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.


Mavs lurking by No. 8 playoff seed.

March 27, 2013

In not-so-good news for any team chasing the Western Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed, namely the L.A. Lakers and Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks refuse to surrender their season. Even after falling at home to the playoff-bound Clippers on Tuesday, Dallas sits only one game behind the Lakers, even with No. 9 seed Utah. Less than 2 years after winning an NBA championship, head coach Rick Carlisle’s team has fought its way back, winning 10 of their last 14.

In fact, Dallas, 35-36, is only 3 consecutive wins away from shaving some of their ridiculous beards, as part of a pledge many of them made in February to not trim their facial hair until the team reached .500. (Well, their next 4 and 6 of their last 11 are against likely playoff teams, including 2 vs. the streaking Denver Nuggets, so maybe Dirk & Co. should expected to keep the ‘Duck Dynasty’ look.)

Before we go further, a quick look at the West’s fight for the No. 8 seed:

LAL: 36-35, 1-2 vs. Utah (0 left, head-to-head), 2-1 vs. Dallas (1)

UTA: 35-36, 2-1 vs. LAL (0), 2-1 vs. Dallas (0)

DAL: 35-36, 1-2 vs. LAL (1), 1-2 vs. Utah (0)

And remaining schedules

LAL: at MIN, at MIL, at SAC, vs. DAL, vs. MEM, at LAC, vs. NO, at POR, vs. GS, vs. SA, vs. HOU

UTA: vs. PHO, at POR, vs. BK, vs. POR, vs. DEN, vs. NO, at GS, vs. OKC, vs. MIN, at MIN, at MEM

DAL: vs. IND, vs. CHI, at LAL, at DEN, at SAC, at POR, vs. PHO, vs. DEN, at NO, vs. MEM, vs. NO

Of those schedules, the Lakers’ scares me least. Utah sees the fewest likely playoff teams (5), compared to L.A. and Dallas (both 6), but L.A. catches the breaks in timing. Milwaukee’s lost 3 straight and 6 of 8, so that one doesn’t scare me, nor does playing a San Antonio or Houston team (in the last 2 games of the season) that may be locked into its playoff seeding by then. Utah has 3 games remaining — Brooklyn, Denver and Memphis — against team’s fighting for home-court in the 1st round, and Dallas has 5. (The Lakers have 2 — Memphis and the Clippers — but both games are in their friendly, Staples Center confines.)

But given all that’s happened to Dallas this season, I find it amazing they’re even still alive. Their best player, future-Hall-of-Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki, missed the season’s first 27 games due to knee surgery — in which the Mavs started the year 12-15 — and has been limited just about ever since. Chris Kaman’s missed 14 games, Brandan Wright 18 and Shawn Marion 15. A remarkable 15 guys have started at least a game for Dallas, and 21 have logged regular season minutes.

Poor health aside, the team’s 2 most consistent players have been O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter. The hole Tyson Chandler’s departure left last season has yet to be filled, and only been exacerbated by the hole the departure of point guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry created. Darren Collison — 12.2 points, 5.2 assists and 47 starts — has been pushed out of the starting lineup for Mike James — yep that 37-year-old Mike James.

Think about it this way. According to 82games, their best 5-man unit, at least in terms of scoring differential, is James, 37; Carter, 36; Jae Crowder, 22; Nowitzki, 34; and Brand, 34. That unit’s scores 1.24 points per possession, the best of any Mavericks’ 5-man combination to log at least 30 minutes together, and yields only 0.97 points per possession to opponents, the best of any 5-man combination to play at least 40 minutes together. They’ve outscored opponents by 25 points in 49.2 minutes — again, a lack of shared time largely due to injuries. (Average age? 32.6.)

Of course this team’s not a threat to do anything in the postseason. Last year, OKC swept the defending champs in the 1st round, and that team drew core contributions from Kidd, Terry and Delonte West. So, unless Dirk were to go bonkers one night, Dallas would probably be swept again.

In the NBA, though, a stubborn lurker with a superstar is never someone to take lightly. And the fact they’re still hanging around, when everyone, myself included, wrote them off months ago, is really a testament to the guys in the locker room, starting with Carlisle.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: DALLAS MAVERICKS

February 9, 2013

The Dallas Mavericks are certainly happy their Western Conference counterpart L.A. Lakers are approaching new levels in futility, or their disappointing season, unlikely to end with a postseason bid, would be grabbing a few more headlines. Headed into Friday’s games, the Mavericks stood at 21-28, 7 games below .500, 4th in the Southeast Division and 5 games out of the No. 8 seed. A year and a half ago, this team was atop the NBA throne, but now, after a first-round playoff exit last year, you would be hard-pressed to argue the Mavericks’ brass hasn’t wasted the latter part of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, barring a free agent coup, ala Dwight Howard, this summer.

The most cited reason for this team’s demise has been the departure of Tyson Chandler, who anchored the middle of the Mavericks’ championship defense before signing with New York. Dallas is 28th in the league in points allowed (103), 15th in opponent’s field goal percentage, 23rd in opponent’s 3-point percentage and 14th in rebounding. Gone are key championship components like Chandler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic and DeShawn Stevenson; since arrived are O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, Dahntay Jones, Chris Kaman, Brandan Wright and a host of young guys.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

I was high on Dallas coming into the year. Collison is a more than capable point guard who formed a dynamic duo with Indiana Pacers running-mate George Hill, but the absence of Kidd, 7.9 points and 8.2 assists per game in Dallas’ 2010-11 championship campaign, and Terry, 15.1 points and 4.1 assists that year, has been more difficult to overcome than expected, especially from a leadership perspective. Collison, 12.7 points on 48% shooting and 5.3 assists, is far from terrible, but lacks the big-time shot making ability of Terry and the distributor skills of Kidd.

Mayo, 18 points per game, has been the Rick Carlisle’s primary option, given knee surgery that’s kept Nowitzki out of 29 games and under minute restrictions in most others. Carter, 12.8 points in 25.2 minutes, has been a pleasant surprise, showing he still has something left at age 36; his 17.0 PER is tied with Shawn Marion for tops on the team among players who have appeared in at least 45 games (Wright, 7.2 points in 32 games, is No. 1 among all players at 20.4). And scoring is not a big issue for Dallas, even minus Dirk — they’re 9th in the league at 100.6 points per game, 11th in field goal percentage, 10th in 3-point percentage, 11th in assists and tied for 5th-fewest in turnovers.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

But Dallas is stuck as a franchise — they’re not good enough to contend with the top teams in the West, nor are they bad enough to accumulate and develop steady lottery picks. The team is slim on young talent — after Collison and Mayo, rookie Jae Crowder has flashed potential as an inside-out 3, and Bernard James could develop as a workhorse big, but not much else. (Crowder, 5.5 points per game on 37& shooting and a well-below-average 11.1 PER, probably has a higher ceiling.) And Wright, a former lottery pick, has upside as an athletic, versatile big with 6’10” length, but has yet to catch on with 3 different teams, a dangerous prospect for a 25-year-old.

And the team has essentially no trade assets, with the Feb. 21 deadline fast approaching. Carter is the one guy other teams seem to be calling about, given his production, shooting ability and inexpensive contract, but trading Vince would bring little of value in return and hardly move the needle financially. If Dallas could package Carter and Shawn Marion, due $9.3 million next year, for an expiring deal or two from a desperate contender, that could free up enough space for a Dwight Howard max deal this offseason. (These prospects are complicated, though, as recent reports say Marion would refuse to report, if he’s traded to a ‘bad’ team.)

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — CHICAGO BULLS

Dallas has $48 million on the books for next year, should the Mavs extend affordable qualifying offers to Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois, who’s struggled to see the floor this year, and Mayo pick up his $4.2 million player option, which could be unlikely considering his scoring ability in a weak free agent class, meaning Mark Cuban’s team is comfortably below the cap (and Cuban, for what it’s worth, would not hesitate to throw some of his millions into the NBA’s luxury tax jar). But the problem in going after Howard, even if Dallas is rumored to be a frontrunner to land his services, is what do you offer him? Surely Howard’s chances to win are better in Los Angeles, who can, by the way, pay him more money since they own his bird rights. The only piece Dallas can throw at Howard is Nowitzki, who’s 34, battling thigh problems and coming off knee surgery.

Conclusion: Barring a minor miracle this offseason, it’s going to get worse for Dallas before it gets better.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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