On Friday night, the Los Angeles Clippers’ season came to an end. They fell just short in Game 6, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers on the road. The team was severely undermanned after losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to season-ending injuries, along with J.J. Redick playing through a bruised heel and Austin Rivers suffering an elbow to the face in Game 6 that required stitches.
Now the Clippers are focused on the future, which is more in question than it has been in some time. It may seem overly dramatic to ask whether a team with two top-level big men and one of the best overall point guards in the league should be broken up, especially when the team was ranked sixth in offensive and defensive efficiency this season. However, before the season started, Clippers president of operations and head coach Doc Rivers admitted that this question had to be asked if the team fell short in the postseason.
“We’re right on the borderline,” Rivers told Zach Lowe of ESPN before the 2015-16 season started. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”
To be fair, any team that loses its two best players and has several other players hobbled by nagging injuries is going to be vulnerable in the postseason, including the Golden State Warriors. Once Paul and Griffin went down, the Clippers’ season was effectively over – it was just a question of how long they could hold off the inevitable. To their credit, the team fought until the very end, pushing the Blazers in Games 5 and 6, falling just short in each game.
Still, as Rivers pointed out before the season started, a team can become stale after repeated failures. The Clippers just ended their fifth year with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as the team’s Big Three and they still haven’t reached the Western Conference Finals. In addition, Griffin and Paul have player options for the 2017-18 season and Redick’s contract only runs through next year, meaning next season could be their last with the Clippers. However, Jordan has a player option in 2018-19, so there is no urgency with his contract situation.
Current cap projections provided by Basketball Insiders’ salary cap guru Eric Pincus have the Clippers with just $10.5 million in potential cap space this offseason (in their best-case scenario), which is the lowest figure in the league. As a result, the Clippers will not be able to make a major free agent acquisition, which means if they give this roster another run, it will be largely the same with small changes around the edges.
With all of this in mind, the Clippers’ front office needs to determine whether to push forward with this same group knowing that Paul, Griffin and Redick are all likely to be free agents after next season, or cash in their chips and start over.
Rivers isn’t the most equipped coach to handle a rebuild. In fact, when the Boston Celtics went into fire sale mode in 2013, Rivers took off to Los Angeles to lead a potential contender rather than oversee Boston’s rebuild.
Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Piece, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Brooklyn Nets for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, three unprotected first-round draft picks (2014, 2016 and 2018), with the right to swap first-round picks in 2017. The Nets went nowhere with the talent they traded for, while the Celtics assembled a young, talented and scrappy roster that plays disciplined basketball under top-notch head coach Brad Stevens. The Celtics remained competitive since the trade and now have more assets than just about any team as well as the flexibility to add more talent through free agency and major trades.
Teams learned from the Nets’ mistakes and will be more hesitant to offer the same compensation in future mega-deals. However, Ainge hasn’t made it a secret that he’s looking to cash in some of his assets for a young star player. He has pursued Kevin Love in the past, so a player like Griffin would certainly grab his attention if he were made available. The question is what might Ainge be willing to give up in exchange for Griffin.
Griffin could be traded straight up for a package of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, along with potential draft considerations. The Celtics have enough young, affordable players that this basic scenario can be adjusted to take out a player like Smart in exchange for Jared Sullinger or Terry Rozier, among several other variations. The point is, the Celtics have the young players and draft assets to make a move for a player like Griffin. This would give the Clippers young, developing talent that will be under team control for many years, while potentially replenishing their depleted draft assets.
Then imagine a scenario where the Cleveland Cavaliers fall short this postseason, and LeBron James demands the team trade for Chris Paul as a condition to re-signing. It wouldn’t be difficult for these two teams to structure a deal that essentially swaps Paul for Irving, giving the Cavaliers perhaps a better chance at a championship next season and the Clippers a younger point guard to grow alongside the revamped roster.
The Clippers’ starting lineup would look something like Irving-Redick-Crowder-Sullinger-Jordan. The team would have more young talent locked up, with more draft assets to bolster the team moving forward. With some luck, the Clippers would follow the Celtics’ path of remaining competitive while maintaining better cap flexibility and roster versatility.
Another added benefit with this route is the Clippers push the clock back on their possible window of contention. By the time the revamped roster is ready to truly contend for a championship, dominant teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers could be regressing.
If this approach seems too optimistic, just consider the circumstances that recently surrounded the team that just dispatched the Clippers. The Blazers lost Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo (who they traded Will Barton and other plays for no less) and, of course, LaMarcus Aldridge to free agency. They received no compensation for these valuable players. They did trade Nicolas Batum for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. Henderson and Vonleh aren’t top-notch talents, but Henderson is a serviceable wing and Vonleh still has significant room to improve his game as a stretch-four. The Blazers also traded a future second-round pick (that will never be conveyed) to the Orlando Magic for Moe Harkless, who was a major factor in Portland’s first-round victory over the Clippers.
Blazers general manager Neil Olshey didn’t wait to rebuild his team. He saw the writing on the wall and acted aggressively. He acquired young talent like Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee to grow and develop alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Just about everyone doubted this team’s ability to compete this season, but now they have a shot to upset a banged up Warriors squad in the second-round and a bright future as a result of their cap flexibility.
The Blazers managed to do this without having two top-15 players to use as trade chips. The point is that if the Clippers decide that this roster’s window is closed, they can rebuild on the fly, acquiring young, diverse talent while replenishing their draft assets. There are a countless number of ways for the Clippers to go about a rebuild, but if done effectively, they could come out in a better long-term position, like the Celtics did two seasons ago.
However, this isn’t an obvious path to take. It’s not often that a team has a roster that can contend, so giving up on it prematurely isn’t something that should be done recklessly. Look at the Dallas Mavericks for example. They weren’t championship favorites in 2011, but they pushed forward with their roster and upset the Miami HEAT in the Finals. The Clippers may find the same fortunate circumstances if they keep this roster together.
As we have seen in this year’s playoffs, injuries can happen to anyone at any time. Again, the Blazers have a chance to upset the Warriors if Stephen Curry’s knee injury keeps him on the sideline, or limits him in any significant way when he returns. That would give the winner of the Spurs-Thunder series a much easier path to the Finals.
When talking to Lowe before the start of the season, Redick said that he though the Clippers still have a few years to contend in the West.
“The championship window in the West is so narrow,” Redick said. “Ours might only be open another couple of years. But you need some breaks. Golden State was the best team in the league, but they also had everything go right for them. They didn’t have one bad break. I don’t have any doubt about the DNA of our team.”
The injuries to Paul and Griffin derailed the team’s championship hopes. Before their injuries, the Clippers had a clear path to face the Warriors in the second-round. The Blazers weren’t going to roll over, but they barely managed their last two victories against a depleted Clippers squad. With a little bit of luck, the Clippers could have upset the Warriors, with the Spurs or Thunder waiting for them in the Western Conference Finals.
It could be equally argued that even with a healthy squad, the Clippers still would be severe underdogs against the Warriors, Thunder or Spurs and the Cavaliers, who are the favorites to represent the East in the Finals. Bringing this team back next season may not change that dynamic considering that each of those squads are likely to bring back those same rosters (though Kevin Durant’s free agency could change that quickly for the Thunder), so there is arguably no point in trying again with this same Clippers roster. Especially when they have little free agent spending power and their biggest acquisitions would likely be re-signing Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Green.
Considering Doc’s record of trusting and relying on veterans, recently avoiding Boston’s rebuild and his willingness to move draft assets for slight roster upgrades (and sometimes even just cap flexibility), it’s likely that he gives this roster another shot next season. Like the Mavericks in 2011, that may work out for him. But if things fall apart again in the postseason, the Clippers will enter 2017 free agency with the prospect of losing Paul, Griffin and Redick for no compensation and just a few draft assets to rebuild with.
This isn’t an easy choice for Doc and the Clippers’ front office. The best approach to this offseason is probably to test out the trade value of everyone aside from Jordan and see if a successful on-the-fly rebuild is possible. If not, then they can move forward for possibly one more run with their existing core and some fringe moves around the edges. After five years of bad luck, injuries and costly mistakes, perhaps next season could be the one where everything goes right.
The Clippers are out of the spotlight now that they have been eliminated from the playoffs, but they will be one of the most interesting teams to keep an eye on during the summer. We possibly saw the last of these Clippers on Friday night, which is a shame when you consider how many opportunities have passed them by over the last few seasons.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.