Since the NBA bubble, the Los Angeles Clippers’ words and actions have been meaningless. Whatever changes the organization made in the aftermath of last season’s disaster, including the firing of coach Doc Rivers, were largely overlooked because only playoff success would show whether those changes were effective.
The Clippers did not have a spectacular regular season. They are the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs and will face the Mavericks in the first round. They had a strong season under new coach Tyronn Lue. But, once again, the assumption was that the Clippers would be so enraged at blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the playoffs that they would exact vengeance on opponents this season.
Instead, they finished fifth in the West, five games behind the top-seeded Jazz, and they are the most mysterious team entering this tournament because it is unclear whether they will be tough and determined enough to avenge last year’s humiliation. The Clippers claim to be different this year, that last year’s issues have been addressed, but only playoff success will tell. The regular season revealed nothing.
The Clippers have one of the NBA’s deepest rosters, but they are 4-6 in their last ten games and have lost eight of their last 13 games. The Clippers were also accused of avoiding the rival Lakers in the first round by losing twice to the Thunder and falling to fourth place.
“The most important thing is that last year was last year,” Lue said. “We have a different team this time. We have a unique formula. Our team is in good health. We made some adjustments. We’re a completely different team. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll win a championship as a result, but we’re in a different position. We think in a different way. I don’t believe there is any pressure on the players.”
When healthy, Kawhi Leonard is a top-five NBA player. After struggling mightily on the bubble, Paul George had a stellar regular season. In addition to returning players Reggie Jackson, Ivica Zubac, and Patrick Beverly, the Clippers signed Rajon Rondo, re-signed Marcus Morris, and added Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum.
That’s a good enough roster for the Clippers to make a deep playoff run, but the Clippers’ mental toughness remains a question. It shattered in the bubble. Rivers complained that his players were out of shape and unfocused.
“Every year, it comes down to discipline and things you can’t control, like being healthy or hitting shots,” Leonard said. “I feel confident, as I have every year. I believe we have a strong team. We have some depth on us. It’s now between the ears. How much are we willing to give up in order to get a ring? How much of our mind and body will we put into these playoffs? I have faith in this team.”
The Clippers are capable of easily defeating the Mavericks and then putting up a fight against the Jazz in a series. Leonard is back in the lineup after missing 20 games due to a foot injury and rest.
“The most important thing is that they are mostly healthy, and I think Kawhi playing back-to-backs like he did late in the season was huge for us,” Lue said. “Just showing he wants to win and be there for his teammates was huge for us.”
George expressed his dissatisfaction with the bubble’s isolation. During the 13-game postseason, he shot 40% from the field and 33% from beyond the arc. He claims his mind is clearer now that he realizes he must prove himself worthy of being a franchise cornerstone.
“You sign up for that. “It’s the nature of the game,” George explained. “At the end of the day, that is what we are playing for. We’re competing to see who can be the last team standing. That is a burden that every team must bear. It’s a journey that we’re willing to take.
“It’s been easier this year because I have outlets. I can lead a normal life. I’m free to go home. I’m able to see my family. I can interact with people outside of this team, which has made a significant difference.”
Morris stated that this team is not the same as the Clippers on the bubble. They are more cohesive and have a common vision. It’s either the NBA Finals or nothing.
“Whole different team, coaching staff, the energy is much better, the camaraderie is much better,” he said. “Everyone wants to be here, and everyone is doing their job properly. We all have one goal in mind, and we’re all committed to achieving it.”
Rose, Perkins had a say
The Celtics will undoubtedly need to make changes this summer in order to become an elite team in the Eastern Conference. But how many changes are on the way? Should President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge or Coach Brad Stevens be fired as a result of these changes?
This week, ESPN analysts Jalen Rose and Kendrick Perkins, a former Celtic, offered their perspectives on the team’s current state. “No major changes,” Rose said. “You can’t get rid of Danny Ainge. I understand that they probably have more first-round draft picks than any other team since 2014, and a lot of those picks came from the Nets trade. And when you’re the youngest team to reach the conference finals in 2018, not being able to cash in on those picks hurts your ability to build out your roster.
“In particular, they haven’t figured out who will play the 5 or their bigs. I like [Robert Williams], and I believe he will provide them with quality minutes. I just wish all of their big men were one player.”
Rose stated that Kyrie Irving’s departure set the franchise back significantly.
“And then the thing that really hurt them was when you parlayed Isaiah Thomas, a 30-point scorer, into Kyrie Irving, you won that deal,” Rose explained. “You trade Isaiah, he was injured, and the Celtics’ medical staff was chastised for it. You got that deal and got Kyrie, and when you got Kyrie, he said he’d stay. It’s a setback when Kyrie leaves and you get nothing. The same thing happened with Scary Terry [Rozier] and Gordon Hayward. As a result, you’re rushing to try to replace him.”
The Celtics signed Kemba Walker to replace Irving, but he hasn’t lived up to the hype, owing primarily to injuries. “You get Kemba from the Hornets, but he was third-team All-NBA when you got him,” Rose explained. “He wasn’t an All-Star on this team. Now you have to go further to get [Evan] Fournier because you’re thinking, at least he’s going to get me 18 points, at least I know I’m going to get some scoring, and so now [Ainge] is scrambling to fix moves, but he still has a core intact, to me, that’s going to be there, which is why I don’t think changes will happen.
“Danny will be present. Brad will be present. [Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown, I believe, will be present. And if you’re going to try to make a move, it’ll most likely be Marcus Smart. He’s a popular player and a great defender, but I don’t see any of the top four players, Danny, Brad, Tatum, or Brown, leaving.”
Perkins has previously stated publicly that the Celtics must trade Smart. He didn’t back down from his remarks. “What else are you going to get when you think about Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum?” According to Perkins. “You’re talking about two young studs who are only getting better, two young stars who can coexist with one another. They could play together for many years to come.
“But, when it comes to reevaluating the Celtics, I believe Danny Ainge needs to call every single player except those two to upgrade their roster. Now, I will say that I believe he is in a strong position to re-sign Evan Fournier. That’s a great addition because Evan Fournier can play off the ball. He has a good cut. After COVID, he’s finally hitting his stride and knocking down shots. So, Evan Fournier appeals to me. I think the trade for him is a good one.”
Perkins believes that the Celtics require more of a distributor to complement Brown and Tatum. Walker is a better scorer. In his two seasons with the Celtics, Walker has averaged fewer than five assists per game.
“When all three of those guys play together, it just doesn’t fit because Kemba is a guy who needs the ball in his hands to be effective, and by effective, I just mean to do what he does best, which is score,” Perkins said. “So he’s not a guy who drops dimes or assists for others, and it takes away from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum when they’re on the court.
“I know a lot of Celtics fans always get on me about this, and I believe that Marcus Smart is the heart and soul of the team because of what he brings to the table, but his contract situation is coming up, and if you can trade him and get something valuable in return for him, you should do it. Sometimes you have to give up fan favorites for the sake of your team.”
The 2021 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame class was announced with a touching moment in which ESPN’s Jalen Rose interviewed new inductee Chris Webber.
The two were members of the Michigan Fab Five, one of college football’s most popular teams of all time. They’ve had their disagreements over the years, as a result of the Wolverines program being placed on probation and the banners won by those teams being removed. For several years, the school distanced itself from Webber.
Rose told the Boston Globe last year that he and Webber were starting to mend their relationship, which was aided when former teammate Juwan Howard was named coach at Michigan in 2019. Except for Paul Pierce (who had just left the network), ESPN interviewed the majority of the new Hall of Famers, and Rose interviewed Webber from Springfield.
They talked about old times, called each other by their full names, and Webber had to fight back tears at one point.
“I’m excited about C-Webb,” Rose said. “It was fantastic to have the opportunity to interview him… and seeing someone you played 13 and under with, and as he mentioned, played in so many different gyms and made so many sacrifices, finally get the call to be in the Hall of Fame after watching all of the work that he put in on every level, it’s well deserved.”
Webber had to wait eight years to be inducted, so the significance of the occasion was not lost on him. Rose congratulated his friend on his accomplishment.
Webber scored 17,182 points in 15 NBA seasons, averaging 20.7 points per game, and his athleticism helped revolutionize the power forward position. Webber’s career was cut short by knee and shoulder injuries, and he never won a championship. Most basketball observers, however, thought his omission from the Hall of Fame was unjust.
“The one thing I always knew about his game that I obviously couldn’t take for granted was that we were in middle school and he was going coast to coast and going behind the back and doing behind dunks,” Rose explained. “This was before I even started dunking. That he was already doing.
“And so, as his body began to fill out, if you look at his body type, built as strong as he is, you’re not normally as nimble as he was. He’d spin out and catch lobs; he’s an excellent passer. He had fantastic hands. He has the ability to make the three-point shot. And so I think he, [Kevin Garnett], Tim Duncan, [Chris] Bosh, in a lot of ways, just validates the new-era version of the big guy that can do more, that is required to do more than play with their back to the basket.”
The Knicks announced Thursday that each of their first two playoff games against the Hawks had sold 15,000 tickets. The Knicks had a low attendance of 1,981 for their regular-season game against the Celtics last Sunday, but have sold the majority of their playoff seats to vaccinated fans, indicating that games are returning to normal. For home games, every playoff team will have supporters.
The return of the Las Vegas Summer League in August, a few weeks after the July 29 draft, will be another sign of normalcy. Because of the pandemic, players like Celtics Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith were unable to polish their games in summer league last year.
It’s unclear how many fans will be allowed into the two venues that will host summer league games, but it’s a good sign that rookies and free agents will have a chance to showcase their talents… Pierce will be inducted alongside Webber, Bosh, Toni Kukoc, and Ben Wallace at the Hall of Fame’s 2021 induction ceremony, which will be held in Springfield on September 11, 2021. Bill Russell will be inducted as a coach as well, making him the second Celtics great in recent years to be inducted as a coach after being elected as a player.
In 2015, Tommy Heinsohn was inducted as a coach… The Kings announced that Luke Walton will return as coach for a third season, despite the fact that Sacramento missed the playoffs despite a relatively healthy season. The Kings have missed the playoffs for the past 15 years, but have accumulated respectable talent in recent years. The pressure will be on Walton to lead the Kings to victory, and they have a promising backcourt in Tyrese Haliburton and De’Aaron Fox, as well as Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, and Marvin Bagley.
The Kings must decide whether to re-sign underrated center Richaun Holmes, who may be looking for a big payday on the open market… The Pistons agreed to an extension with coach Dwane Casey, who will be in charge of developing the team’s young talent into a championship contender. The Pistons have struggled, but they have talented prospects like Saddiq Bey, Killian Hayes, and workhorse center Isaiah Stewart.