Marc Stein: Los Angeles Clippers
Eastern Conference scout on the Clippers' credentials as a contender and the state of Blake Griffin's game:
"The team that's made the big jump in the West is the Clippers. They've taken a major step forward defensively. Really, really impressive last time I saw them.
"It's living proof that you shouldn't pre-judge things 30 or 40 games into the season, because he looked absolutely confused back then. You would sit there wondering: 'Are they ever gonna get there?' But now you watch them and they definitely seem to understand what they're doing as a group. They play with good energy [defensively].
"That doesn't mean they're gonna lock the other team down every time. Nobody does that in the regular season. But now you can tell that this is a team that can really amp it up. They seem to have each other's backs now [on defense] and I think they have another gear to show us when the playoffs come.
"A lot of it has to do with DeAndre Jordan's development. When you talk about players who've improved since last season, he's a big part of their success. But I just see a team that's more in sync. Everyone talking on D, everyone's anticipating rotations, moving on the flight of the ball. The makings are there for them to ramp it up another notch.
"The question with these guys is going to be: Can they can make enough outside shots to compete for the title? But they're a real threat. And you have to give Blake Griffin a lot of credit for that, too.
"He's improved a little bit every year. Some of the kinks in his shot have been ironed out, which is a really long process. That doesn't happen in a month.
"But specifically what jumps out at you is his footwork is really good. You can tell he's put a lot of work in there. He's an undersized post player, but he can have success against taller guys because he pivots with both feet so well. He's under control and his balance is so good that he can create angles and get shots up against longer players."
The Los Angeles Clippers met with the representatives of swingman Danny Granger during Wednesday night's game against the Houston Rockets and have nudged ahead of the San Antonio Spurs in the race for Granger's services, according to sources close to the process.
The Clippers are widely regarded as the team best positioned to provide Granger the playing time and the championship contention he craves.
And they've stepped up their pursuit of the former All-Star, sources told ESPN.com, at least partly due to growing concern within the organization about the status of guard J.J. Redick, who has missed the last nine games and is out indefinitely with a back injury.
To potentially further increase L.A.'s need for another front-line player at the wing positions, Jamal Crawford left Wednesday's win over the Rockets with a calf injury. Crawford has been starting in place of Redick and has played a huge part -- alongside star forward Blake Griffin -- in keeping the Clippers among the West's top four teams while star guard Chris Paul was out with a separated shoulder.
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And the trade deadline.
And with individual scoring brilliance in this particular February.
It came to our attention late Sunday, via the peerless Elias Sports Bureau, that five different players are averaging better than 30 points per game this month.
Which is the most witnessed in any given month in the NBA, according to Elias, since February 1962!
Here are the two lists:
Sources told ESPN.com that the Nets -- who have made Davis their top frontcourt target -- still intend to make a signing soon if they can't convince Davis to choose them over the Los Angeles Clippers.
The teams in the hunt for Davis, sources said, expect a decision Sunday. The league office, meanwhile, has confirmed to ESPN that Davis will officially become an unrestricted free agent Sunday at 5 p.m. ET if, as expected, he is not claimed off waivers by another team.
One source close to the process made it clear Saturday that the Nets "will be ready to move on" should Brooklyn lose its recruiting faceoff with the Doc Rivers-coached Clippers.
Sources indicate Davis will likely make his choice based on available playing time and the situation he likes best, given that the salary he receives from his new team will simply be subtracted from the amount Orlando owes him after the buyout.
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The Brooklyn Nets will not decide on whether to proceed with their interest in signing free-agent center Jason Collins until letting the sudden free agency of Glen "Big Baby" Davis play out over the weekend, according to sources close to the process.
Davis will officially hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent Monday assuming he clears waivers after finalizing a contract buyout Friday with the Orlando Magic.
Sources told ESPN.com that Davis is the Nets' top choice for the opening in their frontcourt rotation. But Brooklyn's attentions could shift quickly back to Collins if the Nets miss out on Davis, who is being recruited hard to join the Los Angeles Clippers by former coach Doc Rivers.
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But sources told ESPN.com on Wednesday night that the talks had been tabled until Thursday, which is Deadline Day in the NBA. The league's annual trade buzzer sounds at 3 p.m.
And the centerpiece of the Knicks' offer to the Clippers -- swingman Iman Shumpert -- suffered a sprained left knee Wednesday in New York's 98-91 win over New Orleans that could further impact talks. Yahoo! Sports reported the injury was a sprain to the MCL, citing league sources.
Yet sources close to the situation told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard late Wednesday that the Knicks were still hopeful of re-engaging with the Clippers before the deadline to try to push the trade through.
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Sources with knowledge of Odom's thinking told ESPN.com that the 34-year-old has reached an agreement in principle to sign a deal with Laboral Kutxa in Spain's top league.
Such deals typically contain out clauses that allow established veterans such as Odom to return to the NBA if the opportunity arises, but sources said Monday that Odom's plan is to play out the rest of this season in Spain before determining whether to attempt an NBA comeback.
Misko Raznatovic, who heads up European operations for the agency that represents Odom (Excel Sports Management), hinted at the signing by tweeting that "the biggest bomb on European market is coming for this year!!!" on Tuesday.
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Eastern Conference scout on the Warriors' credentials as title contenders:
“Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not a believer. I’m not buying it in the playoffs. Their defense is better with [Andre] Iguodala, but I don’t see it as championship-level.
“When we play Golden State, we’re not worried about scoring. The focus of the game plan is taking away their 3-point shot. When the playoffs come, I think the Warriors will be just like Houston. Good show, fun to watch, great excitement ... but I don’t see them getting past the second round. I know the stats say otherwise, but they haven’t changed their spots completely.
“When you play Chicago or Miami, you know you’re going to run into a buzz-saw defense. San Antonio is one of the few teams -- maybe the only team -- that has an equal dose of both. They’re not great defensively or great offensively, but they’ve got the best combination of both. I would personally say Golden State isn’t there yet.
“Iguodala has made a difference, but he’s also thinking about his offense more than he used to playing with those guys. He wants to score, too. Bogut, to me, is more the defensive anchor than Iguodala. [Bogut] can block a shot, takes charges, he’s really cerebral, he uses his 2.9 seconds [before refs can whistle for illegal defense] to really get back and forth. He covers up for a lot of mistakes.
“But I think the Clippers have a better chance than the Warriors to go deep [in the playoffs] as long as Chris Paul comes back healthy. [The Clippers'] point guard is as tough as nails and their style of play is more conducive to playoff basketball.”
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The race to sign Andrew Bynum appears to be unfolding at a slower pace than Bynum hoped.
The 26-year-old became a free agent Thursday night after clearing waivers, but the latest rumblings on the league's personnel grapevine suggest that more teams are backing away from the idea as opposed to gambling on the talented but undependable 7-footer.
ESPN.com reported Thursday that the Brooklyn Nets (after losing Brook Lopez) and Atlanta Hawks (after losing Al Horford) were likewise planning to pass on the idea despite their clear need at center, with sources subsequently adding that the Oklahoma City Thunder are not preparing a bid on Bynum in the wake of the recent trade that shed the contract of Ryan Gomes to take the Thunder nearly $2.3 million away from the luxury-tax threshold.
Teams with a known interest, sources said, include Dallas and New York, but both of those suitors, like the Clippers, are restricted to offering a minimum salary. Bynum, meanwhile, is said to be looking for an offer above the league minimum to recoup more of the $6 million he lost when Chicago waived Bynum immediately Tuesday after acquiring him in a trade for Luol Deng.
Sources said Sunday that the Indiana Pacers are also among the original eight teams to have expressed exploratory interest in Bynum, but it remains to be seen whether Indy's involvement progresses to the point of a formal offer.
Sources say the Pacers, to this point, have not made an official offer and are interested in Bynum more as a measure to keep him away from Miami than they actually want to test the limits of their treasured team chemistry by adding such a wild card halfway through this championship-or-bust season.
The Miami Heat were widely considered co-favorites in the Bynum hunt -- along with the Clippers -- as soon as the injury-riddled big man became a free agent. Miami still has its taxpayer midlevel exception of nearly $3.2 million available to chase Bynum, but how much of that the Heat are willing to spend is another source of uncertainty given their luxury-tax situation.
ESPN's Chris Broussard reported last week that Bynum's decision will be based on playing time, playoff prospects and the money being offered by the teams that lodge formal bids.
ESPN's Chris Broussard reported Wednesday morning that eight teams called Bynum's agent, David Lee, in the wake of Bynum's immediate release by Chicago, which followed the Bulls' acquisition of the enigmatic center and his cap-friendly contract from Cleveland shortly after midnight Monday night in exchange for Luol Deng and three future draft picks.
Broussard's report listed playing time, contender status and money as the three main factors Bynum is weighing as he decides where to head next.
According to the latest rumbles here at the D-League Showcase in Reno, Bynum is confident of landing an offer from an upper-tier team that will provide both minutes and a salary above the league minimum.
That would appear to rule out the Dallas Mavericks, who took a long look at Bynum in the summer and who, according to Stein Line Live sources, are among the eight teams that have registered interest in Bynum this week. The Mavs only have the league minimum to offer; Bynum's camp clearly believes it can get more.
The two-time champs from Miami, who've been widely presumed to be interested from the moment it became apparent right after Christmas that Bynum's time in Cleveland was coming to an end, still have mid-level exception money to spend if the Heat are inclined to add a second reclamation project to their center rotation alongside Greg Oden.
Other top contenders with mid-level money still available to spend, for the record, include Indiana and Oklahoma City.
The Los Angeles Clippers, meanwhile, are the other team frequently mentioned along with Miami as Bynum's foremost suitors. The Clips, though, share the same problem as Dallas in terms of limited funds to offer.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers, furthermore, stopped well short of saying L.A. would be at the front of the line when he was asked about Bynum on Tuesday, insisting that he and his front-office staff have "had very few discussions about anyone big right now" and that the Clips are "far more focused on the perimeter part of our team" after losing Chris Paul for up to six weeks.
Is that merely a smokescreen from Doc?
All the latest signals suggest we'll have an answer to that one sooner rather than later, perhaps as early as Friday.
1. Jamal Crawford's deliciously creative alley-oop to Blake Griffin
The heart is not rational. We feel what we feel. So I refuse to apologize for loving the pass part of great dunks as much as the throwdown itself. I know; I'm weird. But I can't help it. And I, speaking purely for myself, loved the creativity of Crawford going between the legs before he lobbed the ball -- just the sheer fun of such improvisation in the heat of the moment -- more than any other dunk we could list here. One man's opinion.
2. LeBron James' lefty finish off the window on Christmas Day
If I made a mistake, this is it. The case could be made that LeBron's latest gem, no matter how late it came in the competition, should have snagged top billing, such was the degree of difficulty involved. Jeff Van Gundy raised the question on the broadcast as soon as it happened: Has anyone ever finished an oop off the glass with his off hand? Seen-it-all vet Antonio Davis echoed those same thoughts on the set of "NBA Coast 2 Coast" last Friday, saying he couldn't even imagine another right-handed player trying to pull off the combo of a left-footed jump and a left-footed finish that LeBron gifted to all of us in L.A. Ridiculous
3. DeAndre Jordan's near-assassination of Brandon Knight
This is the one, I suspect, that will top most of your lists. And I get it. The finish was absolutely lethal. DeAndre's dunk face after driving Knight into floor was priceless. And the lob from Chris Paul was plenty sweet, too. Maybe it's just me, but the apparent newness of the first two -- how they stood out in terms of uniqueness -- is what made the difference on this scorecard. (P.S.: We really shouldn't be docking Blake style points just because he made his windmill finish of Crawford's lob look as easy as a finger-rolled layup.)
4. Kobe Bryant turning a corner and dunking on a bunch of Nets
Something else about me that regular readers know by now: I'm a nostalgic sap to the core. So when Kobe turned back the clock in Brooklyn, got a step on Gerald Wallace and thundered home over both Wallace and Kris Humphries with Brook Lopez lurking nearby, there was no chance my sentimental side could exclude it. You could certainly argue that Xavier Henry's lefty pile driver over New Orleans' Jeff Withey was truly the best dunk submission of 2013 from the Lakers. But I admit it: I wanted to give the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer his due.
5. J.R. Smith's reverse alley-oop on a low pass that didn't look oop-able
In the first week of 2013, Smith was a Knicks darling whose stunning athleticism on a seemingly routine basket cut enabled him to slam home a down-the-middle feed Pablo Prigioni threw at crotch level. In the first week of 2014, New York will drag into San Antonio with a 9-21 record, clinging to hope that Carmelo Anthony can finally shake his recent ankle woes to return to the lineup ... and wondering how long Smith will stay submerged in a season-long funk that has dragged his PER all the way down to (yikes) 10.7. I'm guessing I'm not the first person to ever say this: What a difference a year makes.
We're actually entering a period of high anxiety for 50 players around the league whose seasons are about to reach a make-or-break point.
All non-guaranteed deals in the NBA become fully guaranteed for the rest of the 2013-14 season if the player in question is still on his current team's roster as of Jan. 10. It's a date that always leads to a handful of roster cuts once the calendar flips to 2014, as teams either look to save a few luxury-tax bucks or perhaps open up a roster spot to take advantage of the 10-day contracts they're allowed to start handing out Jan. 5.
When it comes to this season specifically, teams looking to waive players to prevent their contracts from becoming fully guaranteed must do so by 5 p.m. on Jan. 7, thus allowing sufficient time for the player to clear waivers before the magical Jan. 10 date.
The list of players technically at risk includes some who face zero chance of getting snipped; Andrew Bynum, Patrick Beverley and Michael Beasley jump off the page in terms of vets who have noting to fret about. Yet it's a generally nervy time for anyone possessing a non-guaranteed contract until Jan. 7 passes to assure safety.
One interesting certainty here, for the record, is Orlando's forthcoming divorce from veteran forward Hedo Turkoglu. The sides have spent the past several months discussing a buyout with no success, but the Magic have to either cut or trade Turkoglu by Jan. 7 or face the prospect of paying him a full $12 million for the entire season. Only $6 million of that salary is guaranteed, but it behooves Orlando to keep Turkoglu all the way to guarantee-date buzzer just in case a trade materializes where his expiring deal becomes handy.
Atlanta: Shelvin Mack, Cartier Martin, Mike Scott
Charlotte: Jeff Adrien, Chris Douglas-Roberts
Chicago: D.J. Augustin, Eric Murphy
Cleveland: Andrew Bynum, Matt Dellavedova, C.J. Miles, Henry Sims
Denver: Quincy Miller
Detroit: Josh Harrellson, Peyton Siva
Golden State: Hilton Armstrong, Kent Bazemore
Houston: Patrick Beverley, Greg Smith
Indiana: Rasual Butler
L.A. Clippers: Stephen Jackson, Maalik Wayns
L.A. Lakers: Xavier Henry, Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall, Shawne Williams
Memphis: Seth Curry, James Johnson
Miami: Michael Beasley, Roger Mason Jr.
Minnesota: Robbie Hummel
New Orleans: Lou Amundson
New York: Cole Aldrich, Toure' Murry
Oklahoma City: Ryan Gomes, Hasheem Thabeet
Orlando: Solomon Jones, Hedo Turkoglu
Philadelphia: James Anderson, Lorenzo Brown, Brandon Davies, Daniel Orton, Hollis Thompson, Elliot Williams
Phoenix: Dionte Christmas
Sacramento: Hamady N'diaye
San Antonio: Malcolm Thomas
Toronto: Julyan Stone
Utah: Ian Clark, Diante Garrett, Mike Harris
P.S.: Even before the January rush, nine players on non-guaranteed contracts have already been waived since the regular season began. They are:
Charlotte: James Southerland
Chicago: Mike James
Golden State: Dewayne Dedmon
L.A. Lakers: Elias Harris
New Orleans: Josh Childress, Arinze Onuaku, Lance Thomas
Philadelphia: Darius Morris
Utah: Jamaal Tinsley
OK, OK. Let's just say busier.
A league that has already witnessed three trades headlined by Marcin Gortat, Derrick Williams and Rudy Gay since training camps opened -- with Toronto trying hard as we speak to find a workable Kyle Lowry deal that makes it four -- will see more than 100 new trade chips put into play in less than 48 hours.
At 12:01 a.m. Sunday, no fewer than 114 players who signed new contracts since July will become trade-eligible, thanks to the league rule stipulating that recipients of new deals (in most cases) cannot be dealt until Dec. 15 or three months from the day their new contract is completed ... whichever of those dates falls later. So ...
Just as we would have in the Weekend Dime era, Stein Line Live serves up a list of all 114 of them -- along with a flurry of bonus lists -- to assist in your ESPN Trade Machine endeavors:
Players eligible to be traded as of Sunday
* -- Players with an asterisk next to their name possess additional trade restrictions in their respective contracts that earned them spots on Stein Line Live's All-No-Trade Team. Click here to get reacquainted with that group.
Bonus List No. 1
The following 20 players with new contracts aren't eligible to be traded Sunday because the three-month window since their respective signing dates extends beyond Dec. 15. Next to each player's name is the date he becomes trade-eligible:
Bonus List No. 2
The NBA, as part of its new labor agreement in 2011, restricts players possessing new contracts from being eligible to be traded before Jan. 15 when (1) the player's team is over the salary cap and (2) the first-year salary in the new deal exceeds the prior season's salary by more than 120 percent. There are seven players who fall under those restrictions this season:
Bonus List No. 3
Any player who signs a contract extension cannot be traded for six months if the total length of the contract (prior deal plus extension) is longer than three years or if the extension has annual increases in excess of 4.5 percent. Two big names, as a result, are thus ineligible to be traded until after their teams' respective 2013-14 seasons:
* -- Don't forget that Kobe, as covered in the Nov. 8 SLL post, is also one of four players in the league who possesses an outright no-trade clause in his contract along with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki.
Bonus List No. 4
There are only eight teams in the league, in case all of this trade-eligibility talk has made you curious, that aren't currently carrying a full 15-man roster. They are:
How soon before Knicks make run at prying Thibs out of CHI? Some SLL wondering about future of both coaches tonight: http://t.co/AnI9s2YSYe— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 11, 2013
D.J. Augustin, I'm told, has cleared waivers today, setting him up to sign with Bulls— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 11, 2013
Sources told ESPN.com that Jackson, who has been searching for a new team since his sudden release by the Spurs shortly before last season’s playoffs in April, has emerged as a prime candidate for the Clippers to sign as early as this week after a series of injuries have decimated L.A.’s depth.
Injuries suffered by starting guard J.J. Redick, top reserve Matt Barnes and rookie forward Reggie Bullock prompted Clippers coach Doc Rivers to announce after Saturday’s loss in Cleveland that the Clippers essentially “have to look somewhere” for reinforcements.
“If you guys have any names, call me and let me know,” Rivers told reporters. “I’ll be on the phone tonight with [Clippers executives] Gary [Sacks] and Gerald [Madkins] and Dave Wohl and I’m praying they know somebody. We’ll see. You never know.”
Former Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns guard Shannon Brown has also been mentioned as a potential target, but Jackson has the sort of size, 3-point shooting range and playoff résumé that could well appeal to Rivers as the Clippers search to fill the void.
It was not immediately known how the prospect of a signing this week, if it indeed comes to fruition, would impact the Clippers’ well-chronicled interest in re-signing veteran forward Lamar Odom. Rivers has spoken optimistically in recent weeks about Odom’s chances of returning to the Clippers after a tumultuous offseason, but the mounting injuries have left L.A. with a more pressing need than Odom might be able to fill. Earlier this month, one source briefed on the state of the Clippers’ courtship of Odom estimated that a return after Christmas was the most realistic timetable as the 33-year-old continues to work his way back into basketball shape.
Redick is out at least six weeks with a fracture in the small bone in his right hand and a tear of his right ulnar collateral ligament. Barnes has been plagued by a torn retina in his left eye that has already required two surgical procedures. And Bullock suffered a suspected high ankle sprain in the loss at Cleveland.
Jackson, meanwhile, has been working out on his own in Texas in hopes of hooking up with another contender. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich abruptly released the 35-year-old in April just six days before the end of the regular season because the Spurs felt that Jackson was unwilling to accept a lesser role in the playoffs behind fast-developing youngsters Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Jackson later said in numerous interviews that he actually asked the Spurs to move him before the league's annual trade deadline in February but couldn't convince them to go along with the request.