Clippers: Summer’s early winner, but questions loom

July 7, 2013

We’re 6+ days into free agency, and most of the big chips have fallen. Dwight Howard to Houston, Chris Paul to stay in L.A., Al Jefferson to Charlotte, Josh Smith to Detroit, Andre Iguodala to Golden State and Paul Millsap to Atlanta. Four notable pieces still on the market include Brandon Jennings, restricted and likely to stay in Milwaukee; Monta Ellis, probably headed to Denver or Atlanta; Nikola Pekovic, restricted but likely out of Minnesota; and Andrew Bynum, who knows.

Below, I take a look at my ‘winner’ of free agency through 6 days.

The Los Angeles Clippers

L.A. was known for its deep bench last year, boasting the likes of Jamal Crawford, Willie Green, Lamar Odom, Ryan Hollins, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, Ronny Turiaf and Grant Hill. At 40.1 points per game, L.A.’s bench trailed only Dallas and Denver in scoring, and Crawford finished the runner-up in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year voting.

But a postseason bench is not 12 guys deep. Hill played in 1 game in the team’s 6-game opening-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Ryan Hollins and Willie Green averaged less than 7.5 minutes per and did not appear in every game. DeAndre Jordan’s inability to make free throws saw him to the bench in crunch-time minutes, and Lamar Odom, and his 11.0 PER, was ineffective all season.

Six days into free agency, the Clippers have turned Caron Butler and Bledsoe into J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, re-signed Matt Barnes and acquired Darren Collison, an ex-UCLA product, for pennies on the dollar. L.A. drafted sharpshooter Reggie Bullock at No. 25 overall. Oh, and they extended arguably the top free agent in this year’s class, Chris Paul, for 5 years, and traded for a championship coach in Doc Rivers, who brings instant credibility, and an offensive system, to Staples.

Concern: Lack of frontcourt depth

My concern with this team, as they flirt with luxury tax territory, is frontcourt depth, especially after a playoff series where they were bullied by the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph; in that series, Gasol and Randolph averaged a combined 38.1 points and 15.5 rebounds. Right now, with Turiaf and Hollins unrestricted free agents — though ones, according to Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times, they’re interested in re-signing — the only NBA-caliber bigs on this roster are Griffin and Jordan, the latter of whom cannot play down the stretch and is owed an immovable $22.4 million through 2014-15.

Doc could always move Blake to the 5 and play Barnes or Dudley, 6’7″, at the 4. Both are strong individual defenders. And, then there’s also the rest of the summer. L.A. flirted with Carl Landry, whom eventually agreed to a 4-year, $27-million deal with Sacramento, one that L.A.’s cap flexibility, or lack thereof, would not have permitted. Rivers just needs to fill a 19.7-minutes-per-game slot opened by Odom’s likely departure, whether that’s more minutes to Blake, DeAndre, both or other faces.

Improvement: 3-point shooting

In last year’s postseason, L.A. shot a measly 30.4% from 3. L.A. loses an OK 3-point shooter in Butler and an improving one in Bledsoe, but Dudley (40.5% career) and Redick (39%) are improvements. Redick’s averaged double-figure scoring numbers each of the last 3 seasons, including 15.1 in 50 games in Orlando before his trade last season. Dudley’s also been in double figures each of the past 3 years, and has never shot below 45.9% from the field in his 6-year career.

Bullock shot 44% from 3 last year at UNC, and possesses great size, 6’7″, for a hybrid guard-forward. Barnes is 33% from deep throughout his career, but is especially efficient in the corners.

Bottom line: More weapons for CP3, Blake

The spacing provided by these shooters should open Blake post-ups and CP3-Blake pick-and-rolls, L.A.’s bread-and-butter source of offense. With Paul, Blake, Jordan, Redick, Dudley, Collison, Barnes, Crawford and Green, L.A.’s as good 1-9 as any team in the league. All 9 of those guys are capable of double-digit scoring nights any game.

With Collison, a former teammate of Paul’s in New Orleans, L.A. has a very capable backup point. Collison may not have Bledsoe’s ceiling, but he’s averaged double figures all 4 seasons of his career and only 25. After a disappointing season in Dallas, you can bet on consistent energy from Collison. Should Doc decide to go this route, Collison’s very effective in 2-Lopoint-guard lineups — in 2011-12, Indiana’s most efficient lineup to play at least 100 minutes together featured Collison and combo guard George Hill in the backcourt.

Now, if the Clippers can sure up their frontcourt, I’ll put them right next to San Antonio.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


3 thoughts on free agency after 3 days

July 4, 2013

We’re almost 72 hours into NBA’s free agency period. Of the two major dominoes, one has fallen; Chris Paul is, unsurprisingly, returning to L.A. on a 5-year, $107-million extension. The other cornerstone in this class, Dwight Howard, has met with 5 teams — Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Golden State and L.A. — with a decision coming as soon as Friday.

Several second-tier names are still on the board, namely Andre Iguodala, Tyreke Evans, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Nikola Pekovic, Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith.

Here’s 3 random thoughts as we head into Day 4. Happy Fourth, all!

1. I love what the Clippers are doing.

Priority No. 1: Bring back Chris Paul, the league’s best PG. Check. Priority No. 2: Hire a championship coach to replace the fired Vinny Del Negro. Check. Priority No. 3: Add perimeter shooting and secondary ball-handling. Check.

The latter was completed Tuesday, when the Clippers acquired J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in a 3-team deal with Milwaukee and Phoenix. As part of the deal, L.A. sent Caron Butler’s $8-million expiring and top asset Eric Bledsoe to Phoenix, and Milwaukee snatched 2 second-round draft picks.

Bledsoe, 23, is an extremely athletic, promising young combo guard who improved immensely from 2011-12 to 2012-13. He averaged 8.5 points, 3.1 assists and 3 rebounds in 20.4 minutes, nearly doubled his 3-point efficiency (on limited attempts) to 40% and shot 45% from the field. His 17.6 player-efficiency rating trailed only Paul and Blake Griffin among regular rotation players. But with Paul inked long-term, there was little room for Bledsoe in the rotation, and he probably could have bolted as a restricted free agent next summer.

The Clippers acquired 2 potential starters for next season, too, should Rivers elect to keep Jamal Crawford as a sixth man. Redick, a career 39% shooter, immediately becomes the Clippers’ top 3-point threat; L.A. shot a league-average 36% last season and 30.4% in the postseason, good for 14th out of 16 playoff clubs. J.J. also is a capable defender who can handle the ball in second-team situations, and teams will have to respect his shooting on CP3-Blake pick-and-rolls. In 50 games for the Magic last year, Redick averaged 15.1 points.

In Dudley, Rivers gets a younger, better and cheaper Butler — a guy who can hold his own, in most cases, on defense, shoot the corner 3 and even run a second-team offense. Dudley, a career 40.5% 3-point shooter, has averaged double-figure points each of the last 3 years, all on pretty bad Phoenix teams. He’s still only 27, and has shot at least 45.9% from the field in each of his 6 NBA seasons.

Considering the market for swing guards/forwards this postseason, 4 years, $27 million — the signed-and-traded contract Redick reportedly signed — is hardly a burden. J.J.’s still 29 and has played in the postseason all 7 years of his career. The Wolves signed Kevin Martin for $28 million over 4, the Wizards signed Martell Webster for $22 million over 4, Atlanta signed Kyle Korver for $24 million over 4 and the Wolves signed Chase Budinger for $16 million over 3.

There’s not a player on that list I’d take over Redick. If the Clippers managed to re-sign Matt Barnes on the cheap and lure Carl Landry below market value — a big who, unlike DeAndre Jordan, could play in crunch time — I’d put them in the same conversation as San Antonio, a healthy Oklahoma City and Memphis.

2. Did the Wizards overpay for Martell Webster?

Shortly after news broke Washington used their mid-level exception to ink Webster for 4 years, $22 million, with the final year only partially guaranteed, Twitter morphed into a ‘THEY OVERPAID’ frenzy.

Webster, picked No. 6 overall out of high school in 2005, is still only 26, and averaged 11.4 points on 44% shooting last season, a ‘contract year.’ Some, including me, thought the selection of Otto Porter at No. 3 would make him expendable, but you would think he goes into next year as Washington’s starting SF.

The rag on Webster is durability. He’s only played 2 full 82-game slates in his 8-year career, with the most recent coming in 2009-10 as a Blazer. In 2008-09, Webster played all of 5 minutes. The 2 back surgeries that caused Webster to miss 55 games in his 2 seasons in Minnesota have, at least per my research, not since flared up.

Again, look at the market. Korver signed for $2 million more over 4 years, without nearly the slash game and athleticism that Webster offers. Kevin Martin signed for $6 million more over 4, but is a horrific defender. As evidenced by taking on the contracts of Nene and Emeka Okafor last summer, the Wizards are in win-now mode. And a healthy Webster gives them a more-than-capable starting SF/sixth man.

For a much more comprehensive examination of the Webster move, read this Truth About It post.

3. What’s up with New Orleans’ guard situation?

As I’m writing this post, USA TODAY‘s Sam Amick is reporting Sacramento Kings’ restricted free agent Tyreke Evans has given the Pelicans a verbal commitment on a 4-year, $44 million offer sheet. By all indications, Evans wants to play in New Orleans — much like current Pelicans’ guard Eric Gordon wanted to play in Phoenix — but Sacramento will still have 3 days to match once the offer sheet is signed.

For a few hours Tuesday, it looked like Evans would be headed to New Orleans. Sacramento had offered Iguodala a 4-year, $56 million deal, only to call their own bluff by night’s end. You would guess that Sacramento, and its approximately $17 million in cap space, would now re-sign Evans.

The addition of Evans would leave a lot of questions in New Orleans. The Pelicans just traded 2 lottery picks (barring a playoff appearance) for Jrue Holiday, an All Star last season, and are paying Gordon $14.3, $14.9 and $15.5 million over the next 3 years, respectively. Greivis Vasquez, last year’s Most Improved Player runner-up, and Austin Rivers, last year’s No. 10 overall pick, are also under contract for 2013-14.

The Pelicans would love to find a taker for Gordon’s albatross of a contract, but that’s unlikely for a guy who’s missed nearly twice as many games (97) as he’s played in (51) the past 2 years. Rivers, 20, has potential, but an ugly rookie season and 5.95 PER kills his value. Vasquez’s name, also circulated in trade rumors, is perhaps the only appealing to GMs.

If Evans winds up in New Orleans, somehow at least one of these guys has to go.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


5 second-tier free agents to watch

June 30, 2013

NBA free agency officially kicks off at 12 a.m. EST Monday. The class is not nearly as strong as next year’s, but does include franchise players Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Paul’s likely to remain with the Clippers following the Doc Rivers trade; as for D12, if his meeting schedule is any indication, Howard could very well leave L.A. — he’ll meet with the Rockets, Hawks, Warriors, Mavericks and Lakers before Tuesday’s over, according to reports.

But what about the other guys? Here’s 5 under-the-radar — calling them second-tier may be a bit of an overconfident stretch — free agent acquisitions that could make a key difference with whatever team signs them, in no particular order.

No. 5: Carl Landry, 29, PF, Golden State Warriors

Jarrett Jack gets a lot of the credit, but Landry was a fine free agent acquisition last summer. For the 4th straight year, he averaged double-figure points (10.8), even in the lowest minute totals (23.2 per) since his sophomore season. He played in 81 games, easily a career-high, and shot a respectable 54% from the field and 82% from the foul line. In 12 postseason games, his minutes went down (20.5) — largely thanks to Andrew Bogut’s return — but his scoring went up (11.8).

Per 36 minutes, Landry averaged 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds, just below All Star teammate David Lee’s 18.1 and 11; Lee (14.4) also attempts close to 3 shots more per 36. And Landry’s 17.6 player-efficiency rating finished 3rd on Golden State last season, trailing only Stephen Curry (21.3) and Lee (19.2).

Landry opted out of the final year of a 2-year, $8-million deal, well below his market value. With Bogut, Lee, Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson due a combined $48.1 million next year, Golden State simply doesn’t have the cap flexibility to re-sign Carl. His quality mid-range game and motor will, for sure, be of use to one of 29 other teams.

No. 4: Marco Belinelli, 27, SG, Chicago Bulls

Despite his abysmal 10.43 PER for the 2012-13 season, Belinelli showed flashes of gaining Tom Thibodeau’s trust … and cracking his thin, injury-riddled rotation. For the season, he averaged only 9.6 points per game, his lowest since ’09-10, and shot a career-low 36% from 3. His postseason was more of the same, though he did drop 24 points in a Game 7 road win vs. the Brooklyn Nets, with the Bulls minus All Star SF Luol Deng.

Belinelli’s a creative scorer with an ability to get hot … and is worth $3-5 million annually on the right contender looking for a punch off the bench. Aside from one year in New Orleans with Chris Paul, in which he shot 43.7% from the field and 41.4% from 3 in 69 starts, Belinelli’s never had the fortune of playing alongside a playmaker at the point.

Per 36 minutes in Chicago, the Italian still managed to score 13.4 points. Chicago already has $73.2 million tied up in 8 guys next year, so it’s unlikely Belinelli’s back in the Windy City.

No. 3: Wayne Ellington, 25, SG, Cleveland Cavaliers

Ellington proved his worth following a January trade to Cleveland. In 38 games for Byron Scott, he averaged 10.4 points, and shot 38% from 3, 44% from the field and 90% from the stripe. During that time, he also averaged career-highs in rebounds, assists and steals. Per 36 minutes, the former UNC product netted 14.5 points.

Ellington, in his 4th season in the league and playing for his 3rd team, played like a guy fighting for his NBA life … and may have just well saved his career. He showed a surprising ability to create his own shot from the outside; for his career, he’s a very healthy 38.2% 3-point marksman.

The Akron Beacon Journal‘s Jason Lloyd surprised Clevelanders on Saturday, when he reported GM Chris Grant decided not to extend a $3-million qualifying offer, making Ellington an unrestricted free agent. With more than $20 million in cap space, barring a major free agent acquisition or contract-heavy trade, I expect Ellington to return to northeast Ohio.

No. 2: Earl Clark, 25, SF, Los Angeles Lakers

Hardly an afterthought in the D12 blockbuster, Clark broke out in his 4th year in the NBA. For much of the season, head coach Mike D’Antoni was starting him over 4-time All Star Pau Gasol. He has great size, 6’10”, for a 3 and agility for a 4, with an ability to knock down the outside shot, though he finished sub-34% from 3 on the year.

In addition to Gasol, Howard, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, Clark had his own injury problems, missing 23 games. But the former lottery pick out of Louisville still managed a career-high 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 23.1 minutes, with career-bests in rebounds, steals, assists and blocks. Per 36 minutes, Clark chipped in 11.4 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Too much was asked of Clark last year in L.A., but he proved, for the first time in his career, he’s a capable 2nd or 3rd guy off the bench. Despite their cap limitations, all indications point to Clark returning to L.A. on a modest deal, especially if D12 signs elsewhere and/or Pau’s traded. Cleveland, coached by former Lakers head man Mike Brown, will show interest, but Clark told Lakers’ beat mean Mike Medina in April he’d consider returning to L.A. even if less money’s on the table.

No. 1: Martell Webster, 26, SF, Washington Wizards

In career-high minutes last year in Washington, Webster averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and shot 42% from 3, 44% from the field and 85% from the foul line. It was the first year Webster averaged double-figure scoring since ’07-08 in Portland, and it was the first year he played in 75+ games since ’09-10.

After John Wall returned in January, Webster scored 15+ in 14 games, including a 34-point effort in a March 16 win over Phoenix, in which he drilled 7-of-10 3-balls. For a guy signed to a 1-year, $1.6-million deal, that’s incredible value.

Buyer’s beware: Webster’s missed 170 games in 8 NBA seasons, including all but 5 minutes of the ’08-09 campaign. But now that Washington has a young core of Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, and veteran pieces Nene, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, the playoffs are within reach, assuming full health. And Webster’s only 26.

CSN Washington reported after season’s end there was a mutual interest in a Webster return. Thursday, the Wizards drafted Otto Porter, Jr., a SF, No. 3 overall, so if there’s room for the sharpshooter Webster, it’s likely off the bench, something he said he’d be OK with 2 months ago.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Stock up: Utah’s bigs; stock down: Minnesota’s future

March 6, 2013

In light of the Dow apparently breaking all-time records today, I thought it would be cool (and at most moderately cliche) to do a quick NBA stock up, stock down report. If you like these posts, let me know in the comments or via Twitter, and I’ll try to work them more frequently into the rotation.

Stock up: Utah’s frontcourt depth

Al Jefferson, Utah’s leading scorer at 17.7 points per game, has not played since last Wednesday with an ankle injury, meaning more playing time for reserves Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, who would presumably assume most of his 33 minutes. Last Friday against Charlotte, Kanter, 20, recorded 23 points and 22 rebounds in 44 minutes, then added another double-double, 18 points and 10 rebounds, in 32 minutes in Utah’s loss to Milwaukee. Also Monday, Favors chipped in 23 points and 15 rebounds in only 30 minutes (he did not play in the 4th quarter).

Jefferson and Paul Millsap are the Jazz’s 2 leading scorers, combining for 32.9 points and 16.8 rebounds per game on what I would say is the Western Conference’s 2nd-most daunting frontcourt, to Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. But Jefferson and Millsap are both unrestricted free agents this summer in a weak class, meaning both are in line for easy 8-figure-per-year paydays. And even though Utah will have at least $30 million in cap space, it’s because of their depth, I only expect one of Millsap or ‘Big Al’ to return.

On the season, Favors, 9.7 points in 22.3 minutes, and Kanter, 6.9 minutes in 15.2 minutes, are Utah’s 6th- and 9th-highest scorers, respectively, and they rarely demand isolation touches in the post to do so. And they both rebound at above-average rates, too — Favors at 6.6 and Kanter at 4.4. And both are essentially on the wraps until at least the summer of 2015, which is the earliest either can hit unrestricted free agency.

Utah’s lineup of Favors, Kanter, Gordon Hayward, DeMarre Carroll and Earl Watson is head coach Tyrone Corbin’s, statistically speaking, best lineup to play at least 100 minutes together, according to Basketball Reference. Those 5 are outscoring opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions in 102:59 together.

All of a sudden, that Deron Williams dump on Brooklyn, for Favors, Devin Harris (since dealt to Atlanta for starting SF Marvin Williams, himself a contract burden through 2014), a 2011 lottery pick that turned into Kanter and another 1st-round pick still to come, is looking pretty, pretty good (Larry David voice).

Stock down: The Minnesota Timberwolves are free-falling

In fairness to Minnesota, I’m not sure there’s a team in the NBA that’s been more decimated by injuries in 2012-13. As of March 5, Kevin Love has missed 39 games and counting, Ricky Rubio 25, Nikola Pekovic 9, Andrei Kirilenko 12, Chase Budinger 51, Brandon Roy 52 and J.J. Barea 8. And the Wolves, preseason playoff contenders according to many, are 20-37, losers of 6 straight, all but out of the playoff race and only a game up on the conference-worst Sacramento Kings.

But this team’s long-term future is even murkier. Many question whether Kevin Love, long considered the franchise’s face of the present and future, will be in Minnesota much longer — team owner Glen Taylor has questioned whether he’s a star, and Love is obviously ticked GM David Kahn refused him a long-term, max contract. (Unless Dwight Howard or Chris Paul surprise everyone and change cities, Love may very well be the biggest name on the market.)

Derrick Williams, the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft, has not seen his talents translate to the NBA game, and his name has seemingly been the subject of trade rumors since he entered the league 21 months ago. Pekovic is a restricted free agent this summer in line for an 8-figure payday. And Kahn has bad contracts galore in Kirilenko, due a $10.2 million player option in 2013-14 (which is not too bad of a deal, given his level of play), and Roy, due $5.3 million next season.

For a franchise that has not made the playoffs in the post-Kevin Garnett era, or since 2003-04 for that matter (7 head coaches ago), I wish I could say the future was brighter.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: UTAH JAZZ

March 3, 2013

Like Denver, the Jazz are rebuilding on the fly. Both traded their superstars away in the middle of the 2011 NBA season, but may not be worse for the wear. Both peaked as losers in the Western Conference Finals — Utah in 2007, losing to San Antonio, and Denver in 2009, losing to Los Angeles. Both were bounced in the first round in last year’s playoffs, and both appear on track to make another run this season.

Around the core nucleus of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, who departed, quite literally, for greener pastures in free agency 2.5 years ago, Utah made 4 consecutive playoff trips from 2006-2010. In February 2011, the Jazz shipped the disgruntled Williams to New Jersey, now Brooklyn, for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, 2 1st-round draft selections and cash considerations. One of those draft picks has yet to be cast, and the other turned into Enes Kanter, likely a fixture of Utah’s frontcourt for years to come, alongside Favors.

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As painful as they can be to watch at times, I actually really like this Utah team, particularly their young core of Kanter, Favors, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. I see franchise-player potential in Hayward, the 3rd-year SG out of Butler, who has great size, 6’8″, to cleanly release any perimeter shot and/or back down opposing 2-guards. He’s a capable shooter inside and out — a career 45.2% from the field and 39.1% from 3 — who’s a capable driver and deceptively strong finisher. He also gets to the foul line, 4.4 attempts per 27.1 minutes, and then makes them, 83.5%.

In his 2nd season, Burks, another formerly lottery pick, also has tremendous size for his 1-guard spot, at 6’6″. Burks, a willing defender like Hayward, is not as natural a point guard as you would like, averaging only 1.5 assists per game this year. His 10.64 player-efficiency rating does not scream starter, either, but head coach Tyrone Corbin really should be giving Burks (and Hayward, for that matter) more minutes — he’s only getting 17.6 a night, less than Mo Williams, 30; Earl Watson, 33; and Jamaal Tinsley, 35, all of whom probably are not in Utah’s long-term plans.

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Setting the future aside for a minute, this team, in the present, is built on its frontcourt. Similar to Memphis’ front of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but not as talented, Utah relies heavily on post scoring from Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap; combined, they’re averaging 32.8 points and 16.7 rebounds in 63.5 minutes. Surprisingly, for both Jefferson, 17.7 points per game, and Millsap, 15.1, those are their lowest scoring and rebounding outputs since 2009-10, granted also in their fewest minutes.

When Millsap and Jefferson give way to Kanter, 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14.9 minutes, and Favors, 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 22.2 minutes, the result is a more athletic front, even one where the offense can be more free-flowing. The only 5-man lineup to play at least 100 minutes together this season and have a positive +/- points differential is Tinsley, Hayward, DeMarre Carroll, Kanter and Favors, +6 in 102.9 minutes. (Now that is not to say the Jazz are better without Paul and ‘Big Al,’ who both have top-23 efficiency ratings.)

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But as strong and deep as their frontcourt may be, Utah has issues at the 1 and 3. This summer, GM Dennis Lindsey shipped Devin Harris’ expiring deal to Atlanta for 2 years of Marvin Williams, and Williams, the former No. 2 overall pick selected ahead of Deron Williams and Chris Paul in 2005, has since turned in career lows in points, 7.9; field goal percentage, 41.6%; rebounds, 3.5; and free throw attempts, 1.7. His efficiency rating is a poor 10.49. Carroll, though, brings excellent defense (yet limited range) and is not nearly as much a liability.

Tinsley, Mo Williams and, the latest insert, Earl Watson have all started games at point, sharing the backcourt with combo guard Randy Foye. Williams is clearly the best of the 3, but he’s missed 35 games with a torn ligament in his right thumb, and is probably out until later this month. Tinsley, 29.9%, and Watson, 19.2%, are limited from deep, whereas Mo’s a marksman, 44.1% from the field and 37.6% from 3; the team’s assists leader, at 6.7 per game; and capable of creating his own shot.

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Statistically, Utah’s about as middle-of-the-road as they come — their offense scores an 11th-best 98.5 points per game, and their defense allows, you guessed it, 98.5 points, good enough for 17th. Defensively, the fact that opponents shoot a 7th-best 37% from 3 is a concern, but Utah also shoots a 12th-ranked 36% from 3-land. Due to their formidable frontline, the Jazz are 11th, +1.4, in rebound differential, as well as 5th in blocked shots. Even without a true, pass-first point guard, Utah’s 9th in assists, too.

The Jazz, 32-27 and currently the Western Conference’s No. 7 seed, are 3 games up on the No. 9-seeded Lakers, the only real threat outside the top 8 to make a postseason run. But Utah’s schedule is brutal — 5 of their next 6 are on the road, they’ve still got a Texas road swing, and 13 of their remaining 23 games are against likely playoff teams, including 2 each against the Knicks and Thunder, 2 seeds in their respective conferences. Whether Utah could get past either San Antonio, by whom they were swept last year (with only 1 game, Game 4, decided by less than 12 points), or Oklahoma City, is an entirely different story.

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But here’s why I love the Jazz — cap flexibility. Next year, assuming Marvin Williams picks up his $7.5 million player option, Utah still only has about $26 million committed to 6 players. Millsap and Jefferson are free agents likely to fetch 8 figures per in free agency, and my guess is one returns, probably Millsap, as Kanter and Favors develop larger roles. Mo, Foye and Carroll are all free agents, and I’m guessing at least Carroll returns on an inexpensive deal.

The earliest Hayward can hit unrestricted free agency is 2015, the same for Favors; Kanter and Burks in 2016. Utah has serious money to play with, its 1st-round pick and, of course, another from Brooklyn. So, in other words, it’s a good time to be a Jazz fan.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL SERIES: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30


30 in 30: NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

February 21, 2013

Obviously New Orleans is in a rebuild, with only one guy on its roster — Roger Mason Jr., 32 — over the age of 27, but there’s lots of reasons for optimism. Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, has come as advertised, only slightly glossed over due to the success of Portland’s Damian Lillard. Ryan Anderson, the team’s most notable free agent acquisition, is Monty Williams’ leading scorer. And Greivis Vasquez, 26, is perhaps the favorite for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, on a 19-win team.

All that said, there are 2 major concerns for Hornets fans. One is Eric Gordon, the centerpiece of the Chris Paul return from L.A., who agreed to a max 4-year, $58 million deal this offseason with Phoenix, his publicly preferred destination, only to see New Orleans match the offer sheet. Gordon, due to a right knee injury and, most recently, a sprained right hand, has only appeared in 19 games this season; he missed 57 of 66 in last year’s lockout-shortened campaign. On paper, the Gordon and Vasquez backcourt could be one of the league’s best, but it’s fair to question Gordon’s durability, and maybe even his commitment to New Orleans, at this point.

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Then, there’s Austin Rivers, the No. 10 overall pick in last year’s draft. Rivers is getting chances — he’s started 25 games in Gordon’s absence and is playing 23.2 minutes a night — but shooting only 35% from the field, 32% from 3 and 55% from the foul line. His 5.32 player-efficiency rating, almost 10 whole points below the league average, is dead-last among rookies on pace to play at least 500 minutes this season; Anthony Davis, in contrast, only trails Andre Drummond. Rivers’ ability to feel passing lanes (2.1 assists) also needs considerable improvement.

Yet I’m still high on this New Orleans team, very high. Vasquez has shown a distributor facet to his game I never expected from his days in Memphis, where he was mostly pinned in starter Mike Conley’s shadow. His 9.4 assists per game is 3rd in the NBA, trailing only Boston’s Rajon Rondo and L.A.’s Chris Paul. Vasquez could still make strides as a shooter and scorer, though he’s up to 13 points per game and 43% shooting, but his 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio is best on the team, as is his propensity to locate New Orleans’ open shooters. At 6’6″, he has great size for a 1-guard, and he’s even a willing rebounder, at 4.5 per game.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MILWAUKEE BUCKS

In the frontcourt, New Orleans has 4 guys worth keeping around: Davis, Anderson, Robin Lopez and Jason Smith. All 4 of these guys, maybe subtracting Lopez, are capable of stretching their games outside, with Anderson primarily an assassin from distance — he’s attempted a league-high 400 3’s and made a league-best 159 — and Davis sometimes even playing as if he’s a guard. At 6’10” and with probably the most athleticism for a Western Conference big aside from Blake Griffin, Davis, 19, should bulk up and develop his around-the-basket offerings. In the meantime, at 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, the Kentucky rookie is still a more-than-capable pro.

Smith, a 48% shooter, is a nice floor-spacing option, and Lopez, though limited as a rebounder (a career-high 5.5 per game in 2012-13), is a solid contributor around the basket on both ends, with strength, energy and a team-high 56% shooting percentage. New Orleans, the league’s 20th-ranked rebounding unit (but a +1.0 differential), is forced to rely too heavily on bruising SF Al-Farouq Aminu, a team-best 7.5 boards per game, who’s limited shooting range and overall offensive game has yet to develop.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MIAMI HEAT

Unsurprisingly, New Orleans’ problem is scoring. With all their perimeter-oriented bigs, the Hornets struggle to get to the FT line, averaging a 28th-ranked 19.3 attempts per game. Anderson is, by all means, a chucker, throwing up 7.4 3-point attempts per game off the bench on the way to his team-high 16.9 points. Davis also often settles too easily for an outside jumper, relying more on his range than his athleticism against slower bigs. Gordon’s full-time return, likely by the end of the season, should help here, considering not only his ability to hit an open outside shot, but also to slash, score and create. (New Orleans’ offense currently scores a 24th-ranked 94 points per game.)

Brian Roberts, a 27-year-old rookie PG out of Dayton, has impressed me, with an ability to create his own shot and score in bunches — he’s averaging 6.4 points in 14.4 minutes and has a PER, 15.0, almost 3-times that of Rivers. Roberts filled up the cup for 17 points, 7-8 from the field, against Cleveland on Wednesday in 11 minutes. And New Orleans’ highest-percentage outside threat, journeyman Mason Jr., has shot the ball consistently — 44% from the field and 42% from 3 — in a limited role all season. In all, the Hornets’ bench, last year ranked No. 18 at 30.3 points per game, has jumped up to No. 11, at 36.8 points a night.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Even with Gordon’s max deal, all 3 rookies under lock and Anderson’s $8+ million per, New Orleans has all its main pieces locked up through next year, minus Aminu, with team options on Lopez and Roberts, to the tune of around $40 million, meaning plenty of room to sign a few impact free agents, or preserve the flexibility. But more importantly, New Orleans needs to make a decision on Gordon, whose name’s been floated recently in trade rumors. Should the Hornets decide to deal him this offseason (or even by Thursday’s trade deadline), the organization would take an immediate step back, but hopefully acquire assets in the mold of draft picks and young players to build around Davis.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Say New Orleans holds on to Gordon, who returns fully healthy at the start of the 2013-14 season, I see no reason why this New Orleans team cannot make a fringe playoff push, for the first time since Chris Paul’s departure.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


30 in 30: LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

February 15, 2013

This almost goes without saying at this point, but it’s still remarkable to think about: after the Dwight Howard trade, did anyone honestly imagine the Clippers, not the Lakers, would be, hands down, Southern California’s best basketball team? I mean, heading into this season, Vinny Del Negro had no job security, Chauncey Billups was battling back from his torn Achilles, suffered in February 2012, and L.A. had to integrate 7 new free agent contributors. Headed into Thursday’s game against the Lakers, the Clippers are 38-17, leading the Pacific Division by 6 games, finally getting healthy and all but locked into the No. 3 seed.

L.A.’s +6.4 points differential is 3rd in the NBA, even ahead of Miami’s +6.3 mark. Balance is key: the Clippers possess the league’s 10th-ranked scoring offense, 100 points per game, and the 4th-best defense, 93.6 per game. Their roster boasts 2 All Star starters, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a fringe snub in likely Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford.

At 40.3 points per game, Del Negro has the league’s 3rd-highest scoring bench, and on any given night has the potential to go 12 deep — 13 Clippers’ players have appeared in at least 6 games. Oh, and now they’re all finally getting healthy — only Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan have played in all 55 games this season. (Willie Green started 49 games this season, but now that Billups has returned from injury, he’s been relegated to not playing at all.)

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — INDIANA PACERS

Paul, an unrestricted free agent this summer, is likely to return, and, unlike his L.A. counterpart Howard, has ducked the distracting speculation of his impending status. In spite of Kyrie Irving’s ascendance, Paul still has to be considered the league’s best 1-guard; his play warrants MVP consideration, though LeBron James is a runaway favorite to win the award. Paul’s 26.53 PER is 3rd-best in the NBA, trailing only LeBron and Kevin Durant. Paul’s averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 assists in a career-low 33 minutes per game, and his fundamentals — career-high in free throw percentage and career-low in turnovers — are still (scarily, I might add) improving. (Paul recently missed a 9-game stretch due to a bruised right kneecap; the Clippers finished 3-6 in those games, with only 2 of the opponents likely playoff teams.)

Blake Griffin’s development from a highlight dunker to a franchise offensive talent is also worth noting. Griffin, 23 and in only his 3rd full season, has the NBA’s 10th-best PER, tops among all Western Conference bigs not named Tim Duncan. He’s playing the fewest minutes of his career, 32.5, but still averaging 18.5 points and 8.7 boards on 54% shooting. His free throw percentage, 66%, is still less than desirable, but nearly a 14-point improvement over 2011-12. His mid-range jumper continues to improve, posing a challenge for opposing defenses: guard him closely to see him blow by you and dunk in your face, or let him settle for a face-up jumper, which he’s also likely to drop in your grill.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — HOUSTON ROCKETS

At the other frontcourt spot, Jordan continues to disappoint despite a solid start to the season. The 24-year-old center is still a strong interior presence defensively, with sheer athleticism and an ability to finish around the rim. Jordan’s shooting 60% from the field, though he’s not at all an offensive threat outside of 5 feet, and his sub-43% FT shooting means he’s a liability on the floor in close games. Free agent acquisitions Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf are capable reserves who can rebound and defend, but Lamar Odom, and his team-low 38.7 FG percentage, has seen his struggles from Dallas last year continue in a new uniform.

At the 3, Caron Butler is a bit of a wash at about 10 points per game, but reserve Matt Barnes has been surprisingly effective off the bench, averaging 10.4 points per himself, the highest mark of his 10-year NBA career. Between the two (and veteran Grant Hill), Del Negro has a core group of veterans who can hit outside shots and defend (look no further than Hill’s shutdown 4th quarter defense of Carmelo Anthony from Sunday), which is more important than more isolation scorers, especially on a team that already has Griffin, Paul and Crawford.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

In the backcourt, the Clippers carry 4 more guys — Crawford, Green, Billups and Bledsoe — with scoring chops and playoff experience. (Amazingly, all 13 players to log minutes for L.A. this year have played postseason basketball.) Crawford is normally paired with Paul in the big moments, as his 17 points per game trails only Griffin. The ball often sticks in Crawford’s hands, but his 43% FG percentage is more than 2 points above his career average, and his one-on-one isolation skills are easily the best on this team.

Billups is one of the most important pieces to this puzzle. His veteran leadership (just watch guys flock to him during timeouts and huddles) and 3-point shooting will be important factors in the playoffs. Bledsoe, the team’s 2-guard of the future, is a fireball of energy off the bench; to put his athleticism into context, he’s 6’1″ and averages 0.9 blocks per game in 21.2 minutes. His 19.0 PER is 3rd best on the team, behind Paul and Griffin, and he’s averaging career-highs in every major statistical category besides assists. Shooting-wise, his FG percentage is up 6 points over last year, his FT percentage 16 and 3-point percentage 23.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — DETROIT PISTONS

Financially, the Clippers are about where should be expected, with $45.3 million on the books for 2013-14 before Chris Paul’s (projected) max deal this summer. L.A.’s stuck with Butler’s $8 million per through next season and probably regretting Jordan’s roughly $11 million per through 2014-15. Crawford’s signed for cheap next year ($5.25 million), as is Bledsoe ($2.6 million) and Hill ($2.1 million). The Clippers will more than likely sign a few ring-chasing veterans for minimum deals again this offseason. (Whether Billups retires is a story worth keeping an eye on.)

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — DENVER NUGGETS

But back to this year. Del Negro’s team is likely to square off with either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in Round 2. The Clippers are 2-0 against the Spurs, the same team that swept L.A. out of the playoffs last year, this season, but 0-2 against OKC. Whether the Clippers can get through both of these teams and then Miami is what ultimately lies in their championship path.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


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