The Los Angeles Clippers seemed to be on a path to something special last postseason, advancing past the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and taking a 3-1 advantage over the Houston Rockets in the second round. However, the team stalled and dropped three-straight games to be ousted once again in the second round of the playoffs. With a 56-26 record, the Clippers have a lot to live up to, but after a productive offseason, they may now be better positioned for a deeper postseason run.
Basketball Insiders previews the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2015-16 season.
In my recent Q&A with Blake Griffin, I described the Clippers this way: They have two Most Valuable Player candidates (Griffin and Chris Paul), a former Coach of the Year (Doc Rivers), a Finals MVP (Paul Pierce), a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (DeAndre Jordan), a two-time Sixth Man of the Year (Jamal Crawford) and a combined 23 All-Star appearances. There’s no question this team is talented. Don’t sleep on the Clippers in the Western Conference this season, as this could be the year they put it all together and play to their full potential.
2nd Place — Pacific Division
Few teams had as good an offseason as the Clippers, who not only wrestled DeAndre Jordan away from the white-knuckled clutches of Mark Cuban, but also added Josh Smith and Paul Pierce on friendly deals and nabbed Lance Stephenson away from Charlotte for very little. A lot has been made about what role Jamal Crawford will have on this team moving forward, but all that means is the team’s biggest problem is having too much talent. Philadelphia would trade all their first round picks for the next 15 years to have that problem. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan constitute an elite big three, but Pierce, Stephenson, Smith, Crawford and J.J. Redick put them in the conversation for title favorites. Golden State is a fast rabbit to catch, but the Clippers look like they’re closer than anybody to getting there. If only their new uniforms weren’t so painful to look at it would be a lot easier to get unabashedly excited about the upcoming season.
2nd Place — Pacific Division
The Clippers were winners in offseason free agency. They kept DeAndre Jordan from the lures of the Dallas Mavericks; signed Josh Smith, who is coming off a turnaround season with the Houston Rockets; brought playoff sharpshooter Paul Pierce back home; and added backcourt depth with Pablo Prigioni. The Clippers also traded for Lance Stephenson, who is looking to bounce back from a forgettable season with the Charlotte Hornets. Then again, winning in the regular season hasn’t been the Clippers problem. They should, once again, be one of the top teams in the West. But if they don’t become a legitimate title contender this season, at some point it is time to change up their core.
2nd Place — Pacific Division
In short, the Clippers have everything they need to win a championship. Their depth is vastly improved thanks to the additions of Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Pablo Prigioni and the experience of last year’s meltdown against the Rockets could, in theory, make them stronger. I believe the Clippers could have won everything last year, so this year, I am leaning toward choosing them as my preseason favorite to win everything. I did that last year and ended up looking silly, but what can I say? I believe in Chris Paul and I believe in Doc Rivers. I’ll take the Warriors to repeat as division champions but if they see the Clippers in the playoffs, I might take Paul and Pierce to score the upset.
2nd Place — Pacific Division
What an up and down summer for the Los Angeles Clippers. The team almost lost center DeAndre Jordan in free agency but managed to convince the big man to stay home. Jordan’s change of heart could be the difference between title contention and what appeared to be a trip to the middle of the pack out West. The team added Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Wesley Johnson to solidify depth on the wings and interior. There’s no doubt the Clippers are geared up for a title run – on paper at least.
2nd Place — Pacific Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Chris Paul
Blake Griffin could easily be listed as the team’s top weapon, and the Clippers need him to be neck and neck with Paul, but the veteran point guard drives the team’s offense both as scorer and playmaker. Paul is a true point guard, who almost always looks for his teammates first — but he’s also a crafty individual scorer. The Paul/Griffin duo is a special combination.
Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan
Jordan was the top rebounder in the NBA last season, and is a shot-blocking presence. The Clippers rely on their center to protect the rim, and have struggled to get stops in recent years when he’s on the bench. Almost losing Jordan to the Dallas Mavericks would have been a significant setback defensively for the Clippers.
Top Playmaker: Chris Paul
“Top Playmaker in the NBA” would work here as well. Paul is a ball-dominant point guard, but he’s not holding onto the rock without purpose or stagnating the offense to get his shot – rather he’s orchestrating one of the NBA’s better offensive units with the Clippers. Low turnovers, on-the-money lobs, pick and roll, Paul is the best at what he does.
Top Clutch Player: Paul Pierce
Both Paul and Griffin have had their moments as clutch players — and their failures, especially in the postseason. The Clippers have added aformer Boston Celtics champion in Pierce, and while he’ll turn 38 years old before the season starts, the Inglewood star is still a go-to end-of-game scorer. Last playoffs, Pierce was a big part of the Washington Wizards’ success — although his last-second shot to tie against the Atlanta Hawks was a hair late. In the moments where the Clippers have crumbled in the recent past, Pierce now gives the team a different option to turn to.
The Unheralded Player: Wesley Johnson
Johnson came into the league as a heralded player with the Minnesota Timberwolves as the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. He didn’t live up to the hype, and after two aimless seasons with the struggling Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson has yet to earn his keep in the NBA. All that said, he’s very athletic and has good instincts as a perimeter defender. Johnson can’t be relied on for consistent offense, but can hit an open three-pointer. Finally surrounded by a quality team, Johnson may show he has something of true value to offer the Clippers. A wild card could be Lance Stephenson, if he can return to form after a down year with the Charlotte Hornets.
Best New Addition: Josh Smith
In addition to Pierce, Smith was a great get by the Clippers for a one-year minimum salary. The versatile veteran can defend multiple positions and may play a bit of everything in the front court; from small forward all the way to small-ball center. Smith isn’t a great shooter but he can hit in bunches, and is an above-average playmaker for a forward.
Who We Like
Chris Paul: Because Chris Paul.
Blake Griffin: At times over the past couple of years, Griffin has shown signs of being an unstoppable force near the basket. He’s improved his shooting range, but needs to find that consistency where he flat out can’t be denied every night. He recently discussed that (and many other things) with our own Alex Kennedy.
The starting five: J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan complement Paul and Griffin well. Coach Doc Rivers hasn’t committed to a small forward yet. Whether they go with the veteran scorer Pierce or the athletic Johnson, the Clippers will have a formidable starting five.
The improved reserves: The Clippers’ biggest weakness last season was bench depth. Now with Jamal Crawford, Josh Smith, Austin Rivers, Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich, Lance Stephenson and either Johnson or Pierce, the team has a strong reserve core.
In each of the last two years, the Clippers have had the No. 1 offense in the NBA. They clearly score the ball with ease, averaging 109.8 points per 100 possessions last year. This L.A. squad has talent, depth, continuity and hunger. Some of the bench pieces have changed, and Matt Barnes is gone, but the core of the team has put in time together. They’ve fallen short year after year, but have the most talented roster in the Griffin/Paul era. The Clippers should have a formidable run in them this season.
Maybe the Clippers don’t ever get over that playoff hump, and remain an almost-great franchise that never quite got it done. The depth behind DeAndre Jordan at the center position is a bit of a concern, although small-ball could work well as a backup plan. Jordan’s free-throw shooting is always an issue as well. The Clippers aren’t perfect behind Paul at the point with an aging Pablo Prigioni and a still developing Austin Rivers.
The Burning Question
Are the Clippers’ short-comings an inherent defect or will they finally break through in the playoffs?
Two years ago, Chris Paul made key errors that cost the Clippers a playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder and ultimately the series. The Clippers had the Rockets on the ropes at Staples Center in an elimination game and just fell apart. In both years, the Clippers’ only failure wasn’t in the “choke” games, but in the subsequent games where they didn’t show the fortitude to overcome and prevail. Was it bad luck, lack of depth or situational issues – or will the Griffin/Paul/Jordan core always find a way to flame out in the first or second round?
NBA AM: Don’t Count Out Cole Anthony, He’ll Prove You Wrong
Dylan Thayer discusses Cole Anthony’s long road to the Orlando Magic starting lineup and what the future may hold for the talented guard.
Needless to say, Cole Anthony has been one of the top rookies from the class of 2020 thus far. In the years leading up to the NBA Draft, Anthony – the son of long-time veteran Greg Anthony – had been one of the class’s most prized players, with most experts mocking him in the top five. But the first losing season of University of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams’ career led to scouts turning away from Anthony as a top recruit. The buzz was that ego and attitude problems would stop him from being a safe lottery pick.
Coming out of high school, Anthony was the second highest-ranked prospect in the ESPN Top 100 for 2019. The Oak Hill squad Anthony led went 23-5 with him on the court, making the national semifinal against fellow recent draftee Isaiah Stewart. Anthony put on a show in his senior year averaging 18.0 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game and 9.5 assists per game, per Oak Hill Hoops. In April of 2019, he committed to the University of North Carolina Tarheels over other top NCAA basketball programs.
The 2019-20 NCAA season was a very rocky one for the Tarheels, to say the least. The team finished 14-19 and had their first losing season since 2001-02. Injuries hampered the team throughout the year and the lack of consistency within the team’s lineup did not lead to the best product possible. Anthony had his own right knee injury that caused him to miss time during the season, and he later revealed that he only played about five games at 100 percent, per Sports Illustrated.
But after an underwhelming tenure at UNC, the biggest thing that sticks out is how Anthony matured and reacted to it. In an interview with the front office, Anthony spoke highly of his teammates:
“At the end of the day, we really didn’t get much time to play together as a whole unit,” Anthony said. “But those are my brothers.”
One of the biggest knocks on Anthony’s game coming into the NBA was that teams feared he would not have a good effect on the locker room, but where did that stem from? For starters, UNC’s record – and the fact that Anthony was supposed to be the star – lead outsiders to place the blame on him due to their collective failures. In an article for The Athletic, opposing coaches did not speak very highly of Anthony’s skillset. In fact, they said his shot was very inefficient, his defense was not consistent, his dribbling was not strong enough and, worst of all, he would just be another player that inefficiently scores points for a bad team. Leading up to draft night, Anthony’s stock had definitely taken a hit – but he managed to go No. 15 overall, the first non-lottery pick of the night.
Without a doubt, so far this season, Anthony has been a steal for the Orlando Magic. Originally, he was in charge of running the team’s second unit, but once starter Markelle Fultz suffered a season-ending injury, Anthony was handed the keys to the point guard position. Losing Fultz was a big blow to the Magic’s season, but Anthony is a very good replacement for him as their high motor play styles are similar.
Anthony has not been the most consistent or efficient player as of yet, but he has shown plenty of promise throughout the early part of his rookie season. Additionally, an insanely short offseason means there are still major adjustments that these young guys must make at the NBA level. On Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Anthony had his best game of the season by putting up 21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists over 31 minutes.
Already, the scorer has cashed in on 15-plus points in five games so far. Even better, Anthony is averaging 11.0 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while ranking in the top five among rookies in those respective statistical categories.
Still, the downside to Anthony’s play is definitely how inconsistent he has been on a game-to-game basis. On the season, he is shooting a meager 36.9 percent from the field, placing him sixth-to-last in that category, per NBA Advanced Stats. Surprisingly enough, he has shot the ball at a better clip than No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. His three-point percentage is just under 34 percent and he has shot the ball at a very good level from the free-throw line at 84.6 percent. Regardless, there’s plenty of room to improve.
But with the guidance of Anthony’s talented hands – including a shocking buzzer-beating game-winner already – the Magic find themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Magic have been a familiar face in the lower half in the conference’s playoff bracket over the past few seasons, but Anthony is hoping to aim higher than ever. With the lead guard duties belonging to the blossoming rookie, he needs to step up and perform in big moments if this team wants to go anywhere this season, a ton of that responsibility will fall upon Anthony’s shoulders – fair or not.
From what Anthony has shown throughout his career, however, betting against him would not be a very wise decision.
ICYMI: Atlantic Division
To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division.
So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.
Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate
After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.
In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.
Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.
Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?
The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.
Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.
There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.
While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well.
Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer
After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.
Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.
Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.
Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.
They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.
Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season.
Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.
Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.
NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer
Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.
In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.
The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.
Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.
Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them.
That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game.
Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.
While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.
As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.
That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.
Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.
But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.