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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

Trae Young Believes He’s NBA Ready

Trae Young has exceeded expectations since his freshman year of college, and he believes he will continue to do so in the NBA

Matt John

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Before the collegiate season started, many believed that the best players in the upcoming NBA draft were going to be bigs. DeAndre Ayton, Mo Bamba, and Michael Porter Jr., all of whom were 6’10’’ or taller, were considered to be among the top prospects coming out of the NCAA, but Trae Young had something to say about that.

Coming out of high school, Young was regarded as one of the better incoming freshmen, but not among the best of the best. Young ranked no. 23 in ESPN’s top 100 in 2017 and was ranked third among point guards, behind Collin Sexton and Jaylen Hands, which led to low expectations for him. Young proved right out of the gate that he was much better than the scouts had rated him.

Young tore up college ball as an Oklahoma Sooner, as he averaged 27.2 points and 8.7 assists while shooting 42 percent from the field including 36 percent from three. While Young’s play made him stand out among his peers, it didn’t translate into much success on the court. The Sooners went 18-14 on the season and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Now that the season is over, Young is shifting his focus to his next stop: the NBA. With the draft coming up in just a little over a month, only one word comes to mind when describing Young’s current mindset: Confidence.

“I bring a lot of things to the next level. I think I would bring an immediate impact off the court as much as I do on the court,” Young said at the NBA combine. “I can space out the defense. I can attack defenders in multiple ways, get my teammates involved. I think I can pretty much do it all for a team and I’m looking forward to whichever team I go to and making a huge impact.”

While Young is not expected to be picked in the top five, he should be picked between the six to ten range. Any player who is selected in that range has to work his absolute hardest to live up to the lengthy expectations that he will certainly face once he enters the NBA. Young luckily sounds like he is up to the task.

“I prepared extremely hard coming into the college season and making a huge impact right away, and I’m working two times as hard this summer preparing to get into the NBA level,” Young said. “I want to make a huge impact right away.”

Young is expected to be a high lottery pick, but he doesn’t care much for where he is selected as much as he cares about going to the team that suits him best.

“My main focus is going to the right team. It’s not about going one, two, three or 30. You see a lot of guys going in the second round in certain years that make big impacts for teams,” Young said. “It’s all about the fit for me. Whether that’s one or whether that’s whatever it is, I’m going to be happy and I’m going to be ready to make an impact.”

Young’s expected high draft position stems from his electrifying play as a scorer in college. Young’s performance for Oklahoma his freshman year was impressive enough to draw comparisons to NBA megastar Stephen Curry. While Young is flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Curry, he takes pride in being his own player.

“He’s a two-time MVP and a champion. I mean, I love the comparison but I feel like I bring a lot of different things from different players’ games to the table,” Young said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of Trae Young. That’s all that matters to me. I’m just getting started in this thing so hopefully I can achieve some of those things.”

Young’s skillset may remind fans of Curry, but Young prides himself on modeling his game after his favorite player of all time: Steve Nash.

“With his size and my size, we’re pretty similar,” Young said. “He is very cerebral. He can score on all three levels and he knows how to get his teammates involved. He’s a winner so I feel like a lot of his characteristics match with mine.”

Those who have watched Young know of his offensive repertoire, but skeptics have pointed to his defensive shortcomings as a red flag. Young, however, believes his play at the combine will show that he can be a positive on the other side of the ball.

“I’m excited about having the opportunity to show people that I can play defense, and I’m excited to show that from day one,”

When all is said and done, Young may very well wind up being the most prolific scorer to come out of what many believe is a loaded draft, but Young has much bigger ambitions in mind for his career.

“I think I’m the best overall player in this draft, but my main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft,” Young said. “My goal is to be the best player in the NBA. That’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”

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NBA

NBA Daily: Jaylen Hands Makes Good Showing at the NBA Combine

Jaylen Hands made a good showing at the NBA Combine by displaying his offensive skills and defensive intensity.

Jesse Blancarte

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UCLA has produced a few of the NBA’s top point guards over the last decade or so, including Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday. Jrue’s younger brother, Aaron Holiday, has declared for this year’s draft and is projected by several NBA insiders to be selected with a first-round pick (likely in the 20-30 range). But Aaron Holiday isn’t the only UCLA point guard who may end up taking his talents to the NBA this offseason. Jaylen Hands, who is still just 19 years old and finished his freshman season, has also entered his name into this year’s draft.

While Hands has entered his name into the draft and participated in the NBA Combine, he has not hired an agent, which preserves his ability to return to college (Hands has until June 11 to make a final decision). Considering Hands’ young age and raw skill set, he isn’t projected by many insiders to hear his name called on draft night. But he certainly helped his cause in the Combine, showcasing his offensive talents, the muscle he has added to his slight frame since the end of his freshman season and aggressiveness on defense.

Basketball Insiders spoke with Hands at the Combine about his development, going through the pre-draft process, competing against familiar faces and more.

“It’s crazy, it’s crazy because when we were younger, they said the exact thing: ‘You guys are going to see each other forever.’” Hands said when asked about competing against many of the same players over the years and now at the Combine. “And you don’t really believe what they’re saying. But now you go through high school, you’re a senior, All-Star activities and you go to the Combine, you see the same people. It’s crazy.”

Hands has a notable skill set but is a raw prospect that many believe would be better served spending another year in college. While Hands needs to continue filling out his frame, he did register decent measurements at the Combine in relation to a top guard prospect – Trae Young of Oklahoma. Hands weighed in at 1.2 lbs heavier than Young, and outmatched Young in height (with and without shoes), standing reach and wingspan. Ironically, Hands has the smallest hands of all players that participated in the Combine. While these measurements don’t mean that he is currently a comparable prospect to Young, they could address some concerns about his current physical profile and how it may ultimately translate to the NBA.

Hands proved himself to be a confident and aggressive player in his freshman season at UCLA – something that he believes has led to misconceptions about his game.

“I’m not a point guard,” Hands said when asked about what misconceptions people have about his game.

I wouldn’t say it’s common, like it’s the main thing. But I’ve heard that I shoot first or something like that. I just feel like I attack a lot. I think I attack a lot and I’m of size to being a [two guard], so I think some people get it misconstrued. I just think I’m attack first, set my teammates up, get what I get.”

Hands is clearly aware of the common perceptions and current shortcomings in his game, which is why he is working hard to improve his overall skill set and is testing the NBA waters to get feedback from teams.

“Before I came here, just being more steady working on my shot, making good reads out of the pick and roll, finishing.” Hands said when asked about what parts of his game he was working on before coming to the Combine.

Hands was asked to clarify what he believes is his best strength at this point. Hands didn’t hesitate and pointed toward his ability to make plays off the dribble.

“My best strength is getting in the paint. So I get in the paint and make plays,” Hands said.

Hands is also clearly aware of UCLA’s history of producing quality point guards and has a chance to one day develop into a quality guard at the NBA level. However, with Holiday heading to the NBA and no major competition for the starting point guard position at UCLA next season, it may benefit Hands to hold off on turning pro for at least another year.

Whether he stays at UCLA or commits to this year’s draft, there’s no doubt that Hands is going to keep pushing to develop into a quality NBA player.

“I want to be the best player I can in the league,” Hands said. “That’s my goal.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 5/22/18

The final 2018 NBA Draft order is set and Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler offers up his latest 60-pick NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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Lots of Draft Movement

With the draft order now set for the 2018 NBA Draft, there is some sense of how the draft might play out.

The buzz coming out of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is that a number of picks could be had in trade include all three of the top selections. Word is the initial asking price is very high and more of an indication to the San Antonio Spurs that if they do want to part with disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard, they are open for business.

It’s also worth noting that there is a growing sense that both the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawk may be far higher on some of the domestic bigs in the draft more so than euro sensation Luka Dončić. Both teams are expected to take a long look at Dončić, so their views on him could change as we get closer to the draft, but for now, Dončić may go lower.

Here is the latest 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft, reflecting the final draft order and the latest buzz, rumors, and intel from in and around the NBA:

Dates To Know:

The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.

The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college. However, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.

The 2018 NBA Draft is June 21.

The Pick Swaps:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. This pick will convey.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.

The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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