If the next few months are to be spent analyzing the future of Giannis Antetokounmpo and his future with the Milwaukee Bucks, it is only fair and right to now spin the same spotlight on the LA Clippers.
It’s stunning that this is where the Clippers are after the Denver Nuggets completed another 3-1 comeback, taking Game 7 104-89 and the second-round series on Tuesday night. This season was ticketed to be the Clippers’ ascendancy, not a derailment — but things move fast in the NBA.
After such an odious loss, it must be pointed out that the Clippers’ season has been a failure. It must be reported that stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are one season away from having the option to enter free agency.
And any discussion about the Clippers’ situation must be prefaced with an explanation of those stakes. L.A. traded a potential franchise cornerstone in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 (plus pick swaps in 2023 and 2025) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the ability to compete for titles with George and Leonard right now. They traded away their 2020 first-round pick for soon-to-be free agent Marcus Morris Sr.
They’ve backed their way into a pinch point. This offseason, the Clippers can offer George a contract extension for up to three years. With everything traded, they are compelled to offer it. But George currently holds the choice to become a free agent in 2021 (due to a player option) or 2022, and there’s a reasonable chance he could pass on a Clippers offer. Leonard has the same deal.
Where that would leave the Clippers before the start of next season is exactly in the same spot as a host of other teams like the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks: standing at the precipice, plotting a leap of faith. The Bucks, who have taken up residence on the cliff’s edge with Antetokounmpo taking some time before deciding whether to sign an upcoming contract extension offer, wouldn’t mind the company.
Once that business is pushed aside, many around the league think the Clippers will feel the need to do a top-down analysis of how things went so far astray from their title-favorite status.
In some cases, like Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams going into tailspins in the Orlando bubble after extended absences due to deaths in the family and quarantines, there were just unforeseen circumstances that went against them.
But many of the flaws that ate away the Clippers over this last week in the three straight losses were not new.
There are some schematic issues surely. Perhaps coach Doc Rivers didn’t use enough pick-and-roll plays when the offense stagnated. Perhaps relying on a bench that was high on scoring but low on defense was a mistake. Perhaps Patrick Beverley should have stopped trying to be such a pest on defense that he was constantly in foul trouble. Perhaps George’s streaky offensive game needed to be smoothed out. Maybe Leonard’s incredible shotmaking skills made him less prone to be a playmaker for teammates under playoff pressure.
These are all reasonable and contributing factors to what happened. But the Clippers were prudently constructed to be able to adjust to any opponent. They can play big, they can play small, they can play fast, they can play slow, they can put out a shooting lineup or a rebounding lineup. They should have, in theory, survived any of these issues.
Leonard has two rings that prove that. And here’s one for his thoughts as he tries to get some offseason sleep: Had he stayed in Toronto, he almost certainly would have been closer to ring number three.
This is going to be a bitter offseason, but not one that rival executives expect will bring huge change. The Clippers will likely try to re-sign free agents Harrell, Morris Sr. and JaMychal Green (if he opts out).
With that George trade, they are in deep now and they need all the supporting characters they can keep; if not to totally run it back, then to at least retain the possibility for trades. If they are willing to take on long-term money in an uncertain financial and salary cap landscape, league sources believe the Clippers could cobble together some players on their roster to execute a trade to bring in more talent.
Their owner’s worth is currently north of $70 billion and Steve Ballmer isn’t likely to express concern about the luxury tax.
As hard as it is to believe, despite having two of the three highest finishers in the Sixth Man of the Year voting with Harrell and Williams, the Clippers might need to revamp their bench — and those contracts might help.
As one rival executive said: “You’ve heard of the saying, ‘In for a dime, in for a dollar?’ Well they’re in for 95 cents, in for a dollar.”
The poker reference is a good one. You can debate whether L.A. just had a pair of aces cracked on the river card by the Nuggets or if their hand was just a combo draw that missed. However it’s classified, it was the correct move. The only true option is to weather the loss and try to play the hand again in hopes the odds even out with the team they’ve put together.
That is what pot committed looks like. The reward was supposed to be a glorious window of title contention that would make irrelevant Leonard’s decision not to sign for the maximum four years in the summer of 2019.
But when the dust settled on that midsummer coup, the reality was that the Clippers only secured two years. Now the first year has been squandered.
As dizzying as this may be to comprehend, the clock has started ticking.
Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James has ‘zero comment’ on reward challenge by L.A. County sheriff
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — LeBron James said he had “zero comment” on the Los Angeles County sheriff’s public urging of the Los Angeles Lakers star to donate more than six figures to double the reward for information connected to the recent shooting of two officers in Compton, California.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva called out James by name in a radio interview last week, placing an expectation on the veteran basketball player to match the reward fund, which totaled $175,000 at the time, to facilitate the search for a suspect.
“I want to make a challenge. This challenge is to LeBron James,” Villanueva told 790 KABC in Los Angeles. “I want you to match that and double that reward because I know you care about law enforcement. You expressed a very interesting statement on race relations and officer-involved shootings and the impact it has on the African American community. And I appreciate that.
“But likewise, we need to appreciate that respect for life goes across professions, races, creeds, and I’d like to see LeBron James step up to the plate and double that.”
James initially referenced the Sept. 12 shooting — which involved an unknown person aiming a gun through the passenger-side window of a police vehicle and hitting a 31-year-old sheriff’s deputy in the jaw and arms and a 24-year-old deputy in the forehead, hand and arm — following Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
“We don’t want anyone to be injured. We don’t want anyone to be hurt,” James told Spectrum SportsNet’s Mike Trudell during his postgame interview Sunday. “My condolences go out to the officers that were shot in Los Angeles. And we want justice for that, as well as we want justice for Breonna Taylor and so on and so on. We don’t want no violence. We preach for the better of love and peace. Hopefully we can get that at some point in our communities — but [to achieve it as] us as a nation because that’s what’s going to make us the greatest nation again. All peace and all love.”
Both deputies have been released from the hospital and are resting, according to a tweet from the sheriff’s department.
“I’ve never in my 35 years ever condoned violence. Never have. But I also know what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong,” James said. “I grew up in the inner city in a Black community in what we call the hood or the ghetto. … I’ve seen a lot of counts firsthand of a lot of Black people being racially profiled because of our color. And I’ve seen it throughout my whole life.
“And I’m not saying that all cops are bad because, I actually — throughout high school and things of that nature, and I’m around them all the time, and they’re not all bad. But when you see the videos that’s going on and you can see all over the — not only my hometown but all over America — you continue to see the acts of violence toward my kind, I can’t do nothing but to speak about it and see the common denominator.
“But not one time have I ever said, ‘Let’s act violent toward cops.’ I just said that what’s going on in our community is not OK, and we fear for that, and we fear for our lives. It’s something that we go on every single day as a Black man and a Black woman and a Black kid, a Black girl. We fear. We fear that moment when we’re pulled over.”
James cited the arrest of Keonte Furdge — a 23-year-old Black man who was handcuffed and detained at gunpoint at his residence in June in Wisconsin after a neighbor didn’t recognize him and called the police — as another example of racial inequity at the hand of the law.
“The police came in the house without a warrant, without anything and arrested the guy, a Black man, because he was sitting out on the porch. And if you can’t tell me that’s not racial profiling, then I don’t know what the hell we’re looking at,” James said. “But I do not condone violence toward anyone — police, Black people, white people, anyone of color, anyone not of color — because that’s not going to ever make this world or America what we want it to be.”
NBA playoffs – Inside the evolving conversation surrounding Jimmy Butler
A year ago, Jimmy Butler was changing teams for the third time in three years. He didn’t make the All-Star Game for the first time in four years, and he had developed a reputation as an irritant or a malcontent or a difficult teammate — or all three.
These days, Joel Embiid tweets as if Butler is the one who got away. The Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves could be watching Butler’s Eastern Conference finals run with the Miami Heat and wondering what might have been.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and Butler’s Heat teammates have repeatedly praised his leadership, especially in the bubble. Butler has often said he doesn’t pay attention to what is said or written about him, but those close to him know that’s not true.
Butler hears what is said, and it has motivated him throughout his rise to basketball stardom.
Here’s how Jimmy Butler has been discussed by those who have lived the journey alongside him.
From the night the Bulls drafted him No. 30 overall in 2011, Butler brought a chip on his shoulder with him. The entire course of his basketball life centered around the premise that hard work will take him wherever he wants to go. While he initially struggled to find his place in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, Butler had no problem clicking in what was already a tight Bulls locker room.
Early in his Chicago career, the conversation surrounding Butler focused on a hard-nosed role player who was a piece to a larger puzzle, not the focal point of a contender.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman, on draft night 2011: “[Butler] is a guy that’s a real fit for us. … The type of makeup and character he has, I think he’ll fit in our locker room and with the culture we’re creating.”
Bulls guard Derrick Rose, in December 2011: “He has a lot of confidence, quiet confidence, where when he’s out there, he’s always doing something good. He can defend. Plays smart, man, especially being a rookie.”
Thibodeau, in February 2012: “We’ve liked him from the start. We love his attitude and approach and the way he works every day, his demeanor. And we know he’s going to get better and better. … As he gets to learn the league and the tendencies of the players and the teams, he’s only going to get better and better. But he’s got a very serious approach to the game.”
Thibodeau, in March 2014: “The best thing about Jimmy is his demeanor. He will do it over and over and over again, and he doesn’t complain about playing the big minutes.”
Buzz Williams, Butler’s college coach at Marquette, in November 2014: “He’s not arrogant. He believes in the value of work. He’s way smarter than he ever has gotten credit for. He studies way more than anybody could ever think. He takes great pride in his craft and he always has. … He was never an all-conference player. He was never an honorable mention all-conference player. He wasn’t first-team. He wasn’t on a list.”
While the Bulls’ staff appreciated Butler’s tenacity, there was still doubt throughout the organization that he would develop the type of offensive game needed to be a permanent solution at shooting guard on an already loaded roster with an MVP in Rose.
Then, after years of taking a back seat, Butler exceeded even the most optimistic expectations about his ceiling — a better player than his most ardent supporters expected.
Butler turned down a four-year, more than $40 million offer before the 2014-15 season, just a few million shy of what he and his representatives were asking for, because he believed he could eventually make more. He was right. Butler signed a max contract worth over $90 million the following summer. After inking a superstar deal, questions surfaced surrounding Butler’s leadership.
Williams, in November 2014: “Jimmy has lived his life betting on himself. And so when you say, ‘We’re going to give you four years, $42 million,’ Jimmy doesn’t process it as four years, $42 million. He doesn’t look at it that way because he’s always bet on himself. And so if there’s a question of, here’s the option, take the guarantee or bet on yourself, well, he doesn’t know what the guarantee is. He’s always going to bet on himself. But that’s not specific to the Bulls, that’s not specific to the NBA; that’s specific to his heart.”
Former Bulls center Joakim Noah, in October 2017: “Jimmy went from the 15th player on the team, the last player coming off the bench, to the star player of the team in four years. When that happens, I’m sure that there was an adjustment period for him. There was an adjustment period for the organization. And there was definitely a change of culture.”
Tension that had been building between Butler and some of his teammates over the years finally boiled over when Butler and Dwyane Wade ripped some of the Bulls’ younger players after blowing a late lead to the Atlanta Hawks in January 2017. The decision to vent their frustration publicly angered both the Bulls’ front office and the locker room.
Bulls guard Rajon Rondo, in January 2017: “My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”
When Butler was dealt to Minnesota in the summer of 2017, he was viewed as the missing piece to a potential contender. With former No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as support and Thibodeau coaching, Butler was introduced with high expectations at a news conference inside the Mall of America. “Big three, big whatever,” Butler said at the time. “Let’s get some big wins.”
Towns, in June 2017: “This is what dynasties are made of. When you put players together with a bunch of talent and they mesh well, it makes dynasties. We’re talking about a top-15 player in the league.”
Thibodeau, in June 2017: “He’s one of the best two-way players. Watching him become a three-time All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, All-NBA, it’s a tribute to the way he works and who he is as a person. He’s a great person, he’s a great leader and we’re thrilled to have him.”
Butler found early success with his new team, and the Timberwolves qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. But soon after the season ended, Butler made it clear to Thibodeau that he wanted out of Minnesota, in part because he wasn’t convinced that Towns and Wiggins, both of whom struggled with consistency the previous season, were going to put in the work needed to become championship-caliber players, according to sources.
The frustration that had been lingering since early in his tenure in Minnesota exploded during a heated training camp practice when Butler challenged teammates and executives. It set the stage for a deal shipping him to the Philadelphia 76ers a month into the 2018-19 season and provided a new narrative around Butler’s work ethic — one that cast him as perhaps too aggressive.
Timberwolves center Taj Gibson, just before Butler was dealt in 2018: “It was like a right hook. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know. I thought — it looked like from everything things were going good.”
Thibodeau, in November 2018: “I have known Jimmy a long time. Obviously, we felt when we had the opportunity to get him that we had to take advantage of that. It is rare when you have the opportunity to get a top-10 player. We knew there was risk involved with it.”
Towns, in March 2019: “We don’t know what was said behind [closed doors]. I don’t know what the front office told Jimmy. I don’t know what Jimmy told the front office. I just think that both parties came to a conclusion at the end of the day. If he wanted to be traded, as he wanted to, as he got, I wish it could have happened quicker. We would have had more time to get our team ready. We would have had more time to get our culture ready, our season ready.”
For the second time in 18 months, Butler was sent to a new team. As was the case in Minnesota, Butler found himself in the middle of two well-established young stars. His reputation from the Minnesota fallout lingered as he stepped into a combustible team with championship aspirations.
76ers GM Elton Brand, in November 2018: “In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we have two of the NBA’s top-20 players. Now we’ve added a third top-20 player in Jimmy Butler, who is one of the NBA’s very best on both ends of the floor.”
76ers owner Josh Harris, in November 2018: “This is a city that loves fierce competitors and those who will push against all obstacles to find a way to win. That’s the ethic that we’ve built our team on [and what Butler does] every night on the court.”
76ers coach Brett Brown, in January 2019: “When you come into a situation with Ben and Joel and JJ [Redick], it doesn’t always equal immediate comfort. As I’ve said to all of our guys over the years, you can’t always win on your terms.”
After reports of early issues with Brown, Butler found his rhythm and developed a strong bond with Embiid. But the Sixers endured a second-round loss to Kawhi Leonard and the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, and that set up Butler’s exit from Philadelphia later that summer.
“Hell yeah [the last year] was difficult,” Butler acknowledged during a March appearance on “The JJ Redick podcast.” “It was so different. And on any given day, me as a person, as a player, I didn’t know who the f— was in charge. I think that was my biggest thing.”
76ers center Embiid, to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in October 2019: “It was a big loss, because me and him, we got to the point where we’re really close, we’re still close, we talk a lot and that’s my guy. That’s my brother forever. I wish he was on the team because I feel like the relationship that I built with him could have gone a long way. Jimmy, when it was the fourth quarter, we knew the ball was going to be [in] either me or Jimmy’s hands. And I knew I could count on him too.”
Spoelstra, the Heat coach, had heard the stories about Butler’s previous stops but valued Butler’s talent and work ethic. After Butler committed to sign with Miami, the Heat worked out a sign-and-trade deal that brought the mercurial All-Star to South Beach, where he found acceptance in a like-minded organization.
Spoelstra, in February: “We believe in Jimmy and what he’s about. We’ve had a lot of guys like that, that probably if they’re not in this system, probably people think differently of them. Udonis Haslem. I just think Jimmy is the 6-7 version of Alonzo Mourning. Or the 6-7 version of Dwyane Wade. These guys boil over with competitive fire because they care.”
Heat forward Haslem, in February: “He’s just one of our type of guys. His DNA falls in line with who we are and what we represent as an organization and the kind of guys that we want to bring in.”
Heat forward Duncan Robinson, in February: “I just don’t think it’s very common that you see a star player like that be willing to defer, particularly to younger guys. We had a game where he took three shots, but we won and he did everything else. He just does whatever it takes to win.”
Heat guard Goran Dragic, in February: “We’ve built a great chemistry, we talk a lot, and I’m happy to have him on the same team. All these years he was guarding me and it was not fun. He’s a great two-way player … tremendous team player who shoots straight up, tell you if you’re not doing your job, and that’s something I really like.”
Heat forward Andre Iguodala, in February: “When he was in other places, he got knocked for saying he was disruptive towards his other teammates, but you put him around some guys that actually want to get to the grind, what did he do for them? He upped their level of play, right?”
Heat center Meyers Leonard, in September: “He is the ultimate competitor. Everybody wondered, ‘Oh, well, is he too competitive? Or is he an a–hole?’ No, he’s not. He’s a winner.”
Predicting the Eastern Conference finals
The first three games of the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics have given us enough comebacks, drama, coaching adjustments and big plays to live up to expectations and then some.
So what comes next?
We asked our NBA forecast panel to assess the series and look ahead: Who’s the best player? Which coach do you have more faith in: Erik Spoelstra or Brad Stevens? Who will win the East title? And which East team has the brightest future?
Here is how our panel sees it.
Who is the best player in the East finals?
Photo finish here, but our panel gives Celtics forward Jayson Tatum the nod over Heat swingman Jimmy Butler. Both players were named to the All-NBA third team last week, with Tatum likewise edging Butler among the voters.
Voters ranked their top three.
Which coach do you trust more in this series?
Both coaches have elite reputations, and both have winning career records in the regular season and the playoffs. But for this series, our panel showed a preference for the one who has won two championships as a head coach: Erik Spoelstra, who this season has led a surprising renaissance for Miami.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens has the Celtics in the East finals for the third time in four years and three wins from Boston’s first NBA Finals trip in a decade.
Erik Spoelstra: 83%
Brad Stevens: 17%
Which team will win Game 4?
Boston is the pick here after the Celtics seemed to figure out how to attack Miami’s zone defense in Game 3.
Then again, the Heat are 10-2 in the postseason and have yet to lose two games in a row.
Boston Celtics: 70%
Miami Heat: 30%
Which team will win the series?
With a 2-1 lead in the series, Miami holds the upper hand, and most of our panelists expect the Heat to advance to the NBA Finals, with 37% predicting them to win in six games and another 20% picking the Heat in seven.
But if the series does go to Game 7, the advantage swings back to the Celtics, according to our panel, with 37% forecasting “Celtics in 7.”
That tells you a lot about the importance of Game 4.
Which team would have the better chance to beat the Lakers or Nuggets in the NBA Finals?
The NBA Finals begin next week, and in the Western Conference finals, the Los Angeles Lakers remain favored to advance, though the Denver Nuggets won Tuesday’s Game 3 to make the series more interesting.
When it comes to which team would match up best with the West champs, it’s a tight race for our panel — another sign of how closely matched the Heat and Celtics appear to be.
Boston Celtics: 53%
Miami Heat: 47%
Which Eastern Conference team has the brightest future?
Boston is led by Tatum at age 22 and Brown at age 23, and our panel sees good things ahead for the Celtics. But the Heat have youth on their side too: Adebayo is 23 and rookie Tyler Herro is just 20.
Voters ranked their top three.
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