelled them to 73 wins.

Curry, Green and D’Angelo Russell are the only consensus starter-level players on the roster. We’re high on Kevon Looney, especially now that he’s planning to shoot threes on a consistent basis, but there’s understandable debate about his value. The Warriors are hopeful Willie Cauley-Stein, abandoned by the Sacramento Kings, will thrive in a more defined role. Glenn Robinson III is the Warriors’ fifth starter, but it’s unclear, entering his sixth season with his fifth different team, what abject positive he brings to the floor. It’s remiss for a team to count on the availability of Alec Burks. Golden State took a training-camp flier on Marquese Chriss, and now he’s a meaningful member of the rotation. Jordan Poole has impressed with his scoring instincts and Eric Paschall has solid defensive tools, but expecting any rookie to meaningfully contribute, especially those drafted outside the lottery, is likely to end in disappointment.

No other team with legitimate playoff aspirations has a less proven, to put it politely, supporting cast than the Warriors. Complicating matters is that Kerr no longer has the personnel needed to employ his longtime systems on both sides of the ball. Golden State has little roster continuity and, without continuity of its scheme, too, has little more to fall back on other than the presence of Curry and Green.

Offensively, that equation will almost undoubtedly still add up to a top-10 unit. Curry makes the game that much easier for his teammates and, unleashed again as his team’s clear alpha dog, could put up big enough numbers to become just the ninth player ever to win a third MVP. Another dynamic ball-screen operator like Russell will make the game easier on Curry, too, and at least somewhat narrow the inevitable gulf between the Warriors’ effectiveness when the latter is on the court compared to when he’s on the bench.

It’s the other end of the floor that could doom Golden State. Green was playing more than 20 pounds overweight for most of last season, but it’s still instructive to remember that the Warriors finished 11th in defensive rating, tied for their worst showing in the Kerr era. Without switch-proof defenders like Durant, Thompson, Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Jordan Bell, just what type of defense will Kerr and highly-respected coordinator Ron Adams implement?

That question may not be as pertinent to the Warriors’ ability to get stops as to how Green functions in his team’s new system. There’s no help defender in basketball smarter or more impactful than Green; he routinely makes offenses react to him rather than the other way around. But much of his value is derived from Green’s ability to guard all five players on the floor in isolation situations. With Golden State likely to play a more traditional brand of defense, far lighter on switching until late in the shot clock, just how large can Green’s influence loom?

Another factor that lowers the Warriors’ floor: age. Curry is already 31, and Green turns 30 in March. Both have played into June each of the last five seasons, and Golden State has long prioritized the big picture relating to rest. Curry and Green should be due for a decrease in playing time at this stage of their careers. Instead, even if they don’t see additional minutes, every possession during the regular season will prove a bit more onerous than those in recent years, as Curry and Green are tasked with almost single-handedly propping up the Warriors on offense and defense, respectively.

Of course, Golden State, whose flexibility is limited by the hard cap, has re-adjusted expectations for 2019-20. It’s no longer championship or bust in the Bay, and won’t be even if Thompson is able to return in time for a postseason run.

But just because the stakes have changed doesn’t mean missing the playoffs in perhaps the most competitive Western Conference ever will be an acceptable outcome. The deeper you dig into the Warriors’ potential strengths and weaknesses, the clearer it becomes that Curry and Green, despite so many years of historic success, may not be enough to take them there.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Solving Ben Simmons’ Shot

Jake Rauchbach provides alternative Integrated Player Development solutions in the case that Ben Simmons continues to experience chronic shooting issues.

Jake Rauchbach

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Ben Simmons made his first career three-point shot during an Oct. 8 preseason game in Philadelphia versus the Guangzhou Long-Lions of the Chinese Basketball League. Sixers fans are now waiting in anticipation to see if Simmons emerges as a consistent shotmaker.

The made three-pointer, combined with offseason footage showing his ability to consistently knock down perimeter shots, could be signs that shooting efficiency improvement is imminent for Simmons.

Predicting whether or not Simmons improves his shotmaking ability this season is not our aim. However, providing leading-edge player development solutions if Simmons’ improvement is not a smooth line upwards, is.

In this piece, we will also examine common underlying causes for players who have experienced chronic shooting issues. Before we can understand these issues, we must first take a look at the components that make up a player’s shot.

The Layers to Shooting Efficiency

When improving shooting consistency over a period of time, there are several levels to the player’s jump shot that should be considered.

The Physical: Form and structure is the outward compilation of a player’s inner dynamics. On-court shot repetition is requisite for engraining new subconscious behavior, such as muscle memory of an effective shot. When a player’s form changes from shot-to-shot, or if there is an inconsistent percentage, more often than not, there are deeper issues at play.

The Mental: Mental interferences can affect form and consistency. For example, the thoughts and memories from chronically bad shooting performances can linger within a player’s psyche if not specifically addressed.

Negatively charged thoughts from a 0-for-11 game in high school can still be adversely affecting the veteran professional player. These blocks can affect focus, confidence, form and consistency.

Generally, these barriers to success are stored on the subconscious level of the mind.

The Emotional: Emotional blocks, such as embarrassment and frustration from bad misses, can lead to inconsistency and vacillation in shooting form. Players often carry around past emotional experiences. If left unchecked, they can throw off something as refined as a shooting motion. For Simmons, a big part of why he has been so hesitant is that he still may hold subconscious barriers such as these within the deep psyche.

The Energetic: The Energetic or Quantum level is the deepest aspect of the player. Often, the underlying cause of any shooting efficiency can be tracked back to here. A lack of flow in the physical body, mind or emotional body, can be detrimental to a player’s shooting motion and efficiency. Background information on this can be found here.

The Underlying Cause of Chronic Shooting Issues

Very rarely does the underlying cause lie in the player’s shooting mechanics.

Ineffectual mechanics and shooting inefficiency almost always map back to the DEEP psyche. The subconscious mind, also known as muscle memory, can hold performance inhibiting mental, emotional and energetic blocks from past on and off-court experience.

This is especially true for players like Simmons, who go through a season or more of chronic shooting issues. Mental and emotional elements, like fear, self-doubt and hesitancy can do a number on a player’s psyche.

Even in situations where they may not mean to, players are always building habits on the physical, mental, emotional and energetic levels. Habits that are built through shooting struggles can remain with the player for years.

If you have been following this column, we have talked extensively about Nick Anderson’s struggles. This example can provide context. In regards to Simmons, the same subconscious dynamic could be at play.

The Rub

Attacking chronic shooting issues solely from the physical repetition side can produce mixed results. A one-sided approach like this can overlook the psychosomatic issues that are underlying the player’s shaky shooting performance.

Taking a look at Simmons’ summertime footage, and preseason three-point make, it looks as if his shooting mechanics are fluid and in rhythm.

(Courtesy: Synergy Sports)

Comparing this to his three-point attempts taken within the flow of the 76ers offense during the 2018-2019 season, it appears as if Simmons is taking steps forward.

(Courtesy: Synergy Sports)

However, it is important to not confuse initial progress with permanent improvement. For Simmons, there could be psychosomatic hurdles at play, which if left unresolved could hinder his sustained improvement in the shooting department.

The Integrated Player Development Approach

There is the chance that the 76ers point man could be off to the races with his shooting percentage improvement.

In the case that he is not, tweaking his current player development process to address the inevitable volatility from the mental and emotional side could work to stabilize his shooting efficiency.

Integrated Player Development combining on-court skill work with Energy Psychology implemented early, often and continuously throughout the season provides the highest probability to do this.

Off-court High-Performance Mindfulness sessions, in-game refocusing techniques and on-court skill development could be most effective in doing this.

To learn more about High-Performance Mindfulness and Integrated Player Development methods, click here.

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NBA Daily: Who Will Be King Of LA?

With the NBA season upon us, Jordan Hicks takes a look at the two favorites to win it all – who both happen to hail from the City of Angels – and points out why a certain team could end up on top.

Jordan Hicks

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As we all know, since the Lakers lost last night, they are overrated, don’t have nearly enough shooting and are overall an ugly fit on the court. If the Lakers would’ve won, they’d be the front-runners for a ring, gel perfectly and could score from anywhere on the court. The best part of the NBA is that it’s a marathon – not a sprint. Sure, all 82 games matter, but it’s not very likely that a single regular-season game holds much of anything come playoff time.

What we are going to explore in this article will be a look into who really has what it takes to be the top-dog out of Los Angeles this season. Both teams are considered to be top-three finishers in most people’s rankings, but who has a better chance of getting a higher-seed, making it further in the playoffs and – in the end – hoisting the Larry O’Brien?

Let’s first take a look at some of the predictions featuring these teams that stem from Basketball Insider’s yearly NBA Predictions article (found here) and break them down, starting with the Lakers.

The Los Angeles Lakers will not be a top-four seed in the Western Conference

At first glance, this take seems off. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis – how could they finish anything other than the top two? But when you dig into the facts, it seems plausible.

LeBron’s last season in Cleveland ended as the fourth seed. The year prior – although they were the best team out East – they still nabbed just the second seed.

Anthony Davis has never finished higher than a sixth seed and only ever helped New Orleans to the playoffs twice since being drafted in 2012.

Combining Davis and James certainly improve the chances of the Lakers getting a higher seed in the playoffs, no one will argue that, but things are different this time around, too. LeBron is a year older. He and Davis have yet to play any official basketball together. And, most importantly, they are in the Western Conference. Yes, the same conference where non-playoff teams would be a top-four seed in the East.

LeBron’s wake-up call in the West was missing the playoffs for the first time since his second season. Yes, he missed a chunk of the season due to injury, but they still lost enough key games with him on the floor to not use it as an outright excuse.

Is this is a hot take? It should be considered lukewarm at best. The Lakers have enough talent to finish as a top-four seed, but there’s a real chance they won’t. They’ll be directly competing with the Clippers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers for home court in round one, and I don’t think anyone apart from LeBron superfans will be surprised if they fall to a fifth-or-worse seed come playoff time.

Despite the eventual whispers about Frank Vogel’s job security, he will end the season as head coach of the Lakers

This one is interesting. Vogel was not the sexy name coach that many had envisioned when he was selected to head the Lakers. He had success early on in his career, leading Indiana to back-to-back conference finals appearances, but was most recently coaching Orlando to just 25 wins in the 2017-18 season. To say he was the Lakers’ first choice is laughable, but he wasn’t a horrible hire considering who was available.

Yes, there may be whispers of him being fired if they get off to a slow start, but the Lakers have too much talent to assume Vogel won’t make it until at least the offseason before they consider letting him go. Then, maybe the dream of every NBA Twitter user will come true and the Lakers will hire Magic Johnson as the head coach for the 2020-21 season. No? Yeah, that definitely won’t happen.

Now, moving on to the Clippers.

Los Angeles Clippers – NBA Champions

Clippers over the Philadelphia 76ers seems to be the consensus when it comes to the ending of the season. And how can you see it another way? On one hand, we can’t keep expecting LeBron to turn in these super-human performances. One of the few players who kept up exceptional play deep into his career was Karl Malone, but even he started playing professionally after multiple years of college ball. LeBron came straight from high school. The man has literal MILES on his body.

On the other hand, the Clippers are downright good. The team is largely the same from last season where they won two games on the road against a healthy Warriors team that included Kevin Durant. Add to that roster one Paul George and one Kawhi Leonard – those are *pretty* solid additions. The Lakers may have added AD, but they had to gut the core of their roster to do so. The Clippers didn’t lose all that much if we are being honest. Danilo Gallinari is nice, but not essential, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be really solid one day, but he wasn’t necessarily moving the needle. Even better, the Clippers held on to the most valuable rookie on their roster last season in Landry Shamet. He shot 45 percent from three last season after being dealt to the Clippers!

The Lakers will be good, no doubt. But the Clippers just might be better. And that will be enough to get them to and past The Finals as champions.

Andre Iguodala will be traded – but not to the Lakers or Clippers

This seems very realistic. Iguodala will likely be on the move. He won’t want to play for the Grizzles and in turn, Memphis will gladly accept any asset that Iguodala returns, but it’s just doubtful that either Los Angeles team will have the best offer.

Virtually every other team in the West will have someone or something that exceeds what the Lakers or Clippers can offer, so neither franchise will be able to net the veteran forward for some significant playoff help.

Whose roster is better?

The Clippers have the superior head coach in Doc Rivers, superior duo (very slightly) in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and the superior role players in Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley, to name a few. It wouldn’t be out of pocket to say that both LeBron James and Anthony Davis are individually better than both Leonard and George.

What this means is that the George-Leonard duo meshes better. In that, you have two elite defenders, as well as two incredibly talented shooters and playmakers. They are both long and athletic, and both have the ability to change the flow of the game at almost every level. LeBron and AD may be objectively better players, but no matter how well they play together, it likely won’t be on the same field as PG and the newly-dubbed “Terminator.”

The last few paragraphs make it seem like the Clippers are hands-down better than the Lakers, but that just isn’t the case. If LeBron can get back to the same form he had during the 2017-18 playoff run, the Lakers will be scary good. Davis is still young and should be plenty healthy with his lack of play last season. The same goes for LeBron. If those two can find a groove, there isn’t a single team in the NBA with a duo that is defensively skilled enough to stop them. The Lakers’ defense will certainly be called into questions at times, but both JaVale McGee and AD are ample enough rim protectors to keep it from becoming too much of an issue.

Another factor that may push the Lakers past the Clippers is the injury issues that could end up haunting the red and blue brand. George will miss the first 10-plus games recovering from dual shoulder surgery. Kawhi, on the other hand, has quite a history of random injuries and more-than-normal load management DNPs. If they lose key games due to inactive players, it could really mess up their seeding and cause them to lose a seven-game series largely due to missing out on homecourt.

With all this being said, it seems plausible that Clippers come out as the kings of LA. The Lakers just don’t have the overall talent to match the Clippers.

But if anything, the game you witnessed last night will have loads of information to analyze and digest moving forward. Just, please, take the results with a grain of salt. As previously mentioned, the NBA season is long. But one thing is certain: we as viewers are in for an incredible ride this year!

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