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NBA Sunday: Chris Paul’s Quiet Motivation

With the past two playoff runs ending in heartbreak, Chris Paul and the Clippers want to rewrite their obituary.

Moke Hamilton

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Everything matters—every step, every turnover, every play and every point.

Chris Paul has known this since the beginning. And on this day, he treated a fateful possession in Game 4 of the 2016 playoffs in Portland in much the same manner. The attitude and motivation are what enabled a routine, meaningless play to have a tremendous impact on the way his career’s narrative, if it all ended now, would be written.

With a packed house of opposing fans, Paul sprinted up the floor, ball in hand. He took a dribble with his right hand, but feeling an unfamiliar pain, alternated dribbles with his left until—as usual—he found J.J. Redick for an in-stride jumper.

Just a few moments prior, with about seven minutes remaining in the second quarter of a six-point game, Paul refused to give up on Gerald Henderson’s drive to the basket. As Henderson slowed for his two-step and gather, Paul—en route to successfully stripping the ball—suffered a broken third metacarpal in his right hand.

For the Clippers, their season ended right then and there.

But of course, a new one has begun. And for Paul and his Los Angeles Clippers, their collective pursuit of greatness, glory and, yes, sweet redemption, continues.

* * * * * *

In the same manner that the cat can be skinned in more than one way, different people can view the exact same scenario and come away with different interpretations.

For a great many, the Clippers are nothing more than a band of losers, led by Paul.

In most arguments, as attorneys are trained to do, certain facts—the ones that help one’s case—are highlighted. Those that don’t are ignored.

Case in point: Paul has never played in a conference finals and has zero championship rings to show for what has been one of the most impressive point guard careers we have ever seen. He was the leader of a Clippers team that was desperate to prove its mettle but—in squandering a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets in the 2015 playoffs—failed embarrassingly, in flaming and dramatic fashion.

Up 3-1, at home, the Clippers famously led James Harden and his Rockets by 19 points late in the third quarter of a close-out Game 5. Yet somehow, for the next 13 quarters of that series, the Rockets badly outplayed team CP3 and pulled off a miraculous upset.

While it is true that Paul has had a few playoff moments wherein he has fallen short, most superstar players have. Nobody—not Kobe Bryant, not Tim Duncan and not LeBron James—has an unblemished record in that regard. The most that the contemporary superstar can hope for is an opportunity to write over the shortcoming.

After being obliterated by the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals, what would Bryant’s legacy have been had Ron Artest not nailed the biggest three-pointer of his life to help the Lakers defeat the Celtics in 2010?

Similarly, what would LeBron James’ legacy have been had Ray Allen not hit the biggest three-pointer of his life in the waning moments of Game 6 in 2013?

What would his legacy have been had Draymond Green not lost his cool? Or if Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut all had been 100 percent healthy?

Of course, these questions are all rhetorical. There may be thousands of permutations and “what if” questions that can be asked, but only one reality. And the reality is this: to whom much is given, much is required.

Of Paul, we required exactly what we required of James and, before him, Bryant. Like Paul, they each had their fair amount of shortcomings but in each instance, they were able to exorcise the demons that haunted them and their legacies.

At this point, that’s what Paul is playing for.

* * * * * *

DeAndre Jordan learned that although Christmas only comes once per year, sometimes, it does come early. In December 2011, with Blake Griffin and Caron Butler by his side, he learned that the Clippers had acquired Chris Paul from New Orleans.

The duo was so ecstatic, that it took quite a few moments for Jordan to even realize that at least a few of his former teammates would be given up in the deal. Griffin, excited to have Paul joining the club, famously declared the Clippers to be “Lob City.”

Since then, everything has been different. To Paul, much had been given. Accordingly, much has been required. So with the Clippers on his back and with a bevy of basketball talents at his disposal, the critics and the basketball-watching public only cared about what Paul’s acquisition will yield.

Almost isn’t good enough. That’s why, despite winning 56 games with the 2007-08 Pelicans and putting the Spurs on the ropes by taking a 3-2 series lead in the second-round battle, nary a soul remembers that year for Paul. The public only recalls that Paul failed to win the Most Valuable Player Award that went to Kobe Bryant and that his team couldn’t ultimately put the Spurs away.

The critics won’t rightfully criticize Blake Griffin for not watching old tape of the likes of Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley and learning how to effectively use a pivot foot, balance, patience and his hips to create easy, back-to-the-basket scoring opportunities in the paint. They also won’t acknowledge what most people know to be true—that the Clippers would be nothing more than a marginal playoff team without the dynamic point guard. They also won’t acknowledge that he has almost single-handedly transformed two franchises from being mere afterthoughts in the NBA’s hierarchy to ones that had legitimate expectations and hopes for competing for championships.

No, Paul may not be a championship-winner, but he certainly is a contender-maker, and not many NBA players can say that for themselves.

Unfortunately, in our winner-take-all sports culture, we have been taught to undervalue and downplay that.

* * * * * *

With sweaty palms and a racing heart, Kawhi Leonard stepped to the free-throw. Merely 19 seconds away from cradling the Larry O’Brien trophy, here in Miami, Leonard saw his basketball life flash before his very eyes. A two-point lead separated his Spurs from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. In all likelihood, had Leonard hit his two free-throws, the game and championship would have been clinched.

The normally unflappable Leonard stepped to the line and with a deep sigh and a glossy eyed gaze, missed the first of his two free-throws. Although he made the second, that missed point was the difference between Ray Allen’s fateful three-pointer tying the game or Miami still trailing by a point.

The rest, again, is history.

To a man, the ensuing season, the Spurs admitted that their summers were long. Leonard himself admitted that the missed free-throw kept him up at night while Danny Green said that he still thinks about that Game 6.

Only today, nobody talks about it. Nobody talks about Leonard’s failure just like nobody talks about Kobe quitting on the Lakers in his infamous Game 7 performance against the Phoenix Suns back in 2006 or LeBron laying an egg the size of Dan Gilbert’s wallet in Game 5 against the Boston Celtics back in 2010.

Nobody talks about the shortcomings of those Spurs just like nobody talks about the 12 years that Kevin Garnett spent in Minnesota. His Timberwolves were eliminated in the first round seven consecutive years and managed to advance to the conference finals only once.

Finally, after 13 years, in Boston, Garnett was able to win it all. Along the way, just like Paul, he faced a tremendous amount of criticism. There were many that wondered whether he was truly great, as the farce that the public is routinely sold is that great players, somehow, single-handedly, can “will” their teams to victory.

Nobody talks about the failures because history is written by the victor, and a few moments of glorious triumph can wipe away a lifetime of futile shortcomings. Just ask the Chicago Cubs.

From Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant and from LeBron James to Kawhi Leonard, we routinely see great players rewriting the obituaries of their shortcomings.

Titles can help erase the painful memories. Or, at the very least, make them more bearable.

So if you look around at Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers and wonder what’s been motivating them, look no further than that. The wise man knows that tomorrow will bring forth another opportunity. But the wisest man knows something far greater—sometimes, in life, one victory can erase all of the painful memories of failures past.

When Paul walked off the court at Portland’s Moda Center, he was visibly shaken. His eyes welling with water, he took the long, slow, painful walk to the locker room. With a broken spirit and heavy heart, he carried his team’s championship aspirations with him.

Collectively, as the Clippers have begun the season looking like the best team in the Western Conference, with their pain and tremendous shortcoming as their pen, they are attempting to rewrite their narrative.

And if what has transpired over the course of the team’s first weeks of the young season are indicative of what is to transpire in the future, for Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, their story may be far from over.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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