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NBA Daily: Blake Griffin Trade Proving To Be A Win-Win

The narrative on the Blake Griffin trade has flipped the script, as both the Clippers and the Pistons have reaped the rewards since last season’s blockbuster.

Matt John

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When the Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Pistons back in January, the motives were obvious for both sides.

For Los Angeles, they knew that with the roster as it was, they weren’t going anywhere with Blake leading the way. While Blake was capable of putting up good numbers on a nightly basis, the roster built around him wasn’t anywhere near as good as it was during the Chris Paul days. It was time for a change.

For Detroit, acquiring a star like Blake was a desperation move to attain relevance. With the team firmly stuck in no man’s land and the limited trade assets that they had, getting someone like Blake at a lowered price seemed obvious even if he’d be getting paid $38+ million at 32 years old.

The returns following the trade were not all that great for either team. Neither team was terrible, as the Clippers finished with 42 wins and the Pistons finished with 39, but both failed to make the playoffs, and both seemed to have very uncertain futures at the time.

The Pistons had a nice trio locked up in Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, but outside of them, the Pistons’ roster was filled with question marks.

The Clippers had a roster filled with decent talent with no distinguished star to lead them, which is a red flag in the Western Conference.

Judging by how both teams did in the half-seasons with their changed squads, it seemed as though neither team won this trade, leaving minimal impact on the NBA going forward. Since then, the times have definitely changed.

With the first month and a half of the season in the books, it’s fair to say that the Blake trade has played a role in how the 2018-2019 season has transpired so far, with both the Clippers and the Pistons greatly benefiting from the big mid-season transaction.

The Clippers have caught everyone’s eye since the season began, boasting a 15-7 record, which has them tied for the top seed in the West. The Pistons have gone a little back and forth, but they’ve stayed the course with a 13-7 record, good enough for the fourth seed in the East.

And all of it comes back to the Blake Griffin trade. With the Pistons and the Clippers off to impressive starts, it’s only fair to analyze how the players involved in the deal have panned out since.

Detroit Pistons

There aren’t that many storylines that are better than the “Prove ‘em wrong!” for individual players, and that’s what Blake Griffin’s season has all been about so far.

Coming into the season, many believed that Blake was on the decline. At 29 years old, his reputation for being injury-prone and his athletic prowess not what it once was, the doubters believed he could not maintain his status as one of the league’s best players.

Well, the old Blake is dead. What we have now is a reinvention of one of the league’s best power forwards.

Blake is not the high-flyer he once was, but his game does not rely on his athleticism as much as it once did. Instead, the All-Star forward has adapted his game to fit the modern NBA. He now has a respectable three-point shot, a skill that’s been three years in the making for the Oklahoma native.

Adding a three-point shot to his game has hurt his field goal percentage compared to his earlier days, but that’s to be expected when you add shooting from distance to your repertoire. In his younger days, almost all of Blake’s shots were from inside the arc, as the percentage of two-point shots he attempted from 2010-2016 ranged from 97 to 98 percent of his shots total. This current season, that percentage has gone down to 66.

Even if his field goal percentage has dipped, looks can be deceiving. Blake has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent and an effective field goal percentage of 52.6, both of which are the best percentages he’s had since 2013-2014, the year he finished third in MVP voting.

As it turns out, a fair amount of Blake’s numbers have been the best he’s had since that one season. His scoring average (24.9), his rebounding average (9.5), his rebounding percentage (14) and his usage rate (29.3) have all been the highest since his MVP bid five years ago.

That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Blake is getting MVP buzz all-around the league, as his efforts have been the most vital to Motown’s success.

The Pistons are all too familiar with good starts. This time last year, the boys of Motor City had a 14-6 record before a seven-game losing streak put them in a funk that they never grew out of. Things are different this time though. Besides Blake’s rejuvenation, the Pistons have the reigning Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey, Reggie Jackson back at full health and improvements across the board from everyone. That includes Drummond, Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock.

If the Pistons sustain this, then Blake Griffin will solidify his MVP candidacy and will be worth every penny to Detroit.

Los Angeles Clippers

When teams trade their star players, they usually opt either for rebuilding or re-tooling. In the Clippers’ case, they went for both.

By acquiring both Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, the Clippers replaced Blake’s star power with versatility on both sides of the floor that the team had lacked. By acquiring the rights to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Clippers have started a promising youth movement that they ironically haven’t had since Blake.

Let’s start with Harris. Harris’ evolution into one of the league’s most well-respected scorers is a great story when you think about how his previous teams handled him. Milwaukee gave him away to Orlando, who then gave him away to Detroit after giving him a big contract. He had him come off the bench for a good chunk of his tenure there.

Now, Harris is the top scorer on the fourth-highest offensively rated team in the league, averaging a career-high 21.4 points on 51.6 percent shooting from the field, including almost 43 percent from three. Some feared that Harris could only put up good numbers on bad teams. We now know from his success with the Clippers that that isn’t the case.

In fact, should he keep this up, then he should be a shoo-in for the All-Star game this season.

Then there’s Gilgeous-Alexander. His stats won’t jump out at you – 10.8 points and three assists on 46.5 percent shooting including 33 percent from three – but anyone who’s watched Shai will tell you that the rook plays with amazing poise. A quick look at the Clippers’ five-man lineups will show you that Doc Rivers, a coach notorious for not playing rookies, trusts Gilgeous-Alexander, as he’s been put in five of the six most used lineups for the Clippers.

This is most evident by the fact that the Canadian hotshot starts for one of the top-seeded teams in the West and averages 27.8 minutes a game. If that’s what we’re getting from this guy when he’s just 20, imagine what he’ll be like when he enters his prime.

Finally, there’s Bradley. Bradley hasn’t exactly been the player he was in Boston and Detroit with all his injury issues, but he has shown signs of life over the past two games, as he’s averaged 14 points on 52 percent shooting including 60 percent from three. If that’s a sign of things to come, then he becomes another valuable cog for the Clips.

The one positive from Avery is that what he’s best known for – elite on-the-ball defense – is proving to help LA, as the Clippers’ defensive rating is +4.9 with him on the floor. That’s impressive since, despite his reputation, advanced metrics haven’t exactly supported Bradley.

Those three alone are not why the Clippers have played as great as they have, but they’ve played a huge part in forming the team’s new identity. Time will tell whether or not these Clippers can keep up their excellent play. At the very least, they’ve proven themselves as one of the most fun teams in the league, which seemed blasphemous after they blew Lob City up.

As of right now, the Blake Griffin trade turned out to be an even deal and beneficiary one for both parties involved. The Pistons have more star power, while the Clippers have a more well-rounded roster. As you can tell from their performance so far, neither has much reason to complain.

Both could be in different places when the season ends, but let’s enjoy the fact that a blockbuster trade has worked out well for both sides when no one really expected it to.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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