NBA Insider: Trading Away Taj Gibson Could Be The Difference Maker

The Chicago Bulls find themselves in a unique situation, they have two valuable starting power forwards on their team and there’s a ‘sense’ one of them isn’t happy. To be clear, there is no official report stating Taj Gibson is unhappy (like from his mouth), but you’d have to imagine that the acquisition of Pau Gasol pissed him off a little bit.
After the amnesty of Carlos Boozer, Gibson was the front man to sign Carmelo Anthony. Appearing at the United Center for Anthony’s visit, if the Bulls signed Melo then Taj would have instantly become the starting power forward.
Things didn’t work out that way, Pau Gasol was signed instead and Taj finds himself as the backup power forward, nothing has changed.
Trading Gibson Could Be The Difference
According to a report, Yannis Koutroupis of Basketball Insiders thinks trading Gibson could get the Bulls a few more pieces to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and win the Eastern Conference.
“It just makes the most sense for both parties to see if there’s som

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John Calipari gives away beds, pillows to Kentucky fans camping out Big Blue Madness

Five students got Tempur-Pedic mattresses because, apparently, their sleeping setup at Tent City really needed an upgrade.

      
 

 

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Don’t Be Surprised When Nerlens Noel Runs Away with Rookie of the Year Award

Nerlens Noel spent his first season as a professional athlete in anonymity, taking a redshirt year to recover from a torn ACL. That’s about to change in a big way.

More than any incoming player who will carry the “rookie” designation this season, the Philadelphia 76er is poised to make an instant and significant impact in the NBA.

Consider his college career: Though Noel only played 24 games at Kentucky before a torn knee truncated his season, in that short time, he made a powerful argument that he has the requisite tools to be a difference-maker at the game’s highest level.

Simply put, the Wildcat was a defensive dynamo. In 31.9 minutes a night in Lexington, the freshman averaged 4.4 blocks and a stunning 2.1 steals. The combined figure, according to Waiting for Next Year, is the third-highest total in college hoops since 1999-2000.

These numbers suggest he’ll fit in fine in the Association. According to Kevin Pelton’s Wins About Replacement Player projection system, Noel profiled as the top player in the 2013 class.

The steal figures are particularly instructive here. In Pelton’s historical database, in addition to Noel, only three post players notched a steal rate of two percent or higher. “Steal rate tends to be an indicator of quickness that translates at the NBA level,” Pelton wrote.

More good news: Not only are steals suggestive of the sort of athleticism required to make hay in the NBA, but swipes, as FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris argued in March, are also much more consequential than is widely understood. So buy some Noel stock now.

The fact that he tore his ACL also doesn’t figure to lower his ceiling in any meaningful way. Pelton, then writing for Basketball Prospectus, found that NBA players who suffered an ACL tear suffered pretty minor downticks in production the season they returned to the floor. And younger men, not surprisingly, appeared to heal faster. Twenty-one-year-olds saw just a 2.7 percent reduction in total performance after the injury.

Furthermore, according to Pelton, the stuff that Noel does really well—generate steals and rebounds—tends to be unaffected by the injury.

There’s also reason to think Noel will be less affected by his ACL than most: When the forward steps on an NBA floor for the first time, he’ll be 20 months removed from his last basketball game that counts in the standings. Far as I can tell, this will be the lengthiest recovery period in recent league history.

In fact, though it’s counterintuitive, Noel’s ACL might have made him more prepared to succeed from the first whistle. All last season, he enjoyed the tutelage of Sixers coach Brett Brown and the rest of Philadelphia’s ace developmental staff. (Brown, for the uninitiated, was the Spurs‘ director of development when a couple of guys called Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were learning the game.)

During this time, rather than being rushed into action—where bad habits and mechanics can calcify—Noel had his mediocre jumper broken down and rebuilt from the ground up. A common site before 2013-14 Sixers games was Noel taking 18-footer after 18-footer while Brown patiently watched and counseled him.

In the NBA Summer League, where Nerlens made his unofficial debut (the first Noel?) the tantalizing possibility of his game came closer into focus. In short: he dominated Orlando and Vegas—and did so in a way that married the best aspects of his college game with the new tricks he learned while apprenticing with the Sixers a season ago.

“His defensive presence was sensational in person,” CBSSports.com’s Zach Harper wrote after watching Noel protect the rim like a pit bull in Vegas.

“He’s been the most explosive big man on the floor in each game he’s played in,” gushed Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman.

“His length and leaping ability make him an intimidating force in the paint,” added ProBasketballTalk’s Kurt Helin. “The guys on the Sixers bench were counting the number of shots Noel altered and said it got into double digits before they lost track.”

Encouragingly, he also showed improvement as a shooter. After knocking down just 52.9 percent of his free throws at Kentucky, according to Wasserman, he hit 15 of his first 20 freebies over the summer. He showed bolstered skills as a shot-creator as well.

Awed by the sheer force of his play, a consensus quickly and correctly formed around the forward: This guy is ready to play. Now.

Noel’s game—and his counting stats—should benefit from Philly’s run-and-gun offense, too. The Sixers played at the fastest pace in the NBA in 2013-14, which is a perfect fit for Noel’s athleticism. This isn’t a methodical, grinding, half-court system that will underscore Noel’s lack of offensive polish. Philly plays fast-break basketball. And that’s a style the gazelle-like Noel is equally suited for.

Taken together, it feels like Noel is on the precipice of a monster rookie season.

“Watch him on defense and you begin wondering how he wasn’t the top pick in that draft,” a scout told Harper in Vegas.

After this year, that’s a question more people around the league will be asking themselves.

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How Far Away Is Andre Drummond from Becoming the NBA’s Best Center?

Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond can already see the peak of his position.

Perhaps that’s a reflection of his freakish blend of size and athleticism. With a 6’10″ frame and 33.5″ max vertical, per DraftExpress, there isn’t much that flies above his field of vision.

Then again, maybe this is something different. Maybe it’s not a simple observation of his physical gifts, but rather the way he has put them to use over his first two NBA seasons.

After dazzling with per-36-minute production as a rookie (13.8 points and 13.2 rebounds), the hulking big man upped the ante his second time around.

With his leash extended to 32.3 minutes a night, he bullied his way to 13.5 points and 13.2 boards as a sophomore, posting monstrous per-game marks of 18.4 and 17.4, respectively, during the month of April.

In the process, he pulled back the curtain on one of the league’s worst-kept secrets: His ascension to the top of the center spot is a matter of when—not if.

 

Where Does He Currently Rank?

Before plotting the path that lies ahead, it’s imperative to first take stock of his current standing.

The 21-year-old has a total of 141 games, 91 of them as a starter, under his belt. He’s a toddler in NBA years, a standing best captured by the blood-red, raw state of his offense.

His range is almost entirely dependent on his arm length. If he can’t reach the basket, he might struggle to put the ball inside it.

However, that isn’t necessarily a hindrance to his production. He understands his limitations and plays to his strengths. His shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com, shows a player who knows where he is most effective and rarely strays outside of his comfort zone:

Of his 479 made field goals last season, 427 of them came within three feet of the basket. He only made 14 jump shots the entire campaign (he took 77), relying largely on dunks (183), layups (177) and tip-ins (78) for the bulk of his production.

Some centers have the benefit of a deep bag of offensive tricks at their disposal.

Drummond is not one of them. He’s more specialist than skill player at the moment.

“Drummond’s offensive style still is primarily lob and dunk, or crash and tip,” wrote MLive.com’s David Mayo. “He has to add to the package, but that takes time. His post moves require sustained work and big men typically develop more gradually, over longer periods, than perimeter players.”

The slow pace of his seasoning seems like it should stifle his stat sheet, but its actual effects have been harder to spot.

Stack his numbers against the top centers in the game, and Drummond‘s more than hold their own:

So, what do those statistics say about Drummond‘s ranking?

To oversimplify things, the guy is really, really good. He had an average ranking of 4.2 across those six categories, which was topped only by DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan (both 4.0).

Of course, those particular areas don’t account for everything these players bring inside the lines.

It doesn’t show the skillful, creative passing of Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol, or the walls around the basket put up by Brook Lopez and Roy HibbertNBA.com indicates the latter two finished first and second in opponents’ field-goal percentage at the rim (minimum seven such shots faced per game).

It does, however, highlight how little room is left between Drummond and the current elite centers.

Bleacher Report slotted the Pistons bruiser eighth among all centers in its 2013-14 season rankings. That feels just about right for where he’s at right now.

As for where he’s going, that might be as low as he sits for a long time.

ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle (subscription required) found that Drummond had the highest projected wins above replacement (11.5) for the 2014-15 campaign. The statistic, courtesy of ESPN, is “an estimate of the number of wins a player adds to a team’s bottom line above what would be expected of any easily acquired talent from outside the NBA.”

In other words, Drummond could already be the game’s most impactful center next season. That’s a terrifying thought considering the massive room he has left for growth.

 

How Can He Improve?

Finding the right comparison for Drummond isn’t easy. Guys with this combination of size, speed, strength and explosiveness don’t come around often.

That hasn’t stopped people from looking for a precedent, though, and the names most often mentioned spotlight his tremendous potential.

Last February, ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required) wrote, “Drummond’s first 46 games have put him in the conversation with Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal.”

Upon first glance, that seems incredibly hyperbolic. Howard has booked eight All-Star trips during his 10 seasons in the league. O’Neal is a Hall of Fame lock who had 12 All-Star selections and won four NBA titles during his storied career.

Even those feeling bullish about Drummond‘s stock might have a hard time mentioning his name alongside these two. The numbers, however, say they shouldn’t.

Drummond‘s career 22.3 player efficiency rating checks in right between what O’Neal (25.7) and Howard (18.3) put up during their first two seasons in the league. Howard has a narrow edge in scoring (13.9 PPG to 11.1) and rebounding (11.3 RPG to 10.8), but Drummond has the advantage in both when viewed through a per-36-minutes lens (14.6 and 14.2 to Howard’s 14.4 and 11.7).

O’Neal‘s numbers are on a different level (26.4 points and 13.5 boards per game), but he came to the NBA after three seasons spent at Louisiana State University.

Drummond played just a single season of college ball at UConn, while Howard jumped straight from the preps to the pros.

Simply put, Drummond is beginning his career in very impressive fashion. That’s what makes charting his future forecast so enticing.

His raw gifts have taken him this far, but he needs to start expanding his repertoire.

He has been developing his post game, hitting 56.2 percent of his hook shots last season after connecting on only two of 11 attempts as a rookie. He doesn’t need to become a dominant back-to-the-basket scorer, but his quickness should yield more points out of the post than it has.

And while he’s been a disruptive defender (career 2.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game), he has had trouble with individual matchups. 82games.com indicates opposing centers racked up a 19.2 PER against him last season, a number that is far too high given his physical gifts.

Some of these improvements should happen organically, a process ideally hastened by his Team USA experience this offseason.

As Pistons coach-president Stan Van Gundy told Pistons.com’s Keith Langlois, repetition will help Drummond learn the finer points of the game:

Instincts, to me, come with experience. You look at a lot of the great point guards in the league and if you track it all the way back and figure out how much basketball they’ve played from being young kids, the things that look instinctual really come from hours and hours and hours of experience. They’ve seen things over and over and become expert at it. It’s the same defensively.

With the national team, Drummond has some expert teachers at his disposal.

He can lean on DeMarcus Cousins to learn the importance of leverage and proper footwork. He can watch how Anthony Davis uses every bit of his length to be a defensive force and aggressive offensive finisher. He can see the benefits of giving nonstop energy from watching Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee.

Add those lessons to what Drummond has already figured out, and you’re left with a blossoming big man ready to ascend the ranks of the NBA’s center position.

Of course, once he has reached that pinnacle, he’ll have to continue improving to hold off those coming for his crown.

 

Protecting the Throne

The professional sports world is a humbling place. For every current great, there’s always a batch of young bloods eager to take their spot.

Considering Drummond just passed his 21st birthday, his focus should be on the road ahead—not his rear-view mirror.

Still, his peripheral vision should pick up on those likeliest to compete with him for the No. 1 spot.

If a bigger, stronger Davis moves to the center position full-time at some point, that could end whatever run Drummond will have enjoyed at the top of the totem pole. After all, Davis is the league’s “next in line,” according to what reigning MVP Kevin Durant told Pelicans.com’s Jim Eichenhofer

He’s also only 21 years old.

Assuming Davis logs more time at power forward, Drummond will still face some stiff competition.

If Cousins commits more to the defensive end, he could be a devastating two-way force. The Philadelphia 76ers feature a pair of physical freaks in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, both of whom could be top-flight players by the time the franchise is ready to compete.

More threats could be on the way soon, as the 2015 draft class features a pair of intriguing center prospects in Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl Towns. Those players have some time to reach to the big stage, but Drummond‘s rapid rise shows how quickly guys can climb the ranks.

Still, this position should be Drummond‘s to hold in the very near future. He’s closer to the top than some may think, and it feels inevitable that he will clear those final steps in the next few seasons.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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New Zealand Let FIBA World Cup Opener Against Turkey Slip Away

New Zealand were denied down the stretch, losing their opening FIBA World Cup game against Turkey 76-73. The Tall Blacks watched a 12-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate as a series of key plays caused a momentum shift that the Kiwis could not stop.

It was a 30-second period with four minutes left in the game that cost the New Zealanders. In this time they conceded nine points on the back of a technical foul to coach Nenad Vucinic and an unsportsmanlike foul to point guard Tai Webster. The technical was especially deadly, giving Turkey free throws after a New Zealand offensive foul as well as giving up a three-pointer the very next possession.

That movement cut a six-point lead to one and after finding himself isolated in defensive transition, Webster gave up an unsportsmanlike foul to surrender the lead.

It was a lead Turkey would not surrender. Despite their best efforts, New Zealand just could not put the ball through the hoop the way they had done so effectively for the majority of the game.

New Zealand will walk away ruefully. They were the better team for three quarters, and even after giving up the lead late in the third, fought back to get in front by 12 in the fourth. Their inability to close it out was the difference between the two teams.

Their intensity was outstanding, showing the typical desperation and fight of a New Zealand team. Mika Vukona, Rob Loe, Casey Frank, Isaac Fotu, BJ Anthony and Thomas Abercrombie were all prominent, crashing the boards and going after loose balls.

Despite giving up a significant height advantage to Turkey, they were able to claim 21 offensive rebounds. The Turkey big men did not box out well, but for the most part it seemed the Kiwis were just hungrier for the ball. They went after it aggressively and gave themselves multiple second-chance opportunities.

At the other end of the floor they did a good job containing the long Turkish front line. They made use of good footwork and forced their bigger opponents to shoot over them in the low post, which they did not do well for large parts of the game. Often they were forced into settling for outside jumpers and struggled shooting from here.

In contrast, New Zealand were outstanding shooting from outside. It was not just perennial scorer Kirk Penney who threatened, either, with Corey and Tai Webster both scoring well along with Loe and Frank.

In fact, Penney was well contained and struggled to find his range, finishing with only nine points and shooting 3-of-11. While this would normally make for a long night for the Tall Blacks, they were helped with contributions across the board.

Big men Loe and Frank both showed their range, particularly Loe, who shot a handy 3-of-4 from beyond the arc and also got a good tip-in.

Corey Webster was their most threatening player, though. He showed his ability to shoot from the outside like the others, but also was the only one who got the hoop effectively. Perhaps he was guilty of overshooting from the outside, but he hit some timely shots to keep New Zealand in front throughout and finished with a game-high 22 points.

It was all in vain, as the inability to make a shot down the stretch cost them. They did not give up, though, and kept their high intensity right until the final buzzer. 

Despite the loss, New Zealand can take plenty of positives from this game. Most notably that they can still remain competitive when Penney is not shooting well, but also that their undersized line-up can compete with bigger teams down low.

They will enter their Day 2 game against the Dominican Republic full of confidence and should start as favourites to win.

 

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Steve Ballmer, Clippers Start Washing Away Stain of Donald Sterling Era

LOS ANGELES — April 29, 2014 feels like a distant memory now for the Los Angeles Clippers and their fans, and not just because that day came four months ago.

That was the day that thousands of Clippers fans shuffled ambivalently through LA Live, past angry protesters and into Staples Center for Game 5 of the team’s first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors—their first home game in the aftermath of Donald Sterling’s explosive comments hitting the airwaves and sending shockwaves throughout the world.

Some were dressed in black that day. Others wore shirts denouncing the Clippers’ now-former owner. Everyone had something different to say about Sterling, the team and the NBA‘s response to the controversy.

All of that seemed little more than the remnants of a bygone era on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Just about every Clippers fan who streamed out of Staples Center after the team’s Fan Festival on this day had nothing but glowing reviews for the owner.

Not Sterling, of course, but former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

“I thought that Steve Ballmer was just superb and enthusiastic and wonderful,” said Aisha Mori, a Clippers fan since 2004. 

The Clippers themselves, including head coach Doc Rivers, referred to the Sterling debacle that resulted in his long-overdue ouster as “The Clutter” during the proceedings. 

The franchise was nothing if not “cluttered” during the Clippers’ second-round playoff run: cluttered with curious media reporting on a story that touched on a lot more than just sports, with fans, players and staff who weren’t sure how to feel and with controversy unlike any the NBA had yet seen.

That clutter was gone, replaced by a clarity of vision, purpose and passion brought to bear by Ballmer. His romp of high fives and chest bumps through the crowd on the way to the podium couldn’t have been more different than what Clippers fans came to expect from Donald Sterling in his public courtside appearances.

“He’s amazing,” Martin Fuentes, a season ticket holder since 2009, said of Ballmer. “He definitely energizes a crowd, definitely a real fan and [I'm] looking forward to the next season.”

Such words would’ve seemed not only unusual, but downright ludicrous if spoken about a Clippers owner at any point in the past 33 years. Sterling was almost universally reviled by Clipper Nation, forcing fans into an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance in supporting an enterprise that lined his pockets—and will do so even more now, with Ballmer‘s $2 billion payout enriching the Sterling family trust.

In truth, the Clippers might never be truly cleansed of the residue from the Sterling era. Ballmer sees no need to rename this team, despite its long history of losing for a man who’s become persona non grata in America. “The Clippers are the hottest brand in basketball pretty much right now,” Ballmer insisted at a press conference after the event.

The Clippers haven’t exactly untethered themselves from the tainted Sterling name, either. Shelly Sterling, Donald’s estranged wife, squeezed plenty of perks out of the deal she helped usher along, including a pair of courtside seats and the title of “Clippers No. 1 Fan” (h/t ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Arash Markazi):

Shelly Sterling’s reputation, beyond her official fandom, has also been called into question. According to The Los Angeles Times‘ Nathan Fenno, Sterling was party to the housing discrimination for which her husband was taken to court by the Federal Housing Administration in 2009:

In a 2009 deposition, a tenant at one of the Sterling’s apartment buildings in Los Angeles County said that Rochelle Sterling called him a “black m—f—” during a discussion at the building.

Ballmer, though, insisted that Shelly’s role in this process warranted some sort of salvation. “Without her, this deal does not get done,” Ballmer said.

Indeed, it was Shelly’s victory over Donald during a recent probate trial in Los Angeles Superior Court that paved the way for Ballmer to take control of the team.

Even with Shelly’s ongoing involvement, much has changed for the franchise’s identity since those fateful days in late April.

“It’s almost like now they can say it and be proud of it, and I’m happy for them,” Rivers said about those Clippers faithful who were wary of touting their fandom during those troubled times.

To that effect, Clippers fans have nothing to worry about now. Ballmer reiterated that he won’t be moving the team closer to his home in the Pacific Northwest. “Seattle is not where the Clippers are going to play,” he said.

Instead, he hopes to be leading “I love Larry” chants—many of which he led during the Fan Festival—down Figueroa Street. The “Larry” in question is the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which is awarded to the NBA Finals champion every year. 

If there’s any concern about Ballmer, it’s his lack of experience in the basketball world. “Everyone has more experience in what they’re doing than I do in what I’m doing,” Ballmer added.

Then again, he’s not unfamiliar with the NBA as an enterprise, to say the least, not after trying to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle in 2013.

More importantly, Ballmer seems to have the fire and the drive to cement the Clippers’ burgeoning spot on the basketball map. Time and again, he used the word “hardcore” to describe his approach to his latest enterprise.

“I love basketball,” Ballmer went on. “My passion, in a sense, is for things I get involved with.”

“I won’t be able to watch the Clippers dispassionately because I care. I’m involved.”

Which the Clippers and their fans never could and certainly won’t say now about their former owner…what was his name again?

A distant memory—that’s what.

 

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Are LA Clippers One Piece Away from True NBA Title Contention?

Let’s get something out of the way.

The Los Angeles Clippers, as currently constructed, are title contenders. 

The Clippers have the league’s best point guard in Chris Paul, one of the most dynamic offensive talents in the league in Blake Griffin, a defensive anchor in DeAndre Jordan and tons of three-point shooting to surround them with.

This was the league’s best offense in terms of efficiency last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and the Clips were a solid ninth in defensive efficiency in their first year under head coach Doc Rivers. With natural improvement, the Clippers have the makeup of a team that could absolutely win the title.

Are they the favorites to win their first-ever NBA championship, though?

Probably not.

The road to the Finals is so much easier in the East, and so you’d put LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers ahead of them for that reason. The San Antonio Spurs are the reigning champs and looked unreal last postseason, so they should be considered more of a favorite. The Oklahoma City Thunder ousted the Clippers in the playoffs in six games last year and lost nothing this offseason, so you can put them ahead as well.

Even with that said, the Clippers are certainly right there in the mix with all those teams, and given the nature of the league with injuries, that’s exactly where you need to be.

Because the Clippers aren’t the clear-cut favorite, however, there is room for improvement. The most obvious hole seems to be the small forward position, which is currently manned by Matt Barnes.

In a lot of ways, Barnes is a great fit for the Clippers. He’s a garbage man who fights for loose balls, defends with effort and adds toughness. He’s brilliant off the ball with his cuts, and he’s at least a serviceable perimeter shooter.

At 34 years old, however, Barnes is already starting to lose some of the athleticism that makes him so useful. While he’s a strong defender, it’s not ideal to have him as your lone wing stopper, considering the limitations of both J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford at shooting guard.

After the free-agency addition of Spencer Hawes to occupy the third big man role, it’s easy to see what the next area of improvement should be. 

Here’s Jeff Nisius of Bleacher Report:

Although the Clippers finally were able to address their need for a reserve big man, the small forward position remains a major concern. The team would absolutely benefit from an upgrade at the position, because if the team wants to advance out of the Western Conference they are going to need a long, athletic defender on the perimeter.

The problem is that the team has been unable to find that player in the draft or free agency. The hope last year was for [Reggie] Bullock to develop into a potential perimeter stopper. While that might still be the case, he is more of a guard-forward ‘tweener’ rather than a defensive stopper at small forward.

Rivers could very well make a trade but what assets will he need to part with in order to land an impact defender? Nearly as important; will said player be able to space the floor? Rivers has put an emphasis on spreading the floor. Either way, the team needs an upgrade at small forward and the sooner the better.

Again, the Clippers don’t necessarily “need” one more piece to contend. Upgrading at small forward and moving Barnes to a bench role would certainly seem to improve the odds of winning it all, though, and that’s not lost on Rivers.

Here’s what Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this offseason: “It’s no secret Rivers wants to upgrade his small forward position and that he has been trying to trade starting small forward Matt Barnes.”

Trading Barnes would deprive the Clippers of their glue guy on the wing, which would be tough to do. Instead, finding a trade for Jared Dudley might make more sense. It would certainly be selling low after Dudley’s poor first season with the Clippers, but the lack of athleticism and mobility he displayed last year isn’t promising for the future.

The hope is that Dudley will be fully healthy and in better condition for the upcoming season and that second-year player Reggie Bullock will be ready to step into a bigger role. A small forward by committee approach could work just fine.

Here’s what Dudley told Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles last year about playing time: “We’re a team that’s deep. We’re a team that can go far and everyone’s just got be ready and wait for your opportunity.”

The same can be said about this year’s team, and maybe a little roster competition will get Dudley going.

Of course, the Clippers might not need to be all that better at the 3 this upcoming season.

Remember, this was the league’s best offense last season, and there’s optimism that the defense will improve in year two under Rivers as well.

With Jordan in a contract year and hitting his prime, the Clippers may be able to take a production hit at small forward and be just fine thanks to his improvements.

Here’s Zach Harper at CBSSports.com with more on Jordan’s impact:

His athleticism wasn’t just a highlight factory anymore; he was actually a deterrent at the rim and he got better as the season went along. The Clippers with Jordan on the court after the All-Star break protected the restricted area 4.7 percent better than they had with Jordan on the court prior to the break. Jordan was the leading rebounder in the NBA, had the second most blocks total, and the third highest blocks per game in the league.

Jordan isn’t one of the best centers in the NBA across the board. He’s not going to be someone you run a lot of post plays for and he’s still a nightmare at the free throw line.

But nobody rebounded like him last season and he’s turned himself into someone who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Things like that matter, especially in the development of someone who is such a deadly weapon in the pick-and-roll with a point guard like Chris Paul.

It stands to reason that the league’s top offense needs to make defensive improvement its top priority. Barnes may not be a great shooter or offensive player, but he’s a strong on-ball defender and rebounder. You can do much worse.

And that’s ultimately what Rivers and Clippers management has to decide. Is it worth whatever assets the Clippers would have to fork over in a trade (draft picks, young players like Bullock) in order to attempt to upgrade from Barnes defensively?

Unless there’s a player who is clearly superior defensively and is available, the Clippers might be better off giving Bullock and Dudley chances alongside Barnes and hoping that the internal improvement elsewhere picks up any slack.

The Clippers may appear to be one piece away on paper, but there is plenty of room on championship teams for solid role players. So long as Barnes can stave off decline, Dudley can revert to the mean and Bullock can improve, the Clippers should have multiple options to employ at small forward. This is a team that can contend just the way they are.  

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Why Los Angeles Lakers Should Try to Lure Isaiah Thomas Away in Free Agency

The Steve Nash experiment didn’t work out quite as planned. In two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, the iconic point guard has played in just 65 games because of injuries.

The organization’s search for the point guard of the future is overdue at this point, but now it finally has the financial flexibility to earnestly engage in such a pursuit.

A pursuit that could nab someone like Sacramento Kings restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas.

Ordinarily, landing a restricted free agent isn’t easy. The incumbent team has the right to match any offer received on the open market, so suitors often shy away from the process. But Thomas is a different story altogether, especially after the Kings agreed to terms with former Clippers point guard Darren Collison.

Collison‘s presence in Sacramento could be a harbinger of things to come for Thomas. USA Today‘s Sam Amick reports that, “A person with knowledge of Collison‘s situation not only confirmed the agreement but said the 26-year-old who was Chris Paul‘s backup with the Los Angeles Clippers last season is heading for Sacramento with the understanding that he will be the starter.”

That likely means the Kings will balk at matching a large contract for Thomas. They wouldn’t make that kind of investment in someone they view as a sixth man, not with other teams pursuing Thomas as a key long-term piece.

Should Sacramento hold on to its money and let Thomas walk, the Lakers could be the benefactors.

They’re certainly high on Thomas’ list.

And they have been for a long time. According to Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy:

It’s well-documented that Thomas grew up a diehard fan of the Lakers since his father is from Los Angeles, and he has idolized Bryant since he was a child. When asked what it would mean to sign an offer sheet with the Lakers, Thomas admits that it would be special.

“It would mean a lot,” Thomas said, per Kennedy. “Not even just the Lakers, but just to have other teams trying to get you, it means you’re wanted.”

The Lakers could certainly make Thomas feel wanted—namely because they have good reason to want him.

Even if Nash goes out with a bang and plays an integral role this season, the franchise has to start thinking ahead. Thomas would be an important start.

The 25-year-old had a breakout 2013-14 campaign, posting 20.3 points and 6.3 assists. He was efficient, too, especially for a guy who took 5.1 three-pointers per contest. Thomas finished the season with a 20.54 player efficiency rating, a mark that ranked fourth among point guards. His .574 true-shooting percentage placed him ninth among point guards.

Put simply, Thomas is an electric scorer coming off his best season. He added an estimated 11.9 wins for the Kings last season, speaking to the pivotal role he played for a young, rebuilding team.

Could he play a similar role for the Lakers?

Los Angeles could use a point guard who can shoot the ball, creating space for Kobe Bryant to operate from the mid-range and the post. Though the young floor general still has plenty to learn about running an offense, he’d be able to ease his way into the responsibility—initially allowing Bryant and Nash to initiate much of the offense.

Thomas would also benefit from having Nash around as a mentor. Few—if any—current players are better suited to training an up-and-coming point guard on the spot. Nash can do it with his eyes closed.

That kind of relationship would bode well for the franchise’s future.

Though Thomas is small (5’9″) and somewhat of a liability defensively, his knack for offense has to make him an attractive option.

And at the moment, the organization is relatively short on options.

As in-house solutions go, Los Angeles is limited to the affordable but inexperienced Kendall Marshall. The 22-year-old earned heavy minutes last season in Nash’s absence, averaging a fairly impressive 8.0 points and 8.8 assists. The pass-first point guard showed flashes of promise, but isn’t nearly as ready to take the helm as Thomas. 

Assuming restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe is out of the organization’s price range (or otherwise likely to be retained by the Phoenix Suns), there are few other free-agent possibilities seriously worth exploring.

Veteran Jameer Nelson could probably be had at a reasonable price, but at 32 he’s not the kind of guy around whom the Lakers can build. The same goes for Portland‘s Mo Williams.

Los Angeles could probably outbid the Toronto Raptors in pursuit of restricted free agent Greivis Vasquez, but Thomas is an all-around better player.

That leaves LA with a grab bag of relatively unattractive possibilities including Mario Chalmers, Kirk Hinrich, Ramon Sessions or D.J. Augustin—none of whom has the starting pedigree Thomas possesses at the moment.

So even if Thomas doesn’t seem overwhelmingly attractive at first glance, consider the alternatives. 

Thomas will start to grow on you.

At least if he’s available at the right price. The Lakers are set to have plenty of cap space in 2015, when guys like Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo are scheduled to become free agents. Much as this team wants to win now, it would be well-advised not to overspend and jeopardize future flexibility.

Pending that consideration, Thomas appears to be a strong fit, perhaps a valuable missing piece.

If the Lakers are looking around the market and doing their due diligence, they certainly can’t overlook him. 

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Why LeBron James Won’t Walk Away from Miami Heat in Free Agency Now

As the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James was always going to have free-agent options.

But with the Miami heat suddenly in a position to give him everything he wants, it’s looking more and more like he’ll realize the best one is staying exactly where he is.

 

Help on the Way

“The whole league continues to get better every single year,” James said after Miami’s NBA Finals defeat, per Joseph Goodwin of the Miami Herald. “Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It’s just how the league works.”

The Heat haven’t outfitted the roster with a new supporting cast—or anyone, actually. With the Big Three opting out, Miami’s list of players under contract is ridiculously short, but said triple opt-out means reconstruction can begin in earnest right away.

Shabazz Napier, a favorite of James’ based on this flattering tweet, is already in place after the Heat traded up in the draft to get him. And depending on the extent to which LBJ, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are willing to reduce their salaries going forward, the Heat will be able to chase down a superstar and/or a handful of solid vets who’ll want to get in on the ring-chasing action.

Per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:

If Wade and James are willing to accept reductions in pay as well, the Heat potentially would be able to open a salary slot to add another player. The team is known to be interested in Toronto Raptors free agent point guard Kyle Lowry.

James could certainly seek out the help he wants by leaving the Heat, but it looks like there’s going to be plenty of it coming right to him.

 

Cashing in?

OK, this is where things get a little strange.

James has never been the highest-paid player on his team—not with the Cleveland Cavaliers and not with the Heat. If he’d like to rectify that, Miami can max him out this summer.

According to one report from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, that’s an avenue James might pursue:

While Bosh, Wade and Haslem could ultimately take less money with the early termination outs in their deals, James, the NBA‘s four-time MVP, is seeking a full maximum contract extension – or something close to it – to stay with Miami, sources told Yahoo Sports.

James is eligible to sign a five-year, $130 million extension with the Heat.

It’s hard to see how signing a huge contract extension squares with James’ plea for an improved supporting cast. Obviously, on merit, he deserves far more than the current max allowed by the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

But the CBA and the salary cap it imposes mean the Heat have a finite amount of money to spend; dumping it all on James would be fair from an objective standpoint, but it wouldn’t be smart from a team-building perspective.

Ultimately, James seems too intelligent and too focused on winning rings to demand max money. Getting paid like that doesn’t serve his other goals.

But the money’s there if he wants it, and you can bet the Heat will pay him if James forces the issue.

 

The Ring’s the Thing

The potential to improve the roster enables Miami to impress James in a different, ultimately more important way: It can offer him a chance to continue his streak of four straight Finals appearances—at the very least.

At this point in his career, James is only interested in championships, and adding someone as effective as Kyle Lowry, Pau Gasol, Luol Deng or even Carmelo Anthony would get him significantly closer to ring No. 3.

Miami still plays in the East, where no real competition looms on the horizon. Strengthening a core that has owned the conference ever since James arrived in South Beach would mean an even easier path to the final round.

If the Chicago Bulls manage to land Anthony and Derrick Rose gets healthy at last, the conversation changes. But we’re a long way from thinking one or both of those things will happen.

Miami reached the Finals this past season with no bench and Wade on the sidelines for 28 regular-season games. Then, it fell to a historically great San Antonio Spurs team that would have beaten just about anybody. A few minor tweaks to the Heat roster will likely mean an uncontested run back to the Finals and, critically, a much better shot at finishing the drill once they get there.

 

Staying Home

James can walk away from the Heat if he wants, though it would be a pretty harsh move to make after his star teammates gave up guaranteed money to facilitate his happiness. And you can be sure that if free-agent negotiations with, say, the Houston Rockets or Bulls get past mere flirtation, those teams will also move heaven and earth to give James exactly what he wants.

But LeBron has been to four Finals in a row with Miami, and if it follows the path it’s on to completion this summer, it looks like a certainty he’ll get there a fifth consecutive time in 2015.

With everything he wants—a better supporting cast, more money and the chance to chase rings—lined up and waiting for him at home, there’s no real reason for James to go anyplace else.

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5 proven NBA draft prospects who could help right away

Looking for a ready-made NBA player? The college ranks had some good ones this year.

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