DeAndre Jordan looked at me and smirked and quickly, his eyes rolled upward as he thought about his response.
“What are this team’s goals for this year?” I had asked him.
And after two seconds of silence, in a tone that was matter-of-fact and cool, Jordan responded with the most non-controversial answer possible.
“To be better than we were last year,” he said.
Still a work in progress, through 24 games, the Los Angeles Clippers are a mediocre 14-10. Integrating nine new faces is a challenging endeavor, but no more challenging than having to play through an entire 82-game regular season before having the opportunity to return to the scene of a crime.
With one thing on their mind—redemption—Doc Rivers and his team are doing their best to block out the background noise and keep their energies focused within.
With legacies and their very futures hanging in the balance, one could easily argue that the Clippers are under the most pressure of any Western Conference team this season since anything short of a championship will likely spell major changes.
Just don’t expect them to admit it.
* * * * *
“We’ve added nine new guys,” DeAndre Jordan said. “Our starting lineups are different, but everyone has played in the league before, we’ve got a lot of smart guys on the team so the more and more we can get reps added and be good at it, then the better off we’ll be,” he said, referring to the platoon of new faces brought in.
“It’s tough,” he said when asked about the difficulty of integrating so many new pieces. “The starting lineup is mixing up, I think we’re settling in a little bit with Luc [Mbah a Moute], but with our second unit, there’s so many guys who are capable of having a big night every night—Austin, Jamal, Lance, Josh, Wes, Paul, whoever—we just gotta continue to learn how to play with each other with that unit and guys mixed in with the first unit,” he said.
“But I think we’ll be okay, we have a lot of experienced guys, so guys know how to play together.”
Under normal circumstances, in the Western Conference, a 14-10 record isn’t anything to be upbeat about. Despite it, though, the Clippers will enter play on December 13 as the fourth seed. That is a far cry from years past and may be indicative of newly found parity.
Still, Rivers sees room for improvement.
“Our offense hasn’t scratched, to me, where we should go. I know we’re in the top three or four, but to me, we’re a way better offensive team than we’ve played. But if we keep playing defense, it will make us a better offensive team. We’ll get multiple stops, we’ll get transition buckets, so I think our guys, finally, are starting to understand the importance of that and I think that’s good,” he said.
“We’ve been inconsistent. Our defense is really improving and if we keep on this track, we’re gonna be where we think we should be.”
And the better question would be just where the Clippers think they should be.
If you ask, nobody will tell you, because Rivers, like he did in Boston, has taught his players to not allow external forces or pressure to enter their locker room. There is no advantage to publicly admitting that the Clippers are under tremendous pressure to produce something substantial this season or that the group is collectively haunted by the squandering of a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets.
“I think we’re on our way,” River said. “I think we’ve been on the track.”
Soon enough, we will see if the Clippers can arrive at their preferred destination.
* * * * *
Chris Paul is overrated. Blake Griffin hasn’t improved. Doc Rivers needs to leave the bench and paying DeAndre Jordan a maximum-salaried contract when he can’t be depended on to make a pair of free-throws in a tight game was an asinine decision.
At least, those are some of the storylines and narratives that have been told of these Clippers since last Spring’s debacle.
Jovial and personable, their personalities belie their competitive nature. Paul is widely considered to be one of the “nice” guys in the NBA, but his reputation as a competitor amongst his peers is anything but.
Deep down, the entire team believes that if they had an opportunity to square off against the Warriors in last season’s playoffs, they would have beaten them. And if things broke differently, the Clippers believe that it would have been them beginning the 2015-16 NBA season as the defending champions.
Instead, what you seem to have is a group of men who trust nobody but themselves and a team who has clearly been instructed by its head coach to not engage in any sort of hyperbole or back-and-forth in the media about what this team’s goals and aspirations are.
“I’m not really into giving grades,” Blake Griffin told me when I asked to assess, by grade, his team’s performance over the early goings of the season. “That’s for everybody else,” he dismissively said as he walked away from me.
Playfully, he claimed that I was trying to put words into his mouth.
Having spent considerable time around Rivers over the course of his nine years as the head coach of the Boston Celtics, I know a thing or two about him, his edict and his philosophy. Doc believes that pressure is an outside force that must be let in. The media, he would tell his players, are going to say all kinds of things about who they are and who they should be and what the rightful expectations of them should be. If you buy into what others say and think about you, you’ve bought into the pressure and sometimes, attempting to live up to it can be tantamount to allowing external forces to impact a process that should be wholly internal and organic.
In other words: there is no reason to tell anyone that the goal is a championship. Let your play do the talking. Dare to be great because you want to be great, not because other people think that you should be great.
Hanging around Doc Rivers and his team for an evening, it was easy to see right through all the attitude, cliche responses and boxed answers that his players gave when asked legitimate questions.
Having been around the game for a long time and having observed a fair number of champions and championship-caliber players, one thing I know is that the Clippers have the fire, they have the talent, they have the coach, and now, after last season’s heartbreak, they have the haunting memory that is usually a precursor to finding success at the highest level. And their obvious and intentional avoiding of saying “championship” is an edict from Doc to avoid external distractions.
In the spring, after the Clippers have enjoyed a long win streak after the All-Star Break and finish with a top-four seed in the Western Conference, realize and understand, for them, the entire season was the appetizer. The main course is an opportunity to exorcise the demons that have haunted them since James Harden walked off of the floor at the Toyota Center with a date against the Warriors.
The Clippers the entire meal.
* * * * *
What happens if they come up short again? Does River consider removing himself from the bench the way Pat Riley in Miami did after the 2007-08 season? Would Chris Paul begin contemplating life in another uniform?
Would the Clippers have to admit defeat and admit that they will never be able to surpass the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs? Would Rivers continue to augment? Or would he raze?
These are legitimate questions that are as difficult to answer as they are painful to contemplate. And those questions are what will inevitably await the Clippers should they fall short again this season. Just don’t expect them to admit it.
Pressure makes diamonds and pressure busts pipes. At this point, we don’t know if the Clippers are precious stones or a flood waiting to happen, and neither do they.
What happens if they are given everything they need and ultimately fall short, anyway? That is the question that nobody in Rivers’ locker room even wants to ponder, much less find.
So as Jordan and Griffin vanished into the night, each having refused to mutter the end-goal for this team, this season, rest assured, the stakes have never been higher. Deep down within, the raging fire burns.
Trying to not look too far ahead, the Clippers take their season one day and one game at a time. Eagerly, though, they have begun their slow march toward an opportunity at redemption. And after what they’ve been through and now, with the opportunity they have been given, it is scary to consider what may be in store if they continue to fall short.
During their playoff run last season, Chris Paul admitted to losing sleep over the thought of losing to the Spurs in the first round. Somehow, they seemed to have toppled Goliath, only to see their season end in stunning fashion.
“So close? I don’t even know what that means, anyway,” a forlorn Paul told the media after that fateful Game 7 loss in Houston.
To a man, that pain still drives these Clippers. Quietly, they’ll go about their business with one goal in mind—even if they won’t admit it.
Quietly, determined and focused, they are working for and toward earning an opportunity to redeem themselves.
It’s so obvious, it doesn’t even need to be said.
NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Cleveland Cavaliers
Spencer Davies opens Basketball Insiders team-by-team “Grading The Offseason” series with an overview of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
On Monday night in Las Vegas, the 2019 NBA Summer League champions will be crowned. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies are set to square off at the Thomas & Mack Center as the last teams standing over the course of the 10-day period.
Once that winner is determined, the world will be without NBA basketball for quite some time. Though the FIBA World Cup will be fun to watch, it’s not until late September that the association returns for training camp.
In order to hold you over until that date, Basketball Insiders has begun a “Grading The Offseason” series, featuring in-depth analysis on how each franchise has done during this wild summer.
To start things off, we’re going to break down arguably the quietest team of them all regarding roster turnover—the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It’s no secret that, on the floor, the season didn’t go quite as expected. Following the second departure of LeBron James, the organization felt it had enough remnants of the conference championship team to move forward and compete while developing young talent under head coach Tyronn Lue. A detrimental injury to Kevin Love changed that quickly.
Lue was fired six games into the 2018-19 campaign and then the wheels fell off pretty quickly. Top assistant Larry Drew pushed for a raise to take the interim role, due to the mixed bag inside of the locker room, and he was granted one. But as the losses piled up, the internal battle between the veterans and the younger players grew. Most of the criticism shaded toward upstart rookie Collin Sexton, yet he later proved what he was capable of to some of those teammates later down the road.
There were bright spots when Love re-entered the picture around February and played until late March, as he helped steer the inexperienced youngsters like Sexton, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic in the direction of winning basketball. When all was said and done, the final record was ugly. However, the energy surrounding the group was clearly in a much more positive light than it had been beforehand.
What shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle is the job Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman and his staff did to revamp the team’s salary cap situation. Entering the year with inflated contracts, via veterans that didn’t want to sit through a rebuild, moves had to be made to tighten up the locker room and lower the cap a significant amount. Ultimately, they were successful in doing so.
Cleveland was able to move Kyle Korver, George Hill, Sam Dekker, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks (acquired in the Korver trade) and turned that into Brandon Knight, Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Nik Stauskas and a boatload of future draft picks. Altman’s been in asset accumulation mode since he took over during LeBron’s last season, and he’s done wonders with the opportunity to chop down those loud figures on the cap sheet, even adding future capital in the process.
Not only has Altman done a great job in obtaining that, but he’s also turned “good” into “great” often—i.e. turning Korver into Burks which he then flipped for a 2019 first-round pick, using the second-rounders to acquire another first-round pick. Even landing Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson at the 2018 trade deadline to kickstart a new direction was impressive.
After parting ways with Drew at season’s end, the Cavaliers set a new course with the hiring of John Beilein in mid-May. Over the span of these past few months, he’s constructed a fresh coaching staff with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff as his associate, University of California women’s head coach Lindsay Gottlieb and five-year Utah Jazz assistant Antonio Lang in complementary roles.
Beilein’s graduate assistant at Michigan, Jay Shunnar, is also a part of the staff. Team favorites Mike Gerrity and Dan Geriot are staying on as well to continue developing the players they’ve worked with.
All in all, the people assembled to take on this task of changing a culture are entrenched in teaching and doing hands-on work. It’s the on-court product with an extremely inexperienced group of coaches—three of which are coming from the collegiate level—that could be a challenge. Luckily, the process seems to be about a collective group with an open-mindedness that won’t allow for egos to get in the way.
Despite the lottery results going south (Cleveland had the second-best odds in the top three and dropped to five), draft night was a smashing success for the organization. The wine and gold came out with a trio of highly touted rookies—Darius Garland, Dylan Windler and, after trades were officially cleared, Kevin Porter Jr. Adding talents to the roster was the top priority for the front office — today, that stands as the most noise from what’s been a mostly silent offseason.
With a lack of roster spots and an understanding that there would be little money to spend in a chaotic, competitive free-agent market, the Cavaliers have had to stand pat with what they have. JR Smith’s contract had reportedly fielded some offers between NBA Draft Combine time and around the draft, but the team didn’t like the idea of taking back a bad contract. Instead, they found an easier way to get a third pick in the 2019 first round by using the plethora of second-rounders acquired in the past to flip for Porter.
Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com reported Monday that Cleveland plans on waiving and stretching Smith’s contract for $1.4 million each over the next three years. The move will allow the team to stay under the luxury tax, avoid the repeater tax penalty and also provides a full mid-level exception amount at its disposal. Fedor does mention the front office won’t likely use it heading into the season to remain flexible financially and to keep a roster spot open.
Smith not being traded came as a surprise to many, especially knowing the salary relief his previously-grandfathered CBA deal offered to a team searching to clear space for a big free agency offer. The summer moved fast, though, and other franchises with similar predicaments acted quickly. The Cavaliers could’ve facilitated a few trades to get more future draft assets in return, but they didn’t feel like taking on an albatross contract that would’ve been worth paying the extra tax this upcoming season.
The only other real decision to make was whether or not to retain David Nwaba, who, when healthy, displayed flashes of defensive excellence and aggressiveness on the offensive end, Cleveland did not extend the qualifying offer to Nwaba before the deadline, making him an unrestricted free agent. He recently signed with the Brooklyn Nets on a two-year deal.
This move was not so surprising as Basketball Insiders reported at the beginning of June that Nwaba’s representation would be looking for a multi-year deal. A league source said that last summer’s one-year agreement between the Cavaliers and Nwaba was with the understanding that he’d be strictly looking for a newly re-structured multi-year contract with no qualifying offer in his 2019 plans.
The latest addition the franchise made was inking Dean Wade, an undrafted rookie from Kansas State, to a two-way contract. He played in five NBA Summer League games for the organization between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
PLAYERS IN: Darius Garland, Dylan Windler, Kevin Porter Jr., Dean Wade (two-way)
PLAYERS OUT: JR Smith, Marquese Chriss, David Nwaba, Channing Frye
Following the waiving of Smith, the Cavaliers roster will be at 13 players. You’d imagine they wouldn’t keep two roster spots open, so seeing a free agent signing or even nabbing a player from a summer league team could be in the cards.
Per Fedor, the franchise will be above the $109 million salary cap by $22 million once the Smith news is made official by the team. It’s a much healthier number than they’ve been at in years past — so, going into next summer, that cap sheet is going to be as clean as it’s been in quite some time.
Cleveland is going to have numerous attractive contracts on its hands as five players on the roster are on deals set to expire following this year. Tristan Thompson ($18.5 million), Brandon Knight ($15.6 million), Jordan Clarkson ($13.4 million), John Henson ($9.7 million) and Matthew Dellavedova ($9.6 million) are all trade chips that Altman can move to stockpile the future even more. Depending on what offers come their way, it could be yet another busy season regarding roster turnover.
There’s plenty of speculation that the team should trade Love to a contender to both satisfy the player and allow the team to get out of his sizable deal. What people are forgetting is that the Cavaliers want to have a championship-caliber player in the locker room as a guiding voice. Remember, this team has one person that is at least the age of 30, and it is the All-Star big man. The next guys up are 28 years old—Henson, Dellavedova and Thompson—and who knows how long they’ll be around.
Cleveland will have to be blown away to take back what it thinks it should receive in return for Love. No deal will be made just to make a deal. The organization values him too much as a person and a player.
On the court, the focus is going to be on player development, mainly in watching how Sexton and Garland play off one another. Different looks and combinations with the frontcourt of Love, Nance Jr., Zizic, Windler and Osman will be available for Beilein to tinker with. A new coaching staff with a freshly enthused group of players should be intriguing to watch.
OFFSEASON GRADE: C-
Stay tuned to the rest of Basketball Insiders “Grading The Offseason” series over the next few weeks.
NBA Daily: Veterans Influencing Spurs Youngsters
Having NBA veterans that can ease young players into the league can be very helpful, which is why Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris have been nice additions to the Spurs’ summer league roster.
The Summer League is a time for many things.
It’s a time for young players to get a taste of what professional basketball is like. It’s a time for teams to evaluate what young talent they have their roster. Most importantly of all, it’s a time for growth.
The Summer League, whether it be in Salt Lake, Sacramento or Las Vegas, serves as a transition for the new blood. Most are either fresh out of college or just arrived into the country, who are also either just beginning or have recently begun their NBA career. Making that transition isn’t always seamless. As talented as some of these kids are, they are prone to make mistakes. That’s where having a veteran who has been around the block can help.
For this year’s summer league. San Antonio brought in two who fit the profile: Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris.
Morris has bounced around between the NBA and the G League since being drafted 41st overall by the Lakers back in 2011. He’s been around the league long enough that playing in the Summer League wasn’t originally in the plans. That all changed when the Spurs called him.
“They actually reached out to me and told me they were interested,” Morris said. “When an organization like the Spurs calls you, you can come in and show that you can blend in and the high character is going to follow you the rest of the way.”
Robinson has also been a journeyman since being selected sixth overall by the Kings back in 2012. Now that he has found himself on the Spurs, he praised the organization for its player development.
“To even get any type of time under anybody on this staff is helpful for any player,” Robinson said. “Whether it’s summer league, mini-camp, or the real roster, it’s always helpful to learn from these guys. They’re like the Mecca of NBA basketball.”
Not many can say that they are the veteran of a summer league team, but Morris not only has that role but also appears to have embraced it since coming on for the Spurs. So much so that even though he takes that responsibility seriously, he and his teammates can have a laugh about it.
“I joke with the guys that I’m transitioning to that vet stage like a little baby vet,” Morris said. “To be able to extend whatever knowledge to the young guys, and kind of getting me in that mode as opposed to being that guy that was drafted, just transitioning to being a mentor and just helping where I can.”
There are various ways in which those are designated as mentors decide to use their role. Some give very little advice while others give nothing but advice. For Morris, he has implemented a “trial by fire” strategy for his younger teammates.
“First, you want them to go out there and play freely,” Morris said. “You don’t want to give them too much advice at first. You just kind of sit back and just watch… You don’t want to put too many things in their ear. Everything is already going 100 miles per hour for you out there and as they go along, just give my advice as we go along.”
As the other veteran/mentor on the squad, Robinson’s approach is simple on the court – just being himself for the Spurs.
“I’m not trying to show that I can do anything different,” Robinson said. “I just want to show that I’m doing everything that they ask me to do the first time.”
Since coming to San Antonio, Robinson has gotten to know some of the Spurs’ young talent. He even took the time to praise some of the Spurs’ young talent – in particular, one of the Spurs’ most recent first-rounders, Keldon Johnson.
“‘Baby Russ’. That’s what I called him” Robinson said. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s super aggressive… He’s big, athletic. I definitely see the makings of a superstar.”
Both Morris and Robinson are leaving impressions with the younger players on their squad. The Spurs other first-rounder this season, Luka Samanic, spoke highly of what they’ve been able to do for him primarily with how he handles his mistakes.
“If I do one quick mistake in the beginning, then it affects my game later,” Samanic said. “So they’re all about ‘Don’t worry about mistakes. You’ll miss shots. It’s all normal here.’ So they helped me a lot with that.”
Blake Ahearn, who coached the Spurs at the Utah Summer League, praised both Robinson and Morris for the calming influence they have on the team.
“It’s huge,” Ahearn said. “Having some of those calming-presence guys on the floor helps those younger guys… That’s a good luxury for coaches to have.”
Spurs assistant Becky Hammon also heaped praise for the two veterans primarily for what they have been able to do for the Spurs’ young players off the court while also reiterating the value guys like that have on these teams.
“They’ve been talking to them in their ear the whole time about what it takes to be a professional and get opportunities,” Hammon said. “Their leadership on the court, off the court has been very helpful. Obviously, having guys like that in a situation like that is very helpful and invaluable.”
Now, undoubtedly, the goal for Robinson and Morris is to be in the NBA again. They’ve been there before and their willingness to play in the summer league shows that they’re not giving up on their dreams.
Regardless of whether they make it, they can take comfort that, in the end, they positively impacted the Spurs of tomorrow.
NBA Daily: Carsen Edwards Sending Good Vibrations in Las Vegas
Celtics rookie Carsen Edwards took Las Vegas by storm not only earning a multi-year contract but likely a significant role in Boston this coming season.
Las Vegas can be a scary place; just ask Carsen Edwards.
“Not to be dramatic, but I really thought I was about to die.”
Edwards, among a number of other players and NBA-related persons, found himself in the midst of two earthquakes – magnitude 6.7 and 7.1 – that rocked southern Nevada and California last week. “I was in my room by myself,” Edwards said, “and I’m on the 16th floor so, right then I’m thinking – and I know this sounds deep – how am I going to survive?”
Fortunately, for Edwards, his days reading about covering online betting odds in the Silver State may be numbered.
While the earthquakes may have shaken Las Vegas, the Purdue University product has sent the Boston Celtics his own good vibrations. Edwards has impressed mightily during his stint with the Summer League Celtics, so much so that, while fellow second-round pick Tremont Waters recently agreed to a two-way deal with Boston, the Celtics have reportedly are negotiating a full-time deal with the Edwards. And, while he has remained humble when questioned about his high-quality play, it’s hard to imagine that Edwards will see much more time in Las Vegas beyond the coming Summer League Tournament.
“My first experience was a blessing, man” Edwards told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so happy to be here, just to have this opportunity and put on that jersey and be out there.”
Edwards, a standout Boilermaker, has been a certified bucket-getter in his short Summer League tenure. Through four games (and two starts), the diminutive combo-guard has averaged 18 points to go along with 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and a steal in just 23 minutes per contest. Edwards has gotten to his spots on the floor with ease – when it hasn’t been easy, he’s simply put his head down and bullied his way there – and he certainly hasn’t been afraid to pull up from deep.
Edwards has also come along as a shooter since his last showing in the NCAA tournament. In three seasons with Purdue, Edwards posted field goal and three-point percentages of 41.2% and 36.8%, respectively. Since Edwards has proven himself one of the Summer League’s best and most consistent shooters; he has shot 52% from the floor and 48.4% from three-point range.
“I just try to make the right decisions,” Edwards said. “I just try to get into my space, places where I’m comfortable.”
Despite his relative inexperience against NBA-level competition, a continued ascent for Edwards – and an end to his Summer League career after just his rookie appearance – shouldn’t be put out of the question as players and teams head into next season and beyond.
And, while he may not have wanted to slip into the second round of June’s 2019 NBA Draft, Edwards may have hit the jackpot in landing with Boston.
While Head Coach Brad Stevens has struggled with certain aspects of coaching, he has never had a problem with maximizing the production of his guards. 2011’s Mr. Irrelevant, Isaiah Thomas, was a Most Valuable Player candidate in 2017, while Kyrie Irving, despite the reported unrest, posted arguably the two best statistical seasons of his career with the Celtics. Others, including Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Jordan Crawford have flourished under his watch, and Edwards may be the next player to benefit from Stevens’ system.
Still, Edwards’ work is far from over, and he knows it. “It’s not the same [as in college],” he said as he pointed out that he still needed to focus on his defense, decisions making and consistency. “I’m still learning so much.”
“I know [the Boston Celtics] just want me to improve. Help the team win, but continue to try and improve and be consistent every game.”
Edwards isn’t the perfect prospect or one without his deficiencies by any means. They have yet to do so in the Summer League, and his strong, stocky build should help counteract this to a degree, but NBA competition will take advantage of Edwards’ 6-foot-flat height. And, if it wasn’t already obvious, Edwards is a score-first, pass later type of guard; while that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, given the role he should serve with the Celtics, Edwards’ passing ability must improve as he transitions to the NBA game.
“[NBA players] are more athletic, they have more length,” Edwards said. “Playing against those guys, it’s tough.”
As Edwards pointed out, it will, in fact, be tough for him. But, between the roster and coaching fit and his own talent, it’s as if everything has started to come together for the talented guard and it is there for the taking.
After his debut, Edwards noted his primary Summer League goal was to win. “I just want to make an impact on the team and just help us win,” Edwards said.
Should he take advantage of what’s in front of him, Edwards has the chance to be something special in the NBA, and he could help the Celtics do just that for a long time.
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