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The Shop: West, West, Y’all

Jabari Davis and Lang Greene break down the Western Conference in this edition of The Shop.

Jabari Davis

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Alright Lang, let’s jump back into The Shop mix again this week with a look at the start a few teams have experienced now that we’re a couple weeks in. We’ll kick things off with the Los Angeles Lakers, as they are currently 4-4 and already playing much better than some might have anticipated. As always, young teams will have ups and downs, and that loss to the short-handed Mavericks is a perfect example of why Coach Luke Walton reminded the players and the media to maintain proper perspective when it comes to expectations of this group.

Julius Randle looks better on both ends and more comfortable facing the basket. The extra conditioning and attention to detail/scheme have made the difference on the defensive end. Jordan Clarkson has also improved on both ends, but what is most promising is that he realizes he still has so much more room to improve.

To be honest, outside of Luol Deng looking like he’s running around in ski boots out there (yes, I know he contributes in ways beyond even the box score), it really has been a pleasant surprise across the board for these guys. Obviously, there’s still a ton of room for continued development with this group, but part of me feels like that transition period may only be a year or two… rather than the three-to-four year process most were projecting over the summer.

Lang: The Lakers have been a pleasant surprise for sure. What has been crazy is watching the Lakers become a team people are actually rooting for to succeed! Los Angeles is always a polarizing squad because of all of the old star power … Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe and on and on. But now, this is a scrappy young bunch that we’re witnessing grind on the fly. This is what makes the Lakers a bit more fun for the masses to root for because people respect the grind.

You touched on all of the floor mechanics so I won’t repeat a lot of that, but Luke Walton appears to be the perfect guy for the job. He is giving a nice balance between throwing his guys out to the fire and handcuffing them when needed. Good job early season for young Luke.

Let me touch on Luol for a second. When Father Time comes, he comes quick and unexpected sometimes. Luol looks a bit past it early on, but who knows, he could be playing through some stuff they’re not clueing us in on. That happens occasionally. But I will say this: the veteran additions of Luol and Timofey Mozgov have helped create a more competitive and accountable atmosphere. I also like the fact veterans Lou Williams and Metta World Peace are still around. Veterans are needed for any young core to develop.

Jabari: It wouldn’t shock me to hear Deng’s still working his way through that bruised left knee that he suffered during the preseason. Perhaps more than anything with aging players, the recovery time for injuries and ailments seems to extend. While he’s reportedly contributing in other ways, which as you mentioned are always important for a young team, I’m hoping his body is right at some point so they can also get whatever on-court contributions he has left in the tank on the front end of that deal.

I’ll say this about Lou… I didn’t take into account the tumultuous nature of last year’s squad when judging his play. Needless to say, even though I was less than impressed with his first year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how well he’s fitting into Luke’s system and preferred basketball style. The buy-in has been phenomenal by this group, so kudos are definitely due for the coaching staff  (and players) at this stage.

Lang: Now let me transition to a squad folks were really high on – and again, we’re very early – but they haven’t lived up to the hype. Yeah, I’m talking about the Minnesota Timberwolves. The team is currently 2-5 and sitting 13th in the Western Conference, my man. Now, I am fully aware that they’re only two games out if the playoffs were to begin today but I am having a hard time seeing what so many people we respect see in this unit. I think I saw a 48-win projection for this team before training camp.

I think Karl-Anthony Towns is a certified goodie monster, but it takes time to start winning in the NBA. Just look at the struggles Anthony Davis is having in New Orleans. Different situations, sure, but Minnesota missed the boat by not investing in veteran leadership this summer – like the Lakers did. Brandon Rush is their most experienced player. Think about that. Jordan Hill and John Lucas III are the next most experienced. What wars have those guys been through? Any former All-Star selections? No? Any guys who made a run at Sixth Man of the Year? No? Rush does have a ring, but he was a bit player on the floor (although a strong part of Golden State’s chemistry).

What am I missing about this Minny team and do you think they will make a playoff run?    

Davis: You’re exactly right about their lack of experience, and perhaps those of us that were so eager to anoint them should have taken that into consideration a bit more. As one of the individuals that saw them as a playoff team heading in (not quite 48 wins, but low-to-mid 40s), I am not entirely surprised to see it taking a bit of time. The big difference between Davis’ situation in New Orleans and Towns’ in Minnesota is that the Timberwolves have some firepower to work with surrounding him. No disrespect to any of those dudes working their tails off in New Orleans, but if you were drafting from those two teams alone, you might take Ant with the first pick, but the next six or seven would likely come from Minnesota’s roster.

I figured after a slow start, they’d be a second-half team the way that Utah group was a couple years back. Of course, that is all contingent upon whether Thibs can keep them playing at a high enough level over the first 35-40 games to stay within reach of the conversation. I feel like Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins have already shown some of that improvement, but obviously have room to go. Kris Dunn’s development could also play a key role in any post-February push, but it has admittedly been a bit slow for him in the early going. We’ll see if they are able to put it together over the next 25 or so games, but as long as they stay within reach of that 8-10 range, I won’t jump overboard just yet. I do think some veteran contributors (not just there for a presence) would help their cause at some point.

Let’s keep it in the Western Conference and talk about the fast start of the L.A. Clippers and whether it is sustainable. I definitely think they can stay in the mix for a top-three record (finishing anywhere from one to three depending on how things shake out for each team), but just hope they can remain healthy or can at least BE healthy by the time the postseason comes around.

They’re a top-10 team in terms of offensive efficiency and they’re actually leading the league in opponent shooting percentage as they are holding opponents to just 39.6 percent shooting. They’re also holding teams to just 88.3 point per contest, which is better than seven points less than the second-place Utah Jazz (95.4). So, are you on the train?

Lang: I am on the record saying that the Clippers should finish second in the West this season. In my view, it is now or never for the core group of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers to make a Western Conference Finals run. Time is ticking and we already know how volatile their locker can become if things turn for the worse.

As great as Chris Paul is bro, he’s never reached the Western Conference Finals… and he entered the league in 2005!

I think San Antonio will be in the mix, but something tells me the Clippers edge the Spurs for the number two slot. They have a great floor general, one of the best power forwards in the game and a top-tier rebounder. What they are missing is a small forward who can give them a legit 30 minutes a night. That’s the key. The Clippers play a lot of committee ball at the three, but come playoff time with lunch money snatchers Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard at small forward they’ll need someone who can bring the heat. A guy like Jae Crowder or Trevor Ariza is what this team is missing, man. But Boston and Houston aren’t giving those two dudes up … not by a longshot, so I think the Clippers have to work the trade market aggressively.

Well, I’ll keep this in the West since you have imposed your will on The Shop this week and made this a West Coast edition; what would you do with DeMarcus Cousins? If I’m Sacramento, I am doing everything in my power to make things right with the big man. You can make the argument that he’s the best center in the game. The numbers are ridiculous and after talking with numerous people around the team since he entered the league, the man has matured. But everyone doesn’t handle the losing the same way. It’s obvious that Boogie is one of those guys. But Sacramento’s drafting philosophy has been… let’s be honest … crappy. I know their front office works hard, but the moves haven’t panned out. Ben McLemore, Willie Cauley-Stein, Thomas Robinson, Nik Stauskas and Ray McCallum leave plenty to be desired.

Two of the studs they drafted – Isaiah Thomas and Hassan Whiteside – are balling elsewhere and are damn near MAX players. Could you imagine an Isaiah Thomas, Boogie and Hassan Whiteside core right now? And I know the Isaiah and Boogie dynamic needed work and Hassan was a bit immature at the time… but are you telling me no one in the organization looked at I.T. and Hassan and said let’s do everything in our power to develop these guys? If not, that’s part of the problem in Sac-Town even though Boogie will ultimately become the scapegoat.

Jabari: I wanted to be able to put some of that off to simply being the “previous regime” but I looked it up and Vlade Divac was already in place when it came time to figure things out with Thomas (averaging 25.7 PPG, 7.1 APG for Boston this year). Whiteside, on the other hand, was toward the end of the Petrie years that preceded the D’Alessandro seasons… so I can’t fault this current ownership and front office group for that one. At 4-5 on the year, I hope things continue to go well for this current group. I remarked before the season that as Cousins enters what appears to be the prime of his career (25.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG and 48.4/78.4 percent from the floor/line in ‘16-17), it is about time for the Kings to finally be able to cash in on having one of the league’s top 10-15 players.

They were a little better (33-49) than some may have noticed last season, and optimism was about as high as it has been in a decade with Coach Dave Joerger hopefully bringing a bit of stability to a bench that has been a total revolving door. Obviously, it’s way too early to have playoff conversations when you are only about a 10th of the way through the regular season, but with the Western Conference being a bit more open in terms of the bottom half of the playoff bracket, they can probably stay in that mix by maintaining a .500 record.

I still don’t quite understand what they are doing with that roster, but will say they appear to have some options or potential assets that could be moved in order to solidify things for a second-half push if they are within reach. I realize all of this sounds like an awful lot of optimism for an organization that hasn’t given a ton of reason to have such high hopes, but I still think they have a chance to keep things together.

Alright, folks, we’ll end things at this point for this week, but remember to use #TheShop hashtag on Twitter (@JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene) in order to continue contributing to our weekly discussion.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17

Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.

As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.

 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.

The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

 Andre Roberson

There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.

Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.

 Kevin Durant

Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.

How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.

 Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.

Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.

 Eric Bledsoe

Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.

Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.

 Anthony Davis

Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.

Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.

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Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets

The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.

Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.

Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”

After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.

The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.

“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.

“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.

Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.

“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.

“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”

It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.

When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.

In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.

As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.

Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.

Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.

“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.

“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”

Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.

“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.

But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.

“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.

With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.

Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.

But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.

That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.

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