DeAndre Jordan looked at me and smirked and quickly, his eyes rolled upward as he thought about his response.
“What are this team’s goals for this year?” I had asked him.
And after two seconds of silence, in a tone that was matter-of-fact and cool, Jordan responded with the most non-controversial answer possible.
“To be better than we were last year,” he said.
Still a work in progress, through 24 games, the Los Angeles Clippers are a mediocre 14-10. Integrating nine new faces is a challenging endeavor, but no more challenging than having to play through an entire 82-game regular season before having the opportunity to return to the scene of a crime.
With one thing on their mind—redemption—Doc Rivers and his team are doing their best to block out the background noise and keep their energies focused within.
With legacies and their very futures hanging in the balance, one could easily argue that the Clippers are under the most pressure of any Western Conference team this season since anything short of a championship will likely spell major changes.
Just don’t expect them to admit it.
* * * * *
“We’ve added nine new guys,” DeAndre Jordan said. “Our starting lineups are different, but everyone has played in the league before, we’ve got a lot of smart guys on the team so the more and more we can get reps added and be good at it, then the better off we’ll be,” he said, referring to the platoon of new faces brought in.
“It’s tough,” he said when asked about the difficulty of integrating so many new pieces. “The starting lineup is mixing up, I think we’re settling in a little bit with Luc [Mbah a Moute], but with our second unit, there’s so many guys who are capable of having a big night every night—Austin, Jamal, Lance, Josh, Wes, Paul, whoever—we just gotta continue to learn how to play with each other with that unit and guys mixed in with the first unit,” he said.
“But I think we’ll be okay, we have a lot of experienced guys, so guys know how to play together.”
Under normal circumstances, in the Western Conference, a 14-10 record isn’t anything to be upbeat about. Despite it, though, the Clippers will enter play on December 13 as the fourth seed. That is a far cry from years past and may be indicative of newly found parity.
Still, Rivers sees room for improvement.
“Our offense hasn’t scratched, to me, where we should go. I know we’re in the top three or four, but to me, we’re a way better offensive team than we’ve played. But if we keep playing defense, it will make us a better offensive team. We’ll get multiple stops, we’ll get transition buckets, so I think our guys, finally, are starting to understand the importance of that and I think that’s good,” he said.
“We’ve been inconsistent. Our defense is really improving and if we keep on this track, we’re gonna be where we think we should be.”
And the better question would be just where the Clippers think they should be.
If you ask, nobody will tell you, because Rivers, like he did in Boston, has taught his players to not allow external forces or pressure to enter their locker room. There is no advantage to publicly admitting that the Clippers are under tremendous pressure to produce something substantial this season or that the group is collectively haunted by the squandering of a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets.
“I think we’re on our way,” River said. “I think we’ve been on the track.”
Soon enough, we will see if the Clippers can arrive at their preferred destination.
* * * * *
Chris Paul is overrated. Blake Griffin hasn’t improved. Doc Rivers needs to leave the bench and paying DeAndre Jordan a maximum-salaried contract when he can’t be depended on to make a pair of free-throws in a tight game was an asinine decision.
At least, those are some of the storylines and narratives that have been told of these Clippers since last Spring’s debacle.
Jovial and personable, their personalities belie their competitive nature. Paul is widely considered to be one of the “nice” guys in the NBA, but his reputation as a competitor amongst his peers is anything but.
Deep down, the entire team believes that if they had an opportunity to square off against the Warriors in last season’s playoffs, they would have beaten them. And if things broke differently, the Clippers believe that it would have been them beginning the 2015-16 NBA season as the defending champions.
Instead, what you seem to have is a group of men who trust nobody but themselves and a team who has clearly been instructed by its head coach to not engage in any sort of hyperbole or back-and-forth in the media about what this team’s goals and aspirations are.
“I’m not really into giving grades,” Blake Griffin told me when I asked to assess, by grade, his team’s performance over the early goings of the season. “That’s for everybody else,” he dismissively said as he walked away from me.
Playfully, he claimed that I was trying to put words into his mouth.
Having spent considerable time around Rivers over the course of his nine years as the head coach of the Boston Celtics, I know a thing or two about him, his edict and his philosophy. Doc believes that pressure is an outside force that must be let in. The media, he would tell his players, are going to say all kinds of things about who they are and who they should be and what the rightful expectations of them should be. If you buy into what others say and think about you, you’ve bought into the pressure and sometimes, attempting to live up to it can be tantamount to allowing external forces to impact a process that should be wholly internal and organic.
In other words: there is no reason to tell anyone that the goal is a championship. Let your play do the talking. Dare to be great because you want to be great, not because other people think that you should be great.
Hanging around Doc Rivers and his team for an evening, it was easy to see right through all the attitude, cliche responses and boxed answers that his players gave when asked legitimate questions.
Having been around the game for a long time and having observed a fair number of champions and championship-caliber players, one thing I know is that the Clippers have the fire, they have the talent, they have the coach, and now, after last season’s heartbreak, they have the haunting memory that is usually a precursor to finding success at the highest level. And their obvious and intentional avoiding of saying “championship” is an edict from Doc to avoid external distractions.
In the spring, after the Clippers have enjoyed a long win streak after the All-Star Break and finish with a top-four seed in the Western Conference, realize and understand, for them, the entire season was the appetizer. The main course is an opportunity to exorcise the demons that have haunted them since James Harden walked off of the floor at the Toyota Center with a date against the Warriors.
The Clippers the entire meal.
* * * * *
What happens if they come up short again? Does River consider removing himself from the bench the way Pat Riley in Miami did after the 2007-08 season? Would Chris Paul begin contemplating life in another uniform?
Would the Clippers have to admit defeat and admit that they will never be able to surpass the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs? Would Rivers continue to augment? Or would he raze?
These are legitimate questions that are as difficult to answer as they are painful to contemplate. And those questions are what will inevitably await the Clippers should they fall short again this season. Just don’t expect them to admit it.
Pressure makes diamonds and pressure busts pipes. At this point, we don’t know if the Clippers are precious stones or a flood waiting to happen, and neither do they.
What happens if they are given everything they need and ultimately fall short, anyway? That is the question that nobody in Rivers’ locker room even wants to ponder, much less find.
So as Jordan and Griffin vanished into the night, each having refused to mutter the end-goal for this team, this season, rest assured, the stakes have never been higher. Deep down within, the raging fire burns.
Trying to not look too far ahead, the Clippers take their season one day and one game at a time. Eagerly, though, they have begun their slow march toward an opportunity at redemption. And after what they’ve been through and now, with the opportunity they have been given, it is scary to consider what may be in store if they continue to fall short.
During their playoff run last season, Chris Paul admitted to losing sleep over the thought of losing to the Spurs in the first round. Somehow, they seemed to have toppled Goliath, only to see their season end in stunning fashion.
“So close? I don’t even know what that means, anyway,” a forlorn Paul told the media after that fateful Game 7 loss in Houston.
To a man, that pain still drives these Clippers. Quietly, they’ll go about their business with one goal in mind—even if they won’t admit it.
Quietly, determined and focused, they are working for and toward earning an opportunity to redeem themselves.
It’s so obvious, it doesn’t even need to be said.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.