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NBA Sunday: For Clippers, the Window is Closing

Unless something drastic happens, the Clippers will forever remember the 2015 playoffs as the year they squared their opportunity.

Moke Hamilton

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In the NBA, title windows aren’t forever ajar.

As Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant emerge as arguably the frontrunners for this season’s Most Valuable Player Award, in earnest, the NBA world has been reminiscing back to a more pleasant time. In the not so distant past, the Oklahoma City Thunder featured the three rising superstars (as well as Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka).

When it’s all said and done, don’t be surprised if 15 years from now, that Thunder team is looked upon as the finest example of not assuming that success awaits around the corner.

The second finest example, unfortunately, just might be the Los Angeles Clippers.

* * * * * *

Chris Paul’s arrival to the Clippers in December of 2011 was one of the most important trades in franchise history. Now, after five years, it’s obvious that it was probably the most successful. When Doc Rivers joined the team about 18 months later, with the emergence of both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, it seemed that the club had everything it needed to become a true contender. And they did exactly that.

What makes pro basketball unique from all other professional sports is the degree to which position specialization doesn’t limit an individual’s ability to impact a game. In other words, in hockey, having the best goalie will only take a team so far; his offense must produce in order for him to win. In baseball, having a hitter who blasts a home run every other at bat is only a guarantee to get a few runs scored. If there isn’t any pitching to back him up, he will lose. In football, it’s the same exact principle: a 500-yard game by Tom Brady will only carry the team so far, because Tom Brady doesn’t play defense.

In that regard, basketball is unique. One man is capable of dominating a game in a way that others in other sports are incapable. So when history looks back at Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Patrick Ewing and wonder why they weren’t able to lead their teams to titles, the answer can be summed up easily: Michael Jordan. When we wonder the same about Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Reggie Miller and Tracy McGrady, just point to Kobe Bryant. And years from now, if Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Russell Westbrook happen to join that list of great players that were never able to win, the same story would be told.

So as the championship window for the Clippers appears to be closing before our very eyes, blame not Doc Rivers. Blame Kobe Bryant. Blame Tim Duncan. And yes, blame Stephen Curry.

But more than anything else, blame attrition, because the Clippers had their opportunity, and unfortunately, they squandered it. And you know what they say about opportunities: often, they come just once in a lifetime.

* * * * * *

As Chris Paul addressed the media for the final time—after his team had squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets—he probably wondered how he got here. From converting a series-clinching shot in Game 7 to topple the mighty Spurs, to licking his wounds after his team had come up on the short end of this Game 7, he admitted that he no longer knew what the term “close” meant.

Had the Clippers managed to close out those pesky Rockets, they would have punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals and had a date with the Golden State Warriors. In all likelihood, the winner of that series would have won the NBA Finals, and that’s exactly how it played out—all while the Clippers were watching at home.

Since then, that has been their quiet motivation.

From afar, it appears that the Clippers have the requisites of becoming a champion—superstar talent, tons of experience, the pain of heartbreak, good head coaching and solid leadership. The one thing they don’t seem to possess any longer, however, is young legs. As he closes in on 32 years old, Paul is no longer a spring chicken and the freak injuries and limiting ailments that appear to be hampering him are no coincidence. He’s used up a lot of the tread on his tires.

Blake Griffin, on the other hand, hasn’t played in as many as 70 regular season games since the 2013-14 season. And without both he and Paul playing at a high level, the Clippers probably won’t have a realistic shot of being a top three team in the Western Conference, not so long as Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden have anything to say about it.

With Paul, Griffin and J.J. Redick all likely to become unrestricted free agents this summer, Rivers has vowed to open Steve Ballmer’s checkbook to keep his team intact. He knows that without Paul and Griffin, the Clippers have virtually no shot of winning the Western Conference. But Doc is smart, he probably also knows that this team has already squandered what was its best opportunity to win a championship.

So, as the Clippers spend the next several weeks trying to stay afloat without the injured Paul, whether or not Doc ultimately re-signs Paul, Griffin and Redick this summer, understand that this team has probably already piqued. And without something substantial happening for these Clippers, their championship window will likely continue to shrink.

Unfortunately, that’s just how it is in the NBA. Opportunities come around but so often, and when they do, you’ve gotta grab it and hold it tightly.

Now, in hindsight, the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder appreciate that quite well. And as Doc Rivers and his Clippers team face yet another season whose promise and potential appears to have been undercut by injuries—and as the core of the team continues to age—they now know that, as well.

* * * * * *

As he took a power dribble toward the rim, his New York Knicks carrying a two-point lead, Carmelo Anthony mustered all of the strength in his legs, but didn’t have much lift. With Roy Hibbert between him and a potential trip to the Eastern Conference Finals to battle LeBron James and the Miami HEAT, Hibbert threw Anthony’s dunk back in his face and helped to spark a spirited rally that saw the third-seeded Pacers pull off the upset over Anthony and his second-seeded Knicks. Ousted in six games, Anthony’s Knicks haven’t returned to the playoffs since.

It’s safe to say that he also knows a thing or two about missed opportunity.

As the Knicks continue on during a season that began with much promise, the questions about Anthony’s future in New York are becoming more and more plentiful. Wielding a no-trade clause, Anthony has the power to determine if, when and where he decides to pursue greener pastures.

For more reasons than one, the Clippers would make a lot of sense.

With none of them strangers to disappointment, at this point in time, Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Carmelo Anthony—they all need each other.

They need each other the same way they each desperately need another opportunity to exorcise the demons that have haunted them.

* * * * * *

In the NBA, without question, opportunity knocks only so often. And when it does, you have to be ready. Truth is, you never know if, or even when it’ll knock again.

Just like the 2012 Thunder, the Clippers are learning that the hard way.

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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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