TrueHoop: Chauncey Billups

Is Parker the NBA's elite point guard?

May, 29, 2013
5/29/13
11:19
AM ET
By Sunny Saini, ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesTony Parker's 23.10 PER in the regular season was 3rd among PG (Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook).
In the Western Conference Finals against the Memphis Grizzlies, Tony Parker averaged 24.5 points per game, 9.5 assists and two steals while shooting 53.2 percent from the field. That's pretty impressive, considering the Grizzlies had the second-best defense during the regular season.

The series was highlighted by Parker’s career-high 18 assists in Game 2 and then in the series-clinching Game 4 Parker was 15-21 (71.4 percent) for 37 points to advance the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA Finals.

Parker has two games in the last five postseasons of at least 35 points and 70 percent shooting, and is the only point guard to have two of those games during that span.

Parker has led his team to the NBA Finals for the fourth time in his career. With his consistent success in the regular season, and especially in the postseason, you can make the case that he’s the best point guard in the NBA.

Consistent Winner

Since Parker made his NBA debut in 2001-02, he’s won three NBA championships and was named Finals MVP in 2006-07. Since 1990, Isiah Thomas, Chauncey Billups and Parker are the only point guards to win the Finals MVP.

Parker has also led the Spurs in scoring and assists for three consecutive seasons and five of the last eight seasons.

What's more, Parker has won 70 percent of the games he’s played in, including the playoffs, the best winning percentage among point guards during that span.

Scoring with the Best

Parker was tied with Chris Paul and Stephen Curry among point guards with 1.03 points per play (PPP) this season. What separated him was that he scored on 50.4 percent of his plays, which ranked him third behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant among perimeter players.

Parker’s Strengths

• Parker led the NBA in scoring off pick and rolls this season, with an average of 8.5 points per game.

• On pick and rolls which included Parker’s passes, he averaged 1.03 points per play, which ranked him third this season behind Paul and James.

• Parker led all NBA point guards this season with a 10.1 points per game average in the paint.

• In the Western Conference Finals, Parker drove to the basket 61 times in the half court and created 76 points for the Spurs. Parker had 17 assists when driving to the basket, and his teammates were 17-31 (54.8 percent) on those plays, including 9-16 (56.3 percent) on 3-point field goals.

The Spurs outscore their opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions when Parker is on the court but that drops to 2.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s off. That difference of 8.5 points per 100 possessions was more than Paul, Curry, Kyrie Irving, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams this season.

Clippers at Memphis: Five things to watch

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
10:47
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul: The All-Star point guard that dare not speak its name.

The unspeakable
At Grizzlies practice on Wednesday, Tony Allen was asked very generally what adjustments his team needed to make in Game 3. Allen catalogued the greatest hits -- rebounding, “X factor” Eric Bledsoe, pick-and-roll coverage and “we need to try to make someone else beat us.”

Allen wasn’t referring to the aforementioned Bledsoe, rather Chris Paul.

Reporters are in the clarity business, so one asked Allen to confirm that Paul was, indeed, the person of interest. Allen conceded that he was. “I didn’t want to say his name,” Allen said. “I don’t mind talking about it. He is who he is. He’s an All-Star point guard. He’s been a pain in our behind these last two games, and we want to go out there and try to do our best to do a better job of containing him.”

Since Allen has been fixated on Paul since the Clippers point guard banked in the game winner in Game 2 on Monday night, it bears considering whether Allen will draw Him as his primary defensive assignment in Game 3. Cross-matching is fraught with risk because the rest of Memphis’ backcourt is on the small side, which means Chauncey Billups could post up and Jamal Crawford could rise and shoot. But the alternative -- having Paul probe the middle of the court unfettered -- could be fatal for Memphis.

The block
After battling foul trouble in Game 1, when he finished with only 10 points in 25 minutes, Blake Griffin quickly established himself as the focal point of the Clippers’ offense early in Game 2. Possession after possession in the first quarter, the Clippers fed Griffin down on the block, at one point on four consecutive possessions -- left, then right, then left, then right.

There’s still a vocal contingent that believes Griffin’s post game is nothing more than a jack-in-the-box -- a long windup followed by a random burst -- but Griffin beat Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur with jump steps, spins to get baseline when the defender crowded him, spins to get middle when the defense was stretched. All the while, Griffin did his John Wooden Best, acting quickly but never hurrying.

The Grizzlies looked for Gasol down low, as well. Gasol drew mismatches, then dragged the likes of Caron Butler to the post. Arthur pinned DeAndre Jordan at the elbow to allow Gasol to move low a step ahead of his defender. And they had Gasol roll deeper with the intention of getting him the ball closer to the basket.

All of this highlights one truism -- the Clippers need Griffin and the Grizzlies really need Gasol to score down low.

The whistle
Last season’s seven-game tilt between the Clippers and Grizzlies was an absolute slugfest. Perhaps in response, this season’s series has been officiated far more tightly, at least through the first two games. There’s some debate as to whom that favors, but the Grizzlies seem far more frustrated by the bevy of foul calls than the Clippers.

Asked on Wednesday how to avoid the kind of ticky-tack fouls that are hampering his team, a salty Lionel Hollins responded, “Stop committing ticky-tack fouls.”

Hollins has seen his team give up several points in the series by fouling 30 feet from the basket while the Clippers are in the bonus. The Grizzlies know better. They also know they’re the superior defensive team, albeit the one with less foot speed. As they come home for Game 3, the Grizzlies need to focus less on gladiating and more on what they do best as a defense -- sending opponents to destinations on the floor they have no desire to visit. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself.

The freak
The word is out on Bledsoe who, in 32 total minutes, has outrebounded the 7-foot Gasol, wreaked havoc on the Grizzlies’ backcourt and injected into the series an element of chaos. That's a quality that normally favors Memphis, but has worked to the Clippers’ benefit over the first two games.

Allen is right -- Bledsoe is the series’ X factor, the player whose speed exposes the Grizzlies’ lack thereof, and whose pressure upsets an opponent that needs a modicum of space to get what it wants offensively.

No instructions exist to contain Bledsoe, apart from waiting for him to self-combust, which will happen from time to time. Bledsoe averaged 16 minutes over the first two games, but Vinny Del Negro kept him on the floor during the Clippers’ fourth-quarter surge in Game 1. The Clippers’ coach has gradually invested a level of trust in Bledsoe, one that will continue to pay dividends when the game calls for some guerrilla warfare.

The coach
Speaking of Del Negro, a number of NBA insiders and observers have come to a similar conclusion: He’s coached his tail off over the first two games of the series.

Rather than shorten the Clippers’ rotation, the much-maligned Del Negro returned to what worked in November and December, when the Clippers played championship-level basketball for nearly eight weeks -- two well-defined units, with extended minutes for Paul and Griffin and slightly abbreviated stints for the starting wings.

So far as play calling, Del Negro still defers much of it to Paul, but has also installed a number of nifty sets that use Paul off the ball in order to get him some live catches and destabilize the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense. And watch for another pretty scheme where Paul dishes the ball off to the wing, makes a UCLA cut before reversing course to set a back screen for Griffin.

These are just a couple of examples. Each game, the Clippers show off a few new wrinkles in what’s been an otherwise rudimentary offense during Del Negro’s tenure as coach. The stuff is working -- and Del Negro and staff deserve praise.

Memphis at Clippers: Five things to watch

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
2:02
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Grizzlies can't -- and probably won't -- get pummeled on the glass as they did in Game 1.

The Glass
Finding signs of encouragement after a 21-point loss can be like leading a search party in the dark, but if the Grizzlies are looking for some reassurance, it should come in the near certainty that they won’t be outrebounded again by a 2-to-1 margin. If that seemed unprecedented, that's because it was. Memphis didn't come anywhere close to a margin like that in any game during the regular season.

There’s a general belief that rebounding doesn’t slump in the NBA. A team like the Grizzlies, which dominated the boards in the regular season (second in overall rebounding rate), doesn’t forget how to ply its trade. Short of injury or a deliberate strategy like a zone defense or fronting the post -- tactics that can make it harder to crash the glass -- a debacle such as Saturday night's is an outlier.

The Grizzlies better hope so. They’re not a team endowed with much perimeter firepower or natural athleticism. They win basketball games by controlling possessions, something they simply can’t accomplish if the Clippers are collecting 42 percent of their misses.

The Point God
Chris Paul exerts an element of control over a basketball game that’s uncanny, and this hasn't been news in ages. What’s more interesting to observe is how he manages his role within the emotional and strategic contours of that game, not unlike LeBron James, in a sense. Is Paul creating for others, or hunting shots for himself? Is he conserving energy off the ball, or is he in Probe Mode?

On Saturday night, the answer was all of the above, and that’s really where Paul needs to be for the Clippers to achieve their full potential as an offensive club. We saw some new wrinkles to the Clippers’ half-court game, with Paul not exclusively an initiator but also a scorer. He came off screens for live-ball catches in a couple of inventive sets, the kind of stuff we haven’t always seen from the Clippers. But Paul also claimed several possessions for himself to test the mobility of the Memphis big men.

For Memphis, the pick-and-roll coverage has to improve, and the Grizzlies know that. They’re an exceptionally well-prepared group that’s completely devoted to the execution of a very intelligent defensive system. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and several players laid it out Sunday at practice.

“The guards have to do a better job of pushing up on the ball handlers,” Mike Conley said. “They were flipping the screens, so our big would show one way, but then their big would flip the screen and Chris would see it. I’d run into the screen pretty good and he’d get a full head of steam on our big man, and you can’t guard him when he’s got a full head of steam with the confidence he has in the paint.”

A defense might not be able to take away Paul’s confidence, but it can take away some real estate.

The Gamble
OK, so who’s going to defend Paul? A tough question because there’s no entirely satisfying answer. In Game 1, Hollins opted for Conley. This wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion.

Conley did an acceptable job of checking Paul during last year’s playoff series. Paul certainly created some quality shots, but he worked for just about everything and spent a fair amount of time in spots on the floor where he had no interest being.

But on Saturday, it wasn’t just that Paul got where he wanted to go, but that he got there in such little traffic. As Blake Griffin said, there was something extremely un-Grizzly about the Clippers' "getting what they wanted," and it can largely be attributed to the little resistance encountered by Paul.

The obvious alternative would be to stick Tony Allen on Paul, but that presents other risks, such as Chauncey Billups dragging Conley into the post. We saw Billups draw Conley on a switch in Game 1 and then promptly back Conley down before draining an easy midrange shot over him.

There are no good choices for guarding Paul, but that might be a risk the Grizzlies have to take. If nothing else, it’s putting your best defender where he’s most useful.

The Center
The league has only a handful of players through whom you can run your offense at the high post. Marc Gasol is one of them. On the possessions when Memphis’ offense is at its most fluid and attractive, chances are Gasol is stationed at the elbow.

The Grizzlies need Gasol to spend time at that spot and feed his teammates, but they also need him to generate some offense for himself, which is why Gasol’s ratio of low-post to high-post touches has been increasing recently. When Gasol is aggressive down on the block, he’s effective, and it’s not as if working down low strips him of his ability to be a playmaker. Instead of playing high-low with Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies can play block to block -- horizontal passes rather than vertical ones.

Having Gasol set up in the low post has its drawbacks. For one, it cramps Randolph a bit. The right block is where Randolph makes his living and serves his team best, and he needs a ribbon of empty space around him. But the Grizzlies do a nice job of staggering the minutes of their big men, which should provide Gasol with plenty of feeds closer to the basket.

The Spark
When the Clippers were ripping off 17 straight wins in December, the margins of victory could be credited to the performance of the second unit, which was decimating the league. Between Eric Bledsoe’s bedlam, Jamal Crawford’s marksmanship, Matt Barnes’ wiliness, Lamar Odom’s versatility and Ronny Turiaf’s … turiafity, the Clippers featured the most exciting and most productive bench in basketball. When excitement and productivity meet, you’re generally in a good place.

That’s the world the Clippers returned to in Game 1. “It felt like December” was something we heard a lot Saturday night and into Sunday, and nothing triggered that sense of deja vu more than the play of the bench.

The Grizzlies do chaos very well themselves, even if their complementary players aren't as talented. They also encountered this last April, so there’s no element of surprise. What they have to do now is neutralize to some degree the energy generated by the Clippers’ reinforcements.

The Clippers and the temptation of success

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
8:45
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty ImagesEric Bledsoe and Chris Paul: The Clippers' embarrassment of riches at the point.

Momentum is a precarious thing in the NBA.

Five weeks ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were romping through their schedule, dispatching teams with brutal efficiency en route to a 28-8 record. The Chris Paul system was flourishing. Blake Griffin’s expanded offensive repertoire was blossoming, and his defense was coming along very nicely, thank you. The second unit was scaring the bejeezus out of the league, and the depth -- a rotation 11 deep with Grant Hill’s return -- allowed the team to send a wave of reinforcements at opportune times.

Then bodies started to fall. Paul bumped knees with J.J. Redick on Jan. 12, suffering a bone bruise. Griffin picked up the slack, carrying the load as the featured player in the Paul-less offense, but then tweaked his hamstring earlier this week. He has missed the Clippers’ past two games. Supersub Jamal Crawford is day-to-day with a sore shoulder. Since Paul’s collision with Redick, the Clippers are 7-8.

Despite the bumpy ride, the Clippers aren’t overly concerned. They feel the healthy version of their team can make a rightful claim as one of the league’s elite powers, and are confident they're a top-three seed in the West. When intact, the Clippers’ starting unit thrives. Their bench squad is gangbusters. All the permutations of their closing lineup -- whether it’s Lamar Odom or DeAndre Jordan at center, or whichever combination of Crawford, Matt Barnes and Caron Butler at the wings -- kill the competition. Well aware of this, the Clippers have exercised caution with their stars’ nicks and bruises, and now the returns of Paul, Chauncey Billups, Griffin and Crawford are imminent.

Once they're restored to full strength, the Clippers are presented with a dilemma:

Do they stand pat, faithful that the on-court efficiency and locker room chemistry is enough to put them on equal footing with San Antonio and Oklahoma City? Or does the tough competition from these seasoned rivals out West necessitate upgrading the roster if the right opportunities present themselves?

This is a tough proposition for the Clippers. If you’re Bryan Colangelo in Toronto, you can roll the dice with impunity because you have little to lose at this point. For an organization adrift, change, in and of itself, can take the pressure off a beleaguered front office and buy it some time. But the Clippers have a far more delicate balance to maintain. Every team wants to improve, but there are no guarantees that any deal, no matter how attractive it appears in the Trade Machine, will do that. The risk of upsetting a winning formula is real, but so is the risk of not capitalizing on a chance to improve.

The situation in Los Angeles contains a series of intriguing variables and conflicting agendas. For instance, if you’re in management -- a custodian of the future well-being of the franchise -- trading away a young player on a value deal isn’t something you do lightly. Adding savvy veterans is always nice, but at what burden to the spreadsheet and at what cost to the current chemistry?

But if you’re a coach or a star player whose contractual relationship with the Clippers expires on June 30, you have all the motivation in the world to push all-in for a chance to win the big prize in June. That’s especially true if you’re a head coach who values reliable vets with championship pedigrees more than younger players with raw, unrefined talent.

Specifically, Eric Bledsoe is the Clippers’ most compelling case study. If Chris Paul returns to Los Angeles next season on a long-term deal, Bledsoe is somewhat (not entirely) expendable. At the very least, he becomes less valuable to the Clippers than to a team in desperate need of a point guard of the future. The best way to ensure Paul returns is to win now, and if Bledsoe can fetch a piece that can aid that effort, as our Kevin Pelton has outlined, does it make sense to move the young point guard?

The counter-argument goes that Bledsoe is not only insurance for Paul, but he’s helping the Clippers now as the catalyst of the league’s most successful second unit and as the team’s best on-ball defender. Deal him at your own peril. Management understands this, which is why Bledsoe will more than likely be a Los Angeles Clipper in two weeks.

Jordan is a more complicated matter. He isn't likely to go anywhere, but his situation prompts some interesting questions. Vinny Del Negro puts a premium on experience, and he has been reluctant to place Jordan on the floor in big spots on a consistent basis, particularly now with Odom at his disposal. Moving Jordan could make sense for a couple of reasons. We can debate the validity of Del Negro’s skittishness with Jordan, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides. But the fact remains that the confidence from the staff isn’t there, so why not equip the roster with a big man whom they can trust, provided such a player is available at a reasonable price?

Then there’s the issue of Jordan’s contract, which he signed during the 2011 offseason -- another two years and $22.4 million after this season. This isn’t a horrible deal because big men with Jordan’s athleticism who can protect the rim are in short supply. But if they’re riding the pine during crunch time, that salary is a bit more burdensome. The Clippers could try to deal Jordan, much like what the Nuggets did when they developed buyer's remorse over Nene soon after signing him to a slightly overvalued deal. Truth be told, landing in a place where Jordan is handed the center spot without reservation might be a welcome change for the big man, who has worked diligently over the past few seasons to polish his game. Jordan has maintained a stiff upper lip, but can get frustrated with his role, even as he loves being part of the tight-knit group that exists with the Clippers.

All of which brings us back to that delicate balance for this organization enraptured by its current success after eons of futility. Do the Clippers stick with a program that has yielded the best results in the franchise’s history, or do they adopt the one move away plan, and act on the irresistible temptation to get over the hump, even if it comes at the expense of future success?

Flop of the night: Chauncey Billups

December, 4, 2012
12/04/12
2:16
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Chauncey Billups
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesChauncey Billups deployed veteran trickery to great effect Monday night.
Chauncey Billups is a high risk to receive a flopping warning from the NBA league office after his egregious "roughing the punter" flop -- the very same flop that played a critical role in the Clippers beating the Jazz Monday night.

Utah, which lost by a single point, would probably prefer the win to the flopping warning, but you get what you can get in this league.

The Billups flop (Video) came with only 75 seconds left to play in the game, with the Jazz clinging to a two-point lead. After Chris Paul almost lost possession and had to save the ball to Blake Griffin, the Clippers offense was in total disarray. Billups found himself with the ball during a possession that seemed to be going Utah's way. As Billups elevated to shoot, Mo Williams flew out to contest the shot, while taking special care to avoid the shooting Billups.

Billups, however, needed points any way he could get them, and therefore -- the video shows -- kicked his leg out and tumbled to the ground as though Williams had run right through him. Referee Dick Bavetta, whose view of Williams was obscured by Billups, awarded the Clipper guard three critical free throws. Billups hit two, tying the game.

Many plays contributed to the Jazz loss, but it's hard not to feel Bavetta's call had outsized impact, even though it was a call that anyone watching on TV could clearly see was a mistake. The replay was aired before a single free throw had been attempted. Hundreds of thousands of TV viewers could have correctly reversed the call on the spot. But thanks to NBA rules, the game's officials had no access to that replay in real time, and so Billups got his free throws.

When you see an egregious flop that deserves proper recognition, send us a link to the video so we can consider it for Flop of the Night. Here's how to make your submission:
  • Alert HoopIdea to super flops with the Twitter hashtag #FlopOfTheNight (follow us on Twitter here).
  • Use the #FlopOfTheNight hashtag in Daily Dime Live.
  • E-mail us at hoopidea@gmail.com

How the Clippers changed their mood

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
8:03
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Los Angeles Clippers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhatever the Clippers call it this season, it's a lot more fun than Lob City.

Blake Griffin didn’t shoot, and Chris Paul was ticked off.

Paul is in the business of finding open shots for teammates. It’s a vocation he loves and performs better in than anyone alive, and he even delivered a manifesto on the subject on Saturday after the Clippers’ win over Chicago.

“My job as a point guard is to make the other team think I’m trying to score,” Paul said. “I’m not bad at that. That’s my main objective. I can get two people on me, and then I’m able to throw it back to Blake, and once that continues, we become that [much] more dangerous.”

Early in the third quarter, Paul got a step on Kirk Hinrich going left. Joakim Noah was attending to Griffin on the right side of the floor, but when Noah saw Paul attack, he moved toward the paint and away from Griffin, who was now left alone about 18 feet from the basket.

Paul's main objective was achieved, as the entire Bulls defense thought he was trying to score. Leveraging that attention, Paul slung a pass across his body to Griffin, now wide open.

But instead of catching and shooting, Griffin cradled the ball for a second, almost inviting Noah back into his airspace. Noah closed on Griffin and now it was too late for Griffin to launch that face-up jumper he’s been working on tirelessly. Griffin’s only recourse was to shuttle the ball back to Paul, who was barking and gesticulating at Griffin like someone in a hurry behind a blue-hair in the left-turn lane.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘Shoot it!’” Paul said. “He can do it and we need him to do it because once he develops that, which he’s already done and keeps gaining more and more confidence, he becomes unguardable.”

Griffin flashed a smile when those comments were relayed to him a few minutes later.

“I had to hit a couple so he’d get off my back,” Griffin said, tailing off with a chuckle.


Teammates don’t reveal moments like these with such ease without an established trust. When Paul arrived in December 2011, he and Griffin knew each other only by reputation. Today, as the 8-2 Clippers head into a showdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul and Griffin know each other as people.

After each home game, the pair strides into the Los Angeles Kings’ locker room, which is set up with a playoff-style podium. Paul is usually the first to arrive. He’ll take questions for about four minutes before Griffin slips into the room, sits down, cracks open a can of Red Bull that’s sitting before him, but which his lips will never touch. The two will share the podium for a couple of minutes before Paul exits, leaving Griffin to finish.

The two-man show is both a stylistic and substantive departure from last season. Last winter, Griffin would glower in the corner of the locker room after games and grunt platitudes to a swell of reporters. Across the way, Paul would perform his we're-not-satisfied shtick, win or lose. He was never expressly surly, but he was definitely guarded.

Maybe it’s the roomier and more orderly digs of the new setup, or maybe it’s the fact that the Clippers are beating the holy hell out of teams like San Antonio, Miami, Chicago and the Lakers, or maybe it's just the passage of time, but Paul and Griffin are far more accessible and revealing than last season -- both on and off the court.

That wry, playful persona you see from Griffin when he’s tooling around in a KIA with his red track suit? He’s brought it to the arena and the practice facility. He doesn't punt basketballs across the practice court and storm off when he loses a free throw contest to DeAndre Jordan. Paul and Chauncey Billups don’t have to tell him to chill when he seethes after a miscue in a scrimmage.

Paul has also softened. When he rides guys in practice, he’s less likely than last season to elicit a defensive response, according to teammates. When the moment invites it, they might even give him a little crap, a gentle acknowledgment that Paul’s perfectionism is a little pathological but greatly appreciated. It’s a group that knows Paul well, and that familiarity has spawned an environment that’s one part frat house, one part creative firm.

And now Clipperland feels like a fun workplace where you imagine a very successful team to reside -- and that's playing out on the court, where the Clippers are plowing through their schedule.


Coming into the season, this evolution wasn't a foregone conclusion. The 2011-12 Clippers were a divisive force in the NBA. Lob City should've made the Clippers darlings of the league, but the team became inordinately unlikable to a legion of NBA fans. The Clippers hadn't earned a thing, but carried themselves as scowling, whining, flopping prima donnas. Over the course of the season, their popularity dropped through the floor.

Four weeks into the new season and the Clippers have undergone a quiet, sneaky rebranding. The optics surrounding the team are entirely different. They've become the likable, up-tempo team we imagined they'd be. For a team infamous in 2011-12 for its tactlessness, the Clippers refashioned themselves without people talking about it, which makes the feat even cooler.

Paul’s inside-out dribble still propels the offense, but the ball pops around the court. Clippers games have pace, and there's a discernible rhythm on both ends of the floor.

Flanked by his vets and a few young guys who defer to his savvy, Paul has relaxed. He’ll never be a jokester, but his leadership is now more peppy than austere, and it has infused the Clippers’ on-court product with some whimsy.

Griffin’s antics have been shelved for the most part, but not the exuberance. He’s out there to perfect that midrange jumper, to wall off the paint from a speedy point guard, to play an honest-to-goodness brand of defense and, yes, to catch hanging lobs from his guards at unreasonable heights. This season, Griffin isn't about humiliating opponents, but rather elevating himself -- and he’s done it without losing style points.

Jordan, the Clippers’ wide-grinned center who’s carrying a hefty contract, has found his game. He’s still a top-three dunk machine, but the game is rounding out, and when he’s playing well, there isn't a more infectious guy on the team. When Jordan subs out for Ryan Hollins these days at Staples Center, he’s leaving the floor to a standing O.

Fun teams feature cult heroes. Jamal Crawford has been hosting that party for a decade and has brought his wares to Los Angeles. He’s leading the Clippers in scoring and the Staples Center court is littered with tibias, fibulas and whatever else gets fractured by Crawford’s crossover dribble.

Then there’s Eric Bledsoe, a 6-foot mass of bedlam who checks in for Paul nightly and proceeds to drop a lighted match on the hardwood. On a recent night at Staples Center, you could overhear the official scorer, an all-business professional whose job consists of enumerating the game’s basic data points -- “Foul 32,” “Miss 11,” “Steal 12,” “Turnover 15” -- break character to utter in an equally matter-of-fact tone, “Bledsoe is a freak.” NBA assistant coaches, social media platforms and Bledsoe’s teammates unanimously agree.


We know that basketball games are won because talent and certain empirical truths prevail. But can intangibles such as optics, camaraderie and fun translate into wins? When you have players who understand expectations and enjoy their work environment, can those conditions enable a team to achieve the upper range of its potential?

Right now, the Clippers are a case study. We know they’re talented, and Paul’s command of the game makes them an efficient team that will win far more games than they’ll lose. They've gone from unwatchable to captivating, the League Pass special that fans signed up for last season.

Ankle breakage, inside-out dribbles, alley-oops, brimming confidence, a new-found jumper, freaky lilliputians who block shots and strip balls with impunity -- all of it is inspiring. Now we’ll find out if it’s sustainable.

Friday Bullets

November, 16, 2012
11/16/12
5:39
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • LeBron James rang up 12 assists in Denver on Thursday night, and was deadly on the kickout to spot-up shooters. The biggest dime of the night came in the closing minute with the game in the balance. James could've played one-on-three against the Nuggets' collapsing defense. Instead, he dished the ball off to Norris Cole who was wide open and drained the shot. What did critics have to say about James' passing up the big shot? Not a thing. What a difference a ring makes.
  • So let's get this straight: The Clippers are without Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are playing career-low minutes -- and Griffin's overall numbers are down. Lamar Odom has a Player Efficiency Rating that starts with zero. Their backup point guard, nicknamed Mini-LeBron and posting a PER of 22.6, is playing fewer minutes than Willie Green. All the while, the Clippers are killing the competition.
  • At the New York Times, Beckley Mason writes that the Boston Celtics provide an interesting template for the Brooklyn Nets.
  • Tom Ziller of SB Nation on the Knicks: "I don't get the sense this is a massive house of cards, unlike other teams that blaze off to incredible starts. Among the rotation players, only Smith and Kidd are playing way over their heads, and that's all related to the above-mentioned shooting. Felton has been surprisingly good compared with last season, but it's in line with what he did in his previous half-season in New York. It's not a Mike James bargain with the devil type of start he's having. Ronnie Brewer has always been solid. Rasheed Wallace is ... Rasheed Wallace. Tyson Chandler is elite. Carmelo Anthony is very good. Mike Woodson is criminally underrated as a coach."
  • Is that a Raymond Felton sighting, shredding the Spurs on the pick-and-roll?
  • A bad bench can undo a lot of hard work by your starters.
  • Just because you hit a huge game-winning shot to beat the Lakers earlier in the week doesn't mean you're exempt from household chores.
  • Damian Lillard is looking for a Portland-based barber. Lucky for him, grooming is optional in Multnomah County.
  • At 0-7, the Wizards have a ton of question marks. Could Shaun Livingston be one of the answers?
  • One idea being floated in Milwaukee: Scarf down a double-cheeseburger to help pay for a new arena. (Hat tip: Bucksketball)
  • As HoopChalk's Jared Dubin points out, a sniper doesn't always have to catch-and-shoot the ball coming off a pin-down. Passing is almost always an option -- and a smart one.
  • Liberty Ballers' Michael Levin reports that the 76ers are close to becoming the latest NBA team to own their own D-League franchise. I love the idea of the NBA replicating an MLB-style minor league structure, with each big-league team having its own exclusive affiliation with a "AAA" club. Already, the stigma of being "sent down" to the D-League is dissipating. Many of NBA organizations that have one-to-one partnerships with D-League franchises are using them as laboratories to teach their less refined young prospects the system run by the big club (see Houston Rockets). Development has long been sorely lacking at the NBA level. Some of that is the fault of NBA teams, but much of the shortfall is circumstance. It's hard to devote a ton of resources to developing the skills of your second-round pick when you're preparing for a back-to-back with the Thunder and the Spurs. But give a prospect some high-grade instruction down on the farm, and you're likely to see more tangible progress in his game.
  • More vegan propaganda from John Salley. I've been dabbling myself. If there were more joints like this in my city, it would be easier.

Takeaways from Clippers-Thunder

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
3:17
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Blake Griffin
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The Clippers and Thunder tangled for the second time in six nights -- to the same result.

The first half was an eyesore, as the Thunder led nearly the whole way despite a bevy of turnovers by both teams. Then the Clippers rallied back to drop the Thunder 92-77 on Monday, five nights after Los Angeles went into Oklahoma City and stole one on the Thunder's home court. The game was a revelation for the Clippers, and a nightmare for the Thunder after halftime.
  • So many of the Clippers' wins this season have been of the lightning-in-the-bottle variety. Randy Foye will get hot from long range, or Chris Paul will emerge from the bullpen late in the fourth quarter and carry the team to an improbable win. A win is a win -- but the best teams in the league rely on reliable systems and methods to chalk up victories. The Clippers, on the other hand, have been masters of serendipity. But that wasn't the case Monday night, when the Clippers collectively identified Oklahoma City's weaknesses and attacked them. Playing a grown-up brand of basketball, the Clippers threw a steady stream of different defensive coverages at the Thunder. When the Thunder confronted their strengths with strength, the Clippers made reads and found workarounds. This is how mature basketball teams win big games in the NBA and, in taking out the Thunder with substance and savvy, the Clippers played up to their potential Monday. The pyrotechnics will explode at some point; the Clippers' challenge going forward is adopting a series of principles that will guide them when they don't.
  • The turning point of the game came toward the end of the third quarter when Nick Young exploded for eight points in three possessions. Prior to Monday, Young had been terrible for the Clippers, failing to shoot over 50 percent from the field in any of his 17 games with the Clippers. That was largely a function of looking for the wrong shots in the wrong spots. But during this stretch of possessions, he played off the Clippers' primary action: the middle pick-and-roll between Paul and Blake Griffin. On the first shot, the Thunder trapped Paul, then the other three OKC defenders converged on Griffin in the lane. Griffin takes a lot of grief as a "one-dimensional" player. Ever seen him move the ball out of a triple-team? That's what he did there to find Young open for two. One possession later, Paul ran a little slip screen with Griffin. This time, Young needed some help, so DeAndre Jordan pinned Kevin Durant (Young's man) out of the play. Young was open for a 3-pointer at a spot a couple of feet deeper than the previous one. On the third possession, the Clippers ran that Paul-Griffin pick-and-roll one more time. Again, a trap and, again, Durant got caught helping middle (to pick up Jordan on a duck-in) rather than staying at home on Young. It's safe to say Paul is a guy who knows how to make hedging defenders look silly. He did here. In a flash, the Clippers shaved the Thunder's lead down to a single point. Young finished with 19 points on 11 true shots without a turnover. The swag was back, at least for a night, and a very opportune one at that.
  • In their heyday, the Celtics got away with a lot of turnovers, largely because they were impossible to score against for long stretches of basketball. The Thunder have a reasonably efficient defense, but they can't continue to cough up the ball on nearly a sixth of their possessions, because a team like San Antonio or the Lakers -- or even the Clippers, who protect the ball well -- will punish them for it. Russell Westbrook, who scored the Thunder's first seven points, couldn't find his cutters in the first half, errors that resulted in a slew of turnovers. In the third quarter, Serge Ibaka couldn't make a simple entry pass into the high post, and Westbrook found a wide-open Vinny Del Negro for a kickout. All of it made for very bad news, as the Thunder couldn't get out of their own way.
  • The Clippers started dabbling with the zone a couple of months back when their man-to-man defense was in shambles. The schemes weren't terribly effective, but you could see the faint sketch of something that could potentially work. The Clippers are quick and long, and they certainly had the potential to compensate for their lack of reliable isolation defenders by using their size and athleticism in the zone. Gradually, that zone defense has improved, and it hummed just before halftime. Jordan was everywhere, and the Clippers were quick to match up the instant the Thunder found a seam. I caught up with Chauncey Billups after the game to ask him about the Clippers' zone, which gave up only seven points in 13 possessions. Billups was miffed when Flip Saunders installed the zone in Detroit, because he took it as an affront to his Pistons' defensive capabilities. Zone, as Metta World Peace recently told me, was for teams that can't defend in man, and for a certain proud vet, the scheme still carries a stigma. "We looked at it like it was a weakness, like you couldn't stop anybody," Billups said. "But it's a good gimmick to change up a defense." The Clippers, with Jordan anchoring underneath in Chandlerian fashion, are making it work. The Thunder couldn't lay off the long jumpers (though Durant missed a couple of open ones from long range), or they drove recklessly into the teeth of the zone. No flashes, few cuts and little patience.
  • Oklahoma City couldn't make sense of the Clippers' varied coverages. The Clippers ran under Westbrook on pick-and-roll plays -- but not the big man -- giving the eager point guard just enough rope to hang himself ... but not too much. The Clippers played Durant straight-up in isolation or in the post, with the occasional trap. Sometimes they'd switch when Durant came off the pindown, sometimes not. "The big thing was to make [Durant] catch as high as possible," Kenyon Martin said. "Sometimes out of timeouts we'd switch the coverage if we saw he was getting low, and sometimes we made a read." Durant shot 7-for-18 from the floor, and drained 10 of 12 from the line.
  • Aside from the handful of lousy close-outs, the Thunder didn't play a poor defensive game. Their defensive pick-and-roll strategy can best be characterized as a "long show." The big man -- be it Kendrick Perkins or Ibaka -- stayed with Paul until the point guard gave up the ball, and this creates all sorts of confusion behind this quasi-blitz. The Clippers' wing would stagnate in the corner, while Griffin would shuffle around the high post desperately looking to provide a pressure release for Paul. More times than not, it worked, even against a menace like Paul. The Clippers point guard finished with 12 points (5-for-12 FGAs, 1-for-2 FTAs) and 10 assists. Not bad, but hardly destructive.

What Nick Young means for the Clippers

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
3:46
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Ever since Chauncey Billups was lost for the season on Feb. 6 to a torn left Achilles tendon, the Clippers are a mediocre 9-10, dropping games to Cleveland, Phoenix, New Jersey and Golden State (at home).

It’s always dangerous to link cause and effect, but despite his occasionally free-wheeling shot selection, Billups posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 16.3 in his 20 games as a starter. And despite reports of his demise as a defender, the Clippers were 4.4 points better defensively when Billups was on the floor.

The Clippers pursued J.R. Smith and had been active in trade discussions for several shooting guards in recent weeks. Price tags for such players have been steep, and in snagging Nick Young from a moribund Wizards squad, the Clippers gave up virtually nothing for a proficient shooter on an inexpensive expiring contract -- DNP case Brian Cook and a future second-round draft pick.

Young can shoot the 3-ball, particularly from the corners, where Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro tends to situate his wings in his pick-and-roll, isolation-heavy offense. Young is a 54.5 percent shooter on corner 3s, and his 30 makes from that zone rank him seventh in the NBA.

What Young can’t do much about is addressing the Clippers’ most pressing problem -- their 22nd-ranked defense. His 6-foot-7 frame will make life a little more difficult for opposing wings, who have had a significant height advantage over the Clippers’ defenders, but Young can never be characterized as a stopper. He’s also one of the most gratuitous chuckers of the dreaded long 2-point shot. And his miniscule 6.1 assist rate ranks him 78th of 79 qualified shooting guards -- deep black hole territory.

But on balance, this was an easy call for the Clippers. They have no long-term commitment to Young, who is on a one-year contract. If he can fill Billups’ shoes as a proficient spot-up specialist, good for the Clippers. If not, the Clippers still have Mo Williams as their designated microwave and can punt on Young at the end of the season.

Clippers-Lakers: 5 things we saw

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
3:11
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
1. There was an air of certitude coming from Pau Gasol following the Lakers' 96-91 win over the Clippers. It wasn't quite an "I told you so," but he spoke like a man who felt vindicated. Gasol went 9-of-13 from the floor for 23 points and added 10 rebounds and four assists. "We made sure we used a little more of our interior game so it would open things up for our exterior game," Gasol said. "That's just the way it works." Gasol said the coaching staff drew up a couple of more plays to ensure he'd get the ball in the post so he could attack.

He didn't screw around. From the very outset of the game, he ran down to the box like a man possessed. If he didn't establish position against Blake Griffin on one block, the Lakers would run a cross-screen to free him up for a deep entry catch on the other. We saw a show-and-go against Reggie Evans, a smooth shot-fake and dribble-drive against a recovering Griffin (courtesy of a nice pocket pass from Kobe Bryant off a well-executed pick-and-roll) and a strong seal along the baseline for that nice pass in traffic from Metta World Peace (though, according to Kobe, that was Ron Artest out there on Wednesday night).

"I made myself aggressive," Gasol said in a television interview immediately after the game. The phrasing was telling.

2. Chris Paul suited up for the first time since these two teams met 10 days prior, but his 26 minutes suggested he isn't yet 100 percent. The Clippers' offense, which had been humming with machine-like efficiency before Paul was sidelined with a strained left hamstring, sputtered in the second half.

If you're the Clippers, what kind of shots are you generally looking for? Opportunities for Griffin at close range; Paul optimizing space to get a clean jumper or a smooth driving lane to the rack; maybe Caron Butler as a weakside release after the defense tilts the floor; kickouts for Billups that result in open 3-point looks or a chance for him to draw contact against an imbalanced defender.

The Clippers didn't generate anything of the kind in the fourth quarter. Down two with 1:40 to play, Paul buzzed in and out of traffic and drew Andrew Bynum on a mismatch. He backed Bynum out, but with only three seconds left on the shot clock Paul launched a 26-footer. The Clippers' next two shot attempts were blocked at the basket, which effectively sealed the game, but the trouble for the Clippers started long before that.

3. Griffin had a prolific night from outside the paint, shooting 6-of-10 beyond 10 feet. Like most defenses, the Lakers yielded Griffin space at midrange to limit his dribble attacks. He used his agility to propel into a spin move and then launch a turnaround jumper. Building on the confidence of his stroke, Griffin later went to a step-back jumper over Gasol. The midrange game presents a dilemma for Griffin. He isn't a high-percentage shooter from distance, but he also knows it's a shot he needs to make with some proficiency if his game is going to evolve to the next level. On Wednesday night, the Lakers' length inside might have been a motivating factor or he might have simply felt comfy from outside.

4. Bryant threw the ball away early looking for teammates against pressure, but credit him for finding Derek Fisher repeatedly along the arc. Fisher was the constant beneficiary of a Clippers defense that paid little or no attention to its floor balance defensively. The Lakers pounded it inside, and any incursion into the paint drew the entire Clippers defense. Fisher faded to the perimeter and was on the receiving end of some skip passes from Bryant with serious altitude.

5. It’s very hard for the Clippers to generate much offense when they have some combination of DeAndre Jordan, Solomon Jones and Reggie Evans as their frontcourt. Crazy as it sounds, Griffin is the Clippers' stretchiest big man not named Brian Cook. You have to wonder at what point the Clippers will look to add a more offensively minded big man, because they're barely treading water when the combined range of their power forward and center is roughly the length of a Twix bar. The Clippers can opt to go small against certain opponents, but against the Lakers, Trail Blazers, Thunder and most of the top teams in the West, it’s just not a feasible scenario, which means they're stuck with an anemic unit on the floor for considerable stretches.

The Clippers' efficient Woody Allen offense

January, 9, 2012
1/09/12
11:53
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Chris Paul and Vinny Del Negro
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
How are the Clippers generating their impressive offensive output?

80 percent of life is showing up.

Of all of Woody Allen's enduring punch lines, none is so practical as a life lesson. You don't have to be a genius to achieve success -- just show up. Those silly perfect attendance awards they hand out in school? They're a better predictive measure than we think -- and we can apply that lesson to basketball.

At its very root, a basketball possession is an opportunity for points. There are no promises you’ll score. But NBA teams that get a shot off at the basket score an average of 1.16 points per possession. Barring an illegal defense call or a foul away from the ball, teams that don’t get a shot off score exactly zero points on average.

The lesson here is fairly simple: Show up for the possession and you’re likely to pad your lead or narrow your deficit. That's a primary reason Dean Oliver rates turnover rate as one of his "Four Factors of Basketball Success," second only to shooting proficiency.

The Clippers have ranked as one of the three most efficient offenses in basketball since the outset of the season. They’ve accomplished this while running very rudimentary stuff in the half court. Much of the playbook consists of angle pick-and-rolls, some early drag screens and horns sets (bigs at the elbow; wings in the corners) that move into simple curls or ball screens. In recent days, they've added some second-side actions in which after an initial pick-and-roll with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the ball is swung quickly to Chauncey Billups, who will get into a similar action with DeAndre Jordan.

But as the Atlanta Hawks demonstrated during the latter seasons of the Mike Woodson era, you can rack up some nice efficiency numbers if you protect the ball -- even if your offense is obvious and not remarkably innovative. The Hawks’ game plan was so utterly predictable that “Iso Joe” became a calling card. Yet when you'd visit any advanced team stats page, you'd find the Hawks near the very top of the rankings. How could an offense whose trademark set consisted of a swingman pounding the ball one-on-one possibly rate so high? The answer: Atlanta rarely turned the ball over.

The Clippers rank second in turnover rate, behind Philadelphia (which, not coincidentally, is the only team with a more statistically efficient offense). Wednesday night against Houston, the Clips didn’t turn the ball over once in the first quarter while scoring 41 points on 26 possessions. Everything they threw at the basket fell through, though little of it was the result of brilliant choreography. As usual, the Clippers used very basic actions to find shot attempts -- and they generated at least one each time they brought the ball across the time line by simply being careful with their possessions.

Against Milwaukee on Saturday night, the Clippers turned the ball over 10 times in the first 18 minutes and looked dreadful doing it -- trailing the Bucks 28-24 when a timeout was called at the 5:42 mark of the second quarter. From there, the Clippers went 16 minutes without a turnover. Over that stretch of 27 possessions, they scored 41 points.

The Clippers are getting the ball in the hands of the right people in the right spots for a lot of easy baskets. Like every good offensive team, they suffer lulls like the one they endured during the first half against Milwaukee on Saturday (and that drought was largely because of an uncharacteristic barrage of turnovers). But by and large, the Clippers are crafting a simple offense predicated, more than anything, on showing up. They aren't even getting very many second chances -- they rank 27th in offensive rebounding rate -- but the likelihood they'll get a first chance is very high.

Never has an effect had so obvious a cause. The arrival of Paul has completely transformed the Clippers’ attack, which logged the highest turnover rate in the league last season. A Paul team has never ranked below 8th in turnover rate, and it’s not hard to understand why. Paul exerts more careful control over a possession than any point guard alive. His teams rarely turn the ball over not only because he’s protective of the basketball, but because he has an incredible capacity to deliver the ball to teammates in low-risk, high-reward spots. Someone, somewhere will end up with a shot, and because Paul is capable as a distributor, he doesn’t need a lot of tactical help or fancy plays to find that someone.

Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro rejects the idea that the Clippers' playbook is decidedly less intricate than what the rest of the league is doing.

"Everybody runs the same stuff," Del Negro said. "I would say 80 percent. Everyone tries the post-up guys. Everyone runs isolations. Everyone runs pick-and-rolls. It's all the same stuff; they just have different visuals for it. We call something horns -- it's an elbow set. They call it 54. Everyone runs ... we call it floppy, single-double -- other teams call it power or they call it 2-chest."

Del Negro said there's little variance in the schematics of NBA teams, with very few exceptions.

"Most of the stuff is very similar,” he said. “Angle pick-and-roll, high pick-and-roll. Everyone runs those. Other than probably the old Utah stuff -- the UCLA stuff, which we run, which other teams run -- or the triangle offense, which only the Lakers used to run, everyone runs pretty much very similar stuff."

Del Negro said he believes that execution far outweighs design on the basketball court. On Friday, he said he calls only about 50 percent of the Clippers' half-court sets from the sidelines. As a coach, he's not there to put his stylistic imprint on his team or to wow the league with his tactical prowess. He's in Los Angeles to inspire basketball players to play basketball. Give him quality players, and he'll give you a quality product. This is the Vinny Del Negro brand.

The Clippers' most imposing challenge right now is improving their 22nd-ranked defense. After getting torched by San Antonio and Chicago, they've turned in three strong performances at home. Griffin and Jordan have the speed to cover a lot of ground, while Paul is a pest on the ball, but there are still nuances that haven't been refined, a process that will continue under the direction of Clippers assistant Dean Demopoulos.

At some point, Del Negro will find himself in a chess match, and the stakes will grow larger and larger as the calendar moves through the season and into the playoffs. He'll have to draw something up for a final possession or add a wrinkle to fully maximize a mismatch. There will be opportunities to exploit an opponent's weakness and to combat a strength. Great coaches recognize those opportunities quickly and decisively -- can Del Negro? And to the extent he's right about 30 teams all running the same sets, will he know how to distribute those play calls down the stretch of a crucial game?

In the meantime, can the Clippers win big by playing the Woody Allen offense? By merely keeping turnovers low with Paul at the controls, can they maintain a hyper-efficient attack -- irrespective of how elegant or creative the X's and O's? Is it possible that showing up is 80 percent of a possession?

What we need to learn about the Clippers

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
3:40
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

AP Photo/Danny Moloshok
How much can we take away from the Clippers' stellar performance on Monday night?

It was all so odd.

Not just that the Clippers trampled the Lakers in a preseason game, or that the media scrum outside the Clippers' locker room after the game dwarfed the crowd waiting to get inside the Lakers' inner sanctum.

Not even Donald T. Sterling, inside the Chick Hearn Media Room after the game, lecturing his guests about the virtues of making basketball a physical -- not a cerebral -- contest.

The strangest moment of the night was more basic than that. It was the sensation of looking out on the floor at Staples Center and seeing the two most trustworthy guards in basketball manning the backcourt for the Clippers.

That's because the defining characteristic of Clippers fandom has always been fear. Fear that basketball possessions would be squandered carelessly by players without the talent or inclination to get the job done. Fear that the organization would choose caution over risk and fumble an opportunity to change course. Fear that supernatural forces would conspire against the Clippers ... just because that's what supernatural forces do.

That fear wasn't present Monday night, and its absence was the most profound epiphany during an entertaining preseason game from which very little about basketball could be gleaned.

We know the Clippers are a dangerous unknown -- only a tad less unknown than they were 24 hours ago. Their regular season opens on Christmas Day in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, after which they'll play the Bulls, Lakers and Heat at Staples Center over a 15-day period. How do we know if the Clippers are for real? Here are some guideposts to follow:

Have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin developed mental telepathy?
All this talk of seismic cultural shifts in Los Angeles boils down to one essential ingredient: the level of havoc these two All-Stars can wreak in the pick-and-roll.

Everything else is just scene-setting.

We saw what Paul was able to do with an exacting partner like David West in a pick-and-pop game. Now Paul will have the most explosive power forward in a generation at his disposal. How quickly can they get into their dance steps? When opponents play Griffin for his signature spin, or when the entire defense sags and drops into the paint, how can the dynamic duo make them pay? Paul and Griffin's proficiency will not only determine how lethally they can punish the league, but how many open spot-up jumpers can be generated for Chauncey Billups and how easily Caron Butler will be able to dart off down screens for quick looks.

It will take a little time, but once Paul and Griffin become fluent in their common language and the need for cues and verbal direction melts away, the true potential of this team will be much clearer.

How is Chauncey Billups acclimating to playing off the ball?
Billups is a combo guard by origin, but it's been a long time since he was asked to defer ballhandling duties to a teammate and make a living off the ball. Last season before being moved to New York, Billups' numbers as a catch-and-shoot threat were superb (1.36 points per possession). In 2009-10, Billups finished 15th in points per possession as a spot-up shooter for players with more than 100 attempts, and in 2008-09, he was fourth in the league.

Billups is prideful. Telling him that, at 35, the best way for him to extend a prolific and celebrated career is to go stand over there on the wing away from the action is easier said than done. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro reiterated on Monday night that he doesn't see 1s and 2s and 3s on a whiteboard so much as he sees "basketball players." If Billups can buy into the practical implications of this and make himself comfortable as a floor-spacer and secondary playmaker, he can help the Clippers score a ton of points.

Is Vinny Del Negro the man for the job?
The big winner of Monday night?

Del Negro. Not because he outcoached anyone, but because what transpired on the floor suggests that Del Negro's shortcoming will be mitigated by circumstance.

The league is moving away from systems and intricately choreographed play calls from the sidelines. Today's NBA is about getting the ball up and finding clean looks at the basket before defenses can get set. And if you have a couple of floor generals such as Paul and Billups on the roster, there will be plenty of margin for error because they're more than capable of manufacturing opportunities for themselves and others when the shot clock begins to tick down. The thickness of Del Negro's playbook measures only a 10th of the thickness of what Mike Dunleavy toted to work every day. With this team at this moment, that might do the trick.

But sometime in late spring, a critical moment will arise. The Thunder will use Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison to clamp down on Griffin. The Mavs will identify a fatal inefficiency in the Clippers' defense. When it's time for Del Negro to counter, will he have a solution?

Are the Clippers treading water with their reserve units?
DeAndre Jordan gets hit with two early fouls. Griffin walks off the court toward the tunnel for examination in the trainer's room. These things aren't worst-case scenarios -- they're inevitabilities in the NBA. Young, high-flying centers become overexuberant, and bouncy power forwards turn ankles.

A healthy Clippers squad is stacked at the guard spots. But right now, they have a frontcourt reserve corps of Brian Cook (a stretch-4), Ryan Gomes (a smart 6-foot-7 tweener) and rookie Trey Thompkins, who John Hollinger projects to be the next Brian Cook. None of the three can be fairly characterized as a banger, and the Clippers are likely to sign a brawny big man over the next 72 hours. That understudy could prove to be fateful for the Clippers. Small sample-size theater has never been more hazardous than in a shortened season, but whether you watch the progress of the Clippers' five-man bench units on Basketballvalue.com, or just eyeball the team's rhythm and flow when Griffin takes a seat, we'll learn something about the Clippers' prospects in late May and early June by how well those second units perform.

Will Donald T. Sterling stay out of the way?
Longtime Sterling consigliere Andy Roeser and general manager Neil Olshey have put the Clippers in a position to reverse decades of futility. Selling Sterling on the vision was likely every bit as challenging as swinging the deals themselves.

Whatever liabilities remain for the Clippers on the roster or in the locker room, they pale in comparison to the damage that could be unleashed if Sterling were to decide to meddle in the progress. He insulted Gomes and Randy Foye in August 2010, soon after the two veterans were acquired. He embarrassed himself, Baron Davis and the franchise by loudly heckling the team's former point guard courtside.

With Paul and Griffin weighing their long-term options over the next 18 months, the Clippers can't afford to have Sterling do anything to disrupt the aspirations of everyone involved in this project -- not Roeser or Olshey, not the superstars, not the supporting players, nor the fans in Los Angeles. Sterling has earned several lifetimes of fortune. He can add to it by simply letting basketball people conduct basketball business and basking in the glow of the winter sun at the Malibu compound.

Monday Bullets

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
1:25
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Classmates of Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong-un, testify that the presumed successor in North Korea wasn't all that interested in politics when he was at school in Switzerland. What really got him going was basketball. "He worshipped basketball players in the NBA. A friend who visited his apartment at #10, Kirchstrasse, Liebefeld, recalls that Kim had a room filled with NBA-memorabilia. 'He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. It is unclear where the pictures were taken. On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove Pak Un to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game,' the [Washington Post] said. In class, Pak Un was generally shy and awkward with girls, but he became a different person on basketball court, according to his classmates. 'A fiercely competitive player,' said classmate Nikola Kovacevic. 'He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker.'"
  • Michael Pina of Red94 composes a stellar post on the psyche of trade bait. There are those, like Kevin Martin and Chauncey Billups, who take it a little personally. Others, like Lamar Odom, are driven to tears. Then there are Luis Scola, Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol, who are able to convey detachment -- at least publicly.
  • The Heat have pledged to switch up their offense this season by incorporating more fast-break attacks and putting more of a premium on spacing. Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak exchanges with a reader who explains what "the Invert" offense in lacrosse can teach us about defending the Heat.
  • Charlie Widdoes of ClipperBlog feels the Clippers gave up too much for Chris Paul, and that staying the course with Eric Gordon and the salary flexibility that would've come with Chris Kaman's expiring contract was the right call.
  • Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili on the composition of the reigning champions in Dallas: "So where does that leave you? A short stint with a lineup where Lamar Odom is the primary ballhandler, employing Dirk and Marion as roll men with Delonte and Carter in the wings if the play goes sour? Does the team manage a point-by-committee sort of strategy? And who defends what? Dirk’s defense has gotten better over the years, but at this point Odom is essentially the best defensive talent in the Mavs’ big rotation. Do you cross-match Odom on the opposing center and hope he can draw them out of the paint? Do you keep Dirk at center and live with the terrifying defensive results? I really don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. And that’s part of what makes this Mavs team so interesting."
  • Kris Humphries chalks up impressive numbers on the Wins Produced metric, prompting Andres Alvarez of Wages of Win to ask why the power forward remains unsigned.
  • When Boris Diaw was growing up in France, his mom -- a former player -- ordered him not to join the throng of kids who'd storm the scorebook immediately after the game to tally their point totals.
  • Watching Al Jefferson's deliberate but effective post game drives Zach Harper to thumbing through periodicals during live play, but Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams are shiny!
  • The amnesty deadline passed and Rashard Lewis is still a Wizard. Lewis is setting up house in Washington, where his daughter has enrolled at nearby Sidwell Friends, where the Obama girls attend school.
  • Who would you rather be -- the Lakers or the Clippers?
  • Kevin Durant's fans will scour North America for his backpack like it's an afikoman.

Chauncey Billups: 'It could've been much worse'

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
3:45
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Imagine you'd shown this photograph to Chauncey Billups one year ago.

When Chauncey Billups was dealt by Detroit to Denver in November 2008, it was with the expectation that he'd retire with the Nuggets, his home team. Billups was the consummate hometown kid -- a four-year standout at George Washington High School in the Washington Virginia Vale neighborhood on the south end of town. He was honored as Colorado's Mr. Basketball three times, went on to Boulder and stood out as a brawny, brainy combo guard.

Denver was supposed to be a homecoming, an apt closing chapter for a champion whose pedigree and work ethic earned him the right to finish his career in a manner of his choosing.

Only it didn't work out that way. The trade rules in the NBA's collective bargaining agreement are unforgiving and Billups became plankton attached to the Melodrama, ultimately landing in New York last winter against his private wishes. Asked at his introductory press conference at the Clippers' training facility Friday whether it was hard to leave New York, Billups responded, "It really wasn’t that difficult to leave the Knicks because, in all actuality, when I went to the Knicks, it was really never about me coming to the Knicks."

It hasn't been about Billups for a while, so it's not difficult to understand why his mood Friday in Playa Vista was more resigned than buoyant. For Billups, this isn't about the Clippers. "It could've been much worse," Billups said about landing with the team.

It's about being denied the privilege that guys like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul have claimed over the past year, the same brand of self-determination that drives owners like Dan Gilbert to Comic Sans font.

"I had hoped, like any other hard-working person, that through that process, I would be able to control my own destiny," Billups said. "It didn’t happen and I’m disappointed that it didn’t happen, but that’s life."

For every superstar in his prime who has the temerity to want to play for an organization of his choosing, there are dozens of players who get phone calls telling them to uproot themselves at a moment's notice. Billups, a five-time All-Star, Finals MVP and winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award, didn't even enjoy the dignity of being traded. He got thrown on the scrap heap along with the likes of Gilbert Arenas, Charlie Bell, Baron Davis and Travis Outlaw -- guys who've never even sniffed a conference finals, who have checkered personal histories or have fallen way short of expectations. For a man of Billups' pride, being waived via the amnesty provision was humiliating.

"Being waived, just the frustrations of being waived," Billups said. "I mean, a player that’s accomplished the things I’ve accomplished, you never think that ... I’ve been through a lot, but you never think that being waived is going to be one of those things. You get waived because either you’re a distraction or you’re a bad apple or they think that you can’t play. That’s the general perception. And neither one of those things have ever been something that’s been said about me."

Billups expressed a reserved enthusiasm about the chance to play alongside Paul. "Chris is like a little brother to me," Billups said. "We’ve been very close throughout the years since he’s been in the league. I’m excited for the opportunity to play with him."

Then there's that little matter of position. The Clippers didn't back up the truck for Paul to put him off the ball. The logical scheme would have a gracefully aging Billups slide over to the shooting guard slot, where he could spot up as recipient of Paul-Griffin pick-and-roll largesse. While his numbers weren't anything to write home about in limited opportunities last season, in 2009-10, Billups ranked 15th in the league in points per possession as a spot-up shooter for players with more than 100 attempts -- better than both Ray Allen and Jason Terry -- according to Synergy Sports. In 2008-09, he was fourth.

On Friday, Billups was somewhat defiant about the notion of changing positions. "I’m a point guard and in my eyes, we’re going to be starting two point guards -- not a point guard and a shooting guard. I’m a lead guard and a playmaker," Billups said. "So is Chris. And I think we’re going to cause a lot of teams a lot of problems. Of course, I’ll be the guy who’s guarding 2-guards because I’m a little bit bigger than Chris, but I think we’re going to find a way to make it work. We’ve got two guys who want to win, know how to win and know how to control a game and know how to play in pick-and-rolls."

For Billups, this isn't about the Clippers or whether they use him as a 1, a 2, a starter or a reserve. Billups told the media that neither Chris Paul, nor Mo Williams, nor Neil Olshey, nor Vinny Del Negro played a role in helping him come to terms with the events of the past week. "It was about me and talking with my support system and my support group that really got me to where I’m at right now," Billups said.

There's good news for the Clippers, something they were aware of when they claimed Billups in the amnesty bidding process. Billups is a pro and takes the business of competing very seriously.

It's that very fact that's eaten at him for the past week. For all the prattle over the past 18 months about the entitlement of the NBA player, one who personifies all the virtues of honest-to-goodness sportsmanship has been caroming around the league like a pinball. He's been consulted only as a mere courtesy. His only recourse? Retirement.

But it could've been much worse.

Is the cure worse than the disease?

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
6:29
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Drew Gooden and Eddy Curry
US Presswire
Drew Gooden, left, and Eddy Curry are prime examples of bad contracts. Owners want shorter contracts, but that means more free agents every summer.

The basketball landscape is littered with symbols, but none more damning than the bad contract.

Rhetorically, there's a good reason for this. No matter how conscientiously you point out that bad contracts represent a small fraction of the whole, or that the volume of underpaid rookie-scale players and superstars far exceeds the number of bloated deals, the trump card is irrefutable:

"Jerome James," "Eddy Curry," "Gilbert Arenas," "Drew Gooden."

Bogeymen have always populated the political debate: the welfare recipient who drives a Cadillac. The failed CEO with his golden parachute. The undocumented immigrant who uses the emergency room and public school. The retailer who gouges a community after a natural disaster. The corporate jet owners who get tax breaks.

In that same spirit, basketball has James, Curry, Arenas, Gooden and the guy who slurped up your team's budget and then failed to live up to his contract. These players might be the far-reaching outliers, but they represent something fundamentally unfair to most fans:

Getting paid to do a job, then not doing it.

That transgression is particularly rotten when the job in question is playing a child's game, and this breach of public trust makes the overpaid player a very convenient talking point.

Of course, a bad contract doesn't birth itself. It starts off as an offer extended by a team soliciting the services of a player -- usually in free agency, sometimes as an extension of an existing deal. Either way, an NBA front office saw a vacant roster slot, thought enough of a player's potential to pursue him, then ultimately inked him to a lucrative deal. As much as we can fault the work ethic of someone who phones it in after signing such a deal, the job of vetting the character and projecting the performance of a player falls on team executives and the owners who employ them.

As much fun as it looks from the outside and the ranks of a fantasy league, general manager is a grueling, all-consuming, difficult position. The tenure of a general manager usually ends with a pink slip. Unless he's wearing a baseball cap in June standing alongside a star player who's lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy, a GM's missteps always attract a brighter spotlight than the small victories. The chase for NBA talent is fraught with all kinds of hazards, and even the best human resource managers in the league are going to have an expensive blemish or two on their record.

For this reason, a push for shorter contracts has been a central part of the "system issues" conversation since well before the expiration of the previous collective bargaining agreement. Whether you interpret this as a means for bad teams to seek protection from themselves, a smart way to keep spending in check, or a way to prevent deadbeats from profiting without performing, reduced contract length is almost certain to find its way into the next CBA, whenever the deal happens to be executed.

In the owners' Nov. 11 proposal to the players' union, the length in contract of the mid-level exception signees for both taxpaying and non-taxpaying teams was reduced from five years to either four or three years. Maximum contract length for players with Bird rights was reduced from six years to five, and from five years to four for non-Bird players. In addition, option years for players earning greater than the league average were eliminated (which would effectively shorten contracts vis-a-vis the last CBA), as were sign-and-trade deals for taxpaying teams after Year 2 of contracts (ditto).

What are the repercussions of shorter contracts?

Shorter contracts mean more turnover, which means more free agency. And free agency, lest we forget, has always been the vehicle for the creation of bad contracts.

On the surface, this change would provide a modicum of safety for front offices and ownerships. Never again will a player like Gooden earn a mid-level deal of five years and $32 million. In the new NBA, the maximum a mid-level player could be offered would be 4 years and $20 million. Curry's 6-year, $60 million contract would also be an impossibility.

In other words, execs' colossal mistakes will be trimmed in scale by about 20 percent and their medium-size stupid pills would be reduced by 35 to 40 percent. Curry would've merely been a 5-year, $50 million blunder, while Milwaukee would be on the hook for one year and $12 million less, assuming the Bucks would've opted to use the mid-level on Gooden -- and that Gooden wouldn't have had suitor willing to pay him more.

General managers would be inoculated from truly epic failures, but they'll also be filling more roster spots, more often in more feverish free agent markets. Execs will have more opportunities to make more mistakes of, albeit, slightly less detrimental consequences. That means bad judgment could potentially be compounded in an off-season when a league has dozens of more roster spots to fill with free agents.

On the flip side, shorter contracts would punish crafty executives capable of locking in talent to favorable long-term contracts. With more roster slots to fill more frequently, smart execs will have more shot attempts to work their magic. In 2002, Joe Dumars signed Chauncey Billups to a 6-year, $34 million deal, possibly the best mid-level deal in history. In today's NBA, Dumars would be denied full reward for his prescience. The jury is still out on Wes Matthews in Portland, but his $7.2 million contract in the final year of his 5-year deal might prove to be a bargain. Under the new system, the Trail Blazers wouldn't enjoy the benefits of Matthews' potentially cost-efficient services.

In a league with shorter contracts and greater turnover, navigating the free agent market will be more important than ever. But if making sound judgments on extending free agent contracts is a task front offices as a whole have mismanaged -- by the league's own admission -- is it reasonable to expect that to change with even more opportunities for mistakes?

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