3 reasons to love the Earl Clark signing

July 5, 2013

About 86 hours into free agency, Chris Grant made his first move. Enter Sporting News’ Sean Deveney.

And TNT’s David Aldridge.

Boom. And here’s 3 reasons why I love this deal.

1. It’s all about the $.

A team option for year No. 2 of this deal means zero risk for the Cavaliers, a team clearly trying to preserve at least enough cap space for next summer to make a run at a max free agent. If Clark fails to meet expectations, Grant can easily wash his hands of the former Louisville product a year from now, and we’re right back where we started.

Should he so desire, Grant could still throw $15 million a year at a Nikola Pekovic, Paul Millsap or Andre Iguodala and remain firmly under the cap, though I’d guess those are unlikely. Or, Grant could fill out his roster with short-term deals and rookie contracts, then leave ample room for a major splash next summer, should LeBron James explore the market. Until this year’s rookie class is signed, the Cavaliers actually have $0 on the books for next season, just team options.

On Clark’s end, after a breakout year in an ugly situation, I expected more potential suitors. Clark had never played more than 12.5 minutes per game before last season, and still only averaged 7.3 points with the Lakers. But his age, 25; size and versatility, 6’10” and can play the 3 or 4; and range, 34% from 3 last year and improving, make him an appealing target.

Now, he’s in Cleveland on essentially a 1-year, $4.5-million deal. And you know he’ll work his ass off because it’s very much a contract year.

2. Versatility, baby.

That Mike Brown loved this kid enough to help lure him to Cleveland, after coaching him for only 5 regular season games in L.A., tells me a lot. Mike D’Antoni said last year that Clark could guard all 5 positions. With Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao at the 4, early reports indicate the Cavs plan on using Clark at the 3. Clark should compete with Alonzo Gee and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, another stretch 3-4 at 6’7″, for a starting spot.

A thrown-in part of the Dwight Howard deal, Clark averaged a very respectable 11.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. L.A.’s most commonly used 5-man lineup — Clark, Howard, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Steve Nash — left Clark at the 4 for close to 340 minutes. D’Antoni loved Clark so much, he started him in 36 games, often over 4-time All Star Pau Gasol.

Clark immediately becomes the best perimeter defender on the Cavs’ roster. In a conference with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson, he’ll draw a range of assignments.

Consider these words from ESPN L.A.’s Dave McMenamin, who covers the Lakers.

3. Another weapon for Kyrie, Cavs.

Just add another face to a team loaded with young, quality talent. I’m not suggesting Clark is as important to Cleveland’s long-term future as Kyrie Irving, Thompson, Bennett or even Dion Waiters, but it’s not every day you add a playoff-caliber role player. (I’m not concerned with his dismal postseason stats against the Spurs — 3.5 points, 3 rebounds and 37% shooting — given how short-handed L.A. was for that series.)

I anointed Clark one of my 5 second-tier free agents to watch last week, before I knew Cleveland had interest. If there was any doors open on a Luke Walton or Omri Casspi return, those are, thankfully, shut. With team options on both for 2014-15, I’m guessing Clark and Gee will spend 2013-14 fighting for one spot, unless the Cavs strike out next July.

This move was made because of Clark’s defensive prowess. But he can grow as a 3-point shooter — hopefully enough to stretch the floor for Kyrie-AV pick-and-rolls and Tristan post-ups — and rebounder.

By no means is this a blockbuster move. But be excited, fellow Cavs fans.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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3 free agents I’d love to see in Wine & Gold

June 30, 2013

Cleveland Cavaliers GM Chris Grant has quite the rainy day fund to play with, or not play with, this summer. Within the past 2 days, Marreese Speights has declined a $4.5-million player option, and Grant decided not to extend $3-million qualifying offers to Omri Casspi and Wayne Ellington, effectively making all 3 unrestricted free agents. Cleveland owns a $2.25-million team option on C.J. Miles, who was reportedly on the block on draft night.

So, if the Cavs pick up Miles’ option, Grant will have about $30.25 million tied up in 7 players; if not, about $28 million tied up in 6. That does not include any of the team’s 3 draft selections — Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev or Carrick Felix — all of whom I’d expect in a Cleveland uniform on opening night.

The salary cap for the 2013-14 NBA season is set for around $58.5 million, and the floor, or minimum teams must spend on players, about $52.65 million, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe.

Grant has money to burn. But he also has to be smart — next summer’s free agent class, and of course the possibility of LeBron returning, is much better, plus Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson will be due considerable extensions about 16 months from now. So Grant either has to a) front-load any hefty deals, or b) sign veteran guys to 1-year deals.

That said, here’s 3 lower-tier free agents Grant could have at a bargain.

No. 1: Greg Oden, 25, C, free agent

To me, this is a no-brainer low-risk, high-reward type of move. Oden, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2007 Draft, played a year at Ohio State. Alongside Miami, who’s restricted in the amount of money they can offer the 7-footer, Cleveland’s the team most commonly mentioned in the Oden sweepstakes.

Cleveland passed on Nerlens Noel and Alex Len in Thursday’s draft, and thus need a center. The Cavs are not players in the Dwight Howard chase, and, despite a HoopsWorld report to the contrary, I refuse to believe Grant’s serious about signing the sideshow that is Andrew Bynum, who played the same amount of games as Oden last year.

Yes, Oden has not played since the 2009-10 season, and has only played 82 games in his entire career. But consider these stats from his 21 games in ’09-10: 11.1 points on 60% from the field and 77% from the foul line, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in 23.9 minutes. Per 36 minutes, that’s 16.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks; in 35.8 minutes per last year, Dwight Howard averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.

It would be unwise to expect these numbers from Oden right away, or even at all, but even glimpses over 15 quality minutes a night is worth a few million. A rim-protector and quality finisher in close, Oden would also give the Cavs the 3rd No. 1 overall selection on their roster. If he can be had for $8-10 million over 2 years, with a team option for the second, I’m all for it.

No. 2: Corey Brewer, 27, SF, Denver Nuggets

I’ve loved Brewer’s game for as long as I can remember. Tennessee’s Mr. Basketball in 2004, a 2-time national champion at Florida in 2006 and 2007, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player in ’07, and an NBA champion in 2011 — though he only appeared in a combined 19 games, regular season and playoffs, for the latter.

Energy, defense, intangibles, more energy. Perhaps George Karl’s up-tempo style was the perfect fit for Brewer; he averaged 12.1 points in 24.4 minutes last year. But he’s also shown he can score in a slower style — he started all 82 games for Minnesota in 2009-10 and netted 13 points per 30.3 minutes.

Mike Brown would love Brewer’s length — he’s 6’9″ — on the perimeter, but how he’d fare defensively in the post, at only 188 pounds, against guys like LeBron James, 250; Carmelo Anthony, 230; and Paul Pierce, 235, is another story. Either way, if the market for small forwards collapsed and Grant threw $3-4.5 million annually at this guy — Brewer made $3.25 this year — I’d be thrilled.

No. 3: Shaun Livingston, 27, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

Grant doesn’t have to look outside his own locker room for candidate No. 3. A Christmas Day signing in 2012, Livingston contributed, probably too much, to the Cavs this year — he averaged 7.2 points, 3.6 assists and shot 51% from the field in 23.2 minutes. The former No. 4 overall pick even started 12 games as Kyrie Irving missed time late in the year.

The fact that Livingston was able to return from this and, 6 years later, is still a solid role player in this league tells me everything I need to know about the guy. I love his 6’7″-frame on the perimeter, his ability to back down smaller point guards and score over the top, and his effectiveness in delivering the ball to his bigs. By all indications, he’s a quality teammate and an even better backup point for Kyrie, a spot the Cavs had struggled to fill prior to his arrival.

Fox Sports Ohio’s Sam Amico reported June 1 the Cavs like Livingston, but his camp was likely to seek a deal larger than they’d be willing to pay. I’m not saying throw $4-5 million annually at Livingston, but if he finds the market a bit cooler than he expected, I’d be more than happy with a 2-3 year deal worth $2-3 million per. Health is no longer much of a concern; Livingston appeared in 66 games for 2 teams last year, 58 in the lockout-shortened campaign the year prior, and 73 in 2010-11.

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: ORLANDO MAGIC

February 24, 2013

When the Orlando Magic shipped superstar Dwight Howard to sunny Los Angeles in August, everyone knew the Magic’s immediate future was, well, not so sunny. In that deal, Orlando acquired 5 draft picks, 3 first-rounders and 2 second-rounders, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and rookie Moe Harkless in exchange for Howard and cap fillers Chris Duhon, Earl Clark and Jason Richardson. GM Rob Hennigan was ripped in the national press for the return, or lack thereof, as the Magic netted cap relief, some picks and a quality 2-guard in Afflalo, but none of the deal’s 3 stars — Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala — came to Florida.

Not so fast, my friend. Howard’s impending free agent status is still very much uncertain in the midst of a made-for-TV nightmare season in L.A., and Bynum’s yet to log a minute of game action for Philly. Thrust into the primary scorer role, Afflalo has responded better than I anticipated, averaging a team- and career-high 16.8 points per game on 45% shooting, showcasing abilities to not only be a lockdown defender on one end, but an isolation scorer on the other. And Vucevic, an afterthought in the deal, is turning in a double-double per night, at 12.4 points and 11.5 boards, on 52% shooting. His points and rebounds have more than doubled over last year, when he started 15 games in Philadelphia. His player-efficiency rating, 17.7, is the team’s 2nd-best.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Sure, since a better-than-expected 12-13 start that had some in Orlando pondering playoffs in mid-December, the Magic have only won a horrific 3 of 31. At 15-41, Orlando’s boosting its lottery chances, only besting the 13-43 Bobcats thus far. And Orlando’s roster is chock full of young guys who’ve yet to prove themselves in the NBA; 8 guys are 23 or younger — Vucevic, Harkless, Tobias Harris, DeQuan Jones, Andrew Nicholson, Doron Lamb, Kyle O’Quinn and E’Twuan Moore.

Watching all these young guys play the Cavaliers on Saturday, they’re sometimes hard to distinguish. I’m really high on Nicholson, the 23-year-old rookie out of St. Bonaventure — a very solid around-the-basket forward with an excellent PER, 15.58, and very nice scoring numbers, 8.1 points in less than 17 minutes on 53% shooting. O’Quinn’s another capable rookie bruiser, at 6’10”, 240, who scores 3.1 points per in less than 8 minutes; his 19.30 PER, albeit in limited minutes, is a team-high.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — NEW YORK KNICKS

At the 3, Orlando’s acquired 2 pieces, Harkless and Harris (via Thursday’s J.J. Redick deal), with exceptional athleticism and the ability to attack the cup. Harkless, 19, and Harris, a 2nd-year player at 20, are both non-lottery 1st-round selections with field goal percentages in excess of 46%, yet both (21% for Harkless, 33% for Harris) are limited from 3-point range. Harkless especially is a strong rebounder, at 4.1 per 20.5 minutes. Harris, who reaches the FT line just as much as Harkless in half the minutes this year, is an 89% shooter; Harkless is 57%.

If I’m head coach Jacques Vaughn, himself a youngster at 38, I see 26 games left in the 2012-13 season to get all these guys some valuable game experience. And it helps to have intelligent veteran leaders, like an Afflalo or a Jameer Nelson, who’s still going strong at 14.5 points, a personal best since 2008-09, and 7.4 assists per, strangely a career-high sans Howard. At the 4, Glen Davis is also still productive, with a career-high 15.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per, though he’s already missed 22 games and is out for the season with a broken left foot.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Assuming Hedo Turkoglu picks up his $12 million player option — a good bet since he’s only appeared in 11 games this season and is currently serving a 20-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy — Orlando’s already looking at about $53 million in contracts committed for 2013-14. And that ignores the $22.35 million the team’s paying Gilbert Arenas, currently playing in China, who was amnestied in December 2011 (of course, that money does not count against the cap).

Once 2014-15 hits, Orlando has less than $23 million committed to Al Harrington, yet to play this year due to a staph infection, Afflalo and Davis, with a reasonable $8 million team option on Nelson and much more affordable ones on essentially all the young guys. With a deep free agent class that summer, maybe that’s the time Hennigan makes a splash and tries to acquire a 2nd-tier max player to pair with his young core.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Right now, Orlando’s lacking points. At 93.8 per game, they’re tied for 24th in the league in points, and are 28th in 3-point percentage, which will only worsen given Redick’s departure. Vaughn’s bench is 19th in scoring at 30.4 points per game, again largely thanks to Redick’s 15.1. Defensively, they’re not much better — the Magic force a league-worst 6 steals per game, surrender a 20th-ranked 99.4 points per game and are 22nd in opponent’s FG percentage.

No one said the transition to the post-D12 era would be easy in Orlando, especially as the Magic are set to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06, Howard’s 2nd year in the league. Vaughn has a handful of pieces to tinker with, but for this team to have any success, someone has to ascend and replace D12 as the Magic’s new face.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


30 in 30: LOS ANGELES LAKERS

February 16, 2013

This team’s disaster of a season has been the subject of so much national media attention, I hesitated to even write this piece. But, hey, it’s the ’30 in 30′ for a reason, so I’m obliged to provide my 5 readers with analysis of all 30 teams. (Plus, I think there’s a small part of all of us non-Lakers fans who derive a small bit of pleasure from their struggles.)

So let’s break it down. After a 24-point home loss to the Clippers on Thursday night, the Lakers are 25-29 and 3.5 games out of the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed. Sure, the playoffs are still within reach, with Golden State, Utah and Houston, the West’s No. 6-though-8 seeds, relatively untested and not immune to a late season collapse. And the Lakers are on the cusp, or at least that’s what we’ve been saying for weeks now; after all, they are the NBA’s only non-playoff team to be outscoring their opponents thus far this season.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Schedule-wise, L.A. has 14 home and road games remaining, each; they’re 16-11 at home, but 9-18 away from Staples Center. 14 of those games are against likely playoff teams, and two are against Portland, currently the only team standing between them and 8th-seeded Houston, whom the Lakers play in their regular season finale April 17. My bet is still on L.A. not earning a postseason bid, but should one of those 3 teams start to skid, Mike D’Antoni’s team is the logical choice to slide into that final spot. (But, hey, nothing’s been logical about this team this year!)

So what is going wrong in Southern California? Here’s a team that, after the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard acquisitions, almost everyone was penciling into the Finals against Miami. Metta World Peace even speculated in September that L.A. could tally an NBA-record 73 wins. (If L.A. were to win out, they would finish with 53.) But the crazy thing is, with a starting lineup of Nash, Kobe Bryant, World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard, four of whom are likely Hall of Famers, that mark seemed within reach, at least on paper.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — INDIANA PACERS

The Lakers fired Mike Brown after 5 games, only to hire Brown’s coaching opposite, D’Antoni, less than a month into the season — a move with which I cautiously expressed concern at the time. In a roster with two talented post players, I still do not quite understand the move to hire such an up-tempo offensive coach. D’Antoni is by no means the sole reason for this sinking ship, but an insistence on starting Earl Clark over Gasol, as well as a borderline criminal misuse of Howard, though still not healthy, has to be seen as head-scratching in NBA circles.

L.A. puts up a 6th-ranked 101.6 points per game, but surrenders a 23rd-worst 100.9 to opponents. This summer, the Lakers brought in Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Clark and Chris Duhon, as well as re-signed Jordan Hill, to improve upon their 30th-ranked scoring bench from a year ago, but this year they’ve only climbed 4 spots to 26th, with Gasol’s 7 games as a reserve padding those stats. Nash, a 2-time MVP in Phoenix and this generation’s preeminent passing point guard, has been relegated to an off-the-ball spot-up shooter, contributing to his lowest assist numbers (7.4 per game) since 2002-03. As a team, the Lakers are 15th in assists, even with Kobe’s recent emergence as a facilitator, and the pick-and-rolls, staples of a Nash and D’Antoni offense, just aren’t there with a slow, ailing Howard.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — HOUSTON ROCKETS

Health is a major factor outside of L.A.’s control. Howard’s still recovering from back surgery that prematurely ended his 2011-12 season in Orlando and has yet to resemble his explosive, dominating self this year. A torn labrum has limited Howard in recent weeks, even prompting Bryant and Nash to essentially say, ‘Hey, suck it up!’ Gasol’s torn plantar fascia should keep him out of the lineup well into March. Nash missed 24 games early this season with a left leg injury, Blake has only played 17 games due to abdominal surgery, and Hill has already been ruled out for the rest of the season due to hip surgery. Bryant is the only Lakers player to suit up in all 54 games.

Kobe is, from an efficiency perspective, playing some of the best basketball of his career. His 12th-ranked PER is tops on the team, and despite all his struggles, Howard’s 19.2 PER is ranked 41st. Bryant’s scoring has hardly dipped over last year, yet his 46.4% FG percentage is his best since 2008-09, and his 5.6 assists per are his highest since 2004-05; in his last 10 games, Bryant is averaging 7.4 assists.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Defensively, though, L.A. has issues. Nash, 39, is and always has been a liability, especially against the West’s faster point guards. (Lakers’ opponents drill 7.2 3-balls a game, showing how slow they are in spaces on the perimeter.) Howard, a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year, is clearly hampered by health issues, though he still leads the league in rebounding, 11.8 per game, and is 5th in blocked shots, 2.33. Bryant and World Peace are both capable defenders, though Metta has seen his lateral quickness slow with age. Jamison, the team’s leading scorer off the pine, has always been a poor defender, adding to just how much the Lakers miss Hill’s athleticism.

Financially, L.A.’s even more of a mess than on the floor, with a league-high $100+ million on the books this season. Howard’s a free agent this summer, and whether he sticks around remains to be seen. General Manager Mitch Kupchak’s stuck paying Pau’s $19.3 million next year, since his injury and shattered confidence equals little trade value, and World Peace’s $7.7 million player option expires in the summer of 2014. The Lakers owe a combined $8 million to backup 1-guards, Blake and Duhon, next season, and another $9+ to Nash through 2015. But, fortunately for L.A., even if Howard is lucratively re-signed, Nash is currently the only contract on the books for 2014-15, meaning a run at LeBron James or another max free agent is plausible, if not probable.

RELATED: MAKING THE CASE FOR LAKERS TO DEAL D12

Future aside, this year has to go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in the history of professional sports, should the Lakers not earn a postseason berth. This would be the first time since 2004-05, a team that starred Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, the purple and gold have failed to make the playoffs. No pressure.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


30 in 30: ATLANTA HAWKS

February 3, 2013

When Danny Ferry assumed the Hawks’ GM post this summer, he didn’t waste much time getting to business. And why not — the Hawks, like many teams under the new CBA, were laden with bad contracts and had bottomed-out as a mid-tier team in the East. Yeah, Atlanta was a sure bet to make the postseason year after year, but hardly a threat to make noise in May or June. In the Joe Johnson era, the Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals three times, but were swept twice and lost the other in 6 to Chicago. A rebuild was in order.

Enter Ferry. After a week on the job, Ferry gutted the Hawks, dealing Joe Johnson, and his $90 million through 2015-16, to a Brooklyn Nets’ team desperate to keep its star, Deron Williams, in town, and Marvin Williams, and thus his $16 million through 2013-14, to Utah. All within 24 hours.

Yes, the Hawks were taking an interim step back, but more importantly were re-tooling for a major run in the summer of 2013 — to potentially lure SF/PF Josh Smith to stay in town and maybe even attract the free agent services of Dwight Howard, an Atlanta native, should he decide to leave L.A. The Hawks, after all, have a roster chock full of expiring deals, with only $18.5 million on the books for next season.

I appreciated Ferry’s genius this summer, but didn’t expect the Hawks to make a playoff run. Fast forward to Feb. 3, and they’re 26-20, only 5 games back of the East-leading Miami Heat. Atlanta’s probably not a threat to make any postseason noise, but that they’re this competitive, with that much money to spend this summer, has to be a good message to Smith and other free agents this summer.

And Smith has, by all accounts, had another productive year. A fringe All Star who some say was snubbed, Smith is averaging 16.9 points and 8.5 rebounds in 36 minutes a night, all improvements from his career marks. But whether Smith can be a team leader remains a question; he was suspended 1 game for the oft-dreaded ‘conduct detrimental to the team’ last month and, in another vein, continues to settle for outside jumpers too often when he should use his rare combination of size and athleticism to attack the rim. Of course, Smith is hampered by the Hawks’ slower pace and could very much benefit from a run-and-gun style attack.

The Hawks’ other fringe All Star, Al Horford, is putting together another solid season despite some recent injury issues. He’s averaging 16 points and 9.8 boards a night in 37.3 minutes, remarkable for someone at the PF/C position. His field goal percentage, 53%, remains strong, but his FT percentage has dipped 14 points, to 60%, from his career pace. Horford, 18.42, and Smith, 17.49, rank 50th and 73rd in PER, respectively.

Atlanta has the luxury of riches at the point guard spot, a position of weakness worsened by the fact they passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams for Marvin Williams in the 2005 NBA Draft, with Louis Williams, a FA signing this summer; Jeff Teague, presumably their PG of the future but a RFA this offseason; and Devin Harris, Utah’s return for Williams and a likely free agent departure. Williams, a high-volume scorer who can play the 2 since his days alongside Jrue Holiday in Philadelphia, was scoring 14.1 points a night and ranked in the top 100 in PER, before a torn ACL 2 weeks ago prematurely ended his season. Teague has a relatively high PER, 15.7, and is averaging well above his career marks in points, 13.7, and assists, 6.6, proving he’s worth keeping around.

Atlanta’s offense, 96.2 points per game this year as opposed to 96.6 last year, has barely taken a hit minus Johnson, who often dominated the ball and relied too heavily on isolation. At 23.5 per game, the Hawks are 3rd in the NBA in assists, with 5 10+ points per game scorers; Kyle Korver’s the fifth, averaging 11.5 points and 47.4% shooting from 3. Harris, also battling injuries, gives the Hawks another 8.5 points per night, with an increased role likely throughout the rest of the season.

Fast forward to this summer. The big decision will be on Smith, and whether Ferry wants to commit to him as a cornerstone; if he doesn’t, there’s a team out there who will, especially in a weak free agent class where the two biggest names, Howard and Chris Paul, are likely to stay put in Los Angeles. Horford, through 2015-16, and Williams, through 2014-15, are on the books for the foreseeable future. But Ferry also has decisions on Teague, likely to be back since he’s just restricted, and hustler Zaza Pachulia, who very well could demand more than mid-level exception dollars.

From his days in Cleveland, Ferry’s a free-spender willing to piece a team together around a star. If you’re a Hawks fan, you’ve got to be confident in his cap-shedding approach thus far. Now, let’s see what kind of splash he can make this summer.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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