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NBA Saturday: Clippers Reload for Another Run at a Championship

With little flexibility, Doc Rivers managed to reload his roster for at least one more run at a championship.

Jesse Blancarte

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Over the last few seasons, the Los Angeles Clippers have been unable to advance past the second round of the playoffs and have fallen short of expectations. Only one team wins the championship each season, so it’s not as if the Clippers are the only team to have missed their goals over the last few years.

The Clippers, however, have managed to lose in dramatic ways that make their failures more memorable unfortunately. They have also repeatedly been plagued by the same issues, with one of the most important being their lack of an above league-average starting small forward and quality depth.

When you have three max-level contracts on the books, as the Clippers do with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, it can be difficult to round out a deep roster – unless you’re the Golden State Warriors, of course. With the Clippers’ big three taking up a vast majority of the Clippers’ cap over the last few seasons, team president and head coach Doc Rivers has had to find creative ways to fill up his roster.

Over the last few seasons, Rivers has managed to sign players to value contracts and find creative ways to bring in other players. The Clippers’ most glaring need has been at small forward, where Rivers has gone through an assortment of players like Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley, Hedo Turkoglu, Danny Granger, Reggie Bullock, Jordan Hamilton, Dahntay Jones, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Luc Mbah a Moute. Interestingly, of all these players, Barnes had the most success as the team’s starting small forward. Other players have had their moments, but no one seemed to fit as well as Barnes did.

Despite the glaring hole at small forward and lack of depth, the Clippers have been one of the best overall teams in the NBA over the last few seasons. However, after falling short so many times, with Griffin missing a big chunk of last season with injuries and he and Paul able to become unrestricted free agents next offseason, it was reasonable to wonder what Rivers would do this offseason.

While Rivers has been criticized for his moves as the team’s de facto general manager, he did a solid job this offseason of reloading his roster for another run. While his team ultimately may not have the talent to overtake the Warriors in a seven game series (does anyone really?), he has constructed a team that has more depth than in past seasons – though that glaring hole at small forward still remains.

This offseason, Rivers put his bid in on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes and stated on a podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical that he was informed the Clippers were in the top three of Durant’s preferences. Of course Durant ultimately decided to take his talents to the Bay Area rather than Hollywood, but it was a worthwhile attempt on the part of Rivers – especially considering he managed to retain most of his major free agents despite pursuing Durant.

Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson, Jeff Green, Luc Mbah a Moute, Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich were all able to become unrestricted free agents this offseason. Coach Rivers managed to retain his son Austin, Crawford, Johnson and Mbah a Moute, while losing Green, Prigioni and Aldrich. In keeping Rivers, Crawford, Johnson and Mbah a Moute, Coach Rivers managed to retain key pieces who will be relied on heavily this upcoming season. Aldrich had played his way into a bigger contract than the Clippers could offer, so losing him was no surprise. However, perhaps the biggest loss was Green, who the Clippers traded Lance Stephenson and a protected draft 2019 first-rounder for. The idea was that the Clippers could re-sign Green using his Bird Rights, and that this would be their means of addressing the hole at small forward. Unfortunately, Green never really found his role with the Clippers and was disappointing in his short time with the team, as he has been in other stops throughout his career.

With a few key pieces staying in town and others moving on, Rivers went out and continued plugging the holes in his roster. After taking Brice Johnson (25th), David Michineau (39th) and Diamond Stone (40th) in the draft, Coach Rivers went out and signed Marreese Speights to a two-year, $2.9 million contract. Speights may not be a top-level defender at power forward or center, but he has a big frame, is a better rebounder than many expect and, most importantly, he can stretch the floor with his three-point shooting. Though Speights is only a career 30.5 percent shooter from distance, he shot 38.7 from beyond the arc last season with the Golden State Warriors. However, Rivers has brought in stretch-bigs in the past (Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, Spencer Hawes, etc.) and none have ever really worked out. The same could end up being the case here with Speights, but to get a big man on this contract in a market that was over-saturated with money is a big steal for the Clippers.

Then, Rivers went out and signed Brandon Bass to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Bass has played for Rivers before and is familiar with his system, plays and schemes. Bass is somewhat duplicative of Speights in the frontcourt, but each offers something unique to the Clippers. While Speights can shoot from distance, Bass can shoot from midrange and provides tougher defense than Speights. When the Clippers need a stop or to execute a complicated play, Bass will likely get the nod. When the Clippers need to open up the court so Paul can penetrate the defense or when the Clippers need to open up the post for Griffin to go to work, Speights will likely get the call.

Then, to address the lack of point guard depth, Coach Rivers went out and signed Raymond Felton to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Felton has been criticized in the past for his inability to consistently stay in top-level playing shape, but he did put together a solid season with Dallas this last year, averaging 12.5 points, 4.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds per-36 minutes. His shooting wasn’t great as he shot below his career averages from the field and from three-point range, but his ability to run Rick Carlisle’s adaptive and fluid offense was notable. With more size and strength than Prigioni, Felton should be a nice addition for the Clippers, who often use small lineups to overcome their lack of a top-level small forward.

Lastly, in a move to shore up their depth on the wing, the Clippers signed Alan Anderson. Anderson is a solid defensive player and a good shooter who shouldn’t be relied on as a solution at the small forward position, but does add nice depth and a good veteran presence in the locker room. Anderson missed much of last season because of an ankle injury that required surgery. He ultimately had to get a second operation on the same ankle because the first operation did not go as planned, which limited Anderson to 13 games last season with the Washington Wizards. If healthy, Anderson could be looked to for spot minutes on the wing to add defense and shooting, which is solid value on a one-year, $1.3 million contract.

None of these deals alone will blow anyone away or changes the power dynamic in the Western Conference and there is still a glaring hole at small forward. However, in a free agency market that was flooded with an unprecedented amount of money, Coach Rivers did well by bringing in veteran contributors on below-market deals. By reloading for the upcoming season, Coach Rivers is betting on his team’s ability to overcome its past gaffes and to find some luck in the race to the Finals. The Warriors stand in their way and likely are too talented to be beaten with all things being equal. However, as recent seasons have proven, all things are not equal in the NBA, especially when it comes to injuries (ask the Memphis Grizzlies about their 2015-16 season). While no one wants injuries to happen, they are inevitable in sports. That, and sometimes teams simply don’t come together as expected or never find real chemistry (see the Los Angeles Lakers with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard). Considering this, it’s hard to fault Rivers for giving his team at least one more shot at a championship run.

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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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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