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NBA Saturday: Clippers Have Cause for Concern

Despite some flashes of strong play, the Clippers’ inconsistency is a concern on the eve of the playoffs.

Jesse Blancarte

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The regular season is rapidly winding down, which means that teams are making their final preparations for the playoffs. For some teams that means it’s time to rest key players. For other teams, it means shortening the rotation and adjusting to playing with just the guys that will play meaningful minutes in the postseason. For all playoff-bound teams, this is the last real opportunity to work out any kinks and address any areas of weakness that have lingered throughout the season.

The Los Angeles Clippers are currently 46-31, have just five regular season games remaining and still have a handful of issues that need to be addressed before the start of the postseason. At this point in the season, the Clippers’ biggest concern is their inability to play with a high sense of urgency consistently.

The team started the 2015-16 season with a bang. The team’s defense was firing on all cylinders and had many wondering whether the Clippers could sustain their dominance on defense over the entire season. The Clippers were playing so well it even seemed to catch the players by surprise.

“Why didn’t we do this last year?” Paul wondered rhetorically. “Part of it is attention to detail, tweaking a few things here and there and trust. It always helps, too, to know that if you help a guy, another guy is going to be there.”

Clipper players were talking about the team’s effectiveness on defense as the team’s greatest source of strength. A team that a few years ago was dubbed “Lob City” was suddenly forging a new identity as an elite defensive squad.

“We get excited about defense,” Griffin said. “Most of our emphasis coming from the players is on defense. We’re ready to get five stops in a row, six stops in a row. Whatever it is, it’s taking us doing the same thing. I think the onus has been on the players just having that mindset and taking pride in it.”

Unfortunately, injuries, among other issues, disrupted the team’s early season success. In late December, it was discovered that Griffin would undergo knee surgery to remove loose bodies. Then, in mid-January, Paul tore a ligament in his left hand that would require surgery. Griffin was nearing his return at this point, but these separate injuries created a roughly two-month stretch in which Los Angeles was playing without one of its star players.

While Paul and Griffin are now both healthy, the team has never come close to recapturing that defensive intensity and all-around level of play that had people openly wondering whether the Clippers could upset the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series. The hyper-aggressive perimeter defense, crisp switches and consistent communication that powered their defense has only returned in spurts and is non-existent for long stretches. Whether it is lingering injuries, fatigue, complacency, or something else, the Clippers are not able to maintain a high level of effort over 48 minutes of action like they could earlier this season.

“Taking that next step as a team, even when you’re up 30 or you’re up 20 or whatever it is, there shouldn’t be letup,” Griffin said. “You can’t start playing a different way and practicing bad habits just because you’re up by a lot.”

Griffin stated this in November of last year, after the Clippers pummeled the Detroit Pistons 114-82. November seems like a lifetime ago and the Clippers would be well-served to look back on the early part of the season and this quote to remind themselves of what made them so successful at the beginning of this campaign.

This is especially true in the aftermath of the Clippers’ stunning loss to the Sacramento Kings on March 26. The Clippers held an 18-point fourth quarter lead, but a combination of bad decisions, questionable rotations and uneven effort and execution led to an epic collapse for Los Angeles.

“We saw they started chirping with each other and we were able to see them collapse,” Buddy Hield said to the Sacramento Bee’s Jason Jones.

Tough losses such as this happen from time to time. It doesn’t mean the Clippers are suddenly unable to compete at a high level or close out games. But it does show what can happen when a team fails to lift its collective effort and trust each other to make the right rotations and defensive plays.

Fortunately, the Clippers put up a strong performance against the Washington Wizards on Sunday and managed to close a surprisingly resilient Phoenix Suns squad on Thursday. However, these recent wins haven’t solved the Clippers’ up-and-down level of focus, intensity and consistency.

“We have to play desperate,” DeAndre Jordan said recently. “I feel like that’s what a lot of other teams are doing who are even a higher seed than we are. Their spirits are different. We have to find that.”

Another ongoing issue for the Clippers is Doc Rivers’ odd rotations. Coach Rivers has relied heavily on making mass substitutions at certain points in the game rather than staggering his lineups to keep some star power on the court at all times. This is nothing new for the Clippers, but recently Coach Rivers has also been relying on players like Paul Pierce, who simply isn’t playing well enough to be in the rotation at this point, and has left struggling lineups in at crucial moments of games.

“I wanted to see if our bench could take us home, because I really did not want to put our [starters] back in at all,” Coach Rivers said after losing to Sacramento. “And at the end of the day, it may have cost us the game with that decision.”

To be fair, the regular season is the time to experiment and figure out what you can reasonably expect from certain players or lineups in situations like this one. However, with just five games remaining, playoff seeding still in flux and with a team that has yet to recapture the early-season intensity that made it elite, perhaps the time for experimenting is over.

The Clippers are not strangers to the pressure and intensity of the postseason. This is a veteran team that knows what it takes to win a seven-game series. But this is also a team that has collapsed in high-pressure situations, failed to live up to postseason expectations and is currently displaying some of the same bad habits that have caused problems in the past. There is no easy solution to what’s ailing the Clippers. However, with only five games over the next 12 days, they at least have time to evaluate their current situation and work towards some solutions prior to the postseason.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

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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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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