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.


Semi-delayed thoughts on KG, Pierce deal

June 30, 2013

The biggest news in the NBA world Thursday was not connected to the Draft. Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a bomb that afternoon — the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics were in serious talks regarding a trade that would send Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets in exchange for three first-round draft picks and cap fillers.

As early as Thursday evening, Woj reported an agreement was reached in principle after Garnett agreed to waive his no-trade clause. The trade, Woj said, could not be finalized by the league office until July 10.

Per Woj, the Nets will receive Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry in exchange for first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 (and the right to swap in 2017), Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Kris Joseph, Reggie Evans, and a signed-and-traded Keith Bogans. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reported Saturday MarShon Brooks would be included in the deal, and not Evans and Joseph.

One of the most lopsided trades in recent NBA history.

That’s how I’d describe this trade two days after the fact, should it be league-approved. Boston loses a 15-time All Star in Garnett, 37, and a 10-time All Star in Pierce, 35; both of whom are closer to retirement than their primes, sure, but I’d insist both are still top 25 talents in this league, without debate.

Boston gets 3 good things in this deal: a) Brooks, 24, who averaged 12.6 points per game in less than 30 minutes in his rookie season, before seeing his PT more than halved this year; b) 3 (likely very late) first-round draft picks, including one next year, which is already considered to likely be one of the elite classes in NBA history; and c) the good fortune to wave goodbye to Terry’s contract, which pays him close to $11 million over the next 2 seasons.

But Boston also gets cast-offs in Humphries, Bogans and Wallace, all unlikely to make a major difference on a likely non-playoff team. Oh, and the right to pay Gerald Wallace $10.1 million per over the next 3 seasons. Wallace’s scoring has dropped every season since 2009-10, and he averaged only 7.7 points on sub-40% shooting last year, his lowest totals since 2003-04 in Sacramento.

To Boston’s benefit, Humphries is a $12 million expiring and Brooks is still earning a rookie wage. But Pierce was, assuming GM Danny Ainge picked up his option, a $15.3 million expiring this year, and Garnett, considering his value, is owed a very reasonable $11.5 and $12 million over the next 2 seasons, before his deal expires.

It’s clear the Celtics are blowing the whole thing up. Rumors circulated Saturday of a potential Celtics-Mavericks Rajon Rondo deal. If he’s not dealt this summer, I’d expect Rondo on the block by February’s trade deadline, pending a healthy return from a torn ACL suffered in January.

Can the Nets compete in the East?

Assume this trade goes through and head coach Jason Kidd boasts an opening day starting lineup of Pierce, Garnett, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. That’s 35 All Star appearances among 5 guys. If Brooklyn can round out their bench with quality ring-chasing veterans to surround Terry, you have to think they’re right there with Chicago, Indiana and New York, behind Miami.

But lots of questions remain. Can Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony both stay healthy … and co-exist? How does Derrick Rose return after missing an entire season due to ACL surgery? Are Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer still Bulls, and who does GM Gar Forman find to replace likely free agent departures Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton? Does Danny Granger return healthy as instant offense off Frank Vogel’s bench, or does Indiana ship him elsewhere for assets? Can Indiana re-sign David West?

Oh, and how does a starting lineup of 5 former All Stars — all of whom, minus Lopez, have previously been the star of a playoff team — co-exist?

Only time will tell.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: BOSTON CELTICS

February 4, 2013

When the Celtics bowed out of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, some speculated it could be the end of the “Big 3” era. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, mulling retirement, were free agents, and Paul Pierce was rumored to potentially be on the trading block, due $16.8 million in 2012-13. Just like that, a Hall of Fame-studded trio that came together in 2007 to win championships — they won one, appeared in another Finals and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals twice — was saying goodbye.

But not so fast. GM Danny Ainge lured Garnett to return with a 3-year, $34 million deal, decided to hold on to Pierce, and, though Allen left in free agency for the rival Miami Heat, re-signed Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, as well as brought in veterans Courtney Lee and Jason Terry on deals paying more than $5 million annually. The Celtics, despite the loss of Allen, were far from punting away the “Big 3” and rebuilding toward the future, but rather retooling to win … now.

Well, the early returns are in, and it’s not working. Despite a four-game win streak heading into Monday’s action, the Celtics, 24-23, are holding on to the No. 8 seed in the East. Their presumed cornerstone, Rajon Rondo, is out for at least the rest of this season after suffering a torn ACL in late January. And virtually every player on their roster, Rondo included, has been included in trade rumors with the deadline 17 days away.

So what’s the problem with this team? On paper, Ainge has fielded a $76 million roster, far above the luxury tax, that’s as talented as any in the East, minus Miami’s. The Celtics’ run under the tutelage of Doc Rivers has been predicated on defense — it’s their efforts on this side of ball that landed former assistant (and since NBA Coach of the Year) Tom Thibodeau a head-coaching gig in Chicago — and they rank No. 8 in the NBA this year, though they’re only 29th in total rebounding.

Offensively, the Celtics’ 20th-ranked unit, 95.3 points per game (0.6 less than the 95.9 their defense allows), has struggled all year. Outside of Pierce, 18.6 points per game; Garnett, 14.9; and Rondo, 13.7, Boston only has one scorer in double figures — Jason Terry at 10-even. Not one player on the roster has a 3-point percentage exceeding 38% (Leandro Barbosa). And the highest PER among players who have appeared in at least 40 of the team’s 47 games, excluding the obvious 3, is rookie Jared Sullinger; his 13.64 rating is good for 179th in the NBA, a spot below John Lucas and Carlos Delfino. (It was announced Friday that Sullinger would miss the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery.)

The Celtics’ problem boils down to their reserves. Green, Lee, Terry and Avery Bradley have struggled all year, and the Boston’s backups rank 16th in the Association in scoring. Lee, 46%, is the only of the four with a field goal percentage higher than 44%. And Brandon Bass, well regarded for his mid-range jumper, is shooting 44% from the field, 5 points below his career pace; his 7.5 points per game is 5 points below last year’s mark.

Green, who missed all of last year following heart surgery but signed a 4-year, $36 million deal this summer, has struggled to fit in since leaving Oklahoma City in 2011; his 9.8 points per game is 5.4 below his 2010-11 mark with the Thunder and 6.7 behind his career high in 2008-09. Terry’s scoring is 5.1 points below his mark with last year’s Mavericks, though he’s up to 12.5 points a night since his role increased following Rondo’s injury. And Lee’s 7.4 points per game, a career low, is 4 points behind last year’s average in Houston, though he’s playing 7 less minutes.

The Celtics miss Ray Allen’s shooting and scoring ability, and replacement by committee, the strategy behind committing a combined $36 million to Lee (4 years) and Terry (3 years), is not working. Now, the best thing Boston can do to save face is cut their losses. Should they sneak into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed and draw Miami in the first round, they’ll only lose a lottery pick and let their season last 4 or 5 games longer.

RELATED: TIME TO BLOW IT UP IN BOSTON

Rumors circulated Sunday, with the Clippers in town, that L.A. could be interested in Kevin Garnett, offering up a package of Caron Butler, due $8 million this year and next, and the far-from-energy-deprived Eric Bledsoe in return. Boston could do worse for KG, but they could also do better — KG is, after all, an All Star starter, voted in by the fans, and, though slower than years past, still a more-than-capable defender, playing on a reasonable contract. (Whether he would waive his no-trade clause to likely come off the bench for the Clippers is another story.)

In short, Boston’s chock full of bad contracts — Jeff Green’s and Courtney Lee’s, most notably — but not young talent. Now that the Paul Pierce-for-Rudy Gay swap is off the table, it’s time to look elsewhere.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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