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Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings

Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.

Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.

The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.

As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.

A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.

In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.

And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.

The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.

Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.

They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.

Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.

On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.

These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.

The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.

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NBA Daily: Ilyasova Impacting Bucks With ‘Different Things’

Spencer Davies sits down with Milwaukee Bucks veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova to discuss his new role, playing for Mike Budenholzer again and the growth of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Spencer Davies

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The Milwaukee Bucks’ shootaround Friday morning concluded with a three-point competition.

A trio of players—Sterling Brown, George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova—participated in a best out of five at every spot around the perimeter. As each of them fired away, there was, of course, some playful jabbing, though nobody distracted one another.

Coming into Cleveland, Brown and Hill were each knocking down over 36 percent of their three-point attempts. But it was Ilyasova—the longest-tenured player of the group—who earned bragging rights with an (unofficial) contest win. Brown laughed and yelled after seeing the Turkish veteran drill the shots.

“Make ‘em in the game, Ers!”

Before taking the floor at Quicken Loans Arena three nights ago, Ilyasova had been uncharacteristically off the mark shooting from deep. In the preceding seven games, he took 20 threes and converted on just four of them. The slump took Ilyasova’s three-point percentage down to 32.8 percent, well below his career average of 36.5.

Brown’s comment had no ill-will intended towards Ilyasova, a teammate that the Bucks absolutely love in their locker room. It could be used for some encouragement, though—and it was.

For just the third time this season, Ilyasova hit three shots from beyond the arc in a dominant win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, taking his three-point percentage up by three points to a figure that suits him more naturally.

Asked pre-game about his recent struggles, Basketball Insiders found that Ilyasova won’t dwell on one part of a game, especially when he can help in other areas.

“Sometimes you have to accept your roles. Things have changed,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “When you see my game, it’s just trying to help to get the team the win any way I can.

“Sometimes, you knock down those shots. Sometimes, you’re not. But it’s not all about can I make those shots. I think it’s all about just being productive, do something the other players cannot do.”

Being more aggressive defensively, finding the right spots, providing extra possessions, taking charges—these are the “different things” Ilyasova is trying to focus on when he’s playing the game.

There’s statistical evidence to support that last area. Ilyasova ranks second in the NBA with 12 charges drawn. Perhaps what’s most impressive about this figure is that he’s done so in 477 total minutes. Compared to Kyle Lowry and Tim Hardaway Jr., the league leaders with 13, that’s literally half of their playing time.

That gets us to our next point—Ilyasova isn’t seeing much of the floor at all. For the first time since his rookie season 12 years ago in Milwaukee, he is playing less than 20 minutes per game. He’s hovering right around that mark, yet it’s still significantly less action than his previous stops in Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Ilyasova acknowledged the decreased minutes as a potential reason for his inconsistent offensive production, but he is willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the Bucks.

“It’s all about [fitting in],” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, we have Giannis [Antetokoumpo] – sometimes he plays more than 30 minutes a game, which is okay with me anytime, so it’s not a really big deal. I’m here just to help the team and the wins.

“And the coach just uses [me] whatever he uses the way he sees fit. I’m really cool with that. If we’re winning the games, it’s all good.”

This season has been a reunion for Ilyasova and Giannis. The two were teammates when the Greek Freak came into the NBA as a teenage prospect with raw talent.

Having been around Ilyasova at the beginning of his career, Giannis is ecstatic to have the 31-year-old around again in Milwaukee.

“I think he’s doing a great job being aggressive on the defensive end, crashing the boards, knocking down open shots,” Giannis said after the win in Cleveland.

“He’s so funny in the locker room. He’s just a great guy. Great energy. Plays it our way, plays hard. And he’s unselfish. He plays for the team. He does whatever it takes to help his team win and he’s just fun to be around. He’s basically one of my closest guys on the team.”

Reciprocating his teammate’s compliments, Ilyasova has greatly noticed the strides that the All-Star forward has made since his first couple of seasons.

“He’s proved a lot, you know? On the floor and off the court, as well,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders of Giannis. “When I [had] seen him first, he obviously gained a lot of weight. He was skinnier then what he [is] right now, way skinny.

“But now he’s improved a lot – the vision, all aspects of basketball. Because I think back in the day, it was more like a try to kinda penetrate and score, now he’s just kinda trying to pass. He plays real decent defense. Like I said, he’s just improved overall.”

As Giannis has gotten better, so have the Bucks. Albeit the coaching situation has been everything but concrete in the last few years, the organization might have finally found real stability with its hiring of Mike Budenholzer.

For starters, Milwaukee is playing a modern-era style of basketball. The goal is to make threes and get stops with a lengthy, versatile roster comprised of players who can defend and shoot. Efficiency and toughness seem to be the two staples to Budenholzer’s methods, and they’re working.

While Giannis is at the center of the Bucks’ success as a scorer and as a willing passer, which Budenholzer has encouraged him to be, it isn’t just about the Greek Freak.

“It’s allowed me to take my next step, but I feel like right now we’re playing so good and the offense fits this team and as a team we’re taking the next step,” Giannis said. “I feel everybody can come in and contribute and the offense that Coach Bud has us running makes my teammates great, so I’m really happy about that.

“I know that everybody can come in and touch the ball, get some energy of the ball, get some open shots, get some open threes, play some defense. It’s just fun playing in this system.”

According to Cleaning The Glass, the Bucks rank second in offensive rating (114.3) and seventh in defensive rating (106.1). They lead the league in three-point makes per game (14.1) and have held their competition to a league-low 43.7 field goal percentage from the field.

This is Ilyasova’s second straight season playing for Budenholzer in some capacity. He played 72 games under the veteran head coach during his time with the Hawks, so seeing this success in Milwaukee isn’t surprising one bit.

“He gives you a lot of freedom to play, just kinda be their own [player] and create some stuff. We really play open basketball,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders.

“Just kinda ball movement, try to [find] the open man and then shoot a lot of three-point shots. The way that basketball is going right now, it’s just a lot of teams just kinda trying to do the same thing – play small and just play faster.”

Recently, the Bucks decided to bolster their roster with a couple of veteran additions, George Hill and Jason Smith. Both guys have played against Ilyasova in meaningful games. With Smith, particularly, it was in the postseason.

Ilyasova feels their experiences will bring a necessary element to a team striving for big things come mid-April and, hopefully, beyond. With five years of playoff experience under his belt, he believes that home court advantage can be critical.

It’s clear that the Bucks’ aspirations are high, as are many teams’ hopes in the Eastern Conference. Looking at the top five, the gap between the top of the mountain and middle of the pack is a mere three-and-a-half games.

It’s early, but Milwaukee’s loss in Indiana was a bit of a stinger as far as the standings go. The team got back on track with a convincing win over the Cavaliers and will aim to close this brief Central Division road trip out on a high note against the Detroit Pistons.

“It’s a lot of games to play,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “It’s not easy to just come up and kinda assume you know you’re gonna win those games. You have to come up and give your 110 percent to win the games.

“It doesn’t even matter – even same game when you play against Cleveland, all those teams below the .500 [mark] right now – you have to come up and put [everything] on the line to win the games.”

Pose a question about the general favorites to come out of the East and you’ll probably hear the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers at the top of the list.

Not too many seem to hold the Bucks in the same regard as those three. Ilyasova admits that it can provide a little extra motivation to prove that they do belong in that conversation.

“I think we have really good talent on the team,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “Our expectations [are] high. For us, just being in the playoffs, that’s not a goal no more, just go farther.”

“Our goal is always being a championship-caliber team, but before we reach that it’s just first to reach the playoffs. We have to set the goals, not just kinda looking forward to it. Obviously, winning the most games we can and go with it.”

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NBA Daily: Will Jabari Parker Figure It Out?

After disappointing his second consecutive team, Jabari Parker has found himself on the block. Matt John explores what has gone wrong in Chicago and how he can turn it around.

Matt John

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Once upon a time, Jabari Parker was supposed to be the NBA’s next big thing.

Now, he’s potentially the NBA’s next salary dump.

The man who was once deemed a “can’t miss prospect” merely four years ago is now the latest installment in what’s been a rare pattern this season of teams cutting ties very early with their most recent offseason additions.

First, it was Houston when they decided to oust Carmelo Anthony after ten games. Then, Phoenix did the same with Trevor Ariza after 26 games. And now, it appears that Jabari is now done-zo in the Windy City after 29 games.

The difference between Carmelo/Ariza and Jabari is that the former two’s stints in their new homes coming to a quick end wasn’t all that unexpected. Carmelo’s move to Houston drew a lot of skepticism given what had happened in his previous year at OKC, while Ariza joined a team who had very little expectation to begin with.

Jabari is another story. It’s true that he didn’t come into Chicago with any major expectations. Signing a two-year, $40 million contract with a team option for next year meant virtually no downside for the Bulls. If Parker panned out, then they’d keep him, and if not, they could get him off the books easily.

While things haven’t worked out, the Bulls surprisingly have elected to pull the plug now rather than just wait it out until the end of the season. Coupling this along with the Bulls’ most recent turmoil makes you wonder how much Parker has to do with it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe he’s the direct source.

Either way, Jabari’s going to have a new home sometime in the near future. The question asked here isn’t going to be where that is. Instead, the question is, when he is traded to his next team, will he ever be the player we all thought he would be?

Remember that this is the same guy who back in 2012 was deemed “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James.” The same guy that prompted several teams to throw away their season just for the chance to get their hands on him in the 2014 draft. The same guy who many thought was the perfect partner-in-crime to pair up with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

We’ve seen stretches of that player since Parker came into the NBA. They’ve just come so rarely and, even when they have, they haven’t always led to a positive impact. Unfortunately, the warning signs that came with Jabari coming out of college have definitely manifested themselves.

First, remember that whole, “they don’t pay players to play defense” schtick that Jabari said non-sarcastically at his introductory press conference? Well, the man deserves credit for keeping it real.

That little snippet is one of many examples of Parker’s ineptitude on the defensive end. Again, he wasn’t expected to be Kawhi Leonard out there, but no player who wants to make it in this league should have instances where they look completely helpless on that end of the floor.

Statistics don’t exactly help his case either. Outside of his tragically cut-short rookie season, Parker’s never had a defensive rating lower than 110 according to Basketball Reference, and the Bulls are minus-4.2 in defensive rating with Parker on the floor this season, per NBA.com.

Secondly, it’s Parker’s inability to help the offense despite his reputation as an offensively-savvy player.

It sounds odd because basic statistics will tell you that Jabari’s doing just fine. He’s putting 15.2 points on 45 percent shooting as well as corralling 6.9 rebounds a night. In fact, the Bulls are plus-3 in offensive rating when he’s on the floor. A closer look, though, will say otherwise.

Even if the Bulls are technically better offensively with Jabari on the floor, he only raises their offensive rating from 95 to 98 when he’s on the floor. The Bulls currently have the lowest rated offense at 100.7 according to Basketball Reference, so it’s not as if his contributions make things that much better.

Other metrics prove that Parker’s a negative offensively to the Bulls. His offensive win shares are currently at -0.9, and his offensive box plus/minus is -3.3. Perhaps the worst indicator of his negative impact on offense is his mid-range shooting.

Parker currently shoots 18.3 percent of his shots from 16 feet to less than the 3-point arc. That wouldn’t be so bad if he could regularly hit those shots, but he only hits 35.2 percent of them. Compare to that to say, Kevin Durant, who shoots a higher percentage of his shots from 16 feet to less than the 3-point arc at 19.2 percent, and hits 49.1 percent of them.

Here’s the worst one of them all – of the 451 players listed on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Parker currently ranks 439 with a Real Plus-Minus of -4.17.

It really doesn’t look good for him, and his disappointing start so far both this year and his career so far is eerily similar to another player who went down as one of the bigger busts in recent memory: Michael Beasley.

Beasley came into the NBA with major expectations. His scoring prowess seemed so advanced that he drew comparisons to Kevin Durant. Of course, Beasley didn’t pan out and even found himself out of the league for a bit because of two reasons.

1. His porous defense.
2. His insistence on taking long two’s instead of threes
3. His poor mental state

Since coming back into the league, he has since found his niche, which is good to see for him. That still doesn’t rid him of the bust label. Parker does not have the same mental struggles that Beasley had, but their two other struggles are very much alike.

Cut Jabari some slack though. A fair amount of his problems are not his fault. Tearing the same ACL twice in a 2.5-year span is a huge hurdle to get over. That had to play a role in his lack of progression, which is a given. There might, however, be two other specific reasons as to what’s stopped him from putting it together.

First is that Jabari has never exactly played under a well-regarded coach. So far, Parker has played for four head coaches: Jason Kidd, Joe Prunty, Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen. None of these four coaches have made any serious noise in the NBA, with the closest one to doing so being Kidd. Kidd’s best run as coach didn’t happen in Milwaukee, and he was rumored to be at odds with Parker.

Parker was part of arguably the most underachieving team in the league under Kidd/Prunty, and then went to play for a team whose coaching situation isn’t very stable at the moment in Chicago. One could argue that because he’s never played under a good coach in the NBA, Jabari’s never been given a real chance to prove himself.

Playing under the right coach could help with the second reason he hasn’t figured it out, which is him playing in the right role. Parker came into the league with an undefined position. Teams weren’t sure which position he would thrive in since he had the height to play both small and power forward. According to Basketball Reference, Parker has played the majority of his minutes – 81 percent – at power forward, which made him an awkward fit on the Bucks and the Bulls.

Both Milwaukee and Chicago have excellent young talent at power forwards with the Greek Freak and Lauri Markkanen, which probably limited Parker’s effectiveness. If he’s on a team that doesn’t have a power forward that could get in his way, that could lead to a breakthrough for the guy. That is also banking on the idea that he would be playing under the right coach.

This is all speculative though. Even if he hasn’t played under the most competent head coaches, or for the most stable organizations, a guy with as much talent as Jabari Parker shouldn’t have his production be delayed for as long as it has.

If Parker doesn’t turn it around on his next team, then his excuses may run out, as well as his time in the NBA.

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NBA Daily: Suns Change Course With Trade

The Phoenix Suns have changed course with their trade for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Austin Rivers, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The beginning to this season has been a whirlwind and the Western Conference is as competitive as ever. At 13-16, even the 14th place Minnesota Timberwolves are still not that far outside of the playoff picture. Every Western Conference team is competitive, except for the Phoenix Suns. Now, the Suns have won their last two games, including a win over the Timberwolves. Regardless, they are still well outside the playoff picture and should be primarily focused on the big picture beyond this season.

Adrian Wojnarowksi of ESPN took league and its fans on a rollercoaster this past Friday when he broke the news that the Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies and Suns were on the cusp of completing a three-way trade. For the Suns, this three-way trade centered around moving forward Trevor Ariza. As quickly as the news had erupted, it appeared to go sideways with revelations of miscommunications between the teams and which players were going to be involved. Soon after the miscommunication came to light, news leaked that the deal was off.

The Suns and Wizards didn’t take long to re-engage in trade talks. On Saturday, the Suns and Wizards were able to complete a trade. The Suns received guard Austin Rivers and forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. In exchange, the Suns sent Ariza (again) to the Wizards. The Wizards are hoping that Ariza’s return helps to solve the chemistry issues that have thrown a wrench into this season so far.

“One of the best veteran teammates I’ve had,” John Wall said regarding Ariza.

In addition, the trade helps the Wizards avoid having to re-sign Oubre, Jr. at a time when their salary cap remains bloated for the foreseeable future.

For the Suns, they get a young, talented player in Oubre, Jr., who may be a huge part of the team’s plan going forward if he can take a significant step forward in his development. However, getting another wing isn’t the exact elixir that this team needs. Quality point guard play has been elusive for the Suns. A few weeks ago the team gave Elie Okobo a chance to step into the role. Okobo spoke to Basketball Insiders around this time about his effort and what he could work on going forward.

“I’m just trying to be aggressive and help my team to win games. I work hard and try to help them and get the confidence, trust from them and the coaching staff,” Okobo told Basketball Insiders. “I would say the playmaking, avoid the little turnovers, the little mistakes and make my open shots and just try to play really aggressive and defend.”

Amidst an extended losing streak, Okobo’s playing time decreased after starting three games in that period. Recently, the Suns allowed De’Anthony Melton to play and show that he could step up. Melton has started the last five games and has shown himself to be capable as well. The Suns have even won the last two games to break their losing streak.

A few good games don’t necessarily mean the point guard situation is settled long-term. In addition to Oubre, Jr, the Suns also received Rivers. With the Los Angeles Clippers, Rivers showed himself capable of stepping in as an off-guard who could handle the point in spot minutes, when needed. Over the years, Rivers has also proven himself to be a capable off-the-bench scorer who could exert above average effort, especially on defense.

With Washington, Rivers was expected to be a reliable bench scorer and someone who could fill in for one of the team’s lead guards, if necessary. However, the Wizards season didn’t start off as they had intended. Rivers never found a comfortable fit on offense and often sat on the bench for key stretches. To his credit, Rivers did prove himself to be a capable and focused defender.

Whether Rivers will get a chance to prove himself worthy of major minutes is up in the air. What the Suns need is a lead reliable point guard capable of relieving Devin Booker from his responsibilities as the team’s lead playmaker. Suns Head Coach Igor Kokoškov expressed his interest in doing so to Basketball Insiders earlier this season.

“I think Devin Booker’s main thing, his job description is to score for us. He is a scoring guard and he is doing a lot of handling, a lot of playmaking, we never put him on a point guard to guard. So, whoever you guard, that is your position. He is not a point guard. He’s a playmaker, he’s going to handle a lot. James Harden is a playmaker, a scoring guard. Same type, same type of player,” Kokoškov said.

Now with Rivers in Phoenix, he might have a chance to play as an off-guard who can help bring the ball up the court, handle in spots, defer to Booker and play defense.

“If we have a traditional point guard or not, Booker’s going to have the ball in his hands,” Kokoškov said.

Kelly Oubre, Jr. is the major addition for the Suns in this trade, showing Phoenix is now mostly concerned with the future. However, a player like Rivers could prove valuable this season and could have an impact on roster decisions the team makes moving forward.

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