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NBA Saturday: Clippers Staying Afloat Without Blake Griffin

With Blake Griffin sidelined, the Clippers’ role players are picking up the slack and keeping the team on track.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have failed to meet expectations so far this season. Despite putting together an impressive offseason where the team added notable players like Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Wesley Johnson and re-signed DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have struggled with chemistry, rotations, health, consistency and a lack of production from its second-unit among other things.

The bright spot for the Clippers so far this season has been the play of Blake Griffin. Unfortunately, Griffin partially tore his left quadricep tendon in the Clippers’ Christmas day game against the Los Angeles Lakers, which will likely sideline him through the first few weeks of January. On the season, Griffin is averaging 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and five assists per game.

The Clippers were 16-13 entering their game against the Lakers, and were coming off a three-game losing streak. Doc Rivers was struggling to find effective rotations and any sort of consistency from his bench. The loss of Griffin seemed to be a sign that the team’s struggles would continue into the new year, but surprisingly the team has found consistent production from its role players and are now riding a season-high five-game winning streak. In fact, with their win over the New Orleans Pelicans, the Clippers capped off the franchise’s first ever 5-0 road trip.

So how have the Clippers managed to put together their best stretch of the season without arguably their best player?

There is no single explanation, but one major aspect of the Clippers’ recent success has been the stellar play of J.J. Redick, who was on fire during the month of December. As Rowan Kavner of Clippers.com recently pointed out, Redick has hit three or more three-pointers in 10 of his last 11 games and the Clippers are now 8-0 this season when he scores 20 points or more. Additionally, over his last five games, Redick is averaging 19.6 points per game on 55 percent shooting from the field and 56.3 percent from beyond the arc (18-of-32). For the season, Redick is second in three-point percentage (48.3 percent) among all players that shoot 1.5 or more three-pointers per game.

Redick dealt with a few injuries earlier in the season, but he seems to be past that now and has found his rhythm.

“I got off to a really slow start last year and then that first month this year, I felt like I was playing well and then I had kind of a three-week stretch where I was out a week, played a week, out a week,” Redick told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. “It was like stop and go, and it sometimes frustrates you as a scorer and a shooter when you get out of rhythm.

“I feel like I’ve played pretty well this whole month. The rhythm is there, for sure.”

Redick has been somewhat of a barometer for the Clippers’ success over the last few seasons. When he is on his game and is scoring effectively within the flow of the team’s offense, the Clippers have been an elite offensive team. When Redick is out with an injury or is in a slump, the Clippers tend to get stagnant. Though Redick can’t make up for the loss of Griffin on his own, his increased production on offense has helped the Clippers get by without their star power forward.

In addition, Paul Pierce has come to life for the Clippers recently. The 38-year-old forward was acquired during the offseason to add a veteran player that could knock down big shots and be a steadying presence for the team. Unfortunately, up until very recently, Pierce had been an utter disappointment for the Clippers.

Entering their game against the Utah Jazz, Pierce was shooting 30.6 percent from the field and 24.7 percent from distance. Yet, as we have seen him do in recent seasons, Pierce turned up his play after Christmas, contributing 20 points, five rebounds and two assists while shooting five-of-seven from beyond the arc in 27 minutes of action in Utah. Pierce has been starting at power forward in recent games for the Clippers, and has been getting better looks within the flow and structure of the starting unit’s offensive sets. Pierce may regress a little when Griffin comes back and he is sent back to the bench, but for now, the Clippers are happy to just know that Pierce can still produce when called upon, which wasn’t a certainty for the first few months of the season.

Another important factor is that Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson have been taken out of the rotation for the most part. In their place, Doc Rivers has inserted Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich. While Stephenson and Smith are the more talented players, both have struggled to find their respective roles with the team and have been unable to produce consistently. Prigioni and Aldrich have surprisingly added more structure to the second-unit’s offense. They have shown great chemistry in the pick-and-roll, which they are using to manufacture easy shots for teammates. Prigioni has been delivering nice passes to Aldrich, who has done a nice job of either attacking the rim or finding shooters behind the three-point line. The best example of this new dynamic came against the Washington Wizards, where Aldrich contributed 13 points, six rebounds, three assists, four steals and one block in just under 20 minutes of action.

Simply put, the Clippers are getting nice contributions from their regular rotation players. On nights where Paul and Jordan aren’t at their best, someone like Redick, Pierce or Austin Rivers is stepping up and picking up the slack. Add in the newly found structure with Prigioni and Aldrich in the second-unit, and the Clippers are not only surviving without Griffin, but are in fact thriving. After winning their last five games, the Clippers are now 21-13 and are solidifying their position as the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoff race.

Though the Clippers’ recent play has been encouraging, there are still some lingering issues. Luc Mbah a Moute is currently the starting small forward and while he has added some nice defense for the Clippers, his shaky three-point shooting and limited offensive game makes him a stopgap measure more than a long-term solution on the wing. With teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs playing historically well, the Clippers need to find a player that can produce more consistently on offense and spread the court at the small forward position.

Also, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith have, for the most part, fallen out of the Clippers’ rotation. Stephenson and Smith are talented players and finding a way to get meaningful production from both of them could be essential towards challenging the elite teams in the postseason.

Lastly, while the Clippers have played well without Griffin, they will ultimately need him back at 100 percent if they are to compete for anything meaningful this season. Griffin is set to be back within the next few weeks, though the Clippers should be cautious and rest him until he has completely recovered from his injury to avoid any long-term issues.

The Clippers still have some issues to work through, but they should feel good about their recent play. However, they still have a lot of things to figure out before they can hope to compete with teams like the Warriors and Spurs in 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 Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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